Denver Broncos: Ranking Denver's Last 10 Seasons
Over the last 10 years, the Broncos have gone through several different eras involving a handful of different head coaches and quarterbacks.
During the 2002 season, Brian Griese would lead the Broncos for the final season of his Denver career, ending an up-and-down four season run that saw him ultimately fail as the successor to John Elway.
In 2003, the Broncos would sign free agent quarterback Jake Plummer to replace Griese. Plummer himself had an up-and-down, four-season run, but it featured three postseason appearances, including leading the Broncos to their most success in the post-Elway era when the Broncos lost to Pittsburgh 34-17 in the AFC Championship game in 2005.
With the selection of Jay Cutler in the 2006 NFL Draft, it paved the road for yet another era in Denver. With five games remaining in the 2006 season, Cutler replaced Plummer for good. Cutler would have a highly statistically-productive three-year run with the Broncos, before unceremoniously being traded to the Bears for Kyle Orton during the offseason of 2009 by new head coach, Josh McDaniels.
With the greatest coach in franchise history, Mike Shanahan, somewhat unexpectedly fired, the McDaniels/Orton era would take hold for the next two seasons, before the more recent Fox/Tebow era took center stage for a one-season run.
With Denver now embarking on yet another 'era' with Peyton Manning under center, it doesn't hurt to look back on the Broncos' 10 recent seasons.
Here are the Broncos' 10 past seasons, from worst to best.
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The last season of the McDaniels era was not only the worst of the past 10 years, it was one of the worst in franchise history.
Since owner Pat Bowlen took over the team in 1984, the 4-12 season stands as the worst single-season mark over the past 28 years. It is hard to put into words just how miserable this season was.
Let's start off with the clear weaknesses of a pretty weak team.
The defense allowed 471 points this season. This ranked worst in the NFL by 35 points, in comparison to the second-worst defense in the league, the Dallas Cowboys. This defense ranked in the bottom of the league in rushing touchdowns given up, second-worst in rushing yards, fourth-worst in yards per attempt and third-worst in interceptions forced.
In the process of being so bad, the Broncos ranked 29th in point differential and 27th in takeaway/giveaway differential.
For perspective on how bad this defense was, in the Broncos' 52 year history, there has been only one season where the Broncos have given up more than 471 points in a single season.
The Broncos also ranked 26th in rushing yards and 24th in yards per attempt.
Some season highlights, if you can even call it that, was the 59-14 shellacking by the Raiders at Invesco. Let me repeat that. The Broncos lost 59-14 to their top rivals, at home. It was the most points given up by the Broncos in a single season since 1963.
Another low point in the season came Week 14 at Arizona when rookie quarterback John Skelton made his first career start for the Cardinals. In a game where the Broncos were favored for one of the few times, the Broncos were destroyed 43-13. Kyle Orton would re-aggravate an injury in this game, paving the way for Tim Tebow to make the first three starts of his NFL career from Weeks 15-17.
About the only highlights of 2010 was the beginning of the Tim Tebow era, Kyle Orton's aerial assault at the start of the season and the firing of Josh McDaniels, thankfully putting the McDaniels era to a close.
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It's funny when I think back to all of Denver's previous 10 seasons, I have tons of memories from each season.
Except for this one.
2010 was by far the worst season of the past 10 years. But because it was so bad, it sticks out like a sore thumb in my memory.
2007 was just so mediocre and uneventful, that I really can't recall much from this season, despite the fact that it happened just five years ago. In fact, despite Denver's 7-9 record looking somewhat respectable, it was a pretty bad season.
It would begin a trend that continues to this day; the Broncos were blown out a good amount of times in 2007.
In Week 5 at home vs. the Chargers, the Broncos lost 41-3. It was their third straight loss, dropping them to 2-3 entering the bye week. It was also their worst home loss since 1966.
In Week 9 at Detroit, the Broncos lost 44-7. This game was so bad that the Broncos didn't score their first touchdown until the fourth quarter, when Patrick Ramsey completed a 2-yard pass to Brandon Stokley. It was Denver's second loss of the season by at least 37 points.
The Broncos would finally be mercifully eliminated from playoff contention in Week 16 by the Chargers, where they would lose 23-3 in yet another lopsided loss to Denver's main rival of the mid-late 2000's.
Here is the reason why this season is just so non-memorable despite the decent 7-9 record.
If you watched this season unfold as it was happening, even as a Broncos fan, you knew this team was never going to make the playoffs.
They clearly played second-fiddle to the Chargers all season long. This wasn't like the 2006, 2008, or even 2009 season, where for at least half, if not three-fourths of the season, the Broncos were the best team in the AFC West.
In 2007, there was no debate that the Chargers were better than the Broncos. The combined point differential of 64-6 in the two games cemented that fact, outside of the Chargers' 11-5 record, in comparison to Denver's 7-9 mark.
This season also began a bad trend that continued until John Fox took over. The defense simply sucked. They allowed 409 points, which ranked 28th in the NFL. This coincided with the hiring of Bob Slowik as defensive coordinator.
In the previous four years when Larry Coyer was coordinator, the Broncos ranked no lower than ninth defensively from 2003-2006.
From 2007-2011, the Broncos ranked above 24th in points given up just once during that span.
Here's a trend that it also started—the demise of the running game.
Is it true that Denver did rank ninth in rushing yards that season? Sure. From a far glance, it was a pretty solid year for the Broncos rushing the football.
However, what it really started was Denver's unwillingness to commit to a single back as their go-to-guy. It began the demise of dominance in the rushing game during the Shanahan era.
Travis Henry was having a great year, until injuries caught up to him. Selvin Young and Andre Hall would go on to start games for the Broncos towards the end of the season.
Due to Shanahan's prior success of helping Terrell Davis, Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Clinton Portis, Reuben Droughns, Tatum Bell and Mike Bell achieve success in the Broncos' zone-blocking scheme, Shanahan begun to believe that he could make just about anybody run the ball effectively in his system.
While that's true, towards the end of his tenure, the Broncos had less success running the football than in prior seasons. The difference was that they were no longer a dominant rushing team.
The defense was the downfall of the Broncos in 2007; however, 2007 also marked the beginning of the decline of the running game.
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To sum up this season in two words, it's this—choke job.
2008 was very much like 2007, except there was one key difference—the Broncos were the best team in possibly the worst division in all of football for three-fourths of the season.
Before I get into the choke job itself, I will say that this team simply wasn't good.
You don't even have to watch this season to get an idea of how this team overachieved. They were 31st in takeaway/giveaway differential, 30th in defense, and 25th in point differential.
This was a team that due to terrible defense and the numerous injuries that took down seemingly every running back on Denver's roster, depended completely upon the passing game of Jay Cutler in order to win every game that they won.
In case people have forgot, this is perhaps Cutler's best season of his career up until this point. He was named to the Pro Bowl for the only time in his career in 2008. He threw for 4,526 yards while obliterating the Broncos' single-season passing yardage mark.
Cutler was such an unstoppable force in the passing game—despite his penchant for interceptions—that he became so confident in himself, that he actually remarked that he "has a stronger arm than John Elway, hands down."
If you also click that link, you'll also see that Cutler remarked that he'd "be very surprised if Denver doesn't win the AFC West."
Yeah, so was everybody else when they didn't.
Despite the Chargers looking better statistically and on paper, the Broncos led the division race from the beginning of the season in Week 1, until their 52-21 blowout loss in San Diego on national television during Sunday Night Football.
It was the first time since the AFL-NFL merger that a team who led their division by three games with with three games left, ended up losing the division.
For those that kept count, it was the third consecutive year that the Chargers won the AFC West. It would be the third of four consecutive AFC West divisional championships for the Chargers, three of those seasons in which the Broncos led the AFC West division in the second half of the season, before ultimately collapsing to lose grip of the division.
The final loss of Cutler's Bronco career dropped him to a 1-4 career record against rival Phillip Rivers' Chargers.
The 2008 season is an important season in Broncos history, not just because of the epic collapse, but also because of the firing of the greatest coach in Broncos history, Mike Shanahan.
No Broncos fan could have ever envisioned before 2008 that Shanahan would ever be fired, after delivering the Broncos their first and only two Super Bowl championships.
However, the 2008 season was such a collapse that not even Shanahan could survive the aftermath.
2008 marked the end of the Shanahan era in disappointing fashion.
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2009 was the beginning of the Josh McDaniels, and boy, it couldn't have started any better.
The Broncos started out the season 6-0, their best start to a season since the Super Bowl season of '98. The defense was playing extremely well, Kyle Orton was an efficient game manager, and the Broncos defeated three teams that would go on to make the playoffs during their first six games, including the Cowboys, Patriots and Chargers.
Boy, doesn't that seem like such a distant memory now?
The bottom fell out, and the Broncos went on a four-game losing streak, which would eventually lead to a run where they would lose eight of their final 10 games. In the process of doing so, the Broncos became just the seventh team since 1970 to start a season 6-0, and miss the playoffs.
Did I mention, that in yet another pivotal game in Week 11 against the Chargers at home, the Broncos were destroyed 32-3?
Do you notice the trend here?
Just about as embarrassing, entering Week 17, despite losing seven of their past nine, the Broncos still had a chance to clinch a playoff spot with help.
They laid an egg, as they lost 44-24, while being outscored 17-0 in the fourth quarter by divisional rival Kansas City at home.
The 2009 season was yet another continuation of a Broncos team that started out strong, but never had the mental fortitude to close out seasons with respectability.
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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.
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Ah, the 2002 season.
10 years later, it's a pretty forgettable season for some, considering all of that's happened in between that time.
However, 10 years ago, the 2002 season for the Broncos was rather notable.
In May of 2002, Brian Griese was in the midst of a rich contract that he had signed recently which most had assumed at the time of the signing would lead to Griese being the franchise quarterback for many years to come.
Having said that, Griese endured an incident where he tripped in Terrell Davis' driveway and was knocked unconscious, bruising his face.
The tripping incidents wouldn't end there, as he would later on trip over his dog, severely spraining his ankle in September of '02.
Why am I bringing all of this up in a season recap?
It's for the purpose of demonstrating how painful this season was for not only Griese, but Broncos fans too.
Entering the season, it was known that Griese was on a short leash. Making matters worse were incidents like these. Did I mention that it was also because Griese just didn't play well at all? He threw 15 touchdowns to go against 15 interceptions. He was benched for a 37-year old quarterback in Steve Beuerlein during the last three games of the season, cementing the end of his Broncos career.
The Broncos finished the season a respectable 9-7. Clinton Portis established himself as one of the best running backs in the NFL during his rookie season, topping 1,500 yards and racking up 15 touchdowns en route to Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.
The Broncos were a good team in 2002, finishing with a +48 point differential, eighth-best in the league.
However, the season was overshadowed by Griese's demise in Denver, along with a couple of tripping incidents.
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The 2004 season was a productive one for the Broncos.
Denver finished the season 10-6, made the playoffs for the second consecutive year, ranked ninth in offense and defense and was a plain consistent team throughout the season.
Plummer had the best statistical season of his career, when he tied a Denver franchise record by throwing for 27 touchdowns, while at the time, breaking the single-season passing yardage mark with 4,089 yards.
Reuben Droughns came out of nowhere after being a fullback for the Broncos in his first two seasons in Denver. He ran for 1,240 yards, adding to a list that would continue after his trade from Denver to Cleveland of annual running backs that would run for over 1,000 yards behind Shanny's zone-blocking scheme.
Rod Smith and Ashley Lelie both eclipsed 1,000 yards, forming one of the better one-two punches in all of the NFL at the receiving end.
2004 was similar to 2003, in that it was clear that the Broncos were a playoff team. The only issue was, it was also clear that they were not an elite team capable of winning a Super Bowl in that given season.
The season would end with a 49-24 thumping in the Wild Card round at the hands of the Indianapolis Colts for the second straight season.
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2003 was the beginning of the Jake Plummer era.
It began with a wild debut of Plummer throwing three interceptions in his first career game for the Broncos in Cincinnati. Despite the off debut, Denver won that game 30-10.
After that, it would be all smooth sailing for Plummer the rest of the season. He would go on to throw for 15 touchdowns and four interceptions the rest of the way. Plummer started only 11 games in 2003 due to injury, where he went 9-2 as the starting quarterback.
Here is the reason why this season ranks above 2004, despite the similar 10-6 marks to end the regular season.
Plummer started all 16 games in 2004; in 2003, he started just 11. It's safe to assume that, had Plummer been able to start the entire season, the Broncos would have finished with a better record. Having also said that, when Plummer started, the Broncos were one of the better teams in the NFL. There was a reason why they were 9-2 with him as starting quarterback, and just 1-4 with Danny Kanell, Steve Beuerlein and Jarious Jackson starting.
The 2003 team finished 10th in offense, and ninth in defense, eerily similar to the 2004 team. It's true that both of these teams were rather equal.
The difference lies in the Plummer argument and the fact that Clinton Portis was simply a better running back than Reuben Droughns.
Also consider the fact that entering Week 17, the Broncos had already clinched a playoff spot. They had done so by defeating the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday Night Football in Week 16, when 5-7 running back Quentin Griffin had a career game in place of the injured Clinton Portis.
The Broncos started unknowns such as Jackson at quarterback, Cecil Sapp at RB and Jeb Putzier at TE in Week 17 at Green Bay.
Despite the fact that Denver lost 41-10 in domination fashion to the Colts in the Wild Card round to end the season, 2003 delivered a lot of hope.
First of all, it proved the Broncos could be a winning team with Plummer at the helm.
Entering the season, there was mixed predictions on how the Broncos would fare with Plummer. People doubted Plummer could run Shanahan's offense with productivity. That argument was put to a close.
Secondly, the Broncos were 9-2 with Plummer as starting quarterback. There were some people that thought had Plummer started the entire season, the Broncos could have been Super Bowl contenders. This belief was so strong, that entering the playoffs, people were picking the Broncos as dark-horse candidates to make it to the Super Bowl with both Plummer and Portis finally being healthy entering their matchup at Indy.
Even after their thumping in the Wild Card round, there were high hopes for the Broncos and Plummer. It's hard to believe now, but there were observers that were touting Plummer as the possible MVP before the 2004 season began.
2003 was a productive season, much like 2004 was. The difference lies in that 2003 brought new hope, whereas 2004 brought the same results that 2003 did.
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OK, some people may think that this season is ranked too high.
An 8-8 mark, including three losses to end the regular season, and this is No. 2 on the list?
Here's the reason why this is No. 2 on the list despite the mediocre mark.
The Broncos won the AFC West championship, hosted and won a playoff game and finished above and beyond anyone's expectations before the season started. This team was the second-worst team in the NFL the previous season.
With Kyle Orton at quarterback during the first five games of the year, this season started out just the way that it started in 2010, and just the way that it ended in 2009—with many losses. The Broncos started out the season 1-4.
Let's put this into perspective. At the time of Orton's benching and the inclusion of Tim Tebow in the starting lineup beginning in Week 7 at Miami, here was the Broncos' record since starting 6-0 in 2009—7-24.
The Broncos were in the midst of the worst two-and-a-half season-run of the Pat Bowlen ownership era. They were also in the midst of perhaps the worst run in Broncos franchise history.
With seemingly no hope for the season, and intense pressure from the fans, the Broncos begrudgingly started Tebow.
And boy, even though people are tired of Tebow, it was one of the best things to happen to the Broncos in the the past 10 years.
The Broncos would go 7-4 in games started by Tebow. They would win five games in the most miraculous of fashion by way of fourth quarter comebacks. The defense came together, often holding opponents to low point totals.
And that's what made this season so special.
Is it true that this team was mediocre? Of course. Was it true that they benefited from playing in a weak division? Yes. Is it true that this team got lucky? No doubt about it.
But the facts are, this team came together after starting out 1-4. They came together after a never-ending run of misery, that saw them go 7-24 in their past 31 games—the worst mark in the NFL over that stretch.
They came together after being the second-worst team in the NFL the previous season. They came together to win games in the most unimaginable ways possible.
The miracle in Miami? The Nate Kaeding miss in San Diego? The Marion Barber out of bounds run and fumble in Denver?
2011 brought more memories in a single season than any single season since the Broncos last won the Super Bowl in '98.
And that's what not only makes this season No. 2 on this list, but what makes it so special.
The inclusion of Tebow in the starting lineup gave Broncos fans something to feel good about. It led to the turning point in the season. After five consecutive years of playoff-less football, late-season meltdowns, the Broncos were finally a confident bunch. Broncos fans finally felt confident about their football team.
The 2011 Broncos may have been an imperfect bunch. Tim Tebow may be the most inaccurate quarterback in all of football, and he may never be a starting quarterback in the NFL ever again.
But in the end, all that matters is that he brought hope and success to a franchise that hadn't experienced either in at least six years.
And that's more than anybody ever expected out of not only Tebow, but the 2011 Denver Broncos.
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This simply can't be argued.
Over the past 10 years, the 2005 season stands as the best season for the Denver Broncos.
They went 13-3, finished as the No. 2 seed in the AFC behind the 14-2 Colts. Plummer had the most efficient season of his career, Rod Smith went to the Pro Bowl at the age of 35, and the defense ranked third in the NFL, while the Broncos finished the season with a +137 point differential, which was the third-best mark in the league, and the third-best mark in franchise history, behind only the Super Bowl-winning teams of '97 and '98.
They advanced to the AFC Championship game, hosted it, became the first team to beat the Brady/Belichick Patriots in the playoffs which ended their dynasty and began a seven-season stretch that continues to this day where the Pats haven't won a Super Bowl and just flat-out dominated most of their opponents with a stifling defense, a pair of 900 yard runners in Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell, and efficient/mistake-free play from a veteran quarterback in Plummer.
Although the season ended with a 34-17 blowout loss to the eventual Super Bowl-champion Pittsburgh Steelers at home in the Championship round, the Broncos had possibly their greatest non-Super Bowl season in franchise history.
Nothing to complain about in this season, just excellent football played by an excellent team, which is the reason why the 2005 Denver Broncos are No. 1 on this list.