31 Days, 31 Teams: Denver Broncos
By Jeff Falconio
For more than a decade the Denver Broncos were a model of consistency in the NFL. Mike Shanahan oversaw a team that won back-to-back Super Bowls in the late 1990's and remained competitive throughout the 2000s. With the zone-blocking run scheme, the Broncos finished in the top 10 in rushing every year from 2000 to 2007 and finished 12th last year. But after an AFC Championship game appearance in 2005 things unraveled for the Broncos. Denver went 24-24 from 2006 through 2008 and a December collapse last season kept the Broncos out of the playoffs.
As a a result Shanahan was fired and the Broncos began overhauling the franchise. New England assistant Josh McDaniels was brought in and early on he explored the possibility of acquiring a quarterback to challenge incumbent Jay Cutler. This in turn led to Denver trading Cutler to Chicago for Kyle Orton. Denver also capitalized on two first round picks by taking running back Knowshown Moreno to become the feature back on a team long known for the backfield-by-committee approach. Along with Moreno the Broncos acquired Correll Buckhalter and Lamont Jordan at running back. But the X factor for Denver is wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who like Cutler, wants out of Denver. If the Broncos can get Marshall back in the fold (and assuming he avoids a lengthy suspension), Orton will have one of the best receivers in the NFL to throw to. With all the personnel changes on offense it will certainly be a different look than what Denver fans were used to for so many years.
The real problem for Denver last year was defense. The Broncos finished 29th in total defense, 30th in scoring defense and got destroyed by the San Diego Chargers 52-21 in a Week 17 winner-take-all showdown. Denver used their other first round pick on linebacker Robert Ayers and scored veteran safety Brian Dawkins and cornerback Andre' Goodman in free agency. The Broncos also jettisoned 10 defensive players in the offseason. For sure the Broncos will need more production from a defense that intercepted only six passes and generated 26 sacks in '08.
Burning Question: Can the Broncos return to the playoffs? The talent certainly is there though it remains to be seen if Orton can lead a more aggressive offense than he ran in Chicago. Moreno might be the best running back out of the '09 draft class provided he stays healthy. As stated earlier Marshall can be an elite receiver but does he want to stay in Denver and if so can he avoid a suspension for a number of off-the-field issues. Massive changes were made to both the offense and defense but will the new look Broncos mesh together?
The Broncos will be better than last year if: Orton becomes more than just a game manager and handles McDaniels's spread philosophy with ease. Even if Marshall isn't there, young receiver Eddie Royal and newcomer Jabar Gaffney fill the void while Moreno becomes a 1,000 yard back in his first season. With the veterans in the secondary teams find it harder to throw on Denver, a plus considering the Broncos will face pass happy San Diego, Indianapolis, New England and Philadelphia. The Broncos challenge San Diego for the AFC West and at the very least nail down a wild card spot.
The Broncos will be worse than last year if: Orton struggles and is eventually replaced by Chris Simms. Moreno is hampered by injuries all year and the once-mighty Denver rushing attack evaporates. Without Marshall, neither Simms nor Orton can strike up a passing attack. This puts too much pressure on the defense to make plays. Denver takes a big step back while both Oakland and Kansas City take a step forward in the West as the Broncos finish third and well out of the playoffs.