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Ultimate Fan Guide: Lots to applaud from Broncos' 12-5 season

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It didn't end nearly as well as we all wanted, but Broncos fans are ultimate fans, so we can still celebrate what was and look forward to what will be coming. This is the first of a two-part finale to the 2014-15 Ultimate Fan Guide. ENJOY!

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

So unfortunately the 2014-15 season ended prematurely, which not only sucks for Sundays the next few weeks (not to mention an offseason of second-guessing rather than celebrating a championship) but it also means the end of the Ultimate Fan Guide for a while (sad face).

But not before we give it a good send-off with a two-parter this week - looking back at the season that was and then looking ahead to the season(s) that will be.

There were a lot of things to applaud this season - more broken records, our defense winning games, the emergence of new stars.... By many accounts, it was a very successful season. It just wasn't the most successful season.

But we already know that. So for such an epic ending to this series, we have ADanishMan and Jeremy Bolander to thank for providing some not only insightful opinions but intelligent reactions as we head into six very long months without meaningful football. But take heart football fans, there will always be Broncos news to talk about!

Denver v. Indianapolis - A quick review

MHR - Though we don't need to go into that Colts game more than necessary (and has already been done over and over and over), where do you place most of the blame for the loss - players? Coaches? Manning? Colts just playing well?

ADanishMan: I think I'm 80/20 on my placing of blame for the Colts game - 80 percent on the coaches, 20 percent on Manning's injury. John Fox clearly hadn't prepared the team for a playoff game against a volatile Colts offense, proving once again that he is, indeed, John Fox.

John Fox clearly hadn't prepared the team for a playoff game. Jack Del Rio made no in-game adjustments. Adam Gase inexplicably chose to run the same four or five plays over and over. -ADanishMan

Jack Del Rio made no in-game adjustments, and his coffin was nailed shut when he only rushed three toward the end of the game.

Adam Gase, inexplicably, chose to run the same four or five plays over and over, with most of them being WR screens and sideline fades. None of the coaches did Denver any favors. Manning's injury was a less egregious offender when compared to the coaches, but playing with a torn quad isn't a trip to the Bahamas, either. I figured something was wrong when he didn't run for that first down late in the game. As immobile as he is, that is a run Peyton could have made. Alas, hindsight is always 20/20.

Jeremy Bolander: Well, there are two ways of looking at it.  Straight up, the biggest factor in the loss was the secondary of the Colts.  I watched all the snaps from this game and from the first game of the year, and they really didn't do much different, they just did it much better.

When coaches talk about press coverage, they will talk about "re-routes," effectively getting the WR out of position to run his route well.  Against Peyton Manning, this is deadly if effective, since he relies so much on precise timing with his WRs in order to get the ball out quickly.

In the first game of the season, the Broncos receivers weren't getting rerouted, especially Julius Thomas.  In the playoff game, they were getting rerouted on almost every snap, and JT was MIA.  This is the No. 1 reason why Denver struggled to establish the production that could have resulted in the win.

It was the equivalent of responding to a challenging dialogue with 'uhhm...' It is beyond time that this team finds a way to respond to adversity by making a statement.   -Jeremy Bolander

A closely related second was a woefully awful performance by a pressing and injured Manning.  His accuracy was poor, he had no time in the pocket and he missed opportunities that could have swung the momentum.

But there is another way of looking at it.  If we were to change either one of those elements, does this team manage to win that game?  Or would we just be talking about some individual effort or adjustment that the Colts made?

I suspect the latter, which indicates the deeper issue of the coaching staff, and their inability to get all of the little things working right on a team that can win three out of every four games, yet can't be expected to win any specific game.  This coaching staff has leaned on a talented roster over the last three seasons, patiently waiting for the talent to assert itself within fundamentally sound schemes and game plans.

But when that talent gets challenged by quality, hungry, determined players and coaches, we see the same plays, personnel and plan thrown out as a response, while time runs out on games, seasons and careers.

It is the equivalent of responding to a challenging dialogue with "...uhhhm..." It is beyond time that this team finds a way to respond to adversity by making a statement.

MHR - What was the biggest problem with defense in that game?

ADanishMan: I think the biggest issue, although there were many, was the lack of pressure by the front seven. Aside from the sack by Ware on the opening drive, there was little-to-no efficiency by the pass rush. Andrew Luck had all day to find his targets, and we paid for it dearly.

Jeremy Bolander: Lack of a pass rush.  I felt so frustrated for Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe as well as DeMarcus Ware but most especially for Von Miller.

They were hustling and playing hard, but time after time, the pass rush got absorbed by an offensive line that was up to the task (plus used crafty and well-timed double teams).

The Broncos' defensive line was a strong point coming into the season, with more depth than I have ever seen, strong contributions from young players like Sly and Malik and Pro Bowlers in Ware and Von.  But right out of the gate the scheme seemed stale and predictable. Del Rio assured us repeatedly this season that the pressure was there even if the sacks weren't, but like everything else about the team, it felt like everything, pressures included, was declining the closer to the postseason we got.

The scheme was a fundamentally sound scheme within which we were able to watch our players develop quickly, but I think pass rush was something Elway had in mind specifically when he talked about taking this team to a championship level after parting with Fox.  I can't wait to see the improvements we attempt in this area.

MHR - What do you think explains the explosive first drive by the offense followed by no sync at all the rest of the game?

ADanishMan: Honestly, I have no idea. I've been trying to figure it out for two days now, and I still don't have an answer for it. The drops by Demaryius Thomas and Peyton's overthrows certainly didn't help. I think a large part had to do with the repetitive play calling from Gase. Sideline fade, sideline fade, WR screen, repeat. Gase didn't really attack the middle of the field, either, which would have opened up some more things.

Jeremy Bolander: The drive itself was less than stellar, having been extended by a penalty, but it was soundly planned, with a lot of runs, including inside zone and a sweep. No doubt this was intended as setup for later.

But where this drive really differed from the rest of the game was the 32-yard pass to Julius Thomas.  Thomas beat a #3 DB in press with a double move off the line, Manning stepped up and delivered the ball on time and accurately.  It would be the last time in the game they pulled all of that off at the same time.  The WRs would struggle against the press for the rest of the game, and Manning would get three more opportunities to complete almost exactly the same play, only to release the ball under pressure just a little too early every time.  I was chanting, "settle down...settle down..." during that series, and then after the third incompletion, I just had to shake my head.

The Colts were counting on giving up those routes but having the pressure to force an incompletion, and we failed to make them pay for it. Offensively, everything else flowed from that failure.

MHR - What will stand out to you as some of the main highlights from this season?

ADanishMan: Oh man, there were so many. All of Emmanuel Sanders' big catches, the sudden rise of C.J. Anderson, and Chris Harris Jr. rebounding from an ACL tear to be the best cornerback in the league are probably my top three. (Oh, and the advent of the Funky Von Sack Dance is pretty great too!)

C.J. Anderson 51-yard run vs. Raiders

Jeremy Bolander: CJ's catch-and-run versus the Raiders is my favorite play of the year, but the biggest positive impression I got from this season was the elite play by our secondary.  This secondary as a unit is ready to turn a corner in a big way.  They strung together multiple performances that were as good as any in the league, including Seattle, often with below average pass pressure statistics.  They really had me believing that we could hang despite the offensive identity crisis.

Going forward, I'm hoping for some next-level thinking regarding our coverages. These guys are ready for it.

MHR - What will be the major lowlights this season?

ADanishMan: The season-long roller coaster of injuries to Danny Trevathan was probably the saddest thing. That guy has so much heart and plays lights out, but he just couldn't catch a break this year.

The overtime loss at Seattle was a heartbreaker, as were the losses at St. Louis (we scored SEVEN WHOLE POINTS) and Cincinnati. (Four picks, Peyton? C'mon.)

Jeremy Bolander: The precipitous regression of our OL jumps to mind, but that isn't surprising given how little Elway has focused there, yet.  Unfortunately it comes back to a handful of games where, win or lose, the play felt sloppy and uninspired. The New England loss ranks as the worst of the five losses this year, just because of the cheap points we gave up in that game that could have put the game in pick-em territory like the Seattle game.

The St. Louis game didn't bother me much, since it was just a tough loss in a tough arena, the kind of black swan event that happens every year.

The Cincinnati loss bothered me mostly just because of the contrast between all of their offensive and defensive creativity and our lackluster game plan.  But overall there were too many unfocused, unengaged moments this season where I questioned what exactly I was cheering on...

MHR - Who would be your Team MVP for the Broncos for 2014-15 and why?

ADanishMan: C.J. Anderson, hands down. That kid played with so much heart this year, even if he only started half of the season. He led the league in rushing yards over the last few weeks of the season, and he just played hard.

Anderson was always falling forward for an extra yard or making defenders miss left and right. His 4th-and-1 conversion on Sunday night was just a microcosm of what he can do.

Jeremy Bolander: While C.J. is a strong candidate, for the spark and effort he provided, I feel he is ever so slightly edged out by Emmanuel Sanders, who reached new levels of productivity and leadership here.  IMO he should be a captain on this team because of his fire and enthusiasm.

Manning to Sanders Chargers TD 2

No player impressed me more when it came to making plays that almost weren't, laying out for balls, hanging onto the tough catches.  He isn't the pure overwhelming size and talent of DT, but in my opinion, he outperformed him significantly on a target-for-target basis.  I loved the jet sweep play they designed for him, and I hold it against the staff that it was hardly ever used. >:(

MHR - John Fox is gone - and many approve of Elway's swift move - but what were some of the things Fox brought to the team for which he should be lauded? And what was ultimately his demise here?

ADanishMan: Fox was handed the keys to a team that finished 4-12 the year before his arrival. He managed to pull the team to an 8-8 record during the madness of Tebowmania, adjusting the offense to fit Tebow's wacky playing style along the way to a playoff victory over Pittsburgh.

Fox was handed the keys to a team that finished 4-12 the year before his arrival. He managed to pull the team to an 8-8 record during the madness of Tebowmania followed by two straight 13-3 seasons, three playoff berths and a Super Bowl berth. -ADanishMan

After the acquisition of Manning, he led the team to two straight 13-3 seasons, three playoff berths, and a Super Bowl berth. Unfortunately for Fox, it wasn't enough, and he is now out of a job. His lack of aggression was, in my opinion, what sent him packing. That, and the fact that he and Elway disagreed on "how to reach the next step," whatever that means.

Jeremy Bolander: John Fox brought us in touch with a strain of coaching DNA with which Bronco fans really aren't familiar, but which was instrumental in some of the greatest football teams assembled in the Super Bowl era, and whose underlying philosophy is probably essential to every team.

This is the Chuck Noll strain, with a healthy dose of Don Shula (which was almost a pure strain descended from Shaughnessy) by way of Arnsperger.  The foundation of the Noll school of thought is fundamentally sound players in a fundamentally sound scheme.  The coaches of this school are almost wholly invested in the improvement of their players, while their game plans tend to revolve around transforming complex problems into familiar schemes where fundamentals can win the day.  You might describe this as "dumbing down" the game, but it is anything but dumb, and it is essential to any team or game where things get out of hand, and an even hand is needed.

Fox's 'demise' is that this squad went as far as fundamentals and patience would take it. It has been a privilege to experience some of the benefits, such as young player development, through Fox.   -Jeremy Bolander

It is a naturally calming philosophy, both in the sense of play calling, but also in the sense of an organization in upheaval, which is a big reason why we all recognize that Fox was a good choice for where we were at the time he was hired.  This kind of coaching is often called conservative, but that misses the point.  It is patient, and it is timeless, with relevant names in every era since Red Blaik.

As Broncos fans, we have been relatively unexposed to this side, and it has been a privilege to experience some of the benefits, such as young player development, through Fox.  His 'demise' (if you want to call it that) is that this squad went as far as fundamentals and patience would take it.  It is possible that a new staff under Fox could combine the best of both worlds, but as Elway noted, it is important for EVERYONE to be on the same page.  Historically, a marriage of the Walsh DNA (X's and O's scheming) and the Noll DNA (trump fundamentals) doesn't last long, but it is theoretically possible.

In the absence of the mind that can do that, a wholesale coaching change will have to do.

Predictions:

Broncos record in 2015-16?

ADanishMan: With Manning: 12-4; Without Manning: 10-6

Jeremy Bolander: 19-0.  It will be glorious.

Best 3 teams in the AFC next year?

ADanishMan: With Manning - New England, Denver, Pittsburgh; Without Manning - New England, Pittsburgh, Baltimore

Jeremy Bolander: The Broncos.  Oh, you said the best three teams...Yeah, the Broncos.

Best 3 teams in the NFC next year?

ADanishMan: Seattle, Arizona, Green Bay

Jeremy Bolander: This question doesn't make any sense to me...  The Broncos aren't even in the NFC.

Chances that Demaryius Thomas is a Bronco next season?

ADanishMan: 100%

Jeremy Bolander: Almost guaranteed.

Chances that Julius Thomas is a Bronco?

ADanishMan: 60%

Jeremy Bolander: Very good. Smells like a franchise tag to me.

Which season is Brock Osweiler the starting QB for Denver?

ADanishMan: 2015 (I'm going with my gut. I hope I'm wrong.)

Jeremy Bolander: No idea, but I'm looking forward to seeing Brock as a full time starter.  I think he is a great guy, a special talent, with real potential to be a leader for our team.  He already has an elite work ethic, so he just needs some things to work out around him.  Remember people, Perseverance!

Super Bowl champ in three weeks? (you can decline this question if too depressing to think about - haha!)

ADanishMan: Oh geez, this stings. I never thought I'd say this, but I hope it's Green Bay.

Jeremy Bolander: Of all the teams in the divisional round, Seattle was the most impressive (though they did draw the easiest ticket).

I'm rooting for a IND/GB Super Bowl, but I think we are going to get exactly the opposite.  In which case, give me Seattle. That is really hard for me to say because I am in the middle of Seahawks country right now, and it is about 90 percent front runners and bandwagoners.  I am so sick of people calling themselves the "12," like this is the first time an NFL team had such a loud, enthusiastic crowd.  I wish they could have seen Mile High Stadium shaking the camera until you could barely make out what was going on. We'll see how "12" they are the next time Seattle misses the playoffs for a few years.

But, even among a lot of the bandwagoners, there are a lot of smart cats in the Seattle fan base (and one of the best SBNation bloggers ever was a Seattle blogger), and I do love the city and the Pacific Northwest in general as it is my adoptive home.