DENVER, CO - JANUARY 08: Demaryius Thomas #88 of the Denver Broncos makes a pass reception and fights off Ike Taylor #24 of the Pittsburgh Steelers to go 80 yards for the game winning touchdown on the first play of overtime at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on January 8, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. The Broncos defeated the Steelers 29-23 in their AFC Wild Card Playoff game. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
We've reached that odd dead space in the football year that marks the transition from the season just finished and the start of the coming season. We are in that time when free agency has yet to kick off and the college draft is still nearly three months away. Mini camps, organized team activities and training camp are just barely on the horizon. It is a time of reflection, forecasting and anticipation.
Given the fact that there is not much of import going on at the moment in the world of Denver Broncos football and given that the 2011 season marked the eighth time the Broncos have finished a season at 8-8, I thought it might be fun to take a quick jaunt back in time, before we come back to the future of the Broncos.
Take a jump with me.
The Build Up
The first 8-8 season came just three seasons after the Broncos had made their first appearance in a Super Bowl. Though Denver lost that game 27-10 to the Dallas Cowboys, anticipation was running high for the Red Miller-led Broncos. After all, that Super Bowl had been followed by a pair of 10-6-0 seasons that included two post season appearances.
The Broncos were led in the 1980 season by Head Coach Red Miller, Offensive Coordinator Rod Dowhower and Defensive Coordinator Joe Collier. Twenty-five year old, three year veteran Matt Robinson moved from the New York Jets to the Broncos and supplanted the thirty-seven year old, fifteen year veteran Craig Morton under center. The rest of the offense saw the return of eight starters: WRs Haven Moses and Rick Upchurch, TE Riley Odoms, RT Dave Studdard, RG Paul Howard, C Bill Bryan, LG Tom Glassic and LT Claudie Minor. The defense returned seven starters: RDE Brison Manor, NT Reuben Carter, LDE Barney Chavous, ROLB Tom Jackson, RILB Randy Gradishar, LCB Louis Wright, and SS Billy Thompson. Placekicker Jim Turner retired after the 1979 season and was replaced by three year veteran Fred Steinfort and punter Luke Prestridge returned for his second year.
Unfortunately, the Robinson-led Broncos were slow out of the gate, dropping the season opener 27-6 to Philadelphia, defeating Dallas 41-20, then dropping games to San Diego and New England for a 1-3-0 start. Morton replaced Robinson the San Diego game but was unable to pull out a win. He later replaced Robinson in Week 5 and led the Broncos to a 19-16 win over Cleveland. Morton did the same thing in the Week 6 game versus Washington, replacing Robinson and leading the Broncos to a victory. Morton went on to start the next nine games, but the Broncos did not rise to the change in leadership -- going 4-5-0 during that stretch. Robinson replaced Morton as the starter in the final game of the season and posted a 25-17 win over Seattle. They finished the season at 8-8-0 and in 3rd place in the AFC West.
The Broncos finished the season with a record of 3-5 within the division. They were swept by both Oakland and Kansas City, split the series with San Diego and swept Seattle. Denver was ranked 16th in points and 25th in yards on offense. This represented an improvement in points but a decline in yards from the previous year. Defensively, they were ranked 16th in points allowed (after being ranked 5th the previous year). Their yards allowed ranking likewise sank -- from 10th to 15th. Denver's turnover ratio dropped from 12th in the NFL in 1979 to 23rd (37ga/28ta) in 1980.
This 8-8-0 season was significantly impacted by having turnovers in twelve of the sixteen games, including six games with three or more turnovers. Of those six games, three saw the Broncos turn the ball over five or more times, including one game with six turnovers and a second game with seven.
Edgar Kaiser purchased the Broncos from the Gerald Phipps family in 1981. The new owner was not impressed with Red Miller's decline and chose to fire Denver's head coach and replace him with former NFL running back and Dallas Cowboys assistant coach Dan Reeves.
The Build Up
The 1987 NFL season was thrown slightly out of step by a 24-day players' strike. The schedule was reduced to 15 games, but that was not the entire effect. The games originally scheduled for the third week of the season were canceled and Weeks 4 through 6 were played using replacement players. 85% of the veterans honored the picket lines and emotions between the veterans and the replacements often ran high. The defending Super Bowl champions -- New York GIants -- went 0-3 in the replacement games and missed a chance to make the playoffs. The Broncos went 2-1 during the replacement games on their way to a 10-4-1 regular season record. They finished 1st in the AFC West and went on to defeat Houston 34-10 in the Divisional round. They followed that win with a 38-33 victory over Cleveland for the AFC Championship. The Broncos fell to the Redskins 42-10 in the Super Bowl.
Obviously, a Super Bowl appearance raised expectations for the 1988 season . . . but . . .
Head Coach Dan Reeves, Defensive Coordinator Joe Collier and the rest of the Broncos were rocked by the departure of Offensive Coordinator Mike Shanahan to become the new head coach of the Los Angeles Raiders. The offense saw the return of six starters from the 1987 AFC Championship team: QB John Elway, RB Sammy Winder (who was moved to FB), WR Vance Johnson, TE Clarence Kay, RT Ken Lanier and LG Keith Bishop. The defensive unit saw the return of eight starters: LDE Andre Townsend (who moved to the right side), NT Greg Kragen, LOLB Simon Fletcher, LILB Karl Mecklenburg, ROLB Jim Ryan, LCB Mark Haynes, RCB Mark Harden (who moved to free safety) and SS Dennis Smith). Placekicker Rich Karlis and punter Mike Horan also returned.
Once again, the Broncos started out slowly with a 1-3 record -- losing to Seattle, defeating San Diego, then losing to Kansas City and the Los Angeles Raiders. They next had a three-game winning streak (San Diego, San Francisco and Atlanta) to raise their record to 4-3-0. Denver split the next four games with losses to Pittsburgh and Indianapolis followed by wins over Kansas City and Cleveland. Unfortunately, the Broncos dropped three of their next four games (a loss to New Orleans, a win over the Los Angeles Rams, then losses to the Raiders and Seahawks). They evened their record at 8-8 with a 21-10 victory over New England in the final game of the season. The Broncos finished 2nd in the AFC West but missed the playoffs.
The Broncos finished the season with a record of 3-5 within the division. They were swept by both the Raiders and the Seahawks, split the series with Kansas City and swept San Diego. Denver was ranked 15th in points and 8th in yards on offense. This represented a drop of eleven places in the points ranking and six in yards from the previous year. Defensively, they were ranked 20th in points allowed (after being ranked 7th the previous year). Their yards allowed ranking likewise sank -- from 9th to 22nd. Denver's turnover ratio dropped from 4th in the NFL in 1987 to 21rd (34 give aways to 29 take aways) in 1988.
Despite the poor performance of the team, Reeves was given a pass to continue his work. That faith was somewhat rewarded the following season when Reeves took the Broncos to an 11-5-0 record and another divisional title. Denver went on to defeat Pittsburgh 24-23 in the Divisional round and Cleveland 37-21 in the AFC Championship game. Unfortunately, the Broncos were destroyed 55-10 in the Super Bowl.
The Build Up
The Broncos had bounced back from a disappointing 5-11-0 season following a Super Bowl appearance to finish the 1991 season at 12-4-0. They finished 1st place in the AFC West, defeated Houston 26-24 in the Divisional round but lost to Buffalo 10-7 in the AFC Championship game. The Broncos had been helped by the rehiring of Mike Shanahan after he had been fired as the Raiders' head coach. With six post season appearances in nine years and eighteen returning starters, confidence in a good season was running high.
Head Coach Dan Reeves made the unfortunate, and much disliked choice of firing Mike Shanahan after the 1991 season. It was reportedly due to a growing feud between Reeves and QB John Elway. Shanahan was replaced by George Henshaw. Wade Phillips continued as the Defensive Coordinator. Nine offensive starters returned for the 1992 season: QB John Elway, RB Gason Green, WR Mark Jackson, TE Shannon Sharpe, TE Clarence Kay, RT Ken Lanier, C Keith Kartz, LG Dave Widell (shifted to RG) and LT Jeff Davidson (moved to LG). The defense also saw the return of nine starters: NT Greg Kragen, ROLB Michael Brooks (moved to RILB), RILB Mike Croel (moved to LOLB), LILB Karl Mecklenburg, LOLB Simon Fletcher (moved to ROLB), RCB Wymon Henderson, LCB Tyrone Braxton, SS Dennis Smith and FS Steve Atwater. Placekicker David Treadwell returned, as did punter Mike Horan.
The 1992 Broncos started strong with wins over the Los Angeles Raiders, San Diego, Cleveland and Kansas City sandwiched around a loss to Philadelphia to start at 4-1-0. They faltered slightly with a loss to Washington, a win over Houston and a loss to San Diego to move their record to 5-3-0. They appeared to be back on track by defeating both the New York Jets and the New York Giants in back-to-back games and move ahead to 7-3-0. Then the wheels came off as the Broncos suffered through a four game losing streak with losses to the Los Angeles Raiders, Seattle, Dallas and Buffalo to fall to 7-7-0. Denver split the last two games with a win over Seattle and a loss to Kansas City.
Denver finished the season at 4-4 in divisional play. They split the season series with all four divisional opponents. The offensive ranking dropped in points from 12th in 1991 to 22nd in 1992, and in yards from 12th to 21st. The defensive rankings likewise dropped from 3rd to 19th and 5th to 22nd, in points and yards respectively. The Broncos turnover ratio dropped from 6th to 25th (43 give aways to 31 take aways).
At the end of the 1992 season, Pat Bowlen apparently had had enough of Dan Reeves. Six winning season in the nine seasons since Bowlen bought the team, three Super Bowl appearances (all losses), and another AFC Championship appearance (also a loss) were not enough to save Reeves' job. Especially not when there were reports of a growing division between Reeves and star quarterback John Elway -- which included the firing of Mike Shanahan the year before.
The Build Up
Wade Phillips had replaced Dan Reeves as head coach in 1993. He led the Broncos to the playoffs in his first season but the Broncos fell to a disappointing 7-9-0 and a 4th in AFC West. As a result, Phillips was fired at the end of the 1994 season. Fan, and John Elway, favorite Mike Shanahan was lured away from the San Francisco 49ers to become Denver's eleventh head coach.
Shanahan recruited former Broncos quarterback and 49ers quarterbacks coach, Gary Kubiak to be his Offensive Coordinator. Shanahan was able to convince New York Jets Defensive Coordinator Greg Robinson to make a lateral move and take the same position with the Broncos. Shanahan retooled Denver's roster -- returning only ten starters from the previous season, five on each side of the ball. Offense saw the return of QB John Elway, WR Anthony Miller, TE Shannon Sharpe, LT Gary Zimmerman, and RG Brian Habib. Returning defensive starters were RDT Harald Hasselbach (moved to LDE), RDE Simon Fletcher, RLB Elijah Alexander (moved to LLB), RCB Ray Crockett (moved to LCB), SS Steve Atwater (moved to FS). Placekicker Jason Elam and punter Tom Rouen were also retained.
Kicker Jason Elam, Punter Tom Rouen
New staffing, along with roster turnover, set the stage for a mediocre season and that is what 1995 proved to be. This was pretty much a season of "win one, lose one." The Broncos split their first four games, defeating Buffalo, losing to Dallas, beating Washington and losing to San Diego. They split their next four games with a loss to Seattle, wins over New England and Oakland followed by a loss to Kansas City. Denver went back to alternating wins and losses with a win over Arizona, a loss to Philadelphia, a win over San Diego and a loss to Houston. They split their last four games with a win over Jacksonville, losses to Seattle and Kansas City and finishing with a win over Oakland. The Broncos finished 3rd in the AFC West.
Denver's divisional record was 3-5. The Broncos were swept by both Seattle and Kansas City. They split their games with San Diego and won both games with Oakland. 1995 saw Denver's offense improve -- from 10th to 9th in points and 6th to 3rd in yards. The defense also showed improvement, rising from 25th to 17th in points and from 28th to 15th in yards. Despite these improvements, the Broncos' turnover ratio fell from 22nd to 30th (30 give aways against 21 take aways).
Mike Shanahan was given a pass for this season. The struggles of the team were attributed to the installation of a new head coach, offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator and significant changes to the roster. Shanahan's job was to "right the ship" which he did by raising the Broncos' regular season record by a game. That faith would prove to be rewarded when Shanahan led the Broncos to the post season in each of the next three seasons and brought home Denver's first two Lombardi Trophies. This season also saw the start of Shanahan's determination to repay the Raiders' owner Al Davis for his firing. The sweep of the season series with Oakland would be repeated seven times in the next thirteen seasons. The Broncos were only swept once by the Raiders in the remainder of Shanahan's tenure as head coach. The teams would split the season series five times.
The Build Up
The retirement of Denver legend John Elway following his second Super Bowl win looked like it might be a devastating blow for the Broncos when they went 6-10-0 in their first season without Elway, but Shanahan's team bounced back quickly. Led by third year quarterback Brian Griese, Denver finished 11-5-0 in the regular season and were 2nd AFC West. They qualified for the post season as a Wild Card team, but lost 21-3 to Baltimore in the first round of the playoffs.
Head Coach Shanahan, Offensive Coordinator OC Gary Kubiak, and the newly added Defensive Coordinator Ray Rhodes built the 2001 team around twelve returning starters. The offensive returning starters were QB Brian Griese, WR Rod Smith, TE Dwayne Carswell, C Tom Nalen, RG Dan Neil and RT Matt Lepsis. The defensive returning starters were: RDT Trevor Pryce, RDE Kavika Pittman, LLB Bill Romanowski, MLB Al Wilson, RLB John Mobley and FS Eric Brown. Jason Elam returned to handle the placekicking duties and punting continued to be handled by Tom Rouen.
The Broncos appeared to be back on track for another post season run by going 3-1 in their first four games. They posted wins over the New York Giants, Arizona and Kansas City. The single loss was to Baltimore in Game 3. The second quarter of the season was as poor as the first quarter was good. The Broncos lost to Seattle and San Diego before posting a win over New England and closing the first half of the season with a loss to Oakland. The second half of the season saw the Broncos go through a pattern of "win a game, lose a game:" San Diego - Win, Washington - Loss, Dallas - Win, Miami - Loss, Seattle - Win, Kansas City - Loss, Oakland - Win, and Indianapolis - Loss. The Broncos finished 3rd in the AFC West.
Denver finished 2-2 in divisional play and split the season series with all four of their divisional rivals. The offensive ranking dropped from 2nd in both points and yards in 2000 to 10th and 22nd, respectively. The defense actually improved, rising from 23rd in points to 21st and from 24th in yards to 8th. Their turnover ratio dropped from 2nd to 6th, despite posting a positive advantage (27 give aways to 37 take aways).
This 8-8 season, coming as it did just three seasons after Elway's retirement and one season after a post season appearance earned Shanahan another pass. Bowlen's faith in Shanahan was again rewarded as Denver appeared in post season play in three of the next four seasons with the climax coming in 2005 when the Broncos played for the AFC Championship.
The Build Up
Mike Shanahan got the Broncos to the 2005 AFC Championship game behind the arm of Jake Plummer, a defense that ranked 3rd in points and a turnover ratio ranked 2nd (16 give aways to 36 take aways). But Plummer lost the coach's confidence -- as well as often being booed by fans -- as evidenced by the drafting of Vanderbilt's Jay Cutler with the 11th overall pick of the 2006 draft. Plummer was the anointed starter at the beginning of 2006, but was replaced by Cutler following a 7-4 start. The 2006 season ended with a 9-7-0 record and 2nd place in the AFC West. The Broncos missed the post season. The following year, Denver finished 7-9-0 and again sat home during the playoffs.
Mike Shanahan returned for his fourteenth season as Denver's head coach. Former Bronco linebacker Rick Dennison was brought in to replace Offensive Coordinator Gary -- who left to become the head coach of the Houston Texans. Defensive Coordinator Jim Bates was replaced by Bob Slowik. This group of coaches worked with a team built around four returning offensive starters and five defensive ones. The offensive starters were: QB Jay Cutler, WR Brandon Marshall, TE Daniel Graham and LG Chris Kuper (moved to RG). The defensive ones were: RDE Elvis Dumervil, MLB D. J. Williams (moved to RLB), LLB Nate Webster (moved to MLB), LCB Champ Bailey and RCB Dre Bly. Matt Prater was brought in to replace kicker Jason Elam and Brett Kern replaced punter Todd Sauerbrun.
The Broncos started strong in 2008 by winning four of their first five games, defeating Oakland, San Diego, New Orleans and Tampa Bay. Their sole loss came in Game 4 against Kansas City. Then Denver fell into a three-game losing streak (Jacksonville, New England and Miami) to finish the first half of the season at 4-4-0. They appeared to be back on track by again winning four out of five games -- with wins over Cleveland, Atlanta, the New York Jets and Kansas City. A Game 11 loss to Oakland was the only spoiler during this stretch. Unfortunately, just as the Broncos followed their first 4-1 run with three losses, they followed their second 4-1 run by losing the last three games of the season to Carolina, Buffalo and San Diego. Denver did finish in a tie with San Diego for 1st place in the AFC West, but lost the tie-breaker and missed the post season for the third year in a row.
The Broncos finished with a divisional record of 3-3, having split the season series with all three of their divisional rivals. The offense rose from 21st in points in 2007 to 16th and from 11th in yards to 2nd. The defense did not fare as well, falling from 28th to 30th in points and from 13th to 31st in yards. Denver also dropped from 13th in the turnover ratio to 31st (30 give aways against 13 take aways).
The aftermath of this was both startling and devastating: the coach whom had once been referred to as Denver's "coach for life" was fired. This decision to change directions in the head coaching position was likely a combination of factors: John Elway's retirement following the second Super Bowl win, injuries that led to the end of Terrell Davis' career in 2001, only one playoff win (a 27-13 victory over New England in the 2005 Divisional round) in ten seasons and six seasons without a post season in that same period -- capped by three straight years without a playoff game. At this point the decision was made to change coaches.
The Build Up
The previous season was one of frustration and change. An 8-8 finish, a tie for 1st place in the division, the loss of the tie-breaker, a third missed post season, the firing of Shanahan. There was the hiring of New England's Offensive Coordinator -- Josh McDaniels -- which was not favorably by many of the Broncos faithful. Concerns were voiced that McDaniels would attempt to turn the Broncos in the "Patriots West." Then came the controversial and confusing situation with Jay Cutler that ended with Cutler being traded to Chicago. The McDaniels' tenure was off to a very rocky start.
Josh McDaniels' first order of business was to retool his coaching staff. He brought in Mike McCoy to be the Offensive Coordinator and Mike Nolan to be the Defensive Coordinator. Though there was approximately a 50% turnover in the roster, McDaniels left the offense mostly alone, returning eight starters from 2008 -- WRs Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal, TE Daniel Graham, LT Ryan Clady, LG Ben Hamilton, C Casey Wiegmann, RG Chris Kuper and RT Ryan Harris. It was the defense which was largely blown up, returning just three starters -- RDE Elvis Dumervil (moved to ROLB), RLB D. J. Williams (moved to RILB) and LCB Champ Bailey. Placekicker Matt Prater returned but punter Brett Kern was replaced by Mitch Berger.
When the Broncos started the 2009 season with a 6-0 run, many thought the Broncos were on the fast track to return to their former competitiveness. The run started with the miracle catch by Brandon Stokley that led to a victory over Cincinnati. This was quickly followed by wins over Cleveland, Oakland and Dallas. An overtime win over New England followed by a win over San Diego helped bolster the opinion that the Broncos were on their way. A 30-7 blow out loss to Baltimore started a downhill roll that was followed by losses to Pittsburgh, Washington and San Diego. Even so, at 6-4, the Broncos could see a chance at the post season. This belief was bolstered by victories over the New York Giants and Kansas City which brought Denver's record to 8-4-0. However, this was not to be the Broncos went on another four-game losing streak by failing to beat Indianapolis, Oakland, Philadelphia and Kansas City. After a 6-0 start, Denver went 2-8 to end the season at 8-8-0.
The Broncos again went 3-3 in divisional play by splitting all three season series. The offense dropped from a 16th ranking in points to 20th and from 2nd in yards to 15th. The defense was the bright spot improving from 30th in points to 12th and from 29th in yards to 7th. Denver was also better at protecting the ball rising from 31st in turnover ratio to 7th (23 give aways to 30 take aways).
Despite the poor finish after a great start and the departure of Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan, McDaniels given a pass. This was largely because he was a new head coach who faced significant turnover in both the coaching staff and the team roster. The decision was made to give him more time to effect the overhaul of the team.
The Build Up
The 2010 season was worse than 2009 for the McDaniels-led Broncos. The off season started with the questioned and somewhat controversial decision to trade up to take Florida quarterback Tim Tebow in the 1st round of the draft. The team was plagued by major injuries throughout the off season, training camp and the regular season. DE/LB Elvis Dumervil, RBs LenDale White and Spencer Larsen, WRs Brandon Stokley and Matthew Willis, TE Dan Gronkowski, LB Joe Mays and DB Kyle McCarthy all ended up on the injured reserve list. LT Ryan Clady spent most of the off season trying to recover from an injury. The team was rocked by the death of oft-injured WR Kenny McKinley in September of 2010. All of these factors contributed to a horrible 3-10-0 start. After rumors started circulating that McDaniels was not getting along with members of his staff and team, and when an incident of illegal videotaping of a team practice surfaced, the Broncos made the decision to fire McDaniels. Interim Head Coach led the team to a 1-2 record and a 4-12-0 finish for last place in the AFC West.
The Broncos replaced Josh McDaniels with veteran head coach John Fox. Fox chose to keep Mike McCoy as his Offensive Coordinator -- having worked with McCoy in Carolina -- and he brought in Dennis Allen -- the defensive backs coach of the New Orleans Saints -- to become the new Defensive Coordinator. Fox left the offense largely intact, returning eight starters: QB Kyle Orton (though Orton was replaced by Tim Tebow after 4 1/2 games, he was subsequently released after Game 10), Knowshon Moreno (he lost the starting position beginning in Game 4 due to injuries and a strong performance by Willis McGahee), WR Brandon Lloyd (replaced by Eric Decker after being traded to St. Louis during Denver's bye week -- Week 6) WR Eddie Royal, LT Ryan Clady, LG Zane Beadles, C C. J. Walton, RG Chris Kuper. The defense received the bulk of Fox's attention, returning only five starters: LDE Kevin Vickerson (moved to DT), LILB D. J. Williams (moved to WLB after briefly replaced by Wesley Woodyard due to injury), ROLB Robert Ayers (moved to LDE), LCB Champ Bailey and SS Brian Dawkins. Both placekicker Matt Prater and punter Britton Colquitt were retained.
As mentioned above, the season did not start well for the Broncos. There were a large number of fans who were outraged that Tim Tebow was not named the starting quarterback going into the season. The outcry grew as Denver dropped four of its first five games with losses to Oakland, Tennessee, Green Bay and San Diego. The lone win came in Game 2 against Cincinnati. Visions of 2010 began to After Tebow led an almost comeback against San Diego, he was named the starting quarterback during the bye week. An overtime win over Miami was followed by a blow out loss to Detroit leaving Denver's record at 2-5. What followed next was barely short of unbelievable. The Broncos went on a six-game winning streak that included a number of come from behind victories and two overtime wins. Denver beat Oakland, Kansas City, the New York Jets, San Diego, Minnesota and Chicago during that run. The magic wore off a bit when the Broncos lost their final three games of the season, dropping games to New England, Buffalo and Kansas City. Yet, all was not lost. The Broncos ended the season at 8-8-0 and in a three-way tie for 1st place in the AFC West with San Diego and Oakland. Denver won the tiebreakers to qualify for their first post season appearance in six seasons. Not only that, but the Broncos went on to gain their first post season victory since 2005 when they defeated the AFC Champion Pittsburgh Steelers 29-23 on the first play of overtime.
The Broncos finished 3-3 in divisional play, having split the season series with all three division rivals. Their offensive rankings both dropped -- from 19th to 25th in points and 13th to 23rd in yards. The defensive rankings both rose from 32nd to 24th in points and 32nd to 20th in yards. Their turnover ratio rose from 27th to 26th despite committing 30 give aways to only 18 take aways.
To quote Doctor Emmett Brown from Back to the Future III: the "future hasn't been written yet." Hopefully it will be a good one.