Ask any Bronco fan who the best coach in Bronco history was and they will answer with no hesitation, Mike Shanahan. No one casts a bigger shadow.
After the Broncos second Super Bowl, Shanahan became Broncos football. Somehow every year was going to be a Super Bowl year. That was the Shanahan promise.
Every year we started with a bright shiny offense that ran like clockwork and if something went wrong that was okay because next year we would just adjust this or that.
There is little doubt that Shanahan needed Elway as much as Elway needed Shanahan. Most of Shanahan’s career after Elway was a search for a new Elway. No one ever looked more like Elway than Jay Cutler.
Cutler was going to be Shanahan’s salvation, the second coming. Shanahan was betting everything on the development of the young quarterback and the fans believed in Shanahan.
At the end of Cutler’s second year as a starter people began to doubt, the team was getting worse. Then Shanahan was fired and for some Broncos fans the world had been completely transformed. The certainty that seemed to exist with Shanahan was gone.
Suddenly the star quarterback was questioning the team owner. Demands flew, ultimatums were given. The owner hired a young prodigy named Josh McDaniels and the star wouldn’t talk to him.
The drama kept on, the star traded, another star complaining. None of this happened with Shanahan so it must be the new guys fault. The witch hunt was on.
Through all of this the team was rebuilt, the preseason played and with the season about to begin few people really know who the Denver Broncos are anymore.
Last years defense, we are told, was terrible, so this year's defense will have to be worse. Every small stumble was pointed to as the fatal flaw.
What has happened to the Broncos? Have they been rebuilt? What kind of season will they have? For the first time in 14 years Bronco fans are asking questions.
The new offense has a lot of similarity to the old offense with a couple of notable changes.
Orton is not Cutler
Cutler has a great arm. There was no throw Cutler couldn’t make. With Cutler on the field the Broncos were dangerous regardless of their field position.
Orton is a lot more of a ball control quarterback. He won’t hold the ball for the deep pattern, instead he’ll take the short pass and work down the field.
Orton’s first preseason game was labeled as disastrous because of three interceptions. Before the first of those interceptions Orton had led an impressive drive. The second game saw Orton lead the same kinds of drives.
All of the evidence suggests Orton will have a strong year this year. He progressively did better at controlling turnovers and made good throws. Even in the Chicago game, when he constantly had to overcome holding penalties he went 12-16 with no interceptions.
The question that the preseason left about Orton is whether he only threw short passes by design or because that was all that was available. The fact that the second team used more long throws suggests that Orton was throwing shorter by design because his strength is getting the ball out quickly.
Who Will Catch the Ball?
The wide receiver spot has gotten a lot of attention because of the Brandon Marshall hold out. Many pundits assumed that without Marshall the Broncos will struggle in the passing game.
The truly odd thing about Marshall is that he has one of the lowest catch rates among starting wide receivers. Marshall’s catch rate of 57 percent pales in comparison to that of his own teammate Eddie Royal whose catch rate of 71 percent is one of the best in the league.
In fact both Brandon Stokley and Jabar Gaffney have catch rates of 58 percent. The evidence from preseason is that they are more than adequate replacements for Marshall
Add in Tight Ends Tony Scheffler and Daniel Graham at 66 and 64 percent catch rates respectively, along with good pass catching running backs Knowshon Moreno and Peyton Hillis, the Broncos actually have plenty of solid receivers for a variety of situations.
The Offensive Line
One legacy of the Shanahan era is a solid offensive line. The only knock on the offensive line was depth. McDaniels addressed that nicely in the draft with Seth Olson and in free agency and with solid veterans like Russ Hochstein and Brandon Gorin. The Broncos front line will be bigger and deeper.
Running the Ball
Perhaps the biggest question mark offensively is the running game. The Broncos steadily progressed in the running game but really only showed up in the final preseason game.
Moreno’s carries have been very limited due to injury, Buckhalter has been lackluster, and Lamont Jordan has not impressed. Hillis, last year’s surprise starter at running back for a few games, may be the second best running back on the team. A lot depends on Moreno staying healthy in the running game.
The good thing about last year’s defense is that it wasn’t as bad as Detroit’s. The bad thing is that it was almost as bad.
After the Cutler debacle criticism of McDaniels was that if he didn’t devote the draft to the defensive line it would be a failure. When only one draft choice was used on a defensive lineman a new round of criticism began.
Almost unnoticed was a series of quiet free agent pickups that will prove to be very wise over the course of the season.
The Defensive Line
The symbol of Denver’s defensive futility in 2008 was its smallish defensive line. Teams simply overpowered in the running game and ignored them in the passing game.
While the critics lambasted McDaniels for not spending draft choices on defensive linemen, McDaniels was quietly importing free agent Ronnie Fields, Ryan McBean and LeKevin Smith. Along with holdovers Kenny Peterson and Marcus Thomas, both of whom bulked up, the Broncos became much larger on the defensive line with McBean being the smallest at 290 pounds.
The preseason has revealed this squad as being strong enough to control the line and create penetration both against the run and the pass. They have been a large part of a very successful preseason defensive debut as none of their opponents have been able to sustain any significant offense.
They totaled 10 sacks in their four games and against Chicago they registered seven three-and-outs. Moreover they held last year’s Super Bowl contender’s first-string offense scoreless in the first quarter of their last preseason game.
This has been the biggest area of concern. The linebacker corps includes four former defensive linemen who are making the transition to outside linebacker.
Elvis Dumervil, Robert Ayers and Jarvis Moss have shown very good pass rushing skills from their outside linebacker positions but have missed assignments when called on to drop back into coverage.
Darrell Reid has been quieter but his interception against Arizona might have been a sign that he understands the coverage assignments a little better.
In the middle veterans D.J. Williams and Andra Davis are solid anchors while Mario Haggen provides a solid outside linebacker presence as the starter on the left side.
This linebacker corps in the three four defense give the Broncos a great ability to rush from a variety of positions on any given play. Dumervil and Moss, if he makes the team, will prosper in this scheme.
The Defensive Backs
One of the biggest free agent moves McDaniels made was the acquisition of Brian Dawkins. Renaldo Hill and Andre Goodman came over from Miami to join with Champ Bailey in forming one of the oldest defensive backfields in the league. Through the preseason they have shown that won’t be a problem.
Dawkins provides the anchor for the safety position that the Broncos have lacked since John Lynch retired. Known as an intense player he has already proved himself a great on field example for the younger players.
Bailey is widely considered one of the top cornerbacks in the game. His reputation alone prevents many quarterbacks from challenging him during games.
Goodman is a solid corner with good coverage skills. He will be the corner most tested this season. So far he looks up to the challenge but Cincinatti will be his toughest test so far.
Hill has had a decent career. Last year in Miami he was beaten out for the starting safety job by the end of preseason. When Miami’s secondary was burned in week two, Hill was inserted back into the lineup and is credited for solidifying the secondary that year.
Backing them up are a trio of second-round picks including Alphonso Smith, a much criticized pick by McDaniels who traded a first-round pick in next years draft to pick him. Smith has a reputation as a ball hawk. He has looked promising in the preseason at both nickel back and as a punt returner.
Darcel McBath and David Bruton are the two second-round safeties. They have both shown nice coverage skills and a willingness to make the big hit.
The defense is going to get a lot of the attention early on. It shows signs of gelling quickly and has the right personnel to control most offenses.
None of the Broncos preseason contests were against strong running teams. The defense might struggle against power running teams like Pittsburgh and New York.
Teams like New England and San Diego will test the linebackers with passes to tight ends and running backs. The Broncos should work out their linebacker coverage but if they haven’t by the time they meet San Diego they will be in deep trouble.
Defensively the Broncos will end the season ranked somewhere between 12th and 17th. They will be solid against the run but vulnerable over the middle to passes to tight ends and backs out of the backfield.
Offensively, the Broncos have revealed very little in the preseason about how they will play. Will they stay strictly with the short game while Orton is out there? Will Moreno solidify the running game?
Fortunately the Broncos go against two relatively soft defenses in their first two games. Look for McDaniels to open up the playbook a little with a variety of misdirection plays and crossing routes.
I do think McDaniels will pull out all the stops for Dallas. That will be a key game as the next four are very tough opponents.
Moreno’s durability will be a key issue in the performance of the Bronco offense. When healthy his skills are enough to make the Bronco running game a real threat. Good running performances by Moreno will go a long way to keeping pass rushers honest and forcing opposing defenses to keep more defenders in the box.
Should Moreno miss significant time to injury, backups Buckhalter and Hillis can provide a serviceable running game but neither will be enough of a threat to force defenses to focus on the running game.
Realistically the Broncos will see 8-8 but if they can split with San Diego, 9-7 while giving San Diego a scare for the division title. More than that is possible but it will depend on how well the offense comes together and on Moreno’s durability.