Most NFL teams that qualify for the postseason, plus win a playoff game, spend their offseason figuring out minor adjustments to their roster in order to push their team into the Super Bowl.
In most instances, they believe they are a player or two away from having the necessary talent to win a championship.
In the case of the 2011 Denver Broncos, they decided to take a bold direction after their improbable playoff run – blow up the offense and essentially start from scratch.
After starting the year at 1-4 losses with little sense of identity, Denver turned its fortunes and offense to Tim Tebow to see what might develop.
What followed that maneuver was nothing short of incredible as the team rallied to clinch the AFC West title and a playoff berth behind a developing defense, one of the best running games in football, timely contributions from their special teams, and a ball possession offense that did just enough to put points on the board.
It’s not a pretty formula, but it was enough to qualify for the playoffs. Against all odds, Denver upset Pittsburgh behind a wild finish in the Wild Card game before falling to New England in the semi finals.
Most fans went into the offseason believing that the Broncos would simply fortify some of their deficiencies in order to make another run, but little did we all know that the biggest change they would make would be at quarterback.
The organization never fully endorsed Tim Tebow as the long-term answer at quarterback, and when former Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning was released by the only club he had played for after suffering an injury-filled 2011 season, Denver suddenly became the destination for the former Pro Bowl player.
Although Manning has been healthy through training camp and shows no ill effects from his multiple neck surgeries, nobody knows how he will respond until the regular season begins in September. In their first preseason game against Chicago, things got off to a solid start for what that is worth, but intensity and importance increases when the game results matter.
Being a long-time fan of Denver since the late 1970s, I wanted to take a look at the club going into 2012 and play out the best and worst-case scenarios for their upcoming campaign, from the perspective of the organization, fans, offense, defense and special teams.
Granted, there’s a lot that happens between the preseason and January, but I think we can realistically look at each group and surmise what will need to happen for success versus the situations that will cause things to derail quickly.
Organization - Best-Case Scenario: The team achieves a long playoff run so people forget about Tebow
. The former starting quarterback is a polarizing figure, but he certainly inspired the Broncos to achieve beyond reason.
Unfortunately, the offense was very one-dimensional relying upon the running game and field position, and so the Broncos needed to make an upgrade. If this team wins their division, which is plausible, and makes a sustained run through the playoffs, the fans will forget about the previous chapters.
Organization - Worst-Case Scenario:The team falls apart and the trade of Tebow causes a commotion.
Tebow’s presence was a distraction while on the roster, so his trade to the New York Jets cleared out the pressure. That being said, fans will be closely watching the new offense to compare it to the 2011 version.
If Manning goes down to injury or this team fails to meet expectations, the cries about trading the former Florida Gator will grow in chorus. Simply put, this team needs to win impressively to avoid this trap.
Fans - Best-Case Scenario: A Super Bowl title.
Nothing like a championship run to help an entire fan base forget about the uncertainty of the past few seasons or the offseason adjustments, but it would certainly help a large portion of the Broncos’ support to embrace the new era of football in the Mile High City.
Fans - Worst-Case Scenario:The bye week comes at Week 7 and the fans are calling for Caleb Hanie.
Denver has one of the most passionate fan bases in the NFL and they have supported this team through some dreadful stretches, but I don’t recall such a divide amongst the hard core support as there was last season.
If Denver struggles to find an identity and the team is staring at precious few wins when they enter their bye week, it could get ugly fast in Colorado.
Offense – Best-Case Scenario: Diversity is achieved.
Denver has been one of the best rushing teams for many years, but the offense became so run heavy in 2011 that teams dared the Broncos to throw on most occasions. The leading rusher for the Broncos in 2011 was Willis McGahee, who was originally signed as a backup for depth, but injuries and performance pushed him into the starting role.
Not only is it important for Manning to stay healthy and protected by his offensive line, but the Broncos need to pass better to help spread the attack and keep their running backs healthy. The best situation for them creates an aerial attack balanced with a potent run option that forces defenses to cover the outside instead of packing the line to stop the run.
Offense – Worst-Case Scenario:Key players fail to stay healthy.
If Manning and McGahee are injured long-term and the team struggles to find adequate replacements, the train could come off the tracks for Denver really quickly.
While Caleb Hanie has shown an ability to lead an offense at times, the reserve running back group for the Broncos includes Knowshon Moreno, a player that has struggled with fumbles and injury, and talented but untested rookies Ronnie Hillman and Mario Fannin. There’s talent here, but it’s still very young and raw, so the Broncos need everyone to stay healthy in order to spread the carries around.
Defense - Best-Case Scenario:The 2011 improvement continues.
It took time to get the pass rush going to allow Denver to unleash Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil on opposing quarterbacks, but once they did, Denver played some amazing defensive football. With safety Brian Dawkins retiring, it’s important that this group continues to grow and evolve, but they are under the tutelage of one of the great defensive minds in the NFL, new defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio.
Defense - Worst-Case Scenario:The defense can’t get pressure on quarterbacks allowing the secondary to be picked apart.
Miller was quite a revelation in his rookie season, and offensive lines had to deal with a triple pressure threat between he, Dumervil and D.J. Williams. If opposing offenses can figure out how to neutralize the rush and the team can’t adequately replace Dawkins in coverage, it could be a very long season in Denver.
Special Teams - Best-Case Scenario:Matt Prater and Britton Colquitt continue their end of 2011 form.
The tandem of Bronco kickers was as hot as anybody during the playoff run as Prater nailed numerous clutch game-winning kicks while Colquitt helped the Broncos win the field possession battle. It’s important that the team can count on contributions from this group because NFL games can’t be won exclusively by good special team play, but they can be easily lost with poor performance.
Special Teams - Worst-Case Scenario: Special teams become a distraction.
Prater has been a good kicker for the past few seasons although his accuracy rating floated around 76 percent in 2011, so this needs to be improved otherwise this could cause issues.
The team is also without two of its main return men for 2011, Quan Cosby (now in Indianapolis) and Eddie Royal (now in San Diego), so targeting new returners will be a priority in training camp. If there isn’t consistency within the return game, this could put Denver’s offense in tough shape.