I have a feeling that most Broncos fans see the 2000s and the 2010s as something of a failed experiment for their beloved team -- and may be seeing that decade (plus two seasons) through the filter of that awful 4-12-0 2010 season. The decade plus two of the 2000s has been a time of great upheaval and change for the Broncos. From the retirement of Elway following the 1998 season, change has seemed to be the only constant.
Brian Griese's four seasons led to two winning records and one playoff appearance, Jake Plummer's four seasons netted three playoff appearances, including a trip to the AFC Championship game in 2005, but Plummer quickly lost the faith of head coach Mike Shanahan and was replaced midseason by Jay Cutler. Cutler's two seasons in Denver were not particularly noteworthy and ended up being the precursor to Shanahan's firing. New head coach Josh McDaniels came in and made so many changes that Broncos fans were ready to run him out of town, but a six-game winning streak to start the 2009 season seemed to deflect much of the angst. Unfortunately, the wheels came off and Denver finished 8-8-0 in 2009 then fell to 4-12-0 in 2010, which led to another coaching staff turnover. In 2011, John Fox appeared to have taken the first steps to right the ship.
Despite the turmoil, the Broncos did have some success in their season-opening games in the 2000s and 2010s -- please note, I've included the 2010 and 2011 seasons in this decade since it seemed silly to me to write an entire article for just two seasons.
Take a jump with me and let's look at the season openers of the 2000s and 2010s.
Once again, the Broncos opened the scoring when Brian Griese ran the ball in for a touchdown from 1 yard out in the first quarter. St. Louis tied the game at 7-7 but Elam gave the Broncos a 10-7 lead in the second on a 32-yard field goal. The answered with their second touchdown to take a 14-10 lead. A 25-yard pass from Griese to WR Rod Smith gave the Broncos a brief 17-14 lead but St. Louis took a 21-17 lead into the locker room at halftime. It would prove to be a lead that the Rams would never relinquish. A 38-yard field Elam goal in the third quarter made it a 1-point game at 21-20, but St. Louis scored two more touchdowns in that period for a 35-20 lead. Griese made it a one score game by the end of three quarters with a 7-yard touchdown pass to TE Desmond Clark (35-27). Denver crept closer with 7:45 remaining in the game when Elam hit a 36-yard field goal to make it a 5-point game, 35-30. On the Rams very next possession, on a 2-7-StL29, QB Kurt Warner's pass to WR Tory Holt was intercepted by Denver DB Terrell Buckley who returned the ball 32 yards for the score to give Denver a 36-35 lead (the Broncos 2-point conversion attempted, a run by RB Olandis Gary, failed). The Rams redeemed themselves by marching 75 yards in 8 plays to take a 41-36 lead (their 2-point conversion attempt also failed). Denver had one last chance to win the game. They got the ball 1-10-DEN20 with 2:12 remaining. After moving the ball to the Denver 38-yard line (and the Two Minute Warning), Griese was sacked for a loss of 11. Griese was sacked on the next play as well for a loss of another 12 yards. Facing 4-33-DEN15 and 1:32 remaining, Denver tried one last pass that fell incomplete. St. Louis was able to run out the clock and preserve the victory. The Broncos went on to finish the season with an 11-5-0 record and qualify for the playoffs as a Wild Card team. Their season ended with a 21-3 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the Wild Card round.
September 10, 2001: New York Giants at Denver, Denver won 31-20
Here was another game in which the Broncos struck first. Griese's 1-yard touchdown pass to FB Patrick Hape gave Denver a 7-0 lead in the first quarter. New York tied the game at 7-7 in the second before Griese struck again -- this time a 16-yard touchdown pass to McCaffrey and a 14-7 lead. In the third quarter, New York again tied the score, but Griese put the Broncos back out in front with his third touchdown pass of the game -- a 25-yard pass to Smith. In the fourth quarter, a 37-yard Elam field goal extended the Broncos lead to 10 (24-14) and a 6-yard touchdown run by RB Mike Anderson made the lead 17 points (31-14). New York scored a consolation touchdown before the game was over (though their 2-point conversion attempt failed) and the game ended with the Broncos on top by a score of 31-20. Sadly, this strong start by Denver did not carry over throughout the season and the Broncos finished out of the playoffs with an 8-8-0 record.
September 8, 2002: St. Louis Rams at Denver, Denver won 23-16
Griese's last year with the Broncos started with a rematch against the St. Louis Rams. Once again, Denver struck first on a 7-yard touchdown pass from Griese to Smith. In the second quarter, Elam added a 41-yard field goal to give the Broncos a 10-0 lead. St. Louis posted a field goal and Denver answered with two more field goals of their own (34 and 32 yards) before the Rams could add a second field goal. This gave Denver a 16-6 lead at the half. St. Louis narrowed the score to 16-13 in the third quarter. Denver extended its lead back to 10 points in the fourth when Griese hit McCaffrey for a 23-yard touchdown pass. St. Louis managed one more score to make the final 23-16. Though Denver finished the season with a winning record (9-7-0) they failed to make the playoffs for a second consecutive year.
September 7, 2003: Denver at Cincinnati, Denver won 30-10
The 2003 season saw the beginning of QB Jake Plummer's tenure as a Bronco as well as the continuation of RB Clinton Portis as a powerful rusher. The season opened with the Broncos scoring first, for the fourth consecutive year, on a 51-yard field goal by Elam. A 2-yard touchdown run by Portis in the second gave Denver a 10-0 lead. After a Cincinnati field goal made it 10-3, Portis scored again on an 8-yard run and Elam kicked his second field goal of the day (27 yards) to give Denver a 20-3 lead at the half. The Broncos extended the lead to 24 when LB Ian Gold returned a third quarter interception 12 yards for a touchdown. Elam added his third and final field goal (39 yards) in the fourth quarter and Cincinnati scored a consolation touchdown in that quarter to bring the score to its final margin of 30-10. Denver finished the season with a 10-6-0 record which was good enough to secure a Wild Card spot. Unfortunately, the Broncos were drubbed 41-10 in the Wild Card round by Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.
September 12, 2004: Kansas City at Denver, Denver won 34-24
For the first time in this decade, the Broncos opened a season against a division rival. The Chiefs scored first, but a 43-yard Elam field goal made it a 4-point game at the end of one quarter, 7-3. Denver added two scores in the second quarter -- a 1-yard pass from Plummer to RB Quentin Griffin and a 25-yard touchdown run by Griffin -- to take a 17-7 lead into the locker room at the half. Kansas City came out and made the first two scores of the third quarter to tie the game at 17-17. Griffin gave the lead back to the Broncos on a 47-yard touchdown run, but the Chiefs tied it again and the score stood at 24-24 after three quarters. The final quarter, however, belonged to the Broncos. A 45-yard Elam field goal made it 27-24 and a 2-yard touchdown pass from Plummer to Hape made it 34-24 at the end of regulation. For the second season in a row, the Broncos finished 10-6-0. For the second season in a row, they qualified for the playoffs as a Wild Card team. For the second season in a row, they were drubbed by Manning's Colts (49-24) in the Wild Card round.
September 11, 2005: Denver at Miami, Miami won 34-10
This season started off miserably. Denver travelled to Miami and trailed 3-0 after one quarter. They fell behind 6-0 in the second quarter before a 28-yard Elam field goal put them on the board and a 6-3 halftime deficit. The Dolphins extended their lead to 13-3 in the third quarter and then 30-3 in the fourth before Plummer was able to engineer a drive that ended with a 2-yard touchdown pass to RB Kyle Johnson. Sadly, Miami would go on score twice more to give themselves a 34-10 victory. This game, however, was not a sign of how the season would go. The Broncos fought their way to a 13-3-0 record and an AFC West crown. Denver defeated New England 27-13 in the Divisional round of the playoffs before hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship game. Sadly, the Steelers stormed out to a 24-3 halftime lead from which the Broncos were unable to recover. Pittsburgh ended Denver's season with a 34-17 victory.
September 10, 2006: Denver at St. Louis, St. Louis won 18-10
Plummer's final season as the Broncos' starting quarterback did not get off to an auspicious start as Denver faced the St. Louis Rams for the third time in the decade on opening day. The Broncos fell behind early as the Rams kicked four field goals in the first two quarters. Denver did manage to get on the board in the second quarter on a 1-yard touchdown run by RB Mike Bell and trailed only 12-7 at the half. The Rams added a fifth field goal in the third quarter but Denver was able to bring the deficit to 5 points in the fourth when Elam hit a 49-yard field goal. St. Louis added one more field goal to make the final score 18-10. Despite this start, the Broncos began the season by winning 7 of their next 8 games. A two-game losing streak -- both losses to division rivals -- finally broke the strained relationship between Plummer and Head Coach Mike Shanahan and Plummer was benched in favor of first round draft pick, rookie Jay Cutler. The Broncos went 2-3 under the rookie and finished the season at 9-7-0. An overtime loss to San Francisco in the final game of the season knocked Denver out of the playoffs.
September 9, 2007: Denver at Buffalo, Denver won 15-14
Jay Cutler's tenure as the Broncos' starting quarterback began in an exciting fashion. Facing off against the Buffalo Bills to open the season, Denver fell behind early 7-0. Two Elam field goals (21 and 48 yards) closed the score to 7-6 at the half. The BIlls extended the lead to 14-6, but the Broncos responded with a touchdown of their own -- a 5-yard pass from Cutler to WR Brandon Marshall. A failed 2-point conversion pass left the score at 14-12. Late the fourth quarter (2:13 remaining), Denver got the ball back 1-10-DEN34. The Broncos marched to the Buffalo 24-yard line on a drive that included two fourth-down conversions. Facing 1-10-BUF24 with 0:01 left on the clock, Elam hit a 42-yard field goal to win the game. Unfortunately this type of comeback play was rare in the 2007 season and the Broncos ended the campaign at 7-9-0, missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season.
September 8, 2008: Denver at Oakland, Denver won 41-14
The 2008 season opened against Mike Shanahan's bitterest foe -- the Oakland Raiders. Denver opened the scoring in the first quarter when Cutler hit WR Eddie Royal on a 26-yard touchdown pass. A 26-yard field goal by Matt Prater made it 10-0 in the second and Denver extended the score to 17-0 on a 3-yard touchdown run by RB Michael Pittman. In the third quarter, Cutler completed a 48-yard touchdown pass to WR Darrell Jackson and Prater added a 43-yard field goal to put the Broncos up 27-0. The Raiders made it 27-7 in the fourth, but Denver responded with 14 more points -- a 5-yard touchdown run by RB Selvin Young and Pittman's second touchdown of the day, a 1-yard run. Oakland did manage one more touchdown before time ran out to make the final score 41-14.
Denver struggled throughout the season but entered the last three weeks of the season with a 3-game lead over their division rivals. Unfortunately, the Broncos lost all three games (to Carolina, Buffalo and San Diego). They ended the season at 8-8-0 and in a 1st place tie with the Chargers. Sadly, the Broncos lost the divisional tiebreaker with San Diego and missed the playoffs for a third consecutive season. This season also proved to be the undoing of Head Coach Mike Shanahan and he was fired shortly after the season ended.
September 13, 2009: Denver at Cincinnati, Denver won 12-7
This season marked the start of Josh McDaniels' tenure as the Broncos' head coach. It was a tenure which began with drama and tremendous criticism by fans and outsiders -- most notably over the trading of Cutler to the Chicago Bears for draft picks and QB Kyle Orton. On opening day, however, fans began to believe somewhat as Denver's defense showed up and played a strong game. After a scoreless first quarter, Denver got on the board with a 48-yard field Prater field goal to lead 3-0 at the half. A 50-yard Prater field goal made it 6-0 at the end of three. Despair began to creep into Broncos' fans minds when Cincinnati scored a touchdown with 41 seconds remaining to take a 7-6 lead. Then came what has come to be called by many as "The Immaculate Deflection." Denver got the ball back 1-10-DEN13 with 0:34 remaining on the clock. The first play was ruled an incomplete pass by Orton, intended down the right sideline for Marshall. It was almost picked off but the Bengals' DB came down out of bounds. On 2-10-DEN13 with 0:28 left, Orton tried to hit Marshall down the left sideline. Cincinnati DB Hall jumped the route but ended up batting the ball in the air, a 2nd Cincinnati defender had committed himself to tackling Marshall and was unable to make a play on the ball. The deflected pass fell into the arms of WR Brandon Stokley who had been trailing the play. Stokley raced down the left sideline but chose to run parallel to the goal line to run more time off the clock before stepping into the end zone for an 87-yard touchdown pass play. A 2-point pass play attempt failed leaving the score at 12-7. Cincinnati got the ball back with 0:05 remaining. Denver put a defense on the field that was composed of players with good hands. Bengals QB Palmer's pass was intercepted by TE Tony Scheffler at the Denver 10-yard line to preserve the victory. The Broncos won their next five games to stand at 6-0-0 and fans were beginning to dream of the playoffs. Unfortunately the wheels came off as the Broncos suffered through two 4-game losing streaks in the final weeks to end the season at 8-8-0 and miss the playoffs for their fourth consecutive year.
September 12, 2010: Denver at Jacksonville, Jacksonville won 24-17
McDaniels' second season as a head coach did not begin any better than the previous season had ended. Opening in Jacksonville, the Broncos found themselves constantly playing catch up. The Jaguars scored first on a touchdown in the second quarter. An 8-yard touchdown pass from Orton to WR Jabar Gaffney tied the score 7-7 at the half. The Jaguard scored again in the third quarter but Denver was again able to tie the score at 14-14 on a 1-yard touchdown run by RB Knowshon Moreno. The Jaguars added a field goal to lead 17-14 after three. A fourth quarter, 54-yard Prater field goal with 11:26 left tied the score for the third time. Unfortunately, on Jacksonville's next drive, the Jaguars went 83 yards in 7 plays (including two major defensive penalties) to score the final touchdown of the game. They then held on for the 24-17 win. The Broncos' season was a complete disaster as the team stumbled to a 4-12-0 finish that included a taping scandal and the firing of Head Coach Josh McDaniels with three games left.
September 12, 2011: Oakland at Denver, Oakland won 23-20
The 2011 season marked the first with John Fox at the helm as head coach. Opening at home against a division rival, the Broncos scored first on a 28-yard Prater field goal in the first quarter. The second quarter belonged to the Raiders as they ran off 16 unanswered point. A 90-yard punt return by WR Erick Decker and a 30-yard field goal in the third quarter closed the deficit to 16-13. Oakland scored first in the fourth to extend its lead to 23-13. A 9-yard touchdown pass from Orton to RB Lance Ball proved to be too little too late and the Broncos fell 23-20. After a 1-4 start, Orton was benched in favor of QB Tim Tebow. Tebow won the hearts of many fans with his fourth quarter, dramatic comebacks which saw the Broncos win seven of their first eight games with Tebow at the helm -- including a 6-game winning streak. Despite losing their last three games of the season and falling to an 8-8-0 record, the Broncos won the divisional tiebreakers with the Chargers and Raiders to win the division and qualify for the playoffs. Their first opponent was the 12-4-0 defending AFC Champion Pittsburgh Steelers in a Wild Card matchup. The Broncos stunned the Steelers (and much of the rest of the NFL world) by winning that game on the first play of overtime -- an 80-yard touchdown pass from Tebow to WR Demaryius Thomas. The following week, however was a different story as the Broncos were pummeled by the eventual AFC Champion New England Patriots 45-10 in a Divisional round game.
There are some interesting things to note about Denver's season openers in the 2000/2010s:
Opening Day Records
|Opening Day Record||7-5-0||32-19-1|
Records versus Opponents
|New York Giants||1-0-0||1-0-0|
|St. Louis Rams||1-2-0||1-4-0|
|New York Jets||0-0-0||2-1-0|
|Largest Win||2008||vs Oakland||27 pts||41-14||1991||vs Cincinnati||31 pts||45-14|
|Narrowest Win||2007||vs Buffalo||1 pt||15-14||2007||vs Buffalo||1 pt||15-14|
|Largest Loss||2005||vs Miami||24 pts||34-10||1963||vs Kansas City||52 pts||59-7|
|Narrowest Loss||2011||vs Oakland||3 pts||23-20||1962||vs San Diego||3 pts||34-31|
|1994||vs San Diego||3 pts||37-34|
|2011||vs Oakland||3 pts||23-20|
Some Final Random Observations About Opening Day Games
Our largest and narrowest margins of defeat in opening day games have come at the hands of division rivals.
The Broncos have owned the Patriots in opening day games, winning all five of that matchup.
Six teams have never beaten the Broncos on opening day (not counting those that Denver has never played on opening day): Buffalo, New York Giants, Indianapolis, New England, Arizona and Pittsburgh.
The Broncos have never beaten three of their opening day opponents: Jacksonville (0-1), Miami (0-2-1) and Philadelphia (0-1).
The Broncos are 10-6-0 against their current division rivals in opening day games.
If you add in Seattle, which was in the AFC West from 1977 to the NFL division realignment in 2002, the record against divisional opponents on opening day becomes 11-7-0.
Although former division rival Cincinnati (against whom the Broncos are 5-2-0 on opening day) were in the AFC West for their first two seasons, the Broncos did not play them on opening day during those seasons.
Fifteen of Denver's thirty-two opening day wins came against just three teams: New England, Oakland and Cincinnati -- with five wins against each.
The St. Louis Rams have been the Broncos' biggest nemesis on opening day with Denver going 1-4 against them.
The 1963 59-7 opening day loss to Kansas City stands not only as Denver's worst opening day loss, but the worst regular season and/or post season loss in franchise history.
While there are many factors that go into replacing a head coach (overall record, playoff appearances, relationship with team management, etc), it is rather interesting that seven of Denver's head coaches were replaced following seasons in which the Broncos either lost or tied their opening season game -- it should also be noted that in five of those seven seasons the team finished with a losing record which most likely had more to do with their departures than the opening day game.
In any event, I hope you have enjoyed this look back at how Denver has opened their seasons. Here's to hoping that we see the Fox/Manning-led Broncos get off to a great start in 2012.