AFC West Preview: Denver Broncos, Part II

Michael Ash continues his preview of the AFC West in part two of his look at the Denver Broncos.

REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

For the second straight season, the biggest reason for optimism in Denver revolves around their young quarterback. While Jay Cutler's play on the field was strong last year, he announced in May that he'd been diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes, a condition that went untreated as he battled fatigue and significant weight loss in 2007.

Despite his struggling health, Cutler improved over the final games compared to the first half of the season. Knowing that, it's only natural to wonder how he would have played if he had actually been receiving treatment for his illness.

Denver is hopeful a healthy Cutler will respond with a strong 2008. He'll be aided in his efforts by third year receiver Brandon Marshall, who emerged as a significant threat in the passing game last year, and rookie left tackle Ryan Clady will be counted on to help bring some stability back to the offensive line.

On defense, the hope is that new coordinator Bob Slowik can reverse the unit's recent slide. A shakeup at linebacker has seen D.J. Williams return to the weakside, and if the team can get more contributions from second-year linemen Jarvis Moss and Marcus Thomas, perhaps the Broncos' run defense will stiffen up in 2008.

REASONS FOR CONCERN

Despite the widespread optimism that he'll bounce back, the issue of Cutler's health still has to be mentioned here. There's just no way that a team's starting quarterback can be diagnosed with a disease as serious as diabetes without it being a concern.

From all reports, Cutler's managing things well and shouldn't be affected by his illness or his treatment. Still, many will expect him to prove himself before they dismiss his condition as a non-issue. And while we're on the subject, it's certainly concerning that Denver's medical staff didn't notice their starting quarterback dropping 30 pounds over the course of the season.

On the whole, though, the Broncos are facing several bigger concerns than Cutler's health. How about the condition of Brandon Marshall, who severed an artery and tendons in his arm during a bizarre offseason mishap in March? Will there be any lasting damage that could impact his performance on the field?

Perhaps even more concerning is the growing number of off-field incidents Marshall has been involved in. It recently came to light that he was arrested back in March, his third run-in with the law in a twelve month span. He has a DUI trial scheduled for September and will almost certainly face a suspension if convicted. But as the league has shown with Pacman Jones and Chris Henry, repeated violations of the personal conduct policy can lead to punishment even without a conviction.

If Marshall was suspended, or if his injury prevented him from playing at the level he did a year ago, it would be devastating to a Broncos offense that still faces a lot of questions along the offensive line. And one has to wonder how effective the team will actually be on defense with their third coordinator in as many seasons.

But looking at the big picture, the biggest concern facing Denver appears to be their continued reliance on Mike Shanahan as both head coach and the unofficial general manager. While no one can argue against his coaching success, Shanahan's reputation as a personnel evaluator has taken a serious hit in recent years with several failed drafts and a laundry list of bad moves in free agency.

The best thing for the team would be to hire an actual general manager and let Shanahan focus on coaching. But would he be willing to give up control and allow that to happen? The upcoming season may be a critical one as it relates to that query. If a healthy Cutler and a resurgent defense can return the Broncos to the playoff pack, it will serve as proof that Shanahan has things back on the right track.

But if they don't, there will be a lot of questions to answer.

2008 PREDICTION

It's important to keep in mind that the Broncos were only a game under .500 last season. Had they not kicked the ball twice to Devin Hester, or not allowed Brett Favre burn them on the first play of overtime, there would be a lot less talk about Denver starting to backslide.

Then again, two of their seven wins a year ago came off the foot of Jason Elam on the final play of the game. And with Elam no longer in Denver, those kinds of close calls may not play out in the Broncos' favor next year.

Denver was wildly inconsistent in 2007, which makes the prediction business a little difficult. While the Broncos are capable of upsetting better teams, they're just as likely to get beaten by a team they have no business losing to.

Their season doesn't start off well, as four of their first seven opponents made the playoffs last year. And two of the non-playoff teams – the Chiefs and Raiders – are division rivals who Denver will play on the road. With two hostile road games and their matchups with the Chargers, Patriots, Jaguars, and Bucs, the Broncos could find themselves in an early hole.

The second half contains some winnable games, including contests with Miami, Atlanta, and the home tilts with Oakland and K.C. But if the Broncos' season gets off to a bad start, they may spend the latter half of the year just trying to climb out of it.

While many in Denver seem to be hoping for something definitive – either a return to the playoffs that vindicates Shanahan, or another sub-.500 year that sparks a change of some sort -- the feeling here is that the Broncos will frustrate everyone by finishing the year 8-8. Shanahan's supporters will note the one-game improvement from 2007, and his critics will point out that Denver has missed the playoffs for three consecutive years.

Then all these same issues will be rehashed again in 2009.

Next time: the Oakland Raiders.

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