Thursday, August 15, 2013

Pulling Up the Reins on the Wild Horses

By Ross Lancaster

One of my favorite time-killing activities in NFL offseasons past has been to watch the 30-minute highlight videos NFL Films produces for any team in any year. The production value NFL Films puts into each one makes nearly every single edition worth watching.

The editions for the upper-echelon teams just about write themselves. It's the episodes for the truly awful teams that stand out as the finest in sports production. They have a way of making you say going into the next season, "Hey, this team could be something next season," even if it's the same team coming off of a 3-13 season that you and your football-loving friends make the butt of any joke.

That sort of optimism can be found among all 32 rosters right now in the NFL. After all, this is the league where going from four to six wins and a high draft pick all the way to the next January's playoffs isn't just a possibility, but an annual reality. However, once games start, for many of last year's good and bad clubs alike, optimism will fade into a losing record and eventually discontent.

At the beginning of any given season, there are just a few teams that stand out well above the pack as Super Bowl contenders. This year is no exception. The teams most people have shoe-ins, or close to it, for playoff berths are, in no particular order, the Texans, Patriots, Broncos, Packers, 49ers, Seahawks, and Falcons. It wouldn't surprise too many people if both Super Bowl representatives came from those seven clubs.

Out of those seven teams, I am a lifelong fan of one of them, the Denver Broncos.

This is supposed to be "our year." The AFC West is laughably weak, yet again. Wes Welker will play in the slot to make an already-prolific receiving corps one of the strongest in recent memory, not even mentioning the all-time great that will be throwing the ball to Welker, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. Offseason moves were made that strengthen the interior of the offensive and defensive lines.

But yet, I can't shake the feeling like the Broncos' status as AFC favorites is completely hype-driven, and that having Peyton Manning and the Welker acquisition are clouding people's judgment of what is a flawed football team.

Yes, Denver went 13-3 last season and returns most of the same important players. But it's worth revisiting how the Broncos got to that record. Last season, the Broncos played just five games against playoff teams, and went 2-3 in those contests. They got to not only play six games against the horrible AFC West, but drew four against the average AFC North and the below-average NFC South. This season sees them play the volatile, but solid NFC East and the AFC South. And while you'll repeatedly see the stat that the Broncos play the league's easiest schedule, that won't account for how teams like Kansas City will improve their win totals in 2013.

Even if schedule karma comes back to the Broncos, it has hardly been an inspiring offseason. Free agency started with a massive fax machine snafu on the part of Elvis Dumervil's agent, causing the one-time sack leader to get released on a technicality. He went on to sign with 2012 nemesis Baltimore. Shaun Phillips was brought in to replace Dumervil on a one-year contract.

Then there was news of Von Miller's suspension, which may or may not be upheld when his appeal is heard in the coming days. If the all-world pass rusher has to sit out four games, early contests against the Ravens and Giants get that much tougher without as reliable a pass rush.

Elsewhere on the defensive side of the ball, the Broncos secondary, which had good stats last season, but was sketchy at times in 2012 (see Moore, Rahim 2013 divisional playoffs), signed Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Quentin Jammer, veterans who should make an impact, but have disappointed on other teams in the past.

But the biggest warning flag for the Broncos is their fragile offensive line. Center J.D. Walton is out for a while, his backup (Dan Koppen) is out for the season and Denver had to talk Ryan Lilja out of retirement as a stopgap. Manny Ramirez may get the job after starting most of last season at right guard filling in for Chris Kuper. Kuper just returned to practice, but is coming off a couple of injury-plagued years. It should be noted that Louis Vasquez, a free agent signing from the Chargers like Phillips, is getting rave reviews as a new member of the line.

Yet, a knock on Manning is that he can be disrupted the most up the middle. If the offensive is unstable there, it could be lots of trouble. Additionally, after cutting Willis McGahee, the Broncos top two running backs on the depth chart, Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball, while skilled, are also very young and unproven at this level. The offensive line will have to step up to make sure they get running lanes.

Make no mistake, the Broncos are a quality football team. Even should they win three or four fewer games than 2012, they'll likely still make the playoffs in such a subpar mess of a division. However, teams like the Texans, Falcons, 49ers, and Seahawks have less question marks at this stage of the preseason, and should be viewed as Super Bowl favorites before the imperfect Broncos.

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