Age may be "just another number", but in a league in which people seem to age in dog years, it has become a significant factor in player evaluations. Swept up in the general obsession with arbitrary benchmarks, the number 30 - as in 30-years-old - has taken on a great deal of importance. Well then, it's no wonder that so many are so concerned about the current state of the Denver Broncos secondary. After all, their four starting defensive backs are a combined 128 years old (i.e. roughly half of Al Davis' estimated age). Besides the fact that they are each over 30, however, they also share a far more important common trait: they're all still very good at what they do.
You can't have a discussion about the greatest corner back or the best safety in the history of pro football with including Champ Bailey and Brian Dawkins, respectively. Moreover, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better pair than Andre Goodman and Renaldo Hill with which to round out a defensive backfield in the league today. They may be inching ever closer to retirement with each and every superlative season gone by, but don't let the eventual end of their careers overshadow the continued brilliance of their play. When your prime is as spectacular as Bailey's and Dawkins' or as solid as Goodman's and Hill's, it can take quite a while for the downswing of their careers to manifest itself as a noticeable decline on the field. You need look no further than the 2009 season to see that they each still have plenty left in the tank; if you dig a little deeper, there are reasons to believe that they may be even better as a group in 2010.
No matter what metric you prefer, the 2009 Denver Broncos were among the top ten in the NFL in terms of pass defense. Personally, I'm a fan of quarterback rating as a sort of catch-all rate statistic. I realize that it has its shortcomings, but I still believe that it is the single best stat for the purposes of evaluating a passing game. Given that, the Broncos ranked 8th in the league by limiting opposing QBs to a mediocre 75.0 rating. If it helps to put a face to that number, then picture veteran Matt Hasselbeck (75.1) and first-year starter Chad Henne (75.2), or the meager passing attacks of the Tennessee Titans (74.8) and Chicago Bears (75.6). The secondary managed that despite a pass rush that struggled to yield results outside of Elvis Dumervil's league-leading sack total and a run defense that was easily amongst the worst in the NFL. They also faced most of the best passing games in the league. Breaking down the stats even further reveals that the four aforementioned starters were even better than those overall numbers might suggest.
Throughout 2009 and the subsequent offseason, there have been whispers about the fall of Champ Bailey. Long considered the standard bearer at his position and the rightful face of the Broncos franchise, there can be no doubt that Bailey is no longer the best corner in the league: that honor now belongs to Darrelle Revis of the New York Jets. It's also fair to say that he is no longer at the top of his game. That said, the reports of his demise have been greatly exaggerated. The fact of the matter is that Champ's apparent decline is more a factor of what is going on around him than an indictment of his individual play. For perhaps the first time in his career, he is surrounded by teammates in the secondary that can regularly shutdown the opposing team's other receivers. According to Football Outsiders, the Broncos ranked 3rd in the NFL at containing #2 wide receivers and 2nd at limiting all other WR. They were also 9th best at preventing running backs from contributing in the passing game. In that light, the comparatively paltry 11th overall ranking against opposing #1 receivers - of which Bailey is largely, if not exclusively responsible for (if not by scheme, then by reputation) - is more excusable. Simply put, ppposing QBs simply had to throw Champ's way, because the gap between him and the stars that he covered was not as wide as that which was established almost everywhere else on the field. In fact, Denver only truly struggled in covering tight ends (ranked 27th by FO) and that can't be pinned wholly on the secondary, seeing at how that is at times the responsibility of linebackers and the fact that the weak run defense forced a safety into the box as a necessary reinforcement. Overall, Football Outsiders rated the Broncos as the 6th best pass defense in the league.
Someday, maybe sooner rather than later, the four men that currently occupy the top of the Denver Broncos depth chart at defensive back will be compelled to retire. For Bailey and Dawkins, that'll mean the beginning of a short wait until their induction in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. For Goodman and Hill, it'll probably be a largely unheralded farewell for two players who, despite the efforts of those like me to shine a spotlight on their worthiness, will likely continue to be underrated by the mainstream media and the public at large. Right now, however, they remain stalwarts in the secondary, the backbone of the Broncos defense and the cornerstone of Denver's success. I fully expect them to continue to play well as individuals and improve as a unit after an impressive year of playing together. They are each the sort of player who not only supplements their tools with hard work and plenty of study, but whose overall character, work ethic and experience alone are enough to lift them past many others who rely solely on their physical gifts.
Maybe the critics and skeptics are right, and I'm wrong. Maybe the 2010 Denver Broncos are a fatally flawed team because they have become overly reliant on a secondary that is moving from "veteran" to "old" right before our eyes and we simply refuse to acknowledge it. Well, if that's their truth, then I dare them to try and prove it. Champ, Dawk, Goodman and Hill are shining counterexamples to those who insist that it's either talent or good character. And, you know what? I'd rather go down swinging with men like those four than roll the dice on some unsavory characters for a chance at fleeting, stained glory. I fully expect Denver's defensive backfield to be amongst the best in the league once again and, along with a revamped defensive line and retooled linebacking corps, the defense as a whole will carry its weight and more in 2010. All that, and I didn't even mention the up and coming next generation of star DBs developing under our current starters' wings, but they'll have to continue to wait for their time in the sun just a while longer, because the veterans are not done yet.