PHOENIX – The quarterback has changed. To whom, we still don’t know. The head coach stepped down. The offensive and defensive coordinators were swapped out. But the Denver Broncos aren’t broken.
That’s what head coach Vance Joseph wants to be clear about. Not broken. Not rebuilding. Not rebooting. Not taking a step back. Denver is still squarely inside that Super Bowl window.
Of course, time will tell if that’s hope or fantasy.
There’s no denying the Broncos still have one of the most talented rosters in the NFL, including a defense that still appears to be Super Bowl ready. But history is usually a better gauge of optimism than the ambitions of a new head coach. And it suggests that almost every NFL franchise in the midst of quarterback uncertainty – and a complete overhaul at the top of the coaching pyramid – is usually headed into some rocky regular-season terrain. Or at the very least, the team will hit a speed bump while chemistry and design issues are worked out.
Joseph doesn’t sound like he’s subscribing to any of that. Regardless of what history says.
Asked Tuesday at the NFL owners meetings why the Broncos were such an appealing job when head coach Gary Kubiak surprisingly stepped down in January, Joseph called the attraction to Denver “obvious.”
“The Broncos were a job that wasn’t broken,” Joseph said. “Most jobs that open, it’s a rebuild. The [previous] guy was fired for a reason [when jobs come open] – it wasn’t right. But with this job, they just won a championship the year prior and they won nine games with two rookie quarterbacks. It’s not a broken job. You have a great fan base and great management. You’ve got [general manager] John Elway in the building. To have a chance to acquire a job like that was luck. You’re lucky because most guys that get a first-time job, your chance of keeping that job is slim to almost none in this day and age. They give you about two or three years to win, and if you don’t win, you’re gone. Having the Broncos job, I have a chance to be there for a while if I do it right.”
That last point – if Joseph does it right – is paramount. That’s another part of what makes Denver a job that cuts in both directions: loaded with opportunity to win; highly pressurized to not lose.
Joseph called at least one part of it exactly right. The Broncos are a good situation to walk into. At the very least, the defense is ready-made for success. But Denver is imperfect on offense, and the assumption is that one elite half of a team can carry a season usually doesn’t work out well in the NFL. In point of fact, it delivered the Broncos to only 9-7 last season – the same record as the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans, and only one win better than the Baltimore Ravens and Indianapolis Colts. It’s easy to assume the Broncos will be better than those AFC peers this season, but absurd to assume it’s a given.
And that’s largely because of the offense, which has two young quarterbacks (Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch) who have shown promise but now must show significant development. That’s no given, even with some offseason investment in the offensive line that included signing talented guard Ron Leary away from the Dallas Cowboys and oft-injured tackle Menelik Watson from the Oakland Raiders.
It’s worth noting that the Cowboys weren’t happy to see Leary go and that he should be a very good cog in the Broncos’ running game. Watson, on the other hand, has flashed some ability and has the tools, but the Raiders were long frustrated with his health issues and weren’t devastated to see him go – even to a division rival. That latter point says something and should at the very least be a motivating force for the new Bronco.
In some ways, Denver’s fortunes next season may begin and end with that offensive line. How it comes together is going to go a long way in carrying a running game that has to improve. If the quarterback group remains the same – and that’s a big if, no matter what the team says about Tony Romo – the line’s ability to keep a starter upright and create opportunities for a backfield rotation could be the difference between another 9-7 campaign or a high playoff seed. With that in mind, there’s an expectation of better results from Joseph.
“I want an offense that scores points,” Joseph said. “I don’t want an offense that leans on our defense to win the games for us. I don’t want that. I told [offensive coordinator] Mike [McCoy] when I hired him – I said, ‘Mike, I want you to go score points. Whoever is our quarterback, let’s score as many points as we can and our defense is going to play behind you.’ We can’t go into it thinking [the defense is] going to rescue our offense every game. That’s a bad way to go into the season. I want those guys to be aggressive. I want them to attack defenses and score as many points as they can. Now, if they can’t – defense [will] help us. But their mindset just has to be – be aggressive and score points.”
Given that mandate, it’s fair to be skeptical of how hard Denver is selling the idea that it’s not a big candidate if a Romo sweepstakes happens. And there’s no denying that is what the Broncos are selling right now. Whether it’s on the record or off, franchise leaders have been doing their best to beat back the notion that Denver will be a factor in potential Romo destinations. But there’s something interesting that hasn’t been said, and that’s this: “We are not interested in adding a starting caliber veteran to our team.”
That is the kind of language that could be used to wipe out all of the Romo talk. Elway and Joseph aren’t stupid. They know they could definitively shoot down a potential Romo addition without saying his name or getting into tampering trouble. But they haven’t. Instead, they’ve walked right up to that kind of language and then failed to take the kill shot.
That leads to things like Joseph saying this: “Right now, today, we’ve got two quarterbacks in our building that are going to be one and two. We have to add a third in some capacity. Now could that third outplay our one and two? If he’s that good, absolutely. But right now, we have a one and two in our building.”
To end any Romo speculation, Joseph could’ve added on something like, “But we’re not interested in signing a long-tenured veteran who would come in and be the assumed starter.” It’s that simple. Instead, the Broncos sound like they’re laying as far back on Romo as possible but keeping the door open a sliver. And really, that’s all anyone needs in the NFL to sign a guy who could transform an offense – just a sliver of interest. It’s also worth noting that Elway wasn’t a frontrunner in the Peyton Manning race, either. But when he decided to be one, he closed the deal quickly. Expecting anything different with Romo would be a mistake.
If that sounds like a lot of unknowns for a franchise, maybe that’s because this is what the Broncos are right now: a great AFC unknown. Maybe not broken. Maybe not rebuilding. Maybe not even rebooting.
But not a finished product. And certainly not without pressure to produce immediately.
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