By Zach Grove
Sometimes I mentally rewind back to week six of the 2009 season: Brandon Stokley, decked out in his Broncos’ brown and white AFL throwback uniform, rolling into the end zone on 3rd and goal during the fourth quarter of a Monday night showdown in San Diego. After the game, Josh McDaniels (then 6-0 as a head coach) smiled at the camera and said, “We feel like we can win every game!” As diehard Bronco fans, there wasn’t a single one of us who was thinking any different.
Denver’s collapse in 2006 (when a rookie named Jay Cutler replaced veteran Jake Plummer mid-season) was painful to swallow, but a playoff run that year likely would have ended in Indianapolis just like multiple years before.
The collapse in 2008 was even more brutal, but as soon as Week 2 with a controversial win over San Diego, self-honest fans began to see it. Nate Webster and Dwayne Robertson weren’t scaring–or stopping, or stuffing, or sacking–anybody. But 2009 was undoubtedly the Broncos’ most heart-wrenching season in recent memory, I guess because the culture had seemingly changed. With a new-look 3-4 and veteran Mike Nolan calling plays, the Denver defense was suddenly playing lights out. After Week 5, the Broncos were allowing the fewest points per game in the NFL. We were pressuring and confusing the likes of Tom Brady and Phillip Rivers, shutting down running backs and finally allowing less points after halftime than in quarters 1 and 2…a sharp contrast to so many choke-prone defenses of the Shanahan era. The Broncos, it seemed, were back.
Fast forward to April 2011, and it is clear that we weren’t “back” for very long. There is no need to recount the events of the Great McDaniels Deception or to speculate what could have been (a Mike Shanahan offense of Peyton Hillis, Jay Cutler, Tony Scheffler, and Brandon Marshall to go with a defense full of youngsters led by Clay Matthews? Super Bowl?)…OK, I couldn’t help myself. But today we are at a crossroads. Elway/Fox/Xanders are taking serious looks at 1st round quarterbacks, all with glaring question marks, despite having two such questionable former first rounders sitting on our roster already. The bottom line is we need to draft defense. 2nd overall, trade down, trade up, stay put–it doesn’t matter where. We need playmakers or we run the risk of drafting in the Top 10, season after season for many years, like the Buffalo Bills or even the Chiefs up until last year. And speaking of risk, we need to minimize it.
McDaniels took plenty of risky players, including five for 1st round picks in the 2009 and 2010 drafts: Knowshon Moreno, Robert Ayers, Alphonso Smith, DeMaryius Thomas, and Tim Tebow. But the problem with gambling high stakes all the time is that, if none of your bets work out, pretty soon you’re back to zero. In poker, in life, or in running a football team, you need to balance out calculated risks with calculated guarantees. We have a ton of risk/reward prospects sitting on our roster already, which is why I beg Elway and Co. not to bring in any more boom/bust players (eh hem, Jake Locker). In the meantime, we can all say a collective prayer that an offense with former first rounders at running back, quarterback (2), wide receiver, and left tackle will yield results in the form of yards, touchdowns, and, ultimately, wins. This April, however, John Elway and Co. need to do the smart thing and pick the players that least beckon our group prayers for them to boom and not bust.
This April, play it safe, Mr. Elway. I’m begging you.
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