SANTA CLARA, Calif. — We thought entering the week that the Broncos were a last-gasp, do-or-die, last-hurrah Super Bowl team trying to rally one final time around an aging legend of a quarterback.
It turns out that the Broncos have the makings of a modern-style dynasty, one built around a dynamic, stifling defense and a ball-control offense. They could be a Rocky Mountain version of the Seahawks, the team that shamed them for their offense-oriented philosophy just two years ago.
All the Broncos need is a new quarterback.
Yes, Peyton Manning led the Broncos to a victory in Super Bowl 50, winning his second Super Bowl and doing whatever that's supposed to do to his "legacy" (whatever that word means; Manning was a first-ballot Hall of Famer on Saturday and is still one on Monday morning).
But Manning led the Broncos on Sunday by staying out of victory's way. Barely. The Broncos beat the Panthers 24-10 because their defense generated seven sacks and four turnovers. The Broncos held the Panthers to 315 total yards and stifled so many first-down plays and efforts to establish the run that the Panthers were in a perpetual 3rd-and-long.
The Broncos defense scored on a strip-six fumble recovery and later set up a two-yard drive for another touchdown. They made sure the Broncos didn't have to drive very far to score. Good thing, too: The Broncos offense couldn't really drive.
"The 2015 Broncos are one of the greatest defenses of all time," linebacker Brandon Marshall said after the game.
But can they remain among the greatest defenses of all time for another year or more? "I hope so," Marshall said. "We'll see about free agency."
Marshall is a free agent, a young player in the final year of a modest contract who can expect a big offseason raise. Super Bowl MVP Von Miller is also a free agent, but John Elway would rather melt down the team's Lombardi Trophies than let him go.
Even if the Broncos lose a piece like Marshall, they have depth to spare on defense.
"We've got dogs on this group," said defensive tackle Malik Jackson, who scooped up Miller's strip of Cam Newton for the Broncos' first touchdown. "From [cornerback Aqib] Talib to [cornerback] Chris [Harris] to the safeties, D-line to the middle linebackers: We're dogs. And we're not gonna let anybody just run and pass all over us."
"They don't realize how much talent we have on defense," Marshall said. "How much speed, how much athleticism, how much grit, how much want-to. Top to bottom, our defense is the most talented in the league."
Much of that speed and athleticism is just entering its prime and under contract for the foreseeable future. Harris is 26 years old and under contract through 2019. Derek Wolfe is 25 and also under contract through 2019. Safety Darian Stewart is 27 and under contract for another year. Veterans T.J. Ward and Talib are under contract through 2017 and 2019, respectively. They also have young, inexpensive talent like cornerback Bradley Roby (three passes defensed in the Super Bowl), pass-rusher Shane Ray and defensive tackle Sylvester Williams rising through the ranks behind them.
And there's DeMarcus Ware, who unlike his veteran counterpart on offense is not creating any retirement suspense.
"I've got a lot of gas in the tank," Ware said. "I don't think about retiring. If God still wants me to play, I'm gonna keep doing what I am doing.
"If I start bringing the cane out, you make sure you tell me, 'DeMarcus, it's time to hang the cleats up.'"
Judging by his two sacks and four hurries Sunday, Ware will not be using a cane any time soon. Combine Ware and Miller with Harris, Talib and the safeties, and the Broncos can absorb a free-agency loss or two from among Marshall, Jackson or Danny Trevathan and still field one of the two or three best defenses in the NFL.
But there is more to the Denver Broncos than defense.
C.J. Anderson rushed for 90 yards and the game-clinching touchdown on 23 carries in the Super Bowl. He rushed for 234 yards in three postseason games. The Broncos running game was much more consistent at the end of the season than it was early in the year, which should be no surprise to anyone who has seen how hard it is for offensive linemen and running backs to adjust to Gary Kubiak's zone-blocking offense when he first arrives at a new coaching stop.
"It's a new system," Anderson explained. "Koob came in and we tried to learn the system on the fly since April. I think after the bye week, we looked at ourselves and saw what we could do. We started working on plays that we were more familiar with from last year, on top of things that we learned during the season."
Anderson echoed the statements of another Super Bowl-winning Broncos running back. Terrell Davis spoke to reporters during the week about the difficulties of learning Kubiak's system, which is so similar now to the one John Elway triggered decades ago that Davis can sometimes identify plays by their names after the snap.
"It takes a long time," Davis said. "Remember, you can't practice as much as you used to. That takes time. You can't just install the offense and say, 'Let's go run it!'
"That offense we built, it took a lot of man-hours of practice. With pads. Not practicing with shorts. Pads ... Now, you don't have enough time to do that.
"If you look at this year, it wasn't great. Next year, they'll have time to look at the tape, they will have been in the system one more year. Next year, it will probably get a whole lot better."
The Broncos running game will also benefit from the return of tackle Ryan Clady from injury next year. With Kubiak's running game comes his passing game, which is designed to complement the run with lots of play action when it isn't being executed by a quarterback used to standing in a spread-shotgun formation and calling plays at the line.
So the whole offense could be much sharper next year.
"That's the plan," Anderson said. But then he added: "People are going to go out and take care of business for themselves and their families. … But if I'm still here, that's the plan."
As the "business" remark suggests, Anderson is also a free agent.
See a trend? The Broncos have a historically good defense and a running game that can get much better with time and practice. But they need cash and cap space.
The Broncos also have a quarterback scheduled to take up $21.5 million in cap space next year who completed 13 passes for 141 yards and one interception in the Super Bowl, with five sacks and two fumbles (one lost).
They have the building blocks to remain a perennial powerhouse. All they have to do is replace one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. They can then build around another quarterback, most likely Brock Osweiler, who also happens to be a free agent.
But really, they won't be building around Osweiler. They will just be building. That's the beauty of building a Seahawks-style modern-day repeat champion. The quarterback is very important, but it's not all-important.
The Broncos just need a quarterback who can do more than what Manning did in the Super Bowl. Manning connected on a few well-timed passes to Emmanuel Sanders early in the game but also threw an interception into Kony Ealy's arms and spent much of the second half handing off to Anderson on 3rd-and-long instead of trying to make plays.
Manning didn't hold the Broncos back in the postseason quite like he did during the dark days of the November losses to the Colts and Chiefs. He just made it difficult to see how great this team truly was.
"People swept our defense under the rug, and now it just feels so great to be one of the greatest of all time," Harris said.
It wasn't the defense anyone was sweeping under the rug.
None if this is an indictment of the historic Manning, of the Manning "legacy" or even the 2015 version of Manning who handled an injury, demotion and re-emergence with his usual aw-shucks dignity. Manning did what he had to do. But his presence made this season look like a last-ditch effort when it could well have been the start of something lasting.
This Super Bowl is not a final chapter for the Denver Broncos. They can repeat if they keep their core together.
But Peyton Manning, one of the two quarterbacks who redefined the position for a generation, one of the greatest of the great, is no longer a part of that core.
Notes from Super Bowl 50
Sights, sounds, trending topics and random observations:
Broncos fans boo Tom Brady during pregame Super Bowl MVP announcements: Good thing they weren't Eagles fans booing a drunken Santa Claus almost 50 years ago, or someone might criticize Broncos fans as being a bunch of crazy hooligans.
NBA star Stephen Curry gets honorary Panthers locker, bangs the pregame "Keep Pounding" drum: It's part of an exchange program. An NFL player will attend next week's NBA All-Star Game so he can play no defense whatsoever and actually get praised for it.
Players slip and stumble on notoriously bad Levi's Stadium surface: I don't see what the big deal is. The NHL played one of its big outdoor games at Levi's Stadium last year. And they didn't even need to ask for ice.
Lady Gaga causes prop bet confusion: The Vegas over/under for the length of her national anthem performance was 2:20, according to Odds Shark. But Ms. Gaga added a coda to the end of her performance, making it clock in at between 2:19 and about 2:26 depending on who timed the performance. (Odds Shark ended up saying it was 2:21.)
Could you imagine if Frank Sinatra sung the national anthem in his heyday and there were props bets on it? He'd probably be aware of the number and whether he wanted to go over or under, wink-wink. You'd probably want to check with Sammy or Dino or that cocktail waitress at the Mirage before you placed your wager.
Also, Gaga's performance was lovely, and turning two-and-a-half minutes of basic patriotism and respect into a gambling opportunity is a little scuzzy.
CBS starts promoting halftime show five minutes into the game: They were worried the score would already be 21-0 Panthers. Also, you can only promote The Big Bang Theory so many times before viewers start to wonder if you have any other shows.
Jerricho Cotchery's bobbling first-quarter apparent catch ruled incomplete: Listen, folks. I have about a 97 percent accuracy rate on these catch rulings. Here are the rules: 1) When in doubt, it's not a catch; 2) When even remotely questionable, the call will stand. It always works, give or take a Golden Tate touchdown. We just have to get over our individual ideas of some "pure" definition of a catch, as well as our love of going nutso on Twitter every time a call is semi-controversial.
That said, the NFL will change the rule to something equally unsatisfactory in the offseason, and we will all be back to square one.
Halftime show includes tribute to other halftime shows: We are through the looking glass.
You cannot call what Beyonce and Bruno Mars did to Coldplay "upstaging" when Coldplay worked so darn hard to blend into the background like the coffee-house soundtrack band they have always been. (There. I said it.) It reminds me of the old story of the 1950s Giants, who had Tom Landry coordinating defense and Vince Lombardi offense. When asked what he did, head coach Jim Lee Howell would say, "I inflate the footballs."
Coldplay inflated footballs at halftime.
Aqib Talib commits two personal fouls in first half: Under the rule Roger Goodell said on Friday that he would propose to the league's competition committee, Talib would have been ejected after the second foul. And Twitter would have complained that the calls were too ticky-tacky. And Goodell would be criticized for being too tyrannical. And we'd all still be screaming, "WHAT'S A CATCH?"
Astronaut Scott Kelly watched Super Bowl 50 from International Space Station: When asked what a catch was, he said, "I'm gonna have to science the s--t out of this."
Marshawn Lynch retires during fourth quarter: He knew every football writer on earth was too busy to bug him for an interview. Marshawn is one smart Beast.
Peyton Manning said he planned to drink a lot of Budweiser after the Super Bowl: Retired quarterbacks can endorse all the alcoholic beverages they want. Tom Brady will probably go for a high-end vodka or something, though. Just sayin'.
A quiet message about not keeping quiet: Domestic violence does not take Super Bowl week or the game itself off. Even the hoopla of Radio Row was undercut late in the week by the developing story of Johnny Manziel's apparent bottoming-out, which includes allegations of threats of violence toward his girlfriend. And, of course, domestic violence itself is a 24-7-365 nightmare for those victimized by it.
The most powerful "commercial" to air during Super Bowl 50 was the domestic violence awareness public service announcement produced by NoMore.org. It featured a text message conversation between two friends, one of whom slowly reveals that she is not coming over to watch the game because "Jake is in one of his moods."
Last year's NoMore.org Super Bowl spot dramatized a 911 call. This spot was more muted and more focused on how friends and family can intervene to help a loved one suffering from an abusive relationship.
"This year we want to move from awareness to action," said Virginia Witt, director and co-founder of NoMore.org. The spot included a number that viewers could text to learn more about how to recognize warning signs of domestic violence and start a conversation.
Witt said last year's spot was enormously successful: NoMore.org was flooded with calls, page-views and testimonials, while local emergency hotlines received phone calls from individuals in need of help. This year's spot focused on bystanders, those of us who might not know how to intervene when faced with a loved one in a dangerous situation.
"What we know from our research is that starting the conversation makes it easier for people to seek help," Witt said.
The NFL provided NoMore.org both with a free commercial slot and financing for the public service announcement. The NFL's response to domestic violence issues in the wake of last year's Ray Rice scandal has been haphazard and half-measured in the typical NFL way. Experts tell me the league has failed to take a systemic approach to educating players, coaches and executives. The league is also not using its outreach to colleges, high schools and youth leagues to its full potential to reach young people before they develop destructive behavior patterns.
This is not a problem solved by suspending a few players, producing one 90-minute training video for the start of training camp and throwing money at some charities.
But it's also not a problem solved by pointing fingers. It's societal, and initiatives like the Be A Model Man campaign and the youth sports-based Coaching Boys into Men program can stop problems before they start.
So can a conversation that starts with a Super Bowl spot.
"We're reaching right into living rooms, where families and friends are gathered together," Witt said. "This is a big American experience. This is an opportunity for us to reach into people's hearts, to engage with them on something important that could affect someone sitting right next to them. What a unique opportunity to open that dialogue and begin that learning process."
It would be more fun to talk and joke about Drake's T-Mobile commercial or the Jungle Book trailer, but if we only talk about domestic violence in the wake of a major news story, we aren't helping to make things better at all.
Last Call: Gotta Be the Shoes
No column about Super Bowl 50 would be complete without a discussion of what Cam Newton wore before the game and what it means for us as a free society.
Newton took the field for warm-ups wearing compression gear bearing a black-and-gold Superman logo and customized gold MVP cleat designed by Under Armour. The cleat included an emblazoned MVP logo and, if you looked carefully, Newton's 2015 statistics ringing the sides and toes. For the game, Newton switched to an NFL-regulation cleat that still featured platinum-like metallic trim.
(Yes, there was a backup cleat in case Newton did not win the MVP award.)
Newton has been wearing custom cleats since his days at Auburn: Heisman cleats, Superman cleats and so on. Josh Rattet, vice president of team sports footwear at Under Armour, told me Newton is very involved in the design of the cleats.
"He actually is a big part of the process," Rattet said. "We do a lot of the concept work with Cam."
It's all part of the trend toward storytelling through footwear. Rattet said Newton wants his cleats to tell personal stories: his dedication to community service, tributes to his hometown of Atlanta or the cities where he has played, the birth of his child, etc. Most famously, Newton wore cleats bearing the names and numbers of all his Panthers teammates before the NFC Championship Game.
The custom cleats are part of the Newton persona, which means a segment of America surely hates them and may even think they contributed in some karmic way to the game's outcome. Storytelling through footwear is a generational thing. The only story my footwear ever tells is, "Help! I am being crushed by a fat guy!"
Then again, weren't Michael Jordan and Spike "Mars Blackmon" Lee telling stories via sneakers 30 years ago?
To be fair, my parents hated those commercials, too.
Yes, I just compared Newton to Jordan, even after a loss. His Airness didn't win his first championship until he was 27, and I think we'll be seeing Newton, who's 26, in the Super Bowl again soon.
Like Jordan, Newton is finding ways to blend being both an "icon and entertainer" and an MVP-caliber team leader in a trailblazing way. It makes him an outstanding quarterback, and a pretty darn good sneaker pitchman, too. A limited autographed run of the cleats (with some proceeds going to the Cam Newton Foundation) sold out before the Super Bowl even started, according to AP reports.
"He really believes that he is the best player in the NFL and that he embodies the spirit of what the new generation of quarterback is," Rattet said.
In other words, get ready for more Cam, and more quarterbacks and players like Cam, not less. And get ready for more storytelling cleats, whether you like them or not.
In fact, if sneakers keep telling stories, I may find myself out of job. So if any football player or sneaker company out there wants someone to write some copy for a high-top: CALL ME.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Broncos contract info in this article is via Spotrac.com.