Do you smell it? That scent of uncontainable hope that springs eternal amongst all 32 NFL teams as the preseason draws to a close? Yet, within about four weeks, a fair amount of those teams will have those hopes of glory dashed as first quarter of the regular season draws to a close.
Will the Denver Broncos be one of them?
If you took a poll of sports writers around the country, the resounding consensus would be a definite 'yes.' Offseason drama aside, their No. 1 draft pick just returned to practice after missing significant time due to injury, their starting quarterback dislocated a knuckle, and theri second string quarterback is still nursing an ankle injury.
However, not much is known about this Broncos team. Thanks to a new head coach, new starting quarterback, and a new defensive scheme, this version of the Broncos could be the hardest to gauge in the franchise's history. Here are a few things to look for as 2009 formally gets underway.
1. Josh McDaniels' temperament
You have to give the 33 year old head coach some credit. Despite all the offseason and training camp drama involving Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall, McDaniels never once publicly lost his cool. It seems he has learned how to handle such drama from his mentor, Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
However, once the games start, it's an entirely different deal. If his team gets off to a slow start, and QB Kyle Orton struggles, will the youthful McDaniels keep his cool and show maturity beyond his years that will require him to succeed as an NFL head coach?
2. Kyle Orton's performance
If there is one person on the Broncos who will be scrutinized as much or more than McDaniels, it will be new starting quarterback Orton. When the Broncos acquired him in the Cutler trade, the expectations of his 2009 season skyrocketed.
Assuming he is ready to go in Week One against the Bengals, Orton will need to get out the gate fast in order to avoid the Jake Plummer treatment by Broncos fans.
While he has never put up gaudy statistics, McDaniels' offense doesn't require him to. Orton will likely be a dink and dunk passer with the support of a power running game. Another thing to keep in mind is Orton has much better weapons in Denver than he did in Chicago (even without Brandon Marshall) so Orton could develop much more confidence in his deep ball.
The big question mark comes when Orton will need to pull out games in the final minutes. He doesn't have the support of a strong defense like he had in Chicago, so this will be key.
3. The defense's transition to the 3-4
One of McDaniels' first moves after being hired was to bring in former 49ers head coach Mike Nolan as defensive coordinator. Despite a lack of success as a head coach, Nolan has a very solid record as a coordinator. He lead the highly vaunted Baltimore Ravens defense from 2002-2004 before becoming coach of the 49ers.
The Broncos also used their second first round pick to draft Tennessee defensive end Robert Ayers to help shore up a line that produced very little pressure on the quarterback in 2008. The team also gained a tremendous locker room leader in safety Brian Dawkins who signed as a free agent from the Eagles.
How fast this unit gels could be key to how far the Broncos go in 2009.
4. Brandon Marshall
Who knows what his mindset will be when his suspension ends on Sept. 6? While rumors persist that the Broncos are quietly shopping the disgruntled wideout, the team and its fans must be prepared for the fact that no team may want him and that Marshall could be with the Broncos for all of 2009.
Here is where McDaniels can earn some points back with the Bronco faithful. If he can somehow whip Marshall into shape and get him pulling with the rest of the team, he should get a medal. While this likely has little chance of succeeding, the Broncos certainly would welcome him back if he was in the right state of mind.
If not, the team will go forward without distraction, as McDaniels has said in the past.
5. Eddie Royal's potential breakout year
Royal showed flashes of brilliance during the start of the season last year before an injury hobbled him for the remainder of 2008. With Marshall out for an undetermined amount of time, perhaps permanently, Royal has a golden opportunity as the new No. 1 wideout to further develop the skills he showed during the beginning of last year's campaign.
Despite being smaller and lighter than Marshall, Royal has shown very soft hands and good speed. With former Broncos great Rod Smith working with the wide receivers, Royal could have a breakout year (while staying out of trouble), making him Orton's favorite target, something the quarterback never really had in Chicago.
Without a doubt 2009 will be an interesting season for Broncos fans. Despite the gloom and doom of all the offseason moves, there is reason for optimism in the Mile High City. Whether or not that optimism becomes something more tangible remains to be seen.
That's why they play the games.