Entering the 2006 season, the Broncos were coming off of an AFC Championship game appearance.
After coming up one game short of the Super Bowl, the Broncos entered 2006 with Jake Plummer as their starting quarterback. They ended the season with rookie quarterback Jay Cutler as the man under center.
Before the 2006 season even began, the main story entering the season was not whether the Broncos would win the Super Bowl. The main story was, "When would Jay Cutler take over for the inconsistent Jake Plummer?".
It a story that would engulf the entire season, Plummer's last start in a Broncos uniform and his NFL career would take place on Thanksgiving Day during the NFL Network's first ever Thursday Night Football broadcast, leading to Cutler's first career start vs. the Seattle Seahawks in Week 13.
Now that it's six years after these events took place, let's look back on what led to Plummer's benching and his heated relationship with Mike Shanahan.
The Broncos started out that season well. They began the season 5-1, and entering their Week 8 matchup vs. the Colts, were leading the division.
Even when Plummer was benched at the time of the 19-10 loss to the Chiefs, the Broncos were 7-4 and in the driver's seat for an AFC Playoff spot. If the season had ended after Week 12, the Broncos would have made the playoffs as the sixth seed.
Having said that, the Broncos were playing well in spite of Plummer.
In 2005, Plummer was playing at the most efficient rate of his career. He was so mistake-free for the entire season, that media pundits were actually throwing his name around as a possible MVP candidate.
In the first six games of the season, the Broncos defense allowed just 44 points, which in the modern era of the NFL, is an NFL record.
Plummer had regressed so much from his career year, in the face of adversity due to the first-round selection of Cutler, that through Week 12 he had thrown more interceptions than touchdowns, while having a higher INT percentage than touchdown percentage, despite the fact that Shanahan was creating an offensive game plan that would limit Plummer's amount of attempts, in order to lower his interception total, while depending upon the running game.
The Broncos would start Cutler the final five games of the season. The Broncos would finish 2-3, despite Cutler putting up tremendous numbers for a rookie, including a season-ending 26-23 defeat in overtime at home vs. the lowly Niners with a win cementing a playoff spot.
After getting that out of the way, I might as well take the time to give my two cents on a subject that was very heated at the time.
In what is very much a split debate to this day, the question is, "Should Shanahan have benched Plummer in favor of rookie Cutler?".
At the time that it happened, my opinion on the subject was no. Six years later, my opinion on that very same subject is still no.
Here's the reason why. The fact of the matter is that Plummer's Broncos were 7-4 entering Week 13 at the time of his benching. The Broncos were in the driver's seat for a playoff spot.
During Plummer's Broncos career from 2003-2006, he had won more games than any other quarterback in the league except for Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. During all three of his full starting seasons in a Broncos uniform, Denver made the playoffs.
Although Plummer was extremely mediocre in 2006 and it appeared as if Shanahan completely toned down his offense in order to limit Plummer's mistakes as much as possible, it was still the wrong move to bench Plummer at that time.
You have a bunch of veteran players in that locker room who went through playoff seasons with Plummer at quarterback: Rod Smith, Tom Nalen, Matt Lepsis, Champ Bailey, DJ Williams, Ian Gold, John Lynch, etc.
Do you really think that those guys really wanted Plummer to sit in favor of a rookie quarterback, in the midst of a late season run that would dictate their playoff hopes?
We will never know whether the Broncos would have made the playoffs had Plummer started the final five games. Considering Plummer's play at the time, it's very plausible that they wouldn't have.
But when you have a quarterback who just led your team within one game of the Super Bowl the previous season, had led your team to playoff appearances in each one of his seasons in Denver, and also had the third most wins among quarterbacks of the past four seasons while playing for your team? Why wouldn't you give him the benefit of the doubt and give him the chance to right the ship in the quest for a fourth-straight playoff appearance?
This season would mark the first of five straight playoff-less seasons for the Broncos.