2010 had to start somewhere.
Some of the most profound implications of this idea appear in areas of the game identified clearly as weak spots, such as Special Teams, where the hottest game in Jaguars history seemed to have scrambled the Broncos' brains and lanes, or on the offensive line, which showed promise, but missed too many plays in the running game, and struggled to stifle an all-pro pass rusher.
The idea isn't that the inevitable is upon them, like some 8-8 albatross, it is that there is a long list of tasks that the Broncos need to accomplish, and the Broncos are only going to get these 16 games, these 16 fleeting chances to get those tasks crossed off their list.
Believe it or not, one major thing was crossed off the list against Jacksonville: they got the first loss out of the way. In 2009, the first loss of the season was something of an enigma. Not in how it occurred, of course, the game analysis was easy enough to deliver, if not digest. It was an enigma in the sense that it seemed to derail the team's confidence and pyschological resilience; they seemed disarmed in later contests, their luster lost. Even after the season mercifully closed, the Dove Valley thinktank still struggled to understand just what had happened with that first loss, just where the juju had gone.
With the defeat at the hands of the Jaguars, in what was a fun, competitive game, the Broncos have a loss to put under the microscope. Last year, the loss tested the strength --the bendability, if you will-- of the mantra of "tough, smart, versatile football players." An 8-8 finish said the mantra was suspect, and that it needed to be put to the test again.
This year, the test is the same: Do the Broncos have tough, smart, versatile football players, and if they do, what good are they?
For as much as the Jaguars' game represents the beginning of the something, it only marks another step in something larger, which is the dismantling and reconstruction of the team, from top to bottom.
At this particular stage of that endeavor, the Broncos look for improvements in their depth, in the ability to get valuable reps out of the reserves, while fostering expectations of consistent execution from the seasoned starters. Special Teams is the litmus used to gauge progress in this area. Lost in analysis of offensive line and defensive line turnover has been the inevitable turnover on special teams which comes from dredging up the bottom of roster with promotions and upgrades to reserves and backups. This same turnover has been the only consistent thing about the special teams since Scott Obrien was coaching them, all the way to Preifer now. Teams that "get over the hump" see this turnover drastically reduced, and to Denver's credit, many key roles are spoken for, including some that currently injured but projected to return soon, such as Darcel McBath.
But against the Jaguars, the coverage teams were clearly at square one, and may need to return to "Special Teams kindergarten" before they are allowed to return to the field. They will continue to be coached up, and not just by Preifer, but by former STs Ace Keith Burns and other assistants, and their progress will need to be monitored. Obviously stellar plays would be desirable, but mostly what the Broncos need is a consistent group that can crack the top 15 in terms of starting offensive and defensive field position. 20th in starting field position and 28th in opponents starting field position really points a finger at continuing to develop some of the decisions that have put them there, including personnel evaluations.
The biggest part of the personnel evaluation keeps coming back to "tough, smart, versatile" and eventually we may be forced to ask, "tough, smart, versatile...at the expense of what?" I have my thoughts on that, but I am not prepared to ask just yet. Bottom line is that they need to start contributing, or bad signs start to get spelled out in the stars, and not just for 2010.
The Silver Lining
And I'm not just talking about the disappointing chance to analyze and rebound from a loss when I say Silver Lining. I mentioned a long list that the Broncos need to continue to cross items off of, if their goal is the playoffs, and mark my words, that IS their goal, and they believe it is a realistic one.
For starters, leading the league in 25+ yard passing plays is one of the most critical offensive weapons we needed to incoporate, that it should have the Broncos coaches sleeping soundly despite the loss. Passing yards per play has long been a standard of weeding out the successful teams from year to year, due to all the different elements it must incorporate: think of it as a stat that requires an offense to be doing everything effectively. With that said, the Broncos need perspective on this point. Firstly, the Jaguars defensive backs are truly one of their weakest areas. This doesn't totally detract from the accomplishement, however, as the most one could ask for is that the Broncos take their shots, perhaps more than average, and capitalize on them when they do. Check. Of more concern was that David Garrard had a fine afternoon too, managing to be right behind Orton in 20+ passes with 5 of his own. Our defense clearly needs to get back to form from last year, and for the most part that means LB and nickle pass rush. Holliday and Dumervil and even Reid are not replaced at this point, despite Ayers high energy effort for the day. And it is a sobering prospect to look at the roster in its current form and imagine a solution to this problem.
On the other hand though, the Broncos made a lot of tradeoffs in the offseason in order to be more stout against the run, and that we have most certainly done. Jones-Drew is a fantastic back who will get his, through sheer attrition if he must, and the Jaguars have never been shy about feeding him late. 16th against the run is EXACTLY where the Broncos should be right now, between playing a running team witha talented back and given the upgrades they attempted (they oscillated between top 5 and bottom 5 last year), and unlike last year, the ceiling isn't low for this unit, and improvement is to be expected.
Staying with the running game, the improvement to Moreno's game is palpable. When he was drafted, the knock was speed, but scouts still salivated over him as a prospect due to his athleticism. He may be one of the clearer examples of what alternatives might exist to "tough, smart, versatile". His abilities suit the role of the do-everything, be-everywhere back, and the Jaguars game was the best glimpse of that that he has shown in the pros. It is not a style that is for every fan, especially while a gamebreaker like Chris Johnson is storming through the league, but it suits the new Broncos mantra so perfectly that Moreno is a poster child for a talented player who fits it. The stiff-arms, jukes and slight-of-feet moves are classic Moreno, as second nature for him as Sanders and the spin move, so if you enjoy watching it, there is only going to be more. "Elusive" or "slippery" define Moreno at his best, and this line is improving enough that I think they might both get there...
It is tough to belive, but for the Broncos, the goal is still the playoffs, despite the gravity of 2 straight years of 8-8 and an opening day loss. The Silver Linings don't scratch anything off the list yet, but they show we have the tools to do so.
Perhaps it goes without mentioning that the Silver Linings aren't really the antidote, just perspectives that help us focus going forward. Certainly they don't mitigate the losses of yardage from multiple facemask penalties coming from cramped up and ground down defenders, nor do they reverse critical turnovers on productive drives. The field, where the games are played, has a merciless attitude towards those mistakes, those malfunctions, those mental lapses that lose games. Fill the cup half full with 4.0 yards a carry and one handed grabs, fill it until it runs over with pin-point passes and passes defensed. Then make one mistake and see what happens.
The Broncos have one game on the books for 2010, and for one game they were completing the long bomb, stiff-arming and leaping over the defenders, making the tough catch and stuffing the 4th down run. For one game, the Broncos were entirely those things. Nothing more.
And that is not enough.