The 2014 Denver Broncos are beginning to look a lot like the 1994 San Francisco 49ers. They are a legitimate Super Bowl contender spending big to keep a shrinking window of opportunity from creaking shut.
The Broncos chased the headlines on the first day of free agency and certainly made them. They spent huge money to fix a pass defense that ranked 27th in 2013.
Denver inked mega-bucks deals for safety T.J. Ward and cornerback Aqib Talib. Both contracts were on the steep side to say the least.
ESPN reporter Adam Schefter first broke the news about Talib:
Filed to ESPN: Denver has reached agreement on a 6-year, $57M deal that includes $26M gtd with former Patriots CB Aqib Talib, per sources.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 12, 2014
That is a hefty amount of guaranteed money for a cornerback. In fact, as Boston Globe writer Ben Volin points out, it's the highest ever:
The reported $26 million guarantee for Talib is the highest ever for a CB, surpassing Brandon Carr's $25.5 million. Wow— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) March 12, 2014
The eye-watering contract awarded to Talib followed the deal to pry Ward away from the Cleveland Browns, which was reported by NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport:
The #Broncos are signing S TJ Ward, per source. This was a top target for them. Tom Heckert drafted him in Cleveland— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) March 11, 2014
Although Ward is not as quite as marquee at his position as Talib, the money given to him is no less staggering, as Denver Post reporter Mike Klis pointed out:
T.J. Ward gets 4 years, $23 million; $14 million guaranteed— Mike Klis (@MikeKlis) March 11, 2014
If an aging team that has fallen short in the Super Bowl race over the last two years spending big to bridge the gap sounds familiar, it should. It is exactly the same formula the 49ers used 20 years ago.
The Broncos have identified their secondary as their chief weak point and pulled out all the stops to fix it. The 49ers did the same to their whole defense in '94.
A leaky defense was identified as the main culprit, prompting an alarming spending spree to essentially buy a Lombardi Trophy.
San Francisco showed the money to linebackers Ken Norton Jr. and Gary Plummer. They followed that by handing Deion Sanders, easily the best cornerback of his day, enough dollar notes to swim in.
The 49ers didn't want to waste their Super Bowl window. Just like today's Broncos, San Francisco had an abundance of talent at the skill positions, but some of the players were starting to age.
Quarterback Steve Young, wide receivers John Taylor and Jerry Rice, and tight end Brent Jones were still good enough to outscore anyone.
The 49ers knew their offense was still good enough to get them to the league's finishing line, but they also knew the prolific unit couldn't get the team over that line by itself.
Despite what happened against the Seahawks, the Denver offense is still just as potent as last season's record-setting model.
Peyton Manning might be a year older, but he remains the most dominant quarterback in the NFL. Wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker, as well as tight end Julius Thomas, are a match for any defense.
But just like the 49ers in '94, the Broncos don't want to waste their offense before their Super Bowl window shuts. So expect them to continue stockpiling defensive veterans who can help them win now.
According to NFL Media reporter Albert Breer, next in line is recently released DeMarcus Ware:
Broncos trying to get a deal done with Cowboys free-agent DeMarcus Ware. @johnelway flexing his recruiting muscle again.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) March 12, 2014
When healthy, Ware is still the premier pass-rusher of his generation. However, Denver's bid to sign him has shades of the 49ers recruiting greybeard pass-rushers Ricky Jackson, Richard Dent and Charles Mann two decades ago.
Ware is 31 and just labored through a season undermined by a nagging back problem. The Broncos are betting big that he has enough left in the tank to turn the clock back to his glory days—at least for a season.
The same is true with Talib. He is only 28, but has his own history of persistent injuries and disciplinary issues.
Players carrying the number of red flags Talib does usually don't get six-year deals. The Broncos won't get six years from Talib. They might only get three, but they don't even have to want that.
The Broncos want just one year from Talib, a year good enough to earn them a Super Bowl.
That win-now approach worked 20 years ago for the 49ers. They romped to the NFL title, beating the Cowboys twice along the way.
Wit h that said, there are two notes of caution from San Francisco's '94 vintage that should concern the Broncos.
The first is that, while Denver had to fix a porous secondary, it perhaps should have left some money over to retool an offensive line that was manhandled in the Super Bowl.
If Manning looks at how many hits Young took behind an O-line that was allowed to stay the same in '94, he might have a word or two with executive vice president John Elway.
The other point for concern is that buying big on veterans offering limited but potentially stellar production can leave a team facing salary-cap hell.
By 1999, that is exactly the situation San Francisco faced. It is a potential reality Bleacher Report columnist Matt Miller has already hinted at for the Broncos:
Brock Osweiler is going to inherit a team in salary cap hell. But we'll worry about that later!— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) March 12, 2014
But a strategy so obviously endorsing instant gratification doesn't make allowances for the future. The 49ers didn't 20 years ago when they bought just enough defense to win a Super Bowl.
With Ward and Talib on board, Elway and the Broncos might just have done the same.