Since the NFL free agency period opened on Tuesday, March 10th, the Denver Broncos have lost more players than they’ve gained. Tight ends Julius Thomas and Jacob Tamme, offensive lineman Orlando Franklin, defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, safety Rahim Moore, linebacker Nate Irving and defensive lineman Mitch Unrein have all moved on to other teams and will not be wearing orange and blue in 2015.
This perceived mass defection comes on the heels of major upheaval, as John Fox and his staff were “mutually” dismissed, following the Broncos dismal loss to the Indianapolis Colts in the Divisional Round of the playoff tournament in January.
”They must often change, who would be constant in happiness or wisdom.” – Confucius
For the last three seasons, the Broncos have failed in General Manager John Elway’s ultimate goal of winning another world championship. They’ve gotten close. But at the end of the day, the Broncos have failed. And in two of the three seasons, their season ended in a whimper, rather than with a raised fist.
Elway didn't like it. Not one bit. And although he must accept some of the responsibility associated with the team’s failure, it is Elway's job to dam the leaks and turn the ship around. The seven players who have defected, five of whom were 2014 starters, will be replaced. And the Broncos will move forward.
But they’ll be taking those steps with Gary Kubiak-- a new head coach, a new philosophy, a new system on offense and defense. More change. Change creates trepidation in most human beings, including fans. But in the case of the Denver Broncos, fans need not fear.
This roster is still replete with talent. Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Chris Harris, Jr., Aqib Talib, Bradley Roby, T.J. Ward, Malik Jackson, Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Virgil Green, Ryan Clady, Louis Vasquez, C.J. Anderson and others, still sport the orange and blue and are among the NFL's best players.
The biggest reason for optimism, however, is none other than Peyton Manning. It has become commonplace in many circles, both in the media and in the fanbase, to clown Manning and diminish his accomplishments as a member of the Denver Broncos.
However, despite this perception that Manning is a regular season hero but a postseason zero, in reality, he is the catalyst for all of the Super Bowl dreams and aspirations the team and the fans have. Without Manning, the Broncos are a 9-7 team. At best.
The NFL is a quarterback-driven league. Without the most crucial of pieces, even the best and most well-constructed rosters can only get so far. Brock Osweiler could be the next Aaron Rodgers, or he could be the next Matt Cassel. Regardless, he's a question mark who'll likely need time (years) to hone his craft against NFL competition.
But under Manning’s leadership, the Broncos are a virtual lock to win the AFC West. Division champions are guaranteed a spot in the postseason tournament, we mustn't forget.
In the playoffs anything can happen, both good and bad. Elway’s hope is that under the hands of Kubiak, Rick Dennison, and Wade Phillips, the foibles of the past will be reversed. In his postseason presser, Elway lamented what he perceived was a Broncos team who exited the playoffs without “kicking and screaming”.
Elway sees in Kubiak the same traits that made Mike Shanahan a two-time Super Bowl champion. Elway is confident that Kubiak’s system, which was learned under Shanahan, is the best option for an aging, veteran quarterback, like Manning.
”I do believe having been through that part of my career,” Elway said at the NFL Scouting Combine, “and having played for [former Head Coach] Mike Shanahan at the time and played with his offense, that I do believe it’s a very helpful offense. Peyton could fit in this offense very easily. It’s a lot more dependent on balance, so therefore Peyton is hopefully not going to have to throw the ball 50 or 55 times. I think for an older quarterback it’s a perfect system to be in. It’s really a great system for any quarterback but I think it’s even more helpful the older you get.”
A “perfect system” for an older quarterback. Those who doubt Elway’s abilities as a GM, at the very least, should not doubt his bona-fides as a Hall of Fame quarterback. As a former QB, Elway sees Kubiak’s system as one that can accentuate Manning’s abilities and protect him, as he plays in what could be the final year of his illustrious career.
Kubiak’s system is “a lot more dependent on balance”. Translation (for those who haven’t picked up on this yet): the Broncos are going to run the football—a lot. And that’s good. They’ll start in mini-camp. Because Kubiak is a new head coach, he’ll get an extra session of organized team activities to acclimate his players to his system.
For a guy like Manning, that’s huge. Manning is a creature of habit. And if the Broncos made a mistake in transforming their offense into a run-heavy one last season, it was that it happened down the stretch, on the spot, without the requisite time needed to make the players comfortable within it, including the QB. This year, Manning and the offense will have all year long to learn, develop and execute Kubiak’s scheme.
By the time the regular season rolls around, the new offense will be instinctual and second nature for Manning—like breathing. C.J. Anderson could very well rush for 1,500 yards in 2015. Montee Ball could experience a career renaissance, coming off a season decimated by injuries.
The Denver Broncos are going to be just fine. If you’re not growing, you’re dying. Under John Fox, the Broncos were dying. Under Gary Kubiak, the Broncos could become more alive than they have been in years.
In the upcoming NFL draft, the Broncos could have as many as 10 selections. That’s a lot of capital that can be used build a team in Kubiak’s image. And with a roster as talented and accomplished as the Broncos, they have very few holes. The offensive line is the biggest area of concern, but with two All-Pros (Clady and Vasquez) to hold down the fort, the draft offers the best chance to solidify the unit.
Don’t sleep on the impact Wade Phillips will have on this team. Although the Broncos were a top-5 defense in 2014, they lacked the killer instinct and the ability to win games when the offense struggled. Expect Phillips’ influence to change that.
Phillips’ defenses traditionally are aggressive, opportunistic and physical. For how talented the Broncos defense was last season, they just seemed to fall short in the big moments and lacked the ability, at times, to put the game away.
All things considered, Elway and the Broncos had to adapt, or die. Elway has chosen to adapt. And he’s putting all of his chips in on the shoulders of a soon-to-be 39-year-old QB and a head coach with a sub-.500 record.
But the chips Elway is bringing to the table are not bereft of value. They include nine of the ten Pro Bowlers the Broncos sent to Arizona just two months ago, along with several talented young players, whom John Fox failed to develop.
Don’t worry about the players the Broncos have lost in free agency. Elway let them walk for a reason. And get excited about the new additions—Darian Stewart, Vance Walker and Owen Daniels. Peyton Manning took a pay-cut for the first time in his career, and has been the target of criticism and vitriol. A pissed off Manning with a chip on his shoulder is an invaluable asset to the Denver Broncos and their fans.
After all, we're talking about a guy who was told more than once that his football career was over. He had to re-learn how to throw a football. Three years later, he's thrown 131 more touchdowns, won another league MVP award and guided a team to the Super Bowl.
If Peyton Manning can come back from something of that magnitude, he can shake off another disappointing team loss in the playoffs and the scorn of the NFL-loving world. People have been doubting Manning for a long time. What's one more case of proving them all wrong?
Elway took a risk in parting with John Fox and hiring a friend in Kubiak. Whether the risk pays off remains to be seen, but at least he had the stones to do it--mid-stream. Adapt or die.
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