To say that the last two years have been rough ones for the fans of the Denver Broncos would be a gross understatement at best. So many changes have come so rapidly with so little success on game days that, whether they realize it or not, Denver fans have been spiraling through the stages of a grief cycle.
For those who are not familiar with the stages of grief, they are as follows: (1)Denial: "I can't believe this is happening to my favorite team." "This can't be right, it's gotta get better." (2)Anger: "These guys just totally suck." "If they don't bench/fire <insert a name>, I'm gonna become a Raiders fan." "I'm leaving . . . ." I hate . . . ." "I won't watch . . . ." (3)Bargaining: "If only we'd kept . . . ." "If only we can get . . . ." "Maybe we could . . . ." (4)Depression: need I say more? (5)Acceptance: This too shall pass.
Yes, my fellow Broncos fans, these last two years have not been much fun. After the jump, let me share my journey as a fan, in the hopes that you might find a glimmer of hope.
Perhaps, however, my confusion is much more basic than that. It may just be that I come from a very different place. My journey as a fan began in a period very similar to what we are experiencing with the Broncos. My family moved to the Denver area in 1969. As a kid one of the most exciting things about the move was the idea that I would have a "hometown" NFL team to root for.
So imagine my distress when the first four seasons (1969-72) went like this: 5-8-1, 5-8-1, 4-9-1 and 5-9-0. During that time, Gerald Phipps was the owner. The team had three head coaches -- Lou Saban (1969-71, 12-22-3), Jerry Smith (1971, 2-3-0), and John Ralston (1972, 5-9-0). The Broncos started four different quarterbacks -- Steve Tensi (1969), Pete Liske (1970), Steve Ramsey (1971), Charley Johnson (1972). During those four seasons, Denver suffered through two three-game losing streaks and three four-game losing streaks. In fifty-six games, the defense surrendered thirty or more points eleven times (20% of the games) while the offense failed to score more than fourteen points in seventeen times (30% of the games). I did not get to see the Broncos beat the hated Raiders until 1972 -- the four season I'd been following them. The divisional rivalries (Kansas City, Oakland and San Diego) were not particularly uplifting: Kansas City 1-7-0, Oakland 1-7-0 and san Diego 3-4-1.
My beloved Broncos did much better in the next four seasons -- having three winning seasons (1973-74 and 1976) and only a single losing one (1975). Sadly, there were no post season appearances during this span. Gerald Phipps was still the owner and John Ralston continued as the head coach -- compiling a 29-24-3 record. Charley Johnson was the Broncos quarterback for the first two years, and Steve Ramsey filled that role in the second two. I got to see Denver's first ever winning season when they went 7-5-2 in 1973. During this four year span,
the Broncos suffered through only two three-game losing streaks. In fifty-six games, the defense gave up thirty or more points only ten times (improved by 1 from the previous four-year span) while the offense was held to fourteen or less nineteen times (two more than the previous span). The Broncos fared better against two of their divisonal rivals (Kansas City 5-3-0, San Diego 7-1-0) but continued to stink when playing the Raiders (1-6-1). In my first eight years of following the Orange and Blue, they achieved a 6-10-0 record against the Chiefs, a 2-13-1 record against the Raiders and a 10-5-1 record against the Chargers.
After finally getting to see some winning seasons, the next three years (1977-79) were absolutely delightful. All three seasons were winning seasons, plus the Broncos went to the playoffs all three years. Gerald Phipps was still the owner, but he hired Red Miller to be the head coach in 1977. Miller coached the Broncos to a 32-14-0 record in those three years, finishing 12-2, 10-6 and 10-6. In 1977, the Miller-led Broncos won the AFC Championship by beating the Raiders 20-17. Denver went on to lose to the Dallas Cowboys 27-10 in the Super Bowl. Life was good. The Broncos did not have a losing streak (defined as losing 3 or more games in a row). In forty-six games, the defense surrendered thirty or more points exactly four times. Strangely enough, despite the team's success, the offense failed to score fourteen or more points on twenty occasions (43% of the games). Denver did well against their division rivals during this span, going 6-0-0 versus Kansas City (raising the record to 12-10-0), 3-3-0 against the Raiders (5-16-1) and 4-2-0 versus San Diego (14-7-1).
The period of 1980-82 was one of significant changes, plus a strike shortened season in 1982. Gerald Phipps sold the team to Edgar Kaiser Jr in 1981. Kaiser changed coaches from Red Miller (1980, 8-8-0) to Dan Reeves (who went 12-13 in the next two seasons). Craig Morton started the first two years and was replaced by Steve Ramsey in the third. The Broncos had 1 winning season, 1 .500 season and 1 losing season during that time. Frustrations abounded. After four years with no losing streaks, Denver suffered through three three-game losing streaks (one in 1980, two in 1982). They gave up thirty or more points eight times in forty-eight games, and failed to score fourteen or more points in fourteen games. The divison rivalry games also suffered: Kansas City 1-4-0 (13-14-0), Raiders 2-3-0 (7-19-1) and San Diego 2-4-0 (16-11-1).
The frustration of the early 1980's was followed by an equally rewarding five year stretch. Between 1983 and 1987, the Broncos posted five winning seasons and four playoff appearances. Their best finish was 13-3 in 1984, the worst was 9-7 in 1983. During this time, Edgar Kaiser sold the Broncos to Pat Bowlen (1984), and these years marked the beginning of the Elway era (1983). Dan Reeves continued as the head coach -- he posted a 54-24-1 record (1987 was a 15-game strike shortened season). In those five years, the Broncos had a single three-game losing streak, gave up thirty or more points sixteen times and were held to under fourteen points nineteen times. Denver won two AFC Championships (1986, 1987), but lost both Super Bowl appearances -- 39-20 to the New York Giants, and 42-10 to the Washington Redskins. Denver had a good run versus their division rivals during this five year period: Kansas City 7-3-0 (20-17-0), the Raiders 6-4-0 (13-23-1) and San Diego 7-3-0 (23-14-1).
The excitement of two consecutive Super Bowl appearances led fans like myself to think that Denver was going to be a perennial contender. We were quickly brought back to earth by a stretch that saw two winning seasons, two .500 seasons and one losing season. Bowlen and Reeves continued to be the guiding forces behind the team as Elway continued to build his legend -- though I don't believe that was what he thought he was doing. An 8-8-0 season was followed by another Super Bowl appearance (a 55-10 shellacking by the San Francisco 49ers). This period saw one four-game losing streak and two three-game ones. The defense struggled during this time, giving up thirty or more points in fifteen games -- including a 53-23 loss to Indianapolis, a 42-0 loss to New Orleans and a 42-14 loss to Seattle -- and the offense didn't help any by scoring less than fourteen points in twenty-seven games. Denver did well against the Chiefs (7-3-0, 27-20-0) and Chargers (7-3-0, 30-17-1) during this span, but were repeatedly beaten by the Raiders (2-8-0, 15-31-1).
Denver saw another head coaching change in 1993. Pat Bowlen decided to replace Dan Reeves with former defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Phillips (1993-94, 16-16-0) would coach the Broncos through two seasons -- one winning, one .500 and one playoff appearance. John Elway continued as the starting quarterback. In Phillips' first season, Denver did not have a winning streak on the way to posting a 9-7-0 record and a Wild Card appearance (which they lost 42-24 to the Raiders). His second year stumbled along to an 8-8-0 record, recording one four-game losing streak and one three-game losing streak. In thirty-two games, the defense gave up thirty or more points eight times (including a 48-16 loss to the Raiders and a 42-19 loss to San Francisco). The offense was held to under fourteen points five times in the two years. Denver did fare particularly well against the other teams in the division during this time: Kansas City 2-2-0 (29-22-0), Raiders 0-4-0 (15-35-1), and San Diego 2-2-0 (32-19-1).
The next four years were the highest point in my years of fandom. Pat Bowlen hired former offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan to replace Wade Phillips. Shanahan's first season was a unimpressive 8-8-0, which -- while there was no losing streak -- did see the defense give up thirty or more points in five games while the offense failed to score more than 14 points in four games. The three years that followed were stellar: 13-3, 12-4 and 14-2. The Broncos lost a divisional game 30-27 to Jacksonville in 1996. The following year they won the AFC Championship game 24-21 over Pittsburgh, then went on to win their first Super Bowl 31-24 over Green Bay. In 1998, Denver started the season by going 13-0, finished 14-2 and won their second Super Bowl 34-19 over Atlanta. During all four years, the Broncos did not have a single losing streak. in sixty-four games, the defense surrendered thirty or more points twelve times (including a 41-6 loss to Green Bay). The offense was held to under fourteen points in just nine games during that time. The Broncos also excelled against their division rivals, going 7-1-0 against the Raiders (22-36-1) and 6-2-0 against San Diego (38-21-1). They broke even against the Chiefs 4-4-0 (33-26-0).
The next seven years were successful according to regular season records -- five winning seasons, one .500 season and only one losing season -- but at the same time the Broncos made the post season just four times and eked out only a single post season victory. The greatest reason for this shift in fortunes was the retirement of John Elway following his second Super Bowl victory. Mike Shanahan led the Broncos to a 67-45-0 record during this time. Denver fans also saw two different starting quarterbacks: Brian Griese (1999-2002) and Jake Plummer (2003-05). Denver experienced two three-game losing streaks and one four-game losing streak. They surrendered thirty or more points in twenty-one out of 112 games (19%), and failed to score more than thirteen points in twenty-two games. The Broncos struggled against the Chiefs (6-8-0, 39-34-0), but did well against division rivals San Diego (10-4-0, 48-25-1) and the Raiders (10-4-0, 32-40-1).
The three years following Denver's loss to Pittsburgh in the 2005 AFC Championship games were mediocre at best: one winning season, one .500 season, and one losing season. Starting quarterback Jake Plummer was replaced with five games to go in the 2006 season by rookie Jay Cutler. The Broncos finished the season 9-7-0 but failed to reach the post season. Denver finished these three years with a 24-24-0 record. They experienced three three-game losing streaks and one four-game losing streak. In forty-eight games, they surrendered thirty or more points in seventeen games (35%) and failed to score fourteen or more points in fourteen games (29%). They fared well against the Chiefs (4-2-0, 43-36-0) and the Raiders (4-2-0, 36-42-1). The Broncos struggled with San Diego (1-5-0, 49-30-1).
Then we come to the most recent season plus thirteen games. These have marked a new low point for our beloved Broncos. Pat Bowlen replaced Mike Shanahan with Josh McDaniels and then with Eric Studesville. McDaniels replaced Jay Cutler with Kyle Orton. After starting 6-0 in 2009, the Broncos have fallen to 11-18-0 to date. They have suffered through four four-game losing streaks, surrendered thirty or more points eight times and failed to score fourteen or more points eight times. They have not looked particularly impressive against division rivals either: Kansas City (2-2-0, 45-38-0), Oakland (1-2-0, 37-44-1)
So, why have I shared all of this? Losing streaks and losing seasons? Nothing new. Disliked head coaches and quarterbacks? Nothing new. Coaching changes? Nothing new. Quarterback changes? Nothing new. Defense giving up thirty-plus points in games? Nothing new. Offense struggling to score fourteen or more points in games? Nothing new. Denver's been there, done that, survived and gone on (since 1969) to be tied for second most AFC championships, tied for third most Super Bowl appearances, and be tied for eighth most Super Bowl wins.
If you will, take some advice from one who as lived through the bad years: hang in there, keep on cheering, don't lose faith.
These bad days? These too shall pass.