Several months ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to be part of the crew on a 40-foot sailboat sailing out of Newport Beach, California. The weather became overcast and a light rain began to fall as we boarded the boat. We were disappointed thinking that we weren't going to be able to take the boat out of the harbor. The skipper had other ideas, however. We motored out of the harbor and set sail as the weather steadily worsened. The skipper told us that he had decided we needed to learn to sail in bad weather so that should the day come when we were out on our own, we'd know how to handle it. I'd like to say that we braved the wind, waves and rain, and share how eventually the weather broke and we were treated to sunny skies and rainbows. I'd like to be able to share that, but that's not what happened. We returned to the harbor at the end of the day, wet, cold and in some cases more than a little seasick.
The following weekend, however, we went out to sunny and clear skies. We motored out of the harbor, set the sails and began cruising up and down the coast outside of Newport Beach Harbor. We could see Santa Catalina Island -- a favorite southern California vacation spot -- twenty-three miles off shore. We experienced a perfect day of sailing. The crew almost mutinied and took the boat to Catalina -- which our skipper later told us would have been alright had he not had a class the following morning. We went from an utterly miserable experience to one that was heavenly.
What does this have to do with the Broncos? Take a jump and find out.Being a Broncos' fan these days involves equal portions of joy/hope (sailing under perfect conditions) and disappointment/frustration (fighting the boat in pouring rain). We experience highs like beating Dallas and New England on successive weeks, and lows like going 0-5 on touchdowns inside the Red Zone. We enjoy the sunny skies of watching our team put up thirty-one points on one team, only to become frustrated by the dark clouds of a thirteen point effort. We hear some voices declaring that things are looking up and will get better while others are calling for the coach's head after nineteen games.
I believe there are several reasons emotions have been running so high over the last several years. First, and perhaps foremost, is the simple reality that change is hard. No matter what the change is, it will be hard to deal with. In sports where emotion run high, money's being exchanged in pools and bets, where fans dress up in their team's colors and yell and scream for success, any change that is perceived as affecting that success is hard to take. Suddenly, the familiar is gone. We no longer know what to expect in any situation. Faces and personalities are new. Change takes us out of our comfort zone and we may or may not know how to respond to that.
A second factor that I believe has had emotions running high during this time comes from the fact that Broncos have a fairly large number of fans who became followers during the Super Bowl runs of 1997 and 1998. Many became followers when the Broncos were the cream of the crop, and the subsequent years have been seen as an agonizing slide into mediocrity. We are left to wonder when this slide will stop and what it will take to swing the Broncos back up to the success that first attracted fans to them.
The desire for instant gratification is a third factor that exaggerates our reactions to situations. High speed internet, news conduits that let us know what's happening on the other side of the world within minutes, cell phones, twitter, free agency, a highly mobile culture have all contributed to a belief that things should happen quickly, if not instantly. Over the last twenty years, NFL teams are averaging changing coaches every four years. There have been three teams with nine coaches in the last twenty years (Oakland, St. Louis and Washington). The message from the NFL is clear: succeed quickly or be replaced. This has built an corresponding expectation among fans. This is why a player can be cheered one week and booed the next, why a win can be obscured by a loss, for the question has become: "What have you done for me most recently?"
It has been joked that "NFL" stands for the "Not For Long" league. Yet there is an element of truth in this, for the NFL does stress quick success or be moved out. Free agency has contributed to this through player movement from team to team. Many fans are fans of an individual player or coach as opposed to a fan of a team. So when the player/coach moves on, the fan decries the intelligence of the team for getting rid of that person who is the heart, soul and symbol of their fandom. Some teams suffer from a reverse form of this by being hated because a disliked player plays for that team.
A final factor that plays into the stormy nature of our current sailing trip is that we, as fans, are on the outside looking in. In many instances -- if not most instances -- we do not have all the information we need to be able to understand the "why" behind what is going on. All we can go on is what we see happening on any given Sunday. This builds frustration, breeds disappointment, and makes it hard to give a rousing cheer for the team. This is why we have a community like Mile High Report where we can come, share ideas, frustrations and insights and help one another along through the tough times.
Sometimes, I wonder if the Broncos are not, perhaps, victims of their own success. I became a Broncos fan in 1969 when my family moved to Littleton, Colorado -- a suburb of Denver. It might be helpful to remember that between 1960 and 1972, the Broncos did not have a winning season. Not one. The closest we ever came was a 7-7-0 record in 1962. My first four years of cheering for the Broncos saw seasons of 5-8-1, 5-8-1, 4-9-1, 5-9-0. We continued to cheer for them because they were the only professional football team in town. After growing up in Iowa, they were the first NFL/AFL team that we'd ever had in town. We cheered because that was what people in Denver did on Sundays. On Monday through Saturday, we commiserated over the losses and celebrated the rare wins.
As the Broncos moved into the Seventies, their fortunes began to change. From 1973 to 1976, Denver had three winning seasons and one losing season. This was followed by three more winning seasons, one .500 season along with three post season appearances and a Super Bowl appearance between 1977 and 1980.
The period from 1981 to 1992 was a great one to be a Broncos fan: eight winning seasons and two .500 seasons over against two losing seasons -- one of which came during a 9-game, strike shortened season. This period also saw six post season appearances and three Super Bowl appearances. 1993 and 1994 were a lull in the success with one winning season and a post season appearance plus one losing season.
Then came what has come to be seen by many as the glory years of the Denver Broncos -- 1995 to 2008. Nine winning seasons, three .500 seasons and only two losing seasons that were accompanied by seven post season appearances and two Super Bowl wins. The tail end of that period, following the retirement of Elway and the loss of Terrell Davis to injury began what is now seen as the long slide into mediocrity. The period of 2006 to 2009 without a playoff appearance is the longest such stretch in Denver's history since before 1977. This means that we have an entire generation that has never known such a long period without Denver being a consistent contender.
This is a frustrating and often disappointing situation to be in, but rest assured that better times are coming. It is my personal belief that they will come sooner rather than later. If I had judged my sailing experience by the stormy day, I'd never have sailed again. Instead, I did go sailing and experienced a great day. If I had allowed myself to become discouraged by less than a winning season, I never would have made to Denver's first Super Bowl appearance, much less two Super Bowl wins. Never doubt, Broncophiles, that better days are coming when the rain will stop, the clouds will roll away and we'll be treated to Orange and Blue skies.