Prior to the season, Kevin Gillikin and I co-authored a series highlighting the NFL's "Up-trending" and "Down-trending" teams headed into the 2013 season.
The Broncos, to nobody's surprise, were our #1 up-trending AFC team, and at the time, we said the following:
I do believe that, before the season is over, somebody at ESPN will ask the question as to whether this is the best NFL team ever assembled. The answer will probably be "No", but the idea of that question being asked gets me excited.
No, that question never did get asked to my knowledge, but looking back at that prediction brings up an interesting discussion.
Suppose we had gone through the season healthy
Suppose that we had gone through the season without losing Clady, Von, Vickerson, Wolfe, Champ (effectively for the regular season), Harris, Moore and others. Suppose that we had had a normal distribution of major injuries rather than the M*A*S*H unit that 2013 turned into.
Would we, today, be one game away from being regarded as the best team ever? Or at least a part of the discussion?
I won't give you my conclusion because I want to see what everybody else thinks, but I'll share my "coulda/woulda/shoulda" thoughts on what this season might have looked like without the injury bug biting as hard as it did.
The offense was actually blessed with pretty good health in 2013. Yes, we had a circus at Center during training camp as JD Walton and then Dan Koppen went out for the year, but Manny Ramirez filled in admirably -- even more than admirably, I'd say, he was a rock.
Ryan Clady's injury was a bigger issue, but again, you can't point at Chris Clark and say that he held this offense back in any meaningful way.
Wes Welker's concussions probably had a more direct effect on the offense's production than anything, but let's not get greedy: We scored freakin' 606 points and broke basically every record there was to break. Let's just assume that, with a more normal distribution of injuries, we'd have scored freakin' 606 points and broken basically every record there was to break.
The defense, of course, was a different story. As it was, this defense had elite moments, especially during that small window of time after Von came back and got assimilated (beginning with the Washington game), but with a 27th-ranked pass defense that gave up 254 yards per game, any love we may have gotten from the "best team ever" discussion goes right out the window.
But to what extent did the injuries on defense undermine what could have been the greatest season in NFL history?
In my humble opinion: Quite a bit.
In my rendering of the 2013 season, there were three things that plagued the Broncos defense:
1) The injuries themselves. You just can't lose 5 of your original 11 starters on defense in today's NFL and expect to play at an elite level. It just doesn't happen. Fortunately, the Broncos had some decent depth, but besides the obvious downgrade in talent, the loss of guys like Von Miller, Chris Harris, Kevin Vickerson, Derek Wolfe and Rahim Moore will force a defensive coordinator to constantly re-invent his defense. You can still win a Super Bowl in those circumstances, but realistically, you won't enter the "best team ever" discussion.
2) Poor adjustments to in-game injuries. This was particularly pronounced in the Dallas and New England games. I'm not enough of an X and O guy to know exactly what went wrong, but it seemed that whenever we lost a cover guy like Harris (Dallas) or DRC (New England), communication in the secondary completely broke down. Was it because JDR panicked and went from tight man coverages to soft zones? Was it because backups weren't getting enough into the flow of things in practice? Or was it because we had this tendency to suffer key injuries when we were facing QB's like Romo, Brady and Phillip Rivers? I'm not exactly sure, but it was frequently a night-and-day difference when we lost a key cog during a game.
3) Lack of a killer instinct when we got the lead. This is just a pet theory of mine, but I think the Broncos coaching staff never recovered emotionally from Rahim Moore getting beat in the last minute of last season's playoff loss. As a result, they overcompensated and were too quick to go "prevent" when they got a second-half lead. That led to some tactically insignificant, but statistically unsightly fourth quarters against teams like the Raiders, Ravens and Titans.
As a fan, I absolutely hated the way both playoff games went from "blowout" to "still a game" in the fourth quarters, when each game could (should?) have been a blowout, but hey, we won, we're in the Super Bowl, so shut up, Skipper!
Looking back through the 2013 season, there were 11 games that were basic, no-doubt wins. The game in KC was close, but I can't see an argument that says that if you add back our injured players (and, in fairness, KC's injured players), we lose that game.
And dittos for the game in Dallas -- the clearest example of the year of in-game injuries causing the defense to go schizo.
But how about the losses? Might those have been wins with a healthy defense?
New England 34, Denver 31. This one's a no-brainer, I think. Broncos went to halftime up 24-0 and were absolutely owning Tom Brady. DRC is injured on a freak play the last play of the half and Brady abuses Kayvon Webster in the 2nd half on the way to a miracle comeback. Without the DRC injury, we win that game.
San Diego 27, Denver 20. I may get some disagreement on this one, but I think the short week, coupled with a natural letdown after a brutal, post-bye stretch, made this a perfect "trap" game. No intensity on defense, no creativity on offense, no fire. I think we lose that game even if we had been fully healthy.
Indianapolis 39, Denver 33. This is a tough one that honestly could have gone either way. We were about at our healthiest point of the year, Von was back from suspension, and the "Peyton returns to Indy" angle made this a strange game all the way around. And Reggie Wayne went out for Indy in that game as well, so injuries cut both ways. Let's call that one an Indy victory.
So, that (hypothetically) puts us at 14-2, maybe 15-1. Is that good enough to be a part of the discussion with the '85 Bears, the '72 Dolphins, the '89 Niners or the '07 Patriots? How about the '98 Broncos?
I'm curious to hear what others think. Assuming at this point, that we win the Super Bowl in two weeks, would our pre-season prediction have come to pass with ESPN entertaining the discussion of the 2013 Denver Broncos as being the best team ever assembled?