The Broncos finished the 2010 season 4-12, with a defense ranked 32nd in the league and a franchise-high No. 2 draft pick. After the firing of former head coach Josh McDaniels, the lockout-shortened time frame for new head coach John Fox to implement his philosophies, and the controversy surrounding the quarterback position heading into the 2011 season, most reporters have written Denver off as a mere cellar-dweller heading into the season.
It's important to remember that each and every NFL season there are teams that seem to come out of nowhere to be competitive. With an average turnover of 50 percent of playoff teams year to year, these are the reasons why Broncos fans should be optimistic about their chances in the AFC West in 2011.
The first reason Broncos fans should be optimistic is a familiar face returning to the franchise, as well as bringing on a highly-respected head coach, who's played in eight playoff games in his nine years as a head coach.
John Elway, who was hired by the Broncos as their EVP of Football Operations shortly after the 2010 season wrapped up, has a bit more experience than people tend to give him credit for. Remember, this is a Stanford educated quarterback who grew up in a home with a father, Jack, who was a football coach. As John's career developed, so did Jack's, eventually signing on as a scout for the Broncos during Elway's playing days.
After Elway retired, he and Broncos' owner Pat Bowlen led a Denver-based coalition that brought the Colorado Crush, an arena football team, to Denver. Elway was heavily involved in the day-to-day operations, and helped guide the team to an Arena Bowl championship in 2005, a division title in 2006 and wild-card berths in 2004, 2007 and 2008. While it may not have been at the NFL level, the Arena League was a great way for Elway to develop the skills needed to become a successful team executive.
John Fox, on the other hand, is coming off a bit rougher recent history. With his Panthers going 2-14 in 2010, many Broncos fans were befuddled as to why the Broncos would go out and choose the only coach to be worse than them last year. That being said, Fox has thrived in environments where he could rely on a strong running game, as well as a ferocious defense.
With Fox's announcement that the Broncos would be bringing back the vaunted zone-blocking scheme, the same philosophy former coach Mike Shannahan used to create 1,000-yard no-name running backs, Broncos fans began to warm up to the coach. After he brought in Dennis Allen to run the defense, an aggressive unit that would use exotic blitzes and put the most athletic players in a position to be successful (like Champ Bailey's move to the nickelback position on third downs, a move that's worked out well for Green Bay cornerback Charles Woodson), Broncos fans finally saw a level of commitment to the defense that hasn't been in the Mile High City since Larry Coyer turned the defense loose in 2005.
Broncos fans should get familiar with "The Johns," as it looks like they're here to stay.
Al Davis. Is there really more that needs to be said?
Since his reign as the maverick of the old AFL, Davis has slowly and steadily declined from a once exalted executive and head coach, to a mere shadow of his former self. With Davis at the helm, the Raiders have made some of the worst draft picks in recent history, like taking Darrius Heyward-Bey with the seventh overall pick in 2009, a choice that's been rewarded with 35 catches and two touchdowns in the two seasons since.
Heyward-Bey seems like a godsend compared to what they got out of JaMarcus Russell, the former first-overall selection who was out of football only three disastrous seasons later. Russell's $32 million guaranteed contract worked out to approximately $1.77 million per touchdown during his NFL career.
But let's delve into more recent history. With Oakland's selection of Hue Jackson as head coach, they decided to keep a bit of consistency from the Tom Cable era, an era that saw the Raiders go 17-27 over Cable's three years, a lowly .328 winning percentage. While Jackson has certainly brought some enthusiasm to the Bay Area, many were intrigued by the Raiders' decision to select Terrelle Pryor with their third-round pick in the 2011 Supplemental Draft.
While it's certainly no surprise that the Raiders selected someone with a great deal of speed and athleticism, a trademark of Al Davis, Pryor's off-the-field decisions at Ohio State left many to believe he was selfish and felt entitled, and his reportedly low Wonderlic score, used to measure aptitude in incoming players, didn't help his case.
So what are the chances for success in Oakland? In a recent interview with ESPN.com, former head coach Lane Kiffin may have said it best, "It is almost impossible...You're just so far behind other clubs. You're waiting for [owner Al Davis] to wake up and come to work at 2 o'clock in the afternoon to make decisions that the rest of the league is making at 6 o'clock in the morning."
That's music to Broncos fans' ears.
Matt Cassel, Jamaal Charles and the Kansas City Chiefs took the AFC West by storm last year, proving that a strong running game and competent quarterback play can move a team up the standings in the AFC West quickly. So Kansas City should be the Broncos' biggest obstacle for AFC West dominance, right?
Not so fast.
To say Cassel and the Chiefs offense has looked average this preseason is an insult to the word "average." Cassel has been under 50 percent completion percentage in both preseason games he appeared in, one against the highly-touted Baltimore defense and the other against the improving St. Louis defense. While many Chiefs fans will say those numbers shouldn't matter since it's the preseason, it's the only way outsiders can gauge the effectiveness of the Chiefs passing game, especially since offensive coordinator Charlie Weis departed for the same position at the University of Florida.
While Todd Haley is injecting himself more into the offense since Weis left, the passing game will, almost certainly, not be as effective in 2011 as it was in 2010. Even with the addition of Johnathan Baldwin in the draft, and Steve Breaston from the Cardinals, this group seems prepared to regress.
The Chiefs running game is their biggest strength, with Pro Bowler Jamaal Charles leading the way. After the Chiefs signed Le'ron McClain, the trifecta of Charles, McClain and veteran Thomas Jones solidified the Chiefs backfield. Charles' only issue is that he remains relatively small by NFL running-back standards, which can ultimately lead to a higher rate of injury after taking on hits from players much larger.
The Chiefs defense will face the biggest challenge this year—trying to replicate last year's success. While the team's defense played great in 2010, they did so having to face only three playoff teams throughout the entire season, including the playoffs. This year, in Weeks 11-15, Kansas City plays five teams that made the 2010 playoffs, including the four teams that went to the conference championship games: Green Bay, Chicago, Pittsburgh and the New York Jets. The fifth team? New England.
How can you have the league's No. 1 offense and No. 1 defense, but still not manage to win your own division? Ask Norv Turner.
The Chargers offense may actually get better in 2011, with a full season for Vincent Jackson (who sat out most of last year in a contract dispute), and the healthy returns of Antonio Gates and Malcolm Floyd. This group will feel the majority of the pressure on offense, because the running game seems to have taken a step back since LaDainian Tomlinson's departure last year.
Mike Tolbert and Ryan Matthews will split carries, and while many pegged Matthews as a top-notch running back coming out of the draft last year, he failed to meet expectations. With such pressure on the passing game, the offensive line can expect to see more blitzes this season, and will need to improve on Rivers' 38 sacks taken last year to remain competitive, especially Jeromey Clary, who allowed a team-high five sacks last season.
Thought of as one of the best defensive minds in the league, defensive coordinator Ron Rivera left this offseason to pursue his first head-coaching opportunity, taking charge of John Fox's old team, the Carolina Panthers. While the pick-up of Bob Sanders during the offseason seems to be making a big impact on the team, Chargers fans have to be concerned if the persistent health issues he's faced throughout his career will rear their ugly heads in San Diego.
GM A.J. Smith is not afraid to make a big splash, as evidenced in his firing of Marty Schottenheimer following the 2006 season, a season where the Chargers went 14-2 and reached the divisional round of the playoffs. While the head coaching hot seat may not look as warm in San Diego as in other parts of the league, if San Diego gets off yet another one of their typically slow starts to begin the year, it could mean the Chargers start looking at moving in another direction.
The Orange Crush is back in the Mile High.
With Elvis Dumervil's return to the starting lineup, and the selection of Von Miller with the No. 2 overall pick in this year's draft, the Broncos have demonstrated they have one thing in mind: getting after the quarterback.
Last year, the team finished dead last in the NFL with 23.0 sacks, three behind their closest competition, the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Adding Miller and Dumervil should add a nice spike to the Broncos' sack totals for the foreseeable future.
Let's not forget the other defenders who will benefit from the added pressure on defense. Champ Bailey, who is moving to the nickelback position in obvious passing situations, will see more balls thrown his way when the team produces pressure. Bailey will also see a big increase in the number of blitzes he will be in on, since the nickelback is the defensive back most responsible for pressuring the quarterback in the Broncos' new defensive scheme.
Because of the pressure from the edges, the Broncos defensive tackles should see less double teams, freeing the big fellas up to go do some damage. The Broncos are currently fighting through the injury bug at the position, as free-agent signees Ty Warren and Broderick Bunkley have both endured injuries, with Warren's relegating him to the sidelines for most of the upcoming season. Expect the Broncos, who have the No. 2 position on the waiver wire and are $24.5 million under the salary cap, to actively pursue any top defensive tackles who are cut in the coming days.
Joe Mays, a former back-up in Philadelphia, will be the Broncos middle linebacker heading into 2011, and has looked impressive throughout the entire preseason. D.J. Williams, the Broncos' underrated weakside linebacker, hopes to recover quickly from a sprained elbow suffered against Seattle, and will be looking to replicate his 2007 season, where he led the Broncos with 106 solo tackles.
Broncos fans who once were enamored with what the offense could have been under Josh McDaniels, will be truly shocked at how quickly the revamped defense climbs the ranks. That could very well mean an AFC West championship in Denver in 2011.