From the moment the football bounced off Peyton Manning’s helmet on the first play from scrimmage of Super Bowl XLVIII until sometime in April when NFL draft preparations were in full swing, it was hard to be a Denver Broncos fan.
It was hard to think about it. Were you waking up in cold sweats with the images of Seattle Seahawks touchdowns and forced turnovers replaying in your head like a bad nightmare? Did you eject that “Madden 25” from the gaming console and turn to anything else for a distraction?
It was hard to talk about it. Did you call in sick to work the Monday after the big game and avoid conversations for the first few weeks? When you did get baited into a conversation, did it end with you shrugging in shameful acknowledgement or walking away loudly in anger?
It was hard to turn on the television or listen to the radio. Were Animal Planet, DIY Network, and the History channel the only safe harbors for your channel surfing? Was it music only from the iPod in the car for a few weeks- to avoid the jokes, skits, and other Broncos-bashing related content you just knew you’d hear? Did you avoid picking up the newspaper and send the Sports Illustrated straight to the recycling bin?
If you’re like me, the reality and magnitude of the ass-whoopin’ that was unleashed upon your beloved Denver Broncos on Super Bowl Sunday was a tough pill to swallow. Luckily, it was such a profound beating that the recovery phase for many began sometime during the halftime show. I’ve heard the phrase, “The Broncos got their teeth kicked in”, on more than one occasion this off-season. As someone who sports three dental implants across the front of my smile thanks to a well-aimed beer bottle (different story for a different time), I can attest to this being an accurate metaphor.
I personally questioned if all the time and energy I devoted to following the team was even worth it. Wouldn’t I be happier if I spent that time practicing guitar instead of reading team blogs or watching coaches film? Couldn’t I be training for that half-marathon instead of researching player statistics or scouting future opponents? And on it went…
Not only did I doubt whether I wanted to write about football and the Denver Broncos anymore, I also questioned whether my life-long love affair with sports was just a big waste. Thankfully, Spring Training rolled around and I visited 10 of the 16 Grapefruit League stadiums before Opening Day. Then, I cheered recklessly as I watched my bracket get busted in March Madness, and the romance of sports began to win me over again. By the time the NFL draft rolled around I was back in the saddle and reading up on the prospective rookie class and who would fit in where.
This off-season process isn’t a new one for Broncos fans that are in their mid-30’s or older such as myself. We’ve been at the bottom of the valley before, it’s just been a few years. I missed Denver’s first Super Bowl heartbreak in 1977 by a couple of years, but my football fandom was just coming into bloom when they represented the AFC (poorly) after the 1986, 1987, and 1989 seasons. In Super Bowl XXI against the New York Giants, I was a bright-eyed first-grader who was just happy my new favorite team had made it to the big game. I think John Elway and company felt the same way as they lost to Bill Parcells’ G-men 39-20 in a game that didn’t seem that close.
The following year was surely going to be different as the Broncos returned to face the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XXII. After making a small wager against my grandfather with some allowance money, I began talking early and often as the Broncos got out to a 10-0 first quarter lead over the Washington Redskins. By the time halftime rolled around I had tears streaming down my face after watching the ‘Skins rattle off five touchdowns in the second quarter. Grandpa taught me a lesson in humility that day, although I admit it still escapes me from time to time.
Fast forward two years and the Broncos found themselves in the Super Bowl once again, this time against the defending champion San Francisco 49ers. I should have known better, having recently been exposed to the truth about Santa Claus, but I was confident the third time was going to be the charm for John Elway & Company. So confident, in fact, that I made another series of small wagers with some of my school and bowling league friends. I was a fourth grader will limited a revenue stream, so when the Broncos got shellacked to the tune of 55-10 I had to turn to Grandpa so I wouldn’t welch on my bets and I eventually worked it off. That game still stands as the largest blowout in Super Bowl history and one of my most humiliating moments as a sports fan.
These are the memories that forged my value system as a Broncos fan. Gigantic expectations were always followed by enormous letdowns and off-seasons filled with grieving and soul-searching. Luckily for Broncos fans, the Buffalo Bills of the early 90’s took the throne of the being “the biggest loser” when they lost four consecutive Super Bowls, but it was of little consolation to most of us.
There was one more heartbreak a big one- against the upstart Jacksonville Jaguars in the 1996 divisional playoffs before the Broncos finally made it to the Promised Land. The back to back victories in Super Bowl XXXII and XXXIII were thrilling enough to dull the pain from all the previous failures and legitimized the Pat Bowlen-John Elway era for Denver’s beloved football team. As a high school senior and then a first year Marine I was in a perfect position to revel in the glory of my Broncos finally being a winner.
John Elway rode off into the sunset after being named MVP of Super Bowl XXXIII, and with the exception of 2005 (when the Broncos handed the New England Patriots their first playoff loss under Bill Belichick and Tom Brady), there wasn’t a whole lot to get excited about until Peyton Manning came to town. Sure there was that whole Tebow phenomenon in 2011, but most of us knew that was too good to be true, although it certainly was fun.
The acquisition of Manning made Denver an instant contender, and once his injury concerns subsided the mantra around Dove Valley became “Super Bowl or Bust”. As it turns out the Broncos chose to “Bust” in 2012, suffering a heartbreaking divisional round loss at home to the over-matched but defending champion Baltimore Ravens. In a game that brought back memories of 1996 all over again, the Broncos couldn’t overcome a Manning interception in double overtime in what was the coldest home game in Broncos history. I’ll never forget the frozen silence of the crowd as everyone exited the stadium.
2013 brought the same expectations, and we all know how that story ended. All the offensive records and touchdown passes seemed pretty hollow after the embarrassing conclusion to the season at the hands of the Seahawks. Was the entire season a failure? Many would say a seventh conference championship and all the fun along the way makes the answer to that question an easy “no”.
It’s hard to disagree if you step back and take a look at the big picture. There are 30 other NFL teams that would have jumped at the chance for a season like the Broncos had a year ago. It is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all, right?
There’s nothing anyone can do about the shortcomings of the Elway-Manning era Denver Broncos of the last two seasons. Staying bitter will only dampen your outlook on the upcoming season, which defeats the whole purpose of following the NFL, right? It’s time to stop looking in the rear view and start looking out the windshield. It’s time to TURN THE PAGE.
As training camp approaches and the 2014 season comes into focus, the expectations should be even higher. The Broncos improved their roster on both sides of the ball in the off-season and will have many impact players returning from injury. There is continuity in the coaching staff for the first time in what seems like a decade and everyone should be more comfortable with how the Manning-led offense operates. Elway and his staff did a great job of reloading the roster with top tier free agents and promising rookies.
As long as #18 is taking the snaps the goal should not just be “Super Bowl or Bust”, but rather “Super Bowl Victory or Bust”. Those may be unreasonable expectations but I guarantee every member of the Denver Broncos organization feels the same way. They probably won’t admit it, but if they’re anything like me (and Terrance Knighton) they’ll be rooting for Seattle to win the NFC again so there is also a chance at revenge. “To be the man, you have to beat the man!” – Rick Flair
But if the wheels fall off somewhere between Week 1 against Indianapolis and Super Bowl XLIV in Glendale, Arizona, it certainly will be something we all know how to deal with. We’re Broncos fans, after all. Nobody knows how to lose quite like we do. But just remember to enjoy the good times also, because as bad as we think it is sometimes, it could always be worse. We could be Browns fans…