I know. It's only 13 games. Peyton Manning has been a member of the Denver Broncos for just 13 games. If you want to count the pre-season, it's just 17 games - and an entire off-season. In a city and region that is Broncos-crazy, one that watched up close just what a legend at quarterback should look like, the past 8 months - or 13 regular season games - has been plenty to get fans excited. I mean, many of us have been spending much of the past 13 years looking for the next John Elway, right?
There have been plenty of peaks and valleys. Brian Griese was the next Elway. Then it was Jake Plummer. Then Jay Cutler. Kyle Orton. Yea, then someone named Tebow. All came, had varying levels of success, and were gone again. The Broncos were on the cusp of a vicious cycle. I don't think Broncos fans realize just how close the Broncos were to complete irrelevance - or at least to becoming a circus sideshow, being relevant for all the wrong reasons.
I've seen it in Cleveland since the day they returned. A new GM wants his own coach, the new coach wants his own quarterback. Meanwhile the fans get more and more restless and the honeymoon for said GM/coach gets shorter and shorter. In other words, in a League where stability is so important, you can't gain stability without success, and success is hard to obtain without stability - it's a vicious cycle.
The Broncos were close. They were close to becoming a team like the Browns. John Elway helped change all that - or at least gave the Broncos the opportunity to change it. Peyton Manning, with his rebuilt neck, got the job done in what could be his greatest victory yet - bringing the Broncos back from the brink of disaster.
I'm sure many of you are thinking I am going overboard a bit. Perhaps living so far from Denver gives me a different perspective. Being so close to the Browns, who have hired/fired/drafted/cut/repeat so often in the past decade has given me a first-hand look at how NOT to run a franchise. Whatever it is, the Broncos were close to falling into the trap.
Since the end of 2008 - just 4 short years ago - the Broncos had fired two head coaches and started 3 different quarterbacks. After trading Cutler, Kyle Orton was boo'd in his first appearance in the Denver Broncos uniform - an intra-squad scrimmage. It was an ominous sign for both Orton and new head coach Josh McDaniels who was set to put his own mark on the team by bringing in his own quarterback. That happened in the 2010 NFL Draft when McDaniels drafted the most polarizing figure in football - perhaps all professional sports - Tim Tebow.
Now the coach had his quarterback. You know the saying, if you have two quarterbacks you have none. The Broncos, a team so closely connected to the position of quarterback, suddenly found themselves in the center of mediocrity. After that 6-0 start in 2009, the Broncos went 6-20. McDaniels was fired. In comes John Elway - another GM - and John Fox, another head coach.
See the pattern?
Perhaps the best move Elway made in that first draft was to NOT panic about the quarterback position. It would have been easy for Elway to go and reach for one in the 2011 NFL Draft, but he didn't. He took Von Miller at #2 overall and proceeded to add pieces that would become crucial to the depth and rebuilding of his football team.
Still, the future was far from certain for the Broncos. The 8-8 season, in a lot of ways, could have hurt the Broncos more than helped them. Sure, the AFC West title was great and the win over the Steelers was magical, but it placed the Broncos in the mid-20's of the 2012 NFL Draft and the expectations of the fans had grown exponentially. It could have been a disaster.
That's when John Elway pulled off his greatest comeback yet. He saved the Broncos from themselves, from the mediocrity they were destined for, by signing Peyton Manning. While it is easy to forget now, Manning was far from a sure thing, and the $19 million the Broncos paid him for this season was seen as a waste of money. The smoke and mirrors of an 8-8 Divisional Championship, coupled with that playoff win, had fans thinking the Broncos were far and beyond what they really were - a team that couldn't score on offense and had a hard time stopping good teams on defense.
Let's face it, they were on the cusp of starting Tim Tebow at quarterback.
We'll never know what would have happened had Tebow stayed and started. I think we know now that Mike McCoy and John Fox did an amazing job designing and offense around Tebow and when Fox famously said, "If we had to run a traditional offense, we'd be screwed" he was telling the truth.
With Manning back in form the Broncos are averaging 28 points per game. The defense is aggressive and suddenly Broncos Country is thinking Super Bowl. Quite a change from a year ago when the Broncos were getting shut-down by the Kansas City Chiefs at home.
This isn't a Tebow-bashing thing as much as it is a praise of Manning and the return of big-boy football to Denver. While last year did a lot to placate the average fan, I remember it had been 7 years - 2005 to be exact - since the Broncos had won 10+ games in a season. It's been just as long since the Broncos had +.500 record in the AFC West. Denver could finish 7-1 at home.
This season the worst loss the Broncos suffered at home was the 6-point defeat at the hands of the Texans. Last year? How about a FIVE TOUCHDOWN defeat at the hands of the Detroit Lions(45-10). Or an 18-point loss at the hands of the New England Patriots(41-23).
Losses like that had become common place in Denver. Last season the Broncos gave up 30+ points FIVE TIMES! This season? Not once. Nada.
I guess the previous 1000 words can be summed up best in one word - RELIEF. I was scared, Broncos fans. Scared that the Broncos were on their way to a decade - or more - of futility. A decade or more of the revolving door in the front office, at head coach, at quarterback. Scared that the Broncos were becoming the Cleveland Browns.
Why now, you say? Why write this during the season before we know the end result. The answer lies in the question. I appreciate this Broncos team NOW. Before the emotion of the playoffs begin. Before we know the end of the story. The Broncos head to Baltimore on Sunday, where they are 0-5 since the Ravens moved from Cleveland in 1996, and I feel like we have a shot. Honestly its the first time I've felt good about a trip to Baltimore - ever.
That's all because of Peyton Manning. All because we have big-boy football back. Because the days of mediocrity are over and the days of the Broncos being real players - in the standings and in the off-season - are back.
Most Broncos fans have no idea what mediocrity is like. Older fans will tell you what the lean years were like - listen to them. I know simply because I have seen up close what the constant upheaval does to a fan base and I saw the Broncos heading straight towards a collision with it. That's until a superhero in an 18 jersey saved the day.
Thanks John. Thanks Peyton. GO BRONCOS!
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