The Broncos, coming off a 12-win season and their fourth consecutive AFC West title, may well win another 12 games and another AFC West title. But then, in the Mile High City, where the local NFL team’s standards rest considerably higher than the city limits, it isn’t about the regular season. And it isn’t about the playoffs, either. It’s about winning a Super Bowl, period, end of conversation. Question is, are the Broncos any closer to doing it this season than they were in their three previous seasons with Peyton Manning under center? By all accounts, they’re not as talented as years past, with a handful of impact players having left via free agency. But general manager John Elway, having cleaned house after last year’s one-and-done fiasco in January, is hopeful that the new coaching staff, headlined by head coach Gary Kubiak and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, can give the 39-year-old Manning one last chance at feeling the confetti.
The media has had a field day speculating how Manning will fare in Kubiak’s zone-blocking, run-oriented offense. While only time will tell how good a fit the two will be for each other, this much is safe to say: Manning will go into this season considerably healthier than he ended the last one. He was altogether ordinary in the latter stages of the 2014 season, throwing 17 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions in the final nine regular-season games, leading to speculation that Father Time was fast approaching in his rear-view mirror. Four words: Don’t count on it. Manning’s problems were more a function of a tear in his right quadriceps and a decimated offensive line that gave him little time to throw. Manning, in fact, agreed to return for a fourth season only after receiving assurances that the issues on the offensive line would be addressed.
Unfortunately, one of the issues the Broncos will have to deal with yet again is the absence of All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady, who tore his ACL during OTAs in May. Clady missed nearly all of the 2013 season because of a Lisfranc injury. Clady’s loss will put even more pressure on second-round pick Ty Sambrailo and veteran free agent pick-up Ryan Harris, as Chris Clark figures to serve as Clady’s replacement at left tackle once again. Harris is no stranger to the Broncos, having made 34 starts in 46 games for them from 2007-10, and also played for Kubiak in Houston in 2012-13. Last season, Harris served as the Chiefs’ starting right tackle.
But even assuming that the offensive line will be improved, Manning doesn’t figure to put up the same type of passing numbers that long ago assured him a bronze bust in Canton. Kubiak has a long history of producing huge numbers in the running game, with relatively unheralded talents such as Terrell Davis, Mike Anderson and Arian Foster becoming fantasy league studs in his offense. Now it’s C.J. Anderson’s turn to see how productive he can be behind Kubiak’s zone-blocking schemes. Anderson, undrafted out of Cal in 2013, began last season as a blip on the depth chart and finished it in the Pro Bowl. After logging 17 carries in the Broncos’ first seven games, he rolled for 648 yards in the final six.
Not that Manning won’t remain the focal point of the offense. He threw 39 touchdown passes in 2014 and could approach that number again. He’ll have to do it without tight end Julius Thomas, who wasn’t presented with a serious contract offer after catching 12 touchdown passes in 2014. Thomas signed with Jacksonville, leaving newcomer Owen Daniels as the main pass-catching threat at tight end. Then there’s wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, a mercurial talent who refused to attend the team’s offseason workouts or Manning’s annual passing camp at Duke University after being slapped with the franchise tag. If you’re looking for an X-factor, there you have it. If the two sides can’t agree on a long-term contract, Thomas’ attitude issues could be a divisive factor in what could be Manning’s final NFL season. No such issues are in play with wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who clicked with Manning from the earliest moments of 2014. Sanders caught 101 balls, 10 fewer than Thomas.
If Kubiak and his staff can revamp the offensive line, and if Thomas buys in, there’s no reason to believe the Broncos won’t have one of the league’s most lethal offenses.
Phillips, by his own admission, was “a lousy head coach’’ in his previous life. But if there were a Hall of Fame for assistant coaches, the 68-year-old Phillips would be a lock. The man has a way of making rock stars out of pass rushers, having worked with the likes of Reggie White, DeMarcus Ware, Rickey Jackson and J.J. Watt. The Broncos’ pass rush was sporadic last season, but with Phillips and No. 1 draft choice Shane Ray in the equation, that figures to change. Ware racked up 60.5 sacks in four seasons while playing in Phillips’ 3-4 scheme in Dallas. He should be good for double digits again coming off the corner opposite Von Miller, who needs a big season to solidify his case for a possible $100-million contract.
Ray will be in the mix mostly as a nickel pass rusher, but his role could expand as the season wears on. The defensive line has its share of question marks, particular on the nose, where 2013 first-rounder Sylvester Williams, a prototypical 4-3 tackle, has been challenged by the coaches to step up — or else. The Broncos’ blueprint calls for Bill Kollar, one of most respected defensive line coaches in the business, to solidify things up front.
All in all, Phillips and his staff have a lot of nice pieces with which to work, including a handful of Pro Bowlers. “This is probably the best situation defensively that I’ve come into,’’ says Phillips. The starting corners, Aqib Talib and Chris Harris, form one of the top tandems in the business, and Bradley Roby, the 2014 first-rounder, had an exceptional rookie season. While having three quality corners is a basic necessity for a Super Bowl contender in today’s NFL, it’s conceivable that Roby could shift to free safety after the free-agent departure of Rahim Moore. Add hard-hitting safety T.J. Ward to the mix, and the Broncos’ secondary should be among the best in the business. If the pass rush improves as Phillips’ history suggests it will, the Broncos could improve significantly over last season’s 25 forced turnovers, which tied for 13th in the league.
The Broncos are one of the few NFL teams that can afford to burn two roster spots on kickers. Veteran Connor Barth, who made 15-of-16 field-goal attempts in 2014, doesn’t have the leg to consistently produce touchbacks in the altitude, so Brandon McManus figures to handle kickoffs. Punter Britton Colquitt is coming off a mediocre season, but his roster spot is all but guaranteed. The coaches will consider a cast of seemingly thousands as return candidates, with Sanders a possibility as a punt returner and Omar Bolden and Andre Caldwell in the picture as kickoff returners. Elway and his staff didn’t draft a college player with a significant history in the return game, but a handful of rookies will get a look. Yes, there are a number of candidates to sift through, but look for new special-teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis to get the most out of the return game.
For a team coming off a Super Bowl appearance, there was a lot of unrest surrounding the 2014 Broncos. Sure enough, when they came up short in the playoffs, Elway didn’t waste any time blowing up the coaching staff. The presence of Kubiak and a veteran staff represents a breath of fresh air for the players, who are anxious to buy in to the new approach. Assuming Manning stays healthy, there’s no reason to believe the Broncos won’t win the West and be a factor in the playoffs. To win the Super Bowl, though, they’ll need to be on a roll, not an emotional downswing as they were last season, when the playoffs arrive.