Last March, the Denver Broncos officially faced what everyone knew was imminent: the retirement of quarterback Peyton Manning. One year later — amidst much less fanfare — a player just as essential as Manning to their triumph in Super Bowl 50 is walking away from football. Wednesday, DeMarcus Ware announced he was retiring.
Despite leading the Broncos to their first NFL title in nearly two decades, neither Manning nor Ware carved out their legacies in Denver. Both Manning and Ware were bound for Canton, Ohio well before signing free-agency deals with the Broncos.
Executive vice president John Elway is the man most people credit for bringing Ware and Manning to Denver, and in many ways the man most people credit for returning the Broncos to the type of Super Bowl glory he provided in the late 1990s. But this time, unlike in 2012, when Manning signed, or 2014 when Ware joined the team, the Broncos aren’t a player or two away. In fact, the Broncos are closer to needing a partial rebuild than they have been in quite some time.
There’s no reason to think the Broncos’ hiring of former Dolphins defensive coordinator Vance Joseph won’t be considered a success. He certainly has a strong pedigree, having coached under Gary Kubiak and Marvin Lewis. But the roster he inherits barely resembles the one that recently won a Super Bowl, and not simply because it lacks the two future Hall of Famers (Manning and Ware) it once boasted.
Discounting the concern over the quarterback position — Paxton Lynch did not show much in his limited opportunities, and if there was any truth to the rumors of acquiring Tony Romo and/or trading Trevor Siemen that’s very telling — the rest of the Broncos offense is a shell of what it once was.
Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas each topped 1,000 yards last year and over the last three years have comprised arguably the best duo of wide receivers in the NFL. But both turn 30 in 2017 and while that might not mean considerable dropoff, the lack of any threats beside them is a concern. There was virtually no production from the Broncos tight ends last year and given how much Manning relied on that position during his prime — and Denver’s failure to replace that in free agency — it puts more pressure on Sanders and Thomas to rescue their suddenly average passing game.
Still, that’s new (and ironically also former) offensive coordinator Mike McCoy’s task, not Elway’s and not even Joseph’s. And for all his failures as a head coach in San Diego, McCoy did turn Melvin Gordon into a second-half dynamo in 2016 — during one eight-game stretch he averaged 95 yards on the ground while scoring eight times — while still pushing Philip Rivers to a Pro Bowl.
The additions of Ronald Leary and Menelik Watson — part-time starters on two of the best rushing offenses in the NFL last year — should fortify the Broncos ground game, whether it’s led by C.J. Anderson, Devontae Booker or someone else. And since Elway suggested the Broncos will employ a more power-running game, rather than Kubiak’s trademark zone-scheme, Denver has reason to expect a bump in their rankings in 2017: The Broncos actually posted consistently worse team-rushing totals under Kubiak than they did in the John Fox era.
Instead, defense is suddenly a much larger question mark than anticipated.
Von Miller’s talent and production is unimpeachable: He’s one of the most feared and efficient defenders in all of the NFL. And there are valuable starters beside him, even with Ware’s retirement. Shane Ray put up impressive numbers and Denver’s secondary remains relatively young and one of the best in the game.
But the Broncos run defense was one of the worst in the NFL last year, finishing 27th overall and surrendering 140-or-more yards on the ground a whopping seven times in 2016. So maybe letting Wade Philips walk wasn’t the worst idea in the world, like many suggested. And that wasn’t Denver’s only formula for solving the issue. According to the Denver Post, “John Elway was tired of watching his defense get pushed around in the run game so he signed two of the biggest defensive linemen on market.”
But signing 32-year-old Domata Peko and utility lineman Zach Kerr didn’t exactly have the impact that signing Manning did in 2012 or Ware did in 2014, either. In an increasingly competitive AFC — featuring a suddenly large number of potent running games headlined by Pittsburgh, Miami, Buffalo, Tennessee, Houston and even New England — the Broncos rush defense is an exploitable weakness.
Denver blew the division lead and ultimately a spot in the postseason last year because of a five-game stretch in which they only recorded one win against the putrid Jacksonville Jaguars. Given who they lost those games to (Tennessee, New England, twice to Kansas City) and how they lost them (surrendering an average of 158 yards on the ground in that five-week period) the Broncos defense was a liability, no matter how strong a pass rush or secondary they possess.
And speaking of the competition, that might as well be the greatest threat to the Broncos staving off mediocrity. The AFC West is now one of the best top-to-bottom divisions in the league. Practically overnight the Raiders went from doormat to Super Bowl contender, behind New England, the Chiefs have been the most consistent team in the AFC the past two years, and San Diego gets a fresh start with a new head coach, a new city and presumably a new direction.
No one really thinks, even with all their minor-to-significant holes, the Broncos are on the verge of a three- or four-win season. But following the worst year of the short John Elway administration, the Broncos have more concerns this offseason than every before. And this time around, fans don’t have big-name additions (Manning, Sanders, Ware, even Kubiak) or a freshly minted Super Bowl trophy to ease their worries.