If the Broncos aren’t rebuilding, someone forgot to tell the man in charge. That would be John Elway, still the face of the franchise after all these years. Elway, now the Broncos’ executive vice president of football operations, has a three-year plan for getting a once-proud franchise back on its feet and back in the NFL playoff picture.
Elway’s hiring in the aftermath of the Josh McDaniels debacle represents a bold step by Broncos owner Pat Bowlen. Ever since he bought the franchise in 1984, Bowlen had put all the decision-making power in the hands of his head coach. No more.
Elway, a rookie NFL executive, has made all the calls, including bringing in John Fox to replace McDaniels.
If hiring Fox was Elway’s first order of business, it’s easy enough to figure out the second. He needs to assemble a competitive defense, as opposed to the patchwork units that have gone through the motions in recent years, ranking last or perilously close to it in most key statistics.
And then Elway needs to scrape away the aura of Tim Tebow and figure out if the kid has a future. Not just as an NFL quarterback or starting NFL quarterback. No, Elway needs to figure out if Tebow can be a Super Bowl-winning quarterback. When you’ve been down the roads Elway has traveled, nothing else matters but hoisting the hardware on Super Sunday. Trouble is, Tebow won’t answer those questions for years. The 2011 version of the Broncos may well be in the hands of veteran Kyle Orton, who clearly has the backing of other vets in the locker room. Fox? He crashed and burned at Carolina, winning two games last season. You have to wonder how interested he is in sharing the growing pains of a virtual rookie quarterback.
Well, is he or isn’t he? Tebow, that is. Is he a player waiting to happen or not? He’s all the rage as an author, role model, underwear pitchman and college demigod, but is he the Broncos’ quarterback of the future? Truth is, the Broncos aren’t any closer to an answer than they were the day McDaniels drafted him.
Therein lies the rub for Tebow. Elway and Fox have begun purging the organization of players and front-office types hired by McDaniels. Do they get rid of all those other McDaniels acquisitions and put the fate of the franchise in the hands of another McDaniels draftee who plays the most important position on the field? It doesn’t make a lot of sense, particularly with Orton, a solid if unspectacular figure under center, available to at least fill a stop-gap role.
Orton did a credible job in 2010 under excruciating circumstances. Translation: The Broncos trailed almost every Sunday, so opposing defenses knew he had to throw the ball. He was benched for Tebow’s three-game cameo in December, yet finished with 3,653 passing yards, 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Next on the list of offensive question marks is running back, where Knowshon Moreno has been a major disappointment since McDaniels used the 12th pick in the draft on him in 2009. Fox thrived with a two-man backfield tandem at Carolina, so the Broncos signed free agent Willis McGahee to complement Moreno. Last season, McGahee rushed for only 380 yards (on a 3.8-yard average) backing up Ray Rice in Baltimore.
One of Fox’s greatest challenges will be to build a quality offensive line out of a bunch of kids, including guard Zane Beadles and center J.D. Walton, who started as rookies last season, and second-rounder Orlando Franklin, who’ll step in immediately at right tackle. The strength here lies in Ryan Clady, who, when healthy, is one of the game’s elite left tackles.
The receiving corps has been strung together through free agency, and the Broncos hit a home run on Brandon Lloyd, a journeyman who exploded for 77 catches and 1,448 yards in 2010. If this unit is going to be anything above ordinary, 2010 first-rounder Demaryius Thomas and Eddie Royal, who caught 91 balls as a rookie in 2008, need to overcome injuries and be productive. That’s easier said than done, with Thomas a candidate to miss most of the season with a torn Achilles tendon.
At least Elway gets it. He knows the key to rebuilding the defense is developing a quality defensive line. So what position did he address with the second pick in the draft? What else? Outside linebacker. The Broncos thought Von Miller was too special to pass up, but they hoped to put together a package to land Lombardi Award winner Nick Fairley when he dropped out of the top 10 on draft day. That led nowhere, and the Broncos weren’t able to snag a lineman with either of their two second-rounders.
The pressure is on end Robert Ayers, a 2009 first-rounder who has been an enigma but profiles as a force coming off the corner. He and Elvis Dumervil, the team’s best pass-rusher who missed all of last season, could combine with Miller to shore up one of the Broncos’ most glaring weaknesses: putting pressure on the quarterback.
Miller is set at strong-side linebacker, where he figures to notch double digit sacks, and D.J. Williams, last year’s sack leader with 5.5, will man the weak side. Joe Mays could be the starter in the middle, but third-rounder Nate Irving figures to emerge at some point.
Then there’s the secondary, where likely Hall of Famers Champ Bailey and Brian Dawkins are living out their golden years. The biggest question is whether rookie Rahim Moore will open as the starter at free safety.
There’s only one number you need to know about kicker Matt Prater: He’s 7-of-9 from 50-plus yards for his career, making him a weapon whenever the Broncos cross midfield. And no, he’s not a product of the altitude. He can bang them home from the mountains or the seashore. Punter Britton Colquitt, who averaged 44.6 yards per kick, also figures to return.
The coaches will look at several candidates to return punts and kicks. If Royal, who underwent offseason hip surgery, is ready, he figures to be the main punt returner, with Eric Decker a possibility as the kick returner if he isn’t starting.
So many questions, so little time, what with the labor mess having chewed up the offseason. This much everyone knows: The days of the Broncos challenging for Super Bowl appearances are long gone. This is a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs for five straight seasons. The Broncos won’t be expected to win now, but make no doubt, their fan base is up in arms. All those fans don’t want to hear it, but .500 would be a great season given this team’s humbling realities.
Outside the Huddle
Crazy Like a Fox
The Broncos finished 4–12 last season, which tied for the second-worst record in the league. So whom did they hire as head coach after the failed Josh McDaniels experiment? The coach with the worst record in the league. Yes, John Fox’s final season with the Panthers was your basic train wreck, but the guy knows how to win. And most important of all, his name isn’t Josh McDaniels. John Elway couldn’t go young with his coaching search, not after all those sins of youth committed by the 30-something McDaniels. Elway needed a veteran hand and got one in Fox. Given their current state, the Broncos were lucky to get Fox, who won three division titles and five playoff games during his nine seasons at Carolina.
Do you Knowshon?
No, Knowshon Moreno hasn’t been a bust. But he hasn’t been the player he was advertised to be, either. Moreno was supposed to be a home run hitter in the Broncos’ backfield. But two years into his career, he has shown an alarming lack of big-play ability. The numbers tell the tale: 429 carries, five of which have gone for 20-plus yards. Feel free to read into those numbers. With a new coaching staff in charge, one accustomed to putting up big rushing numbers with the Panthers, Moreno will have to step it up — or else.
Slowing to a Crawl
There was a time not so long ago when 2,000 yards was the benchmark for a Broncos tailback. But in 2010, the team’s leading rusher was Moreno at 779. It marked the fourth straight season in which no Broncos running back reached 1,000 yards, much less 2,000. If that does not change this season, Moreno’s days in Denver could be numbered.
A Nation Divided
Bronco Nation is not a happy group of campers. It’s one thing to see the franchise slip. But five straight seasons without a playoff appearance? Five straight years of suffering through the worst defense in the league? The Broncos have paid the ultimate price for all that futility: fan indifference. Their local TV ratings slipped last season to 23.8 from a high of 41.6 in 1998, their most recent Super Bowl season. And the ratings got worse as the season wore on, plummeting to 20.1, 14.4 and 19.0 in the final three games. We only mention it because Tim Tebow started those games and had the Broncos’ front office hopeful of a ratings spike. Said team president Joe Ellis: “We’ve hit rock bottom.’’
Teach Your Children Well
If Broncos safety David Bruton never makes an impact in the NFL, it won’t be because he wasn’t grounded. Bruton, a fourth-rounder in 2009, didn’t sit around during the lockout waiting to cash huge checks after a labor settlement. He spent his time working as a substitute teacher in his hometown of Miamisburg, Ohio. His pay? Ninety bucks a day.
Less is More
The Broncos have jettisoned many veteran defensive linemen through the years, but not Kevin Vickerson. The new staff let Vickerson know that they believe there’s a lot more in his tank than he has shown. And they backed up their faith in him by signing him to a two-year, $4.75-million contract in March. Vickerson’s reaction? He showed up for the players’ first organized workout at 285 pounds, down 36 from the 321 he played at last season. Clearly, Vickerson wants to be a fixture in John Fox’s 4-3 defense after playing last season in a 3-4.