Naughty Nurse: Denver Broncos have mountains to climb
Cold, Hard Football Facts AFC West Corpsman
The Denver Broncos and the emergence of Tim Tebow was arguably the biggest story of the 2011 NFL season and they were certainly the most talked about .500 football team in NFL history. Despite their historically bad defense (whose coordinator, ,Dennis Allen, is now the Raiders head coach), the Broncos found remarkable ways to win game after game. They captured a weak division, and a nation, in the process.
The 2011 storyline: The Broncos threw out Kyle Orton & their playbook after a 1-4 start, turning to Tebow who, despite his 46.5 percent completion rate led the Broncos on a divine 7-4 stretch run and a backdoor AFC West title with an offense generally reserved for small-town Midwestern 8-on-8 high school teams. Miraculously, Tebow delivered a playoff debut for the ages against the No. 1-rated Steelers defense in the wild-card round after delivering late game heroics en route to dramatic wins against the Dolphins, Jets, Chargers, Vikings and Bears down the stretch.
The Broncos were also blown out in games against New England (twice), Green Bay, Detroit and Buffalo, surrendering 40+ points and amassing a -10 turnover margin in those five contests. Denver ranked 20th or worse in 13 of 14 of CHFF's Quality Stats this past season and will face a first-place schedule in 2012. The inability to compete against the upper echelon NFL teams leaves the Broncos entering 2012 with as many questions as answers but owner Pat Bowlen and Executive V.P. John Elway aren't interested in being the Ron Paul of the NFL (everybody likes you, but quietly thinks you're a little crazy and knows you'll never win it all), and will do everything possible to deliver a third Lombardi Trophy to the showcase at Dove Valley.
The Vital Signs:
Coach (record): John Fox (8-8 with Denver; 81-79 overall)
2011 record: 8-8 (19.3 PPG – 24.4 PPGA)
Record against the spread: 7-9
Record vs. Quality Opponents: 1-4 (18.8 – 34.8)
Record last five seasons: 35-45 (.438)
Best Quality Stat in 2011: Defensive Hog Index (t11th)
Worst Quality Stat in 2011: Real Passing Yards Per Attempt (29th)
Statistical curiosity of 2011: Tim Tebow finished the regular season as the 27th rated passer among those who qualified (72.9), and was the only QB among those 33 with 240+ attempts to have a a sub-50 completion percentage (46.7). Tebow failed to complete 50 percent in nine of his 13 starts, faring especially poorly (26.7%) in two games against the Chiefs.
Best game of 2011: 29-23 win vs. Pittsburgh (wild card playoffs). The Steelers came into town as big favorites after Tebowmania backed into the playoffs with a three-game losing streak. Ben Roethlisberger was hobbled by a sprained ankle, and the Broncos defense was able to capitalize, with Defensive ROY Von Miller, Elvis Dumervil and Robert Ayers harrassing him all afternoon. Tebow had what may be looked back upon as his crowning moment with the Broncos, throwing for 316 yards on 10 completions and a first-play overtime 80-yard knockout punch to Demaryius Thomas that gave the Denver faithful their first playoff victory since handing Tom Brady his first-ever playoff loss at the end of the 2005 season.
Worst game of 2011: 45-10 loss at New England (divisional playoffs). Coming off the Mile High euphoria from the week before stood Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, who got to hear all week about the darling Broncos and their dreamy leader. When the whistle blew, the Patriots exerted their dominace on the Broncos for the second time in less than a month, jumping out to a 35-7 halftime lead before letting off the gas in a game they probably could have won 70-17. Brady went 24 of 36 for 364 yards and 6...yes 6 TD passes, 3 to Rob Gronkowski. It became abundantly clear on that cold Foxborough night that the Broncos and the Patriots were clearly on different sides of the NFL's great divide.
Strength: Power running game. The Broncos went from being one of the worst rushing teams (96.5 YPG, 3.88 YPA) in 2010 to the best in 2011 (164.5 YPG, 4.85 YA). The improvement can be attributed to the young offensive line benefiting from the addition of T Orlando Franklin, the switch to the read-option and power running of Tim Tebow & Willis McGahee, and the hard-nosed mentality of old-school head coach John Fox.
Although their 2011 Offensive Hogs Index doesn't show it (23rd) due to mostly a poor third-down percentage, the Broncos took a major step towards once again dominating the ground game in ways that make us miss Terrell Davis and Alex Gibbs, and all the delicious and assorted chop blocks that went with them. Mmmmmm .... chops.
Weakness: Pass defense. Denver allowed a 93.12 Defensive Passer Rating in 2011 which was better than only Minnesota, Indianapolis, Carolina and Tampa Bay. They also registered only 9 interceptions which tied for second fewest in the NFL. Age seems to have caught up to the Broncos secondary, as safety Brian Dawkins succumbed to injury after injury as the season wore on and CB Champ Bailey, while still Pro-Bowl worthy, is showing signs of losing a step and a move to safety may be imminent. Rahim Moore, Quinton Carter, Chris Harris and Syd'Quan Thompson are all young and emerging, but despite having one of the G.O.A.T.'s at the position in Bailey, the Broncos must find ways to improve an Iraqi-like aerial defense that has produced only one top 10 season since 2007.
Elway went out and got safeties Rahim Moore and Quinton Carter in the 2011 draft as well as signing undrafted rookie CB Chris Harris, who developed into one of of the Broncos biggest roster surprises. Neither Carter or Moore ever found their groove as rookies, and the Broncos will have to seek help in the secondary throught the draft or free agency once again, especially if Dawkins hangs it up.
General off-season strategy/overview: The Broncos will continue to seek ways to increase the talent level at every position group with Elway and GM Brian Xanders calling the shots.
The Broncos have become surprise players in the Peyton Manning sweepstakes, becoming the first team to entertain the future H.O.F quarterback who was recently given his walking papers by Jim Irsay and the Colts. If Manning were to sign with Denver, it would almost certainly spell the end of the Tim Tebow era (Hello Jacksonville!) and would instantly make the Broncos the favorite in the AFC West and on the short list of the conference contenders.
If Manning signs elsewhere, the Broncos will still likely draft a quarterback to groom in Elway's vision, as well as bringing in a free agent as an insurance policy and to push Tebow in training camp.
RB Willis McGahee carried a load for the Broncos in 2011 and will need an adequate accomplice in the backfield in 2012. Former first-rounder Knowshon Moreno is recovering from a knee injury and a hangover and his status is uncertain, but the Broncos love Mario Fanin, an undrafted RB from Auburn who spent his rookie season on IR, and expect the Broncos to draft a late round RB as well.
Whomever is throwing for the Broncos in 2012 will have a a servicable arsenal of weapons at their disposal. The emergence of Demaryius Thomas late in the season and in the playoffs gives the Broncos the legitimate No. 1 WR they've been missing since Whack-a-doo Brandon Marshall took his talents to South Beach. Eric Decker showed he can be a solid No. 2 and Eddie Royal is a dangerous slot option when he's able to get in the flow of the offense. Big things are expected out of TE Julius Thomas in year two.
Defensive Rookie of the Year Von Miller showed why Denver used the No. 2 overall pick on him last April as he racked up 11.5 sacks despite breaking his thumb in Week 12. Defensive end Robert Ayers, a first rounder in 2009, made huge leaps as the defense went back to a 4-3 in 2011, and the return of Elvis Dumervil and addition of DT Broderick Bunkley helped strengthen a front seven that looks to quickly go from one of the team's biggest liabilities in 2010 to one of it's greatest strengths in 2012.
The team's best linebacker and most tenured player, D.J. Williams, failed a PED test and is facing a six-game suspension (along with DT Ryan McBean) to open the 2012 season. Whether or not Williams is back with the team or not, LB, especially in the middle, is one of the team's biggest offseason needs.
Totally premature 2012 diagnosis: The legendary Duffy Daugherty once said "You throw the football in the air, three things can happen, two of them are bad". Not only does this approach suit John Fox's run-first approach to the game (especially with Tebow under center), but it's also looking like a good way to handicap the chances of re-creating some of that Mile High Magic in 2012.
Scenario 1: Denver pulls off the unthinkable and wins the Peyton Manning sweepstakes. Manning proves to be healthy and the Dream Team Redux is created when Reggie Wayne, Mario Williams, Brandon Carr, Dallas Clark, Chris Bosh and Mario Chalmers all join the party, and the Broncos roll to a AFC West title and are a force to be reckoned with in January. Tebow gets a fresh start in a new city with a team and management that embraces what he has to offer.
Scenario 2: The Broncos get left at the altar by Manning, who decides to take his talents to South Beach. Tebow gets a case of the Cutlers and feels like he's been betrayed by the EFX triumverate, and loses every bit of hard-earned confidence from 2011. Denver stumbles out of the gate and falters down the stretch, and the Tebow era gets swept off as another season swirls away. Elway positions himself high atop the 2013 draft with intentions of taking the next guy who's supposed to be the next him.
Scenario 3: Manning signs elsewhere, but it ends up being the "come to Jesus" moment that Tebow needs to be reborn in his NFL quarterbacking life. He spends the rest of the offseason and OTA's making huge strides in his mechanics, shortening his release and vastly improving his coverage recognition. Denver adds some solid pieces on both sides of the ball through the draft and free agency and competes in almost every game on their schedule. Problem is, San Diego and Kansas City bounce back from their awful 2011 seasons, and a much improved Broncos team finishes 3rd in the AFC West and on the outside looking in at the playoffs
Out of these three choices the most compelling would obviously be the addition of Manning, with the ensuing hysteria related to the Manning-Tebow dynamic causing ESPN's Adam Schefter and NFL Network's Burt Breer to simultaneously combust.
The most likely,however, would point to scenario 3. The Broncos played above their ceiling as much as any team in the NFL in 2011, and it got them a .500 record. There are serious question marks at every single position group, with many players falling in the category of either being too young and inexperiencced or too long in the tooth.
Their schedule matches them up against the AFC North (BAL, CIN, CLE, PIT) and NFC South (ATL, CAR, NOLA, TB) along with the first place reward of HOU & NE.
Without major improvements in their pass defense and overall quarterback play the 2012 Denver Broncos will fight for mediocrity in a division that's on the upswing, and will likely fail to win 10 games or more for the seventh consecutive season.
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