The 2009 Denver Broncos have already taken a bashing from “experts” across the country. Most initial power rankings have seen the Broncos ranked as low as the 29th best team in the league. In fact, the highest I believe I’ve seen them is 25th or 26th. Let me be one of the few to point out that Denver is a much, much better team than this. Should they be ranked amongst the Chiefs, Raiders, and 49ers? Not the way I see it.
Most of these so-called experts have dropped the Broncos this low for several reasons. First off, Denver was 8-5 with a three game lead in the AFC West and just a mere three weeks left to play. They then went on to lose to the Panthers, Bills, and second place Chargers (with a playoff berth on the line) by a combined 57 points.
This unparalleled collapse led to the firing one of the longest tenured coaches in NFL history, two-time Super Bowl champion Mike Shanahan. To top it off, the legendary coach's replacement, a 32-year-old kid named Josh McDaniels, proceeded to alienate and undermine the confidence of 25-year-old Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler, who had become a fan favorite and arguably the new face of the franchise.
Cutler was dangled in numerous trade rumors, particularly ones involving McDaniels' prized project, Matt Cassel. Cutler, infuriated by the rumors demanded the team trade him. This ugly soap opera, which hurt the credibility of every party involved, including owner Pat Bowlen, culminated in a trade two weeks before the draft which sent Cutler to the Bears for Kyle Orton and a few draft picks.
These events, coupled with a defense the was only superior to the 0-16 Detroit Lions, are definitely valid reasons to believe the Broncos may have a tough 2009. Even Bowlen, who proclaims before each year that his team will win the Super Bowl, has taken a step back and acknowledged a possible rebuilding year or two. Let me tell you why every single person who thinks the Broncos will have to fight to stay out of the basement of the AFC are flat wrong.
First of all, contrary to popular belief, the reason the Broncos lost most of their games last year was not necessarily due to their porous defense. Indianapolis had consistent playoff appearances with their less than stellar defenses earlier this decade. In fact, the Arizona Cardinal’s didn’t have a defense to be proud of much of the year as well.
The thing that killed that Broncos this past year was their turnovers. As much talent as everyone knows Jay Cutler has, he turned the ball over far too often, and generally did so at the least opportune times (see both San Diego games, Miami, at Kansas City, and Buffalo to name a few). Also, the defense couldn’t create turnovers, and had the least takeaways in the entire league last year. Here is why both of these problems could see drastic improvement this year:
Jay Cutler is gone. Now, in no way is Kyle Orton a superior player to Jay Cutler. Cutler was at times Elwayesque, with his fearless attitude, his strong arm, and his clutch third down conversions. He was also like Elway in that he turned the ball over frequently and made a number of questionable plays (see his first career game against Seattle, and second and goal this season at home against San Diego).
Kyle Orton, while not flashy by any stretch, played consistent throughout the course of his career. Chicago is known as a place where quarterbacks and wide receivers go to die, and that’s just what most have done. Orton, on the other hand, has never played awful during his career.
He has had games where his completion percentage has been anemic, and games where he just can’t connect on his deep ball. And despite a dreadful offensive line, one thing he has rarely had is a turnover problem. This is why I believe that McDaniels' scheme he will flourish.
I’m not going to sit here and say McDaniels is going to turn him into a Pro Bowler as well, that would just be naïve. But I do believe the system suits a player like Orton more than it would have fits Cutler, no matter how talented Cutler is.
In Chicago, Kyle Orton was playing behind a rag-tag offensive line, and throwing to an even worse group of receivers (Muhsin Muhammed, Earl Bennett, and Devin Hester). Naturally Orton put up middle of the pack type numbers. In Denver, on the other hand, he will be playing behind what I would argue is the best offensive line in football.
He has a young all-pro left tackle in Ryan Clady who has a case for claiming the title of the best left tackle in the NFL. His right tackle, Ryan Harris, who is also very young, has received acclaim all across the league for allowing just 2.5 sacks for a team that threw the ball the second most times in the league.
A pair of unheralded guards in Ben Hamilton and Chris Kuper, and a veteran Pro Bowl center in Casey Wiegmann round out the group. Their work last season was second to none as they had no trouble pass blocking for the league’s No. 3 passer, or blocking for a running game that featured seven different starting running backs, yet managed to finish 10th overall in rushing yards.
Orton also has the privilege of throwing to arguably the most talented group of skills players in the league. Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal combined for 195 catches last year, making them the top wide receiver combination in all of football. The nifty veteran Brandon Stokely and McDaniels’ favorite Jabar Gaffney round out one of the deeper receiving corps in the league. Orton will be also be throwing to one of the best pass catching tight end’s in the NFL in Tony Scheffler, and dominant blocker and underrated pass catcher Daniel Graham.
Finally, at running back, Denver went on a shopping spree over the off-season. After losing seven running backs to injury last year and were forced to resort to Detroit castoff Tatum Bell, the new coaching staff wasn’t taking any chances.
They signed three free agent running backs: veterans Correll Buckhalter and Lamont Jordan, and third down and special teams specialist JJ Arrington. On top these three, Denver shocked the league by taking another running back, the talented Knowshon Moreno, with its 12th pick in this year’s draft. Combine these with Peyton Hillis, the terrific fullback, running back, tight end, H-Back…wherever you want him, and you have one of the deeper, more talented backfields in the league.
Top to bottom, you will be hard-pressed to find a better group of skilled players in the entire league. Given that McDaniels system consists of mainly short to medium underneath routes, and a balanced running game, I’d say the offense could significantly improve in every facet of the game this coming year, including turnovers. Look for a top 10 passing game, running game, and possibly a top five offense. Couple that with noticeably less turnovers, and I think you’ll find this team dueling with the best of them.
As for the media kicking bag defense, they should also see at least a noteworthy improvement. I don’t expect much out of the defense, nor should anyone else, given that the Broncos are switching to the 3-4. The nose tackle and two defensive ends playing the five-technique key the 3-4 up front. Surprisingly the Broncos did little to address any of these three positions.
Either way, the beauty of the 3-4 is its explosive pass rush. Denver’s pass rush, which has plagued the team for 6-7 seasons, figures to improve immediately. The trade-off in this: If you ask any defensive coordinator, he’ll tell you the key to forcing turnovers in a good pass rush. With an improved ball-hawking secondary led by veterans Brian Dawkins, Champ Bailey, and Andre Goodman, the Broncos should see an increase in turnovers this season.
If you haven’t guessed, I think Denver will have a very good football team this coming year. Unfortunately, it will be extremely difficult for this team to make the playoffs. The Chargers still have a more complete football team, and Denver plays one of the toughest schedules in the NFL this year.
I think Denver’s vast improvements this coming season will go overlooked due to the difficulty of their schedule. It will be hard for this team to go more than 8-8, which is what I see them finishing at this year. Though I wouldn’t be surprised to see a fluctuation of one or two games either way.
This team will go as far as the 3-4 defense can take them. I think their offense is squared away, and should cause fewer problems than it did last year. The defense, as always, remains a question mark despite the improvements Mike Nolan will bring. If Ronald Fields and Marcus Thomas can control the line of scrimmage up front, I think this team could push for a 9-7, maybe 10-6 season, and be on the cusp of a playoff berth.
If they falter, as do the defensive ends, this team could hit a stretch where they lose 7-8 consecutive games in the middle of the season, and could finish as bad as 6-10, possibly 5-11. It’s so hard for me to overlook this team’s offensive firepower though. The way I see it, the 2009 Broncos come into the season vastly underrated and primed to overachieve, yet their unfortunate schedule may prove too much to overcome and show the league how good they actually are.