The old saying goes, "You win some, you lose some." In 2004, the Denver Broncos had lost more than some.
An unforgettable failure to the tune of a 49-24 drubbing in the AFC Wildcard Playoffs at the hands of Peyton Manning and the Colts left the Broncos with a bitter taste in their mouth. The season had showed promise. Jake Plummer put up arguably the best season of his career. Rod Smith posted his best numbers in several seasons and Ashley Lelie secured his first 1,000 yard season. The Broncos rushing attack was among the league's best and the teams defensive ranked in the top ten overall.
But it all came crashing down to a bitter end.
Even though Manning leads the Broncos into battle today, some fans will never forgive him for such a beating. The images of Roc Alexander getting torched play after play is forever ingrained in the collective memory of Broncos fans across the world. In fact, some of us may still have nightmares about that game.
At the forefront of concerns for the team was having a line capable of rushing the quarterback. The team registered 38 sacks during the regular season, but failed to put pressure on Manning which allowed for too much time and gave birth to their demise. Changes needed to be made, something had to be done.
The state of the Broncos defensive line was questionable at best. The team had lost 2003 sack leader Bertrand Berry to the Arizona Cardinals in free agency a year prior. Former Broncos first-round pick and do-it-all defensive lineman Trevor Pryce was sidelined fourteen games during the season due to complications from a herniated disc. The brightest spot in their 2004 campaign with 10.5 sacks, Reggie Hayward, had his free agent bags packed for Jacksonville ready to cash in. (Sound familiar?)
Desperate times call for desperate measures. And where did Mike Shanahan and Ted Sundquist come up with a solution to a glaring need at both defensive tackle and defensive end? In the most unlikely of places -- the Cleveland Browns.
It all started when Butch Davis resigned from the Cleveland Browns and a plethora of his coaching staff followed. Their defensive line coach, Andre Patterson, was friends with Shanahan. After being let go from the Browns, he had told him that with the Browns defense switching to a 3-4 scheme the next season, many of the players on their unit would become available.
Someway, somehow, a light bulb went off in Shanahan's head and proclaimed, "We need to go get these guys."
The eventual arrive of the Browncos to Denver became fate when Shanahan opted for Patterson to be the next defensive line coach of the Broncos. With one domino in place, the rest would fall as anticipated.
At the beginning of free agency, the Broncos made a trade with Cleveland to obtain defensive tackle Gerard Warren in exchange fourth round draft selection. Denver believed they were getting a steal. Warren had put up good numbers, but never reached his full potential in Cleveland. Nobody ever doubted his talent, only his work ethic and desire to be the best. Patterson believed in him and defensive coordinator Larry Coyer thought he could get the most out of him. For the Broncos, it was worth the roll of the dice.
The team wasn't done making moves and in a separate deal, sent Reuben Droughns to the Dawg Pound to acquire defensive end Ebeneezer Ekuban and defensive tackle Michael Myers. Given the history of Shanahan's success with developing running backs, the team had no concern sending their leading rusher to Cleveland to obtain two starters on the defensive line.
But three ex-Browns just weren't enough to satisfy Shanahan and Sundquist's hunger. They needed on more. Free agency was in full-swing and rumors began to circle that the Broncos were courting former number one overall pick Courtney Brown. The Penn State defensive end was said to have had unprecedented talent at the time, but never performed up to expectations, enduring an early start to a career decimated by injury. The gambling in Dove Valley continued and the Broncos tossed some chips in Brown's direction on a low-risk, high reward two year deal.
The idea of the Broncos improving their defensive line with retreads and underachievers from a perennial losing franchise was deemed a laughable endeavor by many fans and writers, who chuckled at the notion that the foursome of lineman from Cleveland could big difference makers for Denver. I was one of them.
As the years have gone by, we have now reached the ten year anniversary of the Denver Browncos experiment Looking back at what was once thought to be a sure-fire recipe, we can see that the gamble Shanahan made didn't turn out that bad. The unit helped contribute to some great successes over a few seasons, but also had some issues that are worth mentioning as well.
In 2005, the Broncos defense was ranked second overall in rush defense, but ranked as one of the worst against the pass. Overall, the Broncos were middle of the pack in yardage allowed (15th), but were third in the league in regard to points allowed over the course of the season, which was a six slot improvement over the 2004 campaign. Both sides of the ball were efficient at getting their jobs done and Denver took the AFC West and registered a thirteen win season and had their sites set on the Super Bowl.
Although the defense played well for most of the regular season, they failed to do their job when it mattered most and the Broncos suffered a crushing 34-17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Conference Championship game. The defense only accumulated two sacks that game and failed to apply the pressure necessary to rattle Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and contain the Steelers offense. It marked the third year straight that the Broncos had been eliminated from the playoffs in an embarrassing fashion.
2006 rolled around and the Broncos had more changes on the horizon. The team had selected Vanderbilt quarterback Jay Cutler in the first round of the NFL Draft and rumors spread quickly that if Plummer were to struggle during the season, he would be benched in favor of the rocket armed rookie from Santa Claus, Indiana. Denver started off the season 7-4, but Plummer struggled to be effective, sporting a 55% completion percentage and having two more interceptions than touchdowns. He was benched in favor of Jay Cutler, who had his ups and downs, but only led the Broncos to two wins in their final five games and the Broncos fizzled out of playoff contention.
Denver's offensive struggles in 2006 were the reason why they missed the playoffs. The defense had a few poor outings, but ranked 8th in points and 14th in total yards allowed and had the looks of a top ten defense for most of the season. Though the team was once again formidable against the run, they still struggled against the pass and at registering sacks, which ultimately prompted the Broncos to move in another direction and for the most part, ended the Browncos experiment.
Ekuban played his final three seasons with the Broncos. He started 29 out of 46 games and registered 16 sacks and 128 tackles. Out of any of the former Browns lineman, he made the most positive impact and was a quality contributor for the squad. The Michael Myers experiment lasted two seasons. He amassed 88 tackles and three sacks and started 31 games out of the 32. His strength was against the run, but was a clear liability when it came to getting after the quarterback. Brown's shot at redemption failed to launch, as he lasted only one year with the team and struggled to produce, only accounting for two sacks and 24 tackles in thirteen games of action. Last but not least, Warren put out a solid effort in his two years with Denver, playing in 31 games and starting them all and producing 5.5 sacks and 49 tackles.
While the Denver Browncos weren't the x-factor towards hoisting a Lombardi for the Broncos during their time here, they certainly didn't play as poorly as most of us thought they would had when they jumped ship from Cleveland. It could have been a lot worse. To summarize the Browncos tenure in Denver in just a few short words, I'll use the eloquent words of a former Broncos coach, "Not too shabby."