The 2011 Denver Broncos might have had the luckiest hot streak in the history of football. Despite being in disarray as late as the middle of October, a series of close wins pulled out by Tim Tebow & Co. produced an 8-8 season that narrowly earned a division title in a dismal AFC West. When they were matched up against an injury-riddled Steelers team in the first round, their dramatic playoff victory gave the Broncos the credibility that their record lacked. That was enough to lure Peyton Manning to town, giving the team a whole other kind of legitimacy and allowing the organization to exit gracefully from Tebowmania. If the Broncos had lost even one more game during that stretch, they wouldn't have made the playoffs, would have probably struggled to convince Manning that they were a true contender, and then would have spent the offseason involved in an eternal debate about Tebow. Instead, all is well in Denver.
The Broncos are certainly in better shape and more hopeful than they were this time last year, but is that going to be enough to produce a second consecutive AFC West title? To say the least, I'm skeptical. There are a variety of indicators suggesting that the Broncos were either playing over their heads last year or about to experience a dramatic dropoff. Having an elite quarterback like Manning can mitigate many of those concerns, but after missing the entire 2011 season, it's fair to be a little worried about Manning, too. And even if Manning does play well, one subtle factor over which neither Manning nor the rest of his team have any control could be the problem that keeps Denver out of the playoffs in 2012.
Of course, the case against a successful Broncos season in 2012 starts with our leading statistical indicators: Their Pythagorean projection and record in close games. Denver was 8-8 last year, but they were outscored by a whopping 81 points. No 8-8 team since the NFL merger has been outscored by more points than Denver was last year. Their point differential was that of a 5.8-win team, and that 2.2-win difference is one reason why Broncos fans need to be scared about this upcoming season. Teams that won two to 2.5 games more than their Pythagorean expectation have declined by an average of 2.3 wins during the subsequent season.
The big gap between their Pythagorean expectation and their actual win total mostly came down to the stunning string of Tebow-led heroics after their Week 6 bye. Last year, Denver played 11 games that were decided by a touchdown or less and won seven of them. Only three teams have gone 7-4 in those situations, and while they went 13-15 the following year, that's still just three teams. If we expand it out to teams that played 10 or more "close" games in a given year and won between 55 and 75 percent of those games, we get a 34-team sample that went 198-109 in their clutch year and 101-96 the following season.
On the other hand, though, Manning has a history of fading the numbers. During his time with the Colts, Manning's team outperformed their Pythagorean expectation nine consecutive times from 2002 to 2010, winning an average of 1.4 games more than their point differential suggested. And over that time frame, the Colts were a spectacular 52-17 in games decided by a touchdown or less. During Manning's last healthy season in 2010, those effects were relatively muted: The Colts outperformed their Pythagorean expectation by less than one win, and they went just 5-4 in games decided by one score or less, Manning's worst seasonal win percentage in those games since the Jim Mora era. It's no fluke that a quarterback who seemed to take over the final few minutes of games was so good in close contests, but there's also no guarantee that the Manning who was able to do all that is the one showing up in Denver.
It's unquestionable that Manning was experiencing some level of decline during the 2010 season. His numbers, relative to the stats put up by the rest of the league, paled in comparison to the guy who was the best quarterback in NFL history from 2002 through 2009. Putting his performance in context versus the stats of a league-average passer1 reveals just how great Manning was during his nine-year peak — and how average he was during that final disappointing season in Indy.
The decline definitely existed, but the difficult part is being able to figure out why it happened. Did Manning take a step backward because he was getting older, or did the down year occur because he was playing through neck pain that limited his arm strength before forcing him to have surgery? Or could it be a bit of both?
One way to try to answer the question is to look at the aging curves of elite quarterbacks like Manning. Brian Burke did that last August and found that longtime starters like Manning tend to suffer a small, gradual decline in performance during their 30s. It's possible that Manning could have had that poor of a season by chance (or by virtue of his environment, like a decline in receiver performance or offensive line quality), but there was nothing about Manning's age at the time (34) that would suggest a likely dropoff in quality.
The other notable concern about Manning is what I just mentioned, the issue of having the right players around him to succeed. When we look at the recent history of quarterbacks who spent a long time playing for one team before moving on to a new organization in their mid-to-late 30s, the limited track record suggests that it often takes them a year to adjust to their new surroundings. Consider the following examples:
• Brett Favre had a relatively disappointing season with the Jets after his trade from Green Bay, throwing a league-high 22 interceptions while struggling with injuries. Of course, he was great for the Vikings a year later.
• Joe Montana is probably the most obvious comp for Manning. Montana went to the Chiefs at 37 after throwing 21 passes over two years, and while he made the Pro Bowl during his first season, it was on scholarship; he threw only 298 passes and was only slightly above league-average. He retired after his second season with the team.
• Donovan McNabb was disappointing with the Redskins and Vikings, failing to settle into either city.
• Kurt Warner was an average quarterback for his first two seasons with the Cardinals before breaking out in his third year. It's also worth noting that, thanks to his late start in football, Warner had absorbed way fewer NFL hits than Manning had, something that helped him stay healthier during the final three years of his career.
• Warren Moon threw more interceptions than touchdowns during his first year with the Vikings (but still made the Pro Bowl) before producing a ratio better than 2:1 during his second season.
• Randall Cunningham was a backup during his first year in Minnesota before making the Pro Bowl in his second year.
Of course, none of those situations may accurately apply to Manning, but there are reasons to think that he might struggle to implement his offensive scheme with the players the Broncos have around him. Unless Knowshon Moreno is healthy and makes his way out of the coaches' doghouse, there's no reliable pass-catching back in the Denver backfield; starting halfback Willis McGahee just isn't a good receiver.2 In fact, it's a surprise that the Broncos haven't given Joseph Addai a call, since the longtime Manning cohort was just released by the Patriots at the end of July.
It's also difficult to reconcile how the Broncos wide receivers will fit in terms of the Manning offense. Denver's unquestioned top wideout by the end of last year was Demaryius Thomas, who had a mammoth game against the Steelers in the playoffs. Thomas is a tremendous athlete who still has a lot of work to do on the finer parts of receiving. His routes, notably, are erratic at best. That was the perfect fit for Tim Tebow, who couldn't make throws to spots, but often put throws high up in the air for jump-ball opportunities. For a quarterback like Manning, who made his name with throws to the legendarily precise routes of Marvin Harrison, Thomas's skills aren't really a great fit. Thomas will still have a few big plays, and he could end up becoming a much better wideout, but there are going to be growing pains there this season. Eric Decker is much more Manning's speed, and the combination of Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen gives Manning options at tight end, but this is the worst crop of wideouts Manning's ever had to work with by a wide margin. He'll make them better, but that might not come for half a year or so.
Also crucial is how Manning's relationship with center J.D. Walton develops. Manning spent all but one year of his career in Indianapolis playing with Jeff Saturday at center, and Saturday's ability to work with Manning and change his line's protections on the fly made the five-time Pro Bowler essential to the Colts offense. The Broncos weren't able to sign Saturday during the offseason, which makes Walton one of the most important unknown players in all of football. If Walton can't keep up with Manning, Peyton will either have to dumb down the offense or accept the likelihood of free rushers coming at him way more frequently than they did in Indy. The Denver offensive line really wasn't all that impressive last year, either, despite starting the same five guys for all 16 games. Left tackle Ryan Clady simply hasn't been the same player since tearing his patella playing basketball several years ago. The Broncos led the league in sacks allowed, but much of that was due to the indecisiveness of Tebow. With Manning under center, their sack rate should drop dramatically, even if the line doesn't play much better.
The defense, meanwhile, has suffered from years of philosophy and scheme changes. Denver's switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 and back over the past several years, which has meant that players who were drafted to play one role have been pushed into other positions and then shipped out after failing in that new spot. Their efforts have found two scheme-transcendent players in the front seven, pass rushers Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller, but Denver's incredibly thin across the rest of their front seven. Limited players like Joe Mays, Justin Bannan, and Wesley Woodyard — guys who would be situational players on good teams — will have to start for the Broncos this season. The players behind them are even worse.
Can Miller and Dumervil do enough to prop up the rest of the defense? It's hard to tell. For one, they were great last year and weren't able to do so. Denver had the league's 10th-best sack rate, taking down opposing quarterbacks 7.1 percent of the time, but they were 24th in points allowed. That's disappointing for a team with such a good rush; looking back since 1990, teams who ranked between eighth and 12th in sack rate in a given year produced an average rank of 14 in points allowed. Denver was way worse than their pass rush would have suggested, a problem that falls on the secondary.
There, development problems have also come home to roost. When Josh McDaniels arrived in 2009, he signed three veteran defensive backs in free agency — Brian Dawkins, Renaldo Hill, and Andre' Goodman — and plugged them into the starting lineup alongside Champ Bailey. He also spent a pair of second-round picks in that year's draft on cornerback Alphonso Smith and safety Darcel McBath, hoping that the young guns would take over for the veterans once they lost a step. The plan worked for 2009, since the veterans were healthy and productive, but began to fall apart a year later. The veterans, naturally, began to get injured. Hill was released after the 2010 season, while Dawkins and Goodman were ineffective when healthy and moved on this offseason. The high draft picks weren't there to replace them, either. The team soured on Smith and dealt him to the Lions for pennies on the dollar. McBath struggled with injuries and was cut after the 2010 season.
Now the Broncos have a litany of question marks in the secondary. Replacing Goodman is former Super Bowl touchdown scorer Tracy Porter, who has struggled to stay healthy over the past two seasons and wasn't the subject of a serious re-signing bid by his former team, the Saints. If it's not him, the Broncos will have to start 31-year-old Bills castoff Drayton Florence at corner. The safeties will be two second-year players, Rahim Moore and Quinton Carter. Bailey's still around, but at 34, he's not the player he once was. If Bailey gets injured — and more than half of the cornerbacks starting in the league at the age of 34 since 1990 have missed time during that season due to injury — the Broncos secondary will be in absolute turmoil.
And that all assumes that the pass rush from Dumervil and Miller will be every bit as good as it was a year ago. Dumervil might hit double digits again after coming up a half-sack short last year, but there's reason to believe that Miller will struggle to reach the lofty heights of his rookie season, when he picked up 11.5 sacks in 15 games. Since the sack became an official statistic, 17 players have accrued 11 or more sacks in their rookie season. The good news for Broncos fans is that those guys almost all had great careers; it's a list that includes Reggie White, Dwight Freeney, Charles Haley, Julius Peppers, and a number of other notable players. The bad news? They almost all had some sort of sophomore slump. Only one of the 17 players (White) increased his sack rate during his second season, and the average player in the group accrued just 8.1 sacks during that follow-up year.3 The Broncos will hope for more than that from Miller in 2012.
If there's one bright note for the Broncos defense, it's that their turnover rate will almost surely rise. Denver forced a turnover on just 8.1 percent of drives last year, the lowest rate in football.
Truthfully, if this were all that plagued the Denver Broncos, I wouldn't be very down on their chances of going 10-6 and repeating as AFC West champs. I have enough fear in my heart of Peyton Manning to put a lot of the numbers aside and expect that they won't apply, even for a 36-year-old model. But there is one concern that I know will affect the Broncos, and I don't think even Manning will be able to overcome it.
Last year, according to Football Outsiders and Pro-Football-Reference.com, the Broncos had a league-average schedule. This year, it looks like that's going to change. The Football Outsiders Almanac 2012 projects that Denver will have the toughest schedule in all of football, and it's easy to see why their projection system predicts that to be the case. While their division may not be the toughest, Denver will have to contend with a gruesome slate outside of the AFC West. The Broncos were happy to win the division last year, but that narrow victory booked them into games against the Patriots and Texans this season. In addition, Denver (and the rest of their AFC West brethren) will have to contend with the teams of the AFC North and NFC South in their other eight games. Before Halloween, the Broncos have to host the Steelers, Texans, Raiders, and Saints, and they'll travel to play the Falcons, Patriots, and Chargers. The schedule's relatively easy after that, but the Broncos probably won't be above .500 at that point, and there's the possibility that the team falls apart if they start 2-5.
With the rough schedule in place, there's just too much riding against Peyton Manning and the Broncos for them to be serious Super Bowl contenders this season. Like the 49ers, they could take advantage of a weak division and win it with an 8-8 or 9-7 record, but Denver's not quite the team that the Niners are. San Francisco was genuinely great last year; they can fall off a bit this year and still be good. Denver was bad in a lot of spots last season, and the Broncos organization is hoping that the good stuff from last year sticks around long enough for Peyton to patch the other holes. In all likelihood, a vintage year of Manning will only be enough to maintain Denver's record from a year ago.