You have to give this 2012 Broncos team credit - or blame, if you want - for one thing. They’ve become very predictable in certain particulars. And in this case, that’s not a bad thing.
It’s been a long time since I’ve watched a team so completely balanced and well-forged that it averaged over 30 points per game (30.1) yet gave up less than 20 points per game (18.1) in a season. A tight match was a seven-point victory.
Was it reminiscent of the 1998 Super Bowl run? Without question. Most of the time you have teams that have some strengths on both sides of the ball but one predominates, often heavily on one side of the line or the other. This team really doesn’t have any overpowering weaknesses, and none at all that can’t be accounted for with simple adjustments. That’s true for two reasons:
The first is that their players are walking embodiments of ‘next man up’, with a lot of skill, passion, and depth throughout the spectrum of the roster. Every successful team has to - but Denver can. No opponent sees Tony Carter or Mitch Unrein come on the field and thinks, “Oh, good.”
Manny Ramirez has stepped up in a big way, as he's been with the line long enough to learn their kind of communication.
Virgil Green began to earn receptions with his hard-nosed quality of play. Rahim Moore, Chris Harris Jr., the list goes on. Denver has some pieces that aren’t easily replaceable, but they have the kind of depth that was an illusion just a year ago.
The second reason is that they’re extremely well coached. The penalties they still commit should be symptomatic of a lack of firm coaching, but to be truthful, I haven’t seen any sign of that in most other areas. It’s strange to realize that part of it is most likely that they really haven’t been together as a group for even a full year, and to be still working out some issues is a normal part of that. There hasn’t been much normal about this year, so it just didn’t come up for me at first.
For me, this year was a long, slow upswing in comfort while watching games as my trust in them grew by the week, and things that would have had me walking out of the room in disgust barely ruffled my sense of interest. Somehow, they were always still in it at first, and then they were dictating the course of the game and the repetition of the early mistakes has lessened - at this point my concern about them tends to be fairly small.
They’re just that good. It’s not that the mistakes don’t concern me. It’s what they’ve done to people in the third quarter that has me fascinated by the outcome of the first half and eager to see how they adjust. I don’t recall watching any better adjustments, and the head coaching and coordinators (obviously including Peyton Manning) deserve a lot of praise on that.
They’re also still getting better as a team, regardless of how impressively they’re playing. That fact alone has to give pause to the remaining opposing coordinators, especially those offensive. I suspect that the increasing likelihood of Jack Del Rio's return will have the players even more pumped up. JDR is a man that the players want back as much as the fans do. Finally, hopefully, a DC who lasts more than one year - and what a DC he’s been.
“The hotter the fire, the stronger the steel” is an aphorism I like from Japanese swordmaking - it’s true in so much of life. A silk scarf could be dropped over the edge of one of their better blades and it would part in two from its own weight, which is not unlike what happened to San Diego in Week 6. The first half was definitely separated from the second and the Bolts were carved up with incredible precision.
This team has been through some burning flames on the way to the playoffs, but this is not the time to list them. If you’re a Broncos fan, they’re already seared onto your heart anyway. What’s come out on the other side of the tunnel is the kind of experience that a child will tell his friends at a 40th birthday party: about this sea change in the Broncos and how he got into sports with his father that year.
The bond that’s there between father and son when they are watching history being made in the world of sports has long brought them together, serving as a common ground that brings them closer. There’s a resonance, a clarity of excitement in the air that’s reminiscent of the time weeks before a million people were dancing in the streets after Super Bowl 32. It hasn’t risen that high, any more than the team is feeling like they’ve accomplished their goal. But it’s there, and it’s getting stronger.
To see them playing like this and coached like this, week after jaw-dropping week after week has been exhilarating. It was a reminder for me of the glow of the northern lights touching the peaks over Gore Range when I lived up there, of lying on the second meadow on the Mesa Cortina trail around the base of Buffalo Mountain, and watching meteor storms as they painted swaths of golden light that burst forth wildly, painting luminous streaks across the skies; of seeing the top ridges of the Western slope of the Continental lit bright and hotly aglow just before sunset, burning in the fading light with that singular orange-gold color that’s borne of the iron oxides in the soil and the lack of atmosphere that would slow the sun’s power up at 10,000 feet.
It was just Bronco orange, set on fire.
It was an awakening, watching the Denver skyline mature after I moved to Colorado from Chicago and began realizing the extent of community that was there, as a city and as a region. I was struck by how it was exemplified by the Broncos fans. I moved there during the first year of the Elway Super Bowls. It didn’t take long to join the dance. I’d already fallen in love with the beauty of the mountains, the clean scent of the snow, the jewel-like glitter of the bright sunlight off of the new fall, and the winds whispering through the pines. Broncos fandom was like the cherry on the sundae, the rug that really holds the room together.
I couldn’t help but notice the predictability in games that I started off watching yesterday and today. There has evolved an almost inevitable, methodical sameness to the games during the 11-game winning streak. It started in fits and starts early in the season but it was in the first San Diego game that it clawed its way out from hibernation, shook itself awake, threw back its head, and cried havoc. Soon there was a pattern to the victories, one after the other.
At some point, generally during the first half of a game, Peyton Manning, through his analysis of the defense and aided by circus catches and the separation gained by the receivers or via the crashing plunges of his running backs, gets the lead. That’s part one.
From there, the defensive line shuts down what’s left of the opponent's run game - which was rarely much - and goes to work on the hammering bull rushes and spinning, rip, swim, and stunt sacks that they made 52 of through the endless creativity of Jack Del Rio’s pass rushing attack. That’s part two.
That goes on for a while as the Broncos start to just run out the clock. A parting sack or two is performed around then and the game’s pretty much over. In one sense, it usually has been over for a while, too. Strike three and they’re out of here.
It’s been about that simple. Now on to the next season the real season, one at a time.
You can’t do it with gadgets and trickeration in the playoffs. I enjoy a nice surprise variation myself at times, but day in and out, on the road and at home, week in and out, Denver had to bring it by showing more skill, more determination, and more focus than the other guys. It’s what the Special Forces guys, those same guys who taught the Denver locker room to debrief without personal ego, sometimes say: “The man who trains more, wins.”
That’s exactly how it’s looked, too, in watching replays of the entire year. Despite fumbles and the occasional interception or big plays permitted (and there have been remarkably few of those as the year wore on) they’re simply better trained, due to their own efforts as individual players and some clear communication by the staff as to what they expect.
It started with the hiring of a legendary quarterback who some folks questioned with regard to his football business acumen and his choice of head coach in John Fox. The franchise was in tatters, and he vowed to change that. That’s in progress. It hasn’t ended yet, a fact that still has the power to shock me.
There’s something incredibly satisfying in seeing an ability to maintain the level of play that this entire group of men, playing together with a greater goal than their own as individuals, can achieve. The best teams often talk about the locker room chemistry and their love for each other. Schmaltzy? Sure. It’s a hard story to tell without superlatives, and I didn’t create it: I’m just a chronicler.
Denver’s put together a roster that has seen undrafted players like Chris Harris taking their roles by storm, and they’ve seen former first-rounders like Knowshon Moreno and Robert Ayers - who had looked like they were on their way out - suddenly turn their own futures and their games completely around. There are stars like Von Miller and Champ Bailey.
Sometimes the perfect guy for a job is already on your roster - he just usually needs to believe in himself, behave like it, and for the coach to see it and take a chance on him. Ask Wesley Woodyard about that. Congratulations to him on the Darrent Williams “Good Guy’ award.
One, two, three. It’s been as simple as that. Soon, the tests are bigger and the stakes even higher, but it’s still all football. Denver’s playing some of the best that I’ve ever seen in over five decades of watching. I’ve had the good fortune of watching a lot of very talented coaches and teams - Bill Walsh’s 49ers, the 1985 Bears defense (the offense was pretty good: the defense was unnatural), Elway’s back-to-back titles, the 2001 and 2009 Pats. Brilliant players, innovative coaches, new schemes and formations, head-shaking plays. These guys in Dove Valley?
They’re up there with the best of them. It feels a lot like 1998.