It was certainly a frustrating day for Denver Broncos fans. The Broncos were coming off a season in which Peyton Manning set new records despite playing with a high ankle sprain for most of the season, and even though the Broncos were blown out in the Super Bowl, several offseason moves that happened gave fans hope that this season might be different.
It was not to be, though, as the Broncos lost to the Indianapolis Colts 24-13 in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs. The Broncos scored on their opening drive, but then the offense stalled on most drives after that. The Denver defense had its moments, but gave up some big plays. Perhaps the most frustrating part is the Broncos, on paper, had the better roster, but the Colts were able to find ways to disrupt the Broncos on both sides of the ball.
The first thing the Colts did was take away with the short routes underneath that Peyton Manning likes to throw to get himself into a rhythm. This is not exclusive to Peyton, as Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers all like to do this as well. With Peyton, the Colts were daring him to beat them with downfield throws. Peyton was able to do this on the opening drive when he connected with Julius Thomas, but on the next drive, failed twice to connect with Emmanuel Sanders and he never recovered after that. It wasn't until the final desperation drive that the Colts switched things up, because they knew Peyton was going to attack downfield and toward the sidelines, so they wouldn't allow any such passes. (I will add it didn't help that left tackle Ryan Clady struggled, which has been the case for him much of the season.)
On defense, the problems really didn't start with the lack of a pass rush, as the Broncos were able to generate some pressure. What was the bigger issue was the early decision by the Broncos to put Aqib Talib on T.Y. Hilton. This proved to be a mismatch, as every time Talib defended Hilton, it was Hilton who won the matchup (aside from one down on which Talib got away with tugging on Hilton's jersey). I'm perplexed as to why the Broncos didn't assign Chris Harris to him the entire game, as Harris contained Hilton in the Broncos' season opener against Indy. It is true that Hilton has improved, but so has Harris, who was coming offseason surgery for a partially torn ACL when he opened the season. Allowing Hilton to dictate policy is exactly what you don't do, as Andrew Luck will find Hilton if he gets open.
It didn't help that the Broncos had to limit the snaps for linebacker Brandon Marshall, who was still not fully recovered from an ankle sprain. The Broncos' injury issues at linebacker, at which they lost Nate Irving and Danny Trevathan, hurt the team's rotation and became a bigger issue as the season progressed. Linebacker has been an issue for the Broncos, and just when it seemed they might be on their way to solving it, the injury bug hit and the Broncos didn't have many options to compensate.
The Broncos now enter the offseason with plenty of questions that fans will be asking -- mostly the fans who are insistent that anything short of a Super Bowl win is cause for cleaning house. These fans need to keep some perspective, as it wasn't that long ago that the Broncos stumbled through three mediocre seasons under Mike Shanahan, as he continued to reload when he really needed to rebuild, then Josh McDaniels failed to prove that he could get the team back on track, and in his first season, John Fox found himself stuck with either Kyle Orton or Tim Tebow as his QB options, yet managed to put together a respectable season. In other words, Broncos fans need to admit that they have been a spoiled bunch and to step away from the ledge, even if they expected to go back to the Super Bowl this season.
Allow me to give some perspective on how certain situations need to be treated as the Broncos enter the offseason.
Coaching: John Fox has tended to be conservative with his coaching decisions, but in today's game, those decisions really weren't the issue. The first time he was faced with fourth and one, he wisely chose to go for it, and that was still the right call even if CJ Anderson hadn't made the extra effort to get the first down. Later, it was fourth and four and the Broncos down by eight, when Fox opted for a 44-yard field goal. I would have leaned toward going for it, but I don't believe it's a clear-cut decision to do so. On fourth and nine as the Broncos were fighting for that last gasp, Fox was obviously correct to go for it, and Peyton likely chose the throw he made because nothing else was available. Fox's challenge on the failed conversion came out of desperation, but I can't fault him for it, because it was either try the challenge or let the Colts get the ball without showing he was trying to put up a fight.
There are, of course, other games in which Fox made questionable coaching decisions, particularly when it came to whether or not to convert on fourth down or when to use challenges. It is correct to call him a good, but not a great, coach. And, like with most coaches, there are legitimate criticisms regarding how he approaches the game, and it's fair to ask if he's truly willing to adjust and try different things. But it still wouldn't be a good decision to fire him right now and look elsewhere.
The Broncos gave Fox an extension through 2016 this past summer, so dismissing him means they have to pay him for two years to sit at home (unless he were to take another coaching job). It may be what some fans want, but it would be a panic move designed simply to pacify the fanbase. Pat Bowlen might have been doing that when he brought Elway into the front office, but since Elway arrived, he has mostly made smart moves and needs to continue keeping a level head. Fox should return for 2015, then Elway can re-evaluate after that season. Obviously, if the Broncos don't make the playoffs next year, Fox should be fired. If they do make the playoffs, they can then judge based on how deep the team goes in the playoffs. If they did decide to part ways after 2015, they only have to pay him for one year. Additionally, it would show Elway is being more meticulous with his decision making, rather than giving the impression that he is getting desperate to get Peyton (and everyone else) a ring, and allowing the whims of spoiled Broncos fans to dictate decisions.
Besides, if they do opt for a change, what guarantee do they have that they'll get the coach they want? Todd Bowles might get hired quickly, given that several teams have interviewed him and might not want to wait for the Seahawks to finish their run and then be able to pursue Dan Quinn. Rex Ryan is already out of the equation. Neither Mike Shanahan nor Josh McDaniels is going to come back (nor should they). I'm not certain if they really want to try luring Gary Kubiak -- it may pacify Broncos fans who love him, but Kubiak had mixed results when he was with the Texans. (UPDATE: Kubiak has already announced he will return to the Ravens next season, so he's no longer an option.) And does it really sound like that Doug Marrone is a better option?
At the coordinator positions, I suspect Jack Del Rio will be the next head coach of the Raiders. That would allow the Broncos to bring back Dennis Allen, who had a very good season with the Broncos as defensive coordinator in 2011. Adam Gase could go either way, although the divisional playoff game might make interested teams reconsider. If he's not hired elsewhere, I'm fine with him returning. Perhaps some changes could be made with other coaching positions, but care should be taken to evaluate each of them, and not base it solely on what fans watch on the field, because what is obvious to a fan is only part of the equation as to what any issues with a team really are.
Peyton Manning: Get ready for all the questions about whether or not it's time for Peyton to hang it up. On one hand, Peyton's play is declining, and he's not able to attack downfield effectively and thus teams can more easily limit what he does best, because they don't have to worry as much about those downfield throws. Also, he may be concerned about whether or not his body can take it any more. On the other hand, there are certain passing records within Peyton's grasp and he probably doesn't want to go out after having a subpar playoff outing.
I suspect Peyton will return next season, but I also believe it will be his last season. He will likely believe he can use the offseason to get back to full strength, then see what moves the Broncos make to get the final pieces in place, and give it one last shot. But regardless of what happens in 2015, I just don't see any reason that Peyton would want to stick around beyond that season. Another year without a Super Bowl is certainly not what he wants, but if he sticks around too long, he'll start looking desperate for that second ring.
In the meantime, the Broncos do need to carefully evaluate Brock Osweiler's progress, to determine if he can be the guy who can take over whenever Peyton decides to retire. If they don't think he's the answer, they may need to consider drafting a QB. With that said, it shouldn't be done simply to appease Broncos fans. I'm sure there a few Broncos fans who would love to see CSU quarterback Garrett Grayson become part of Denver's franchise. But bear in mind that, with the slim first-round pickings at the QB position, many other teams will be eyeing Grayson as well, and a move up the draft board might do the Broncos more harm than good.
Offseason gameplan: The Broncos will have to approach free agency differently this time around, because their priority will now be focused on re-signing key players. They were wise to get Chris Harris extended, but Demaryius Thomas, Orlando Franklin, and Terrance Knighton remain top priorities. They should also extend Julius Thomas, but be careful not to overpay him. Will Montgomery and Rahim Moore are worth bringing back at the right price. Virgil Green will likely get a deal done quickly, since he won't command much money. The good news is that extending their own players will address most offseason needs, and then they can focus on the draft.
The Broncos do need to figure out what they will do with the offensive line. Ryan Clady had a down year, but if Peyton returns, letting Clady go isn't an option. He will very likely be asked to restructure his deal, though. The Broncos really do need to retain Franklin and decide whether he will play left guard or right tackle. If the former, then the Broncos can try Michael Schofield at right tackle, but make sure they find a veteran who can push him (unless they think they can get one in the draft and he can hold up as a rookie). If they move Franklin back to tackle, they can try Ben Garland at guard or find a low-price veteran, although they would definitely need to draft at that position.
And regardless of what the Broncos do with Moore, they need to address depth at the safety position. They will also need depth at the linebacker position, particularly if they do not re-sign Nate Irving. Linebacker is likely to be a focus in the draft this time around.
Meanwhile, the Broncos need to continue doing a wise job of structuring contracts to be cap friendly, so they can get out of the deals quickly if some signings don't work out as expected. Keep in mind that the deals for DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward are all, for practical purposes, deals in which they get two years worth of money and then "we'll see." Doing the same with the other players they need to extend is a wise move and will allow them flexibility for future seasons -- or as Elway puts it, ensuring the Broncos are built to "win now and in the future."
A dose of perspective: Most of all, Broncos fans need to keep in mind that most teams, and their fans, would happily trade places with Denver if it meant multiple playoff trips. Just ask yourself what it must feel like to be a fan of the Browns (who always seem to frustrate their fanbase), the Jets (who are often the butt of jokes), the Dolphins (who have been teasing the fans with possible playoff trips, but keep coming up short), the Bears (who certainly expected playoff trips and aren't getting them), the Washington franchise (which has underachieved nearly every season since Dan Snyder bought the team), and the division rival Raiders (every Broncos fan knows the story here).
I can personally guarantee that the fans of those teams mentioned are saying, "I would love to have a team that wins four division titles in a row and goes to a Super Bowl." And there are plenty of fans of other teams who would feel the same way. It may be frustrating for Broncos fans to build expectations sky high and then not see the expected results, and you always want to do better when you don't reach the Super Bowl.
But if you think it couldn't get any worse, just take a look at other teams around the NFL and you'll know that it can be worse, and that you know very well you wouldn't trade the past four seasons for multiple years of genuine frustration. Remember, you already experienced that from 2006 to 2010.