Denver Broncos 2012 Season Preview
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) -- The "Final Jeopardy" answer: Griese, Plummer, Cutler and Orton.
The correct question: Who were the last handful of guys who played quarterback for the Denver Broncos, and when compared to the dual Super Bowl champion before them and the so-called "greatest college football player of all time" after them, did it with a certain degree of anonymity.
These days, it seems the idea of a guy simply showing up to the Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium locker room, pulling on the helmet with the radio receiver and going about his ball-throwing business without benefit of a personal horde of 24/7 media correspondents seems positively stone age.
Perhaps not content with the Saturday Night Live-parodied frenzy created by Tim Tebow en route to an AFC West championship and postseason victory last season, the Broncos did themselves one better in the offseason by signing a deal with the only available quarterback who could compete with No. 15�s following.
Ladies and gentlemen, we give you No. 18...Peyton Manning.
For the first time since he last wore the orange and white of the Tennessee Volunteers in 1997, Manning will begin a football regular season in something other than an Indianapolis Colts jersey when Denver opens its 2012 campaign on Sept. 9 against the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers.
And how it all goes from there is anybody's guess.
Now 36 years old, Manning was still at or near his prolific peak when he last played for the Colts in 2010, completing a NFL-high 450 passes in a league- best 679 attempts with 33 touchdowns and 4,700 yards while leading Indianapolis to its ninth straight playoff berth and 11th in his 13 years at the helm.
They lost to the New York Jets in what would turn out to be his final game with the Colts, before an offseason of neck surgeries became a full 2011 season on the sidelines and ultimately convinced owner Jim Irsay to go all-in in another direction -- which was ultimately No. 1 overall draft pick Andrew Luck.
Irsay's choice kick-started Manning's springtime free-agency tour, which featured stops in several also-ran cities (Miami, Tempe, Nashville) and a revolving door of hopeful contenders (San Francisco, Washington) before he settled on the Broncos -- and a five-year, $95 million deal -- in mid-March.
A few days later, Tebow -- he of the 46.5 completion percentage and 660 rushing yards last season -- was traded to the New York Jets, completing the changeover of the turf once owned by John Elway into Peyton�s Place.
And if you're playing in Peyton�s Place, you're playing by Peyton's rules.
Well, sort of.
"He's done it a certain way for 14 years and obviously had great success," Broncos head coach John Fox, who arrived from Carolina in time to ride last year's wave to the division title, said of Manning. "We'd kind of be silly if we wouldn't take some of what he's done in the past and utilize his strengths and comfort zone. I think that was a factor and of course that came up. He hadn't been through the process (of changing offenses) in so long, being in one place, I thought he did a terrific job in handling that.
"Peyton is like a coach on the field. He paints a great picture. He's going to direct traffic as well as maybe anybody in the league. That is that experience that I was talking about with our quarterback a year ago -- it takes time to develop that. Peyton has been through those trenches, so he knows. As I think John [Elway] said, I think he'll raise all boats and he's very helpful. He'll speed up the process, so that's a positive that he has that capability."
Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the Broncos, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2011 RECORD: 8-8 (tied 1st, AFC West)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2011, lost to New England in AFC Divisional Playoff
COACH (RECORD): John Fox (8-8 in one season with Broncos, 81-79 in 10 seasons overall)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Mike McCoy (third season)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Jack Del Rio (first season with Broncos)
OFFENSIVE STAR: Peyton Manning, QB (4700 passing yards, 33 TD, 17 INT with Colts in '10)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Von Miller, SLB (64 tackles, 11.5 sacks)
2011 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 23rd overall (1st rushing, 31st passing), 25th scoring (19.3 ppg)
2011 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 20th overall (22nd rushing, 18th passing), 24th scoring (24.4 ppg)
KEY ADDITIONS: QB Peyton Manning (from Colts), TE Joel Dreessen (from Texans), TE Jacob Tamme (from Colts), DE Derek Wolfe (2nd Round, Cincinnati), NT Justin Bannan (from Rams), CB Tracy Porter (from Saints), FS Mike Adams (from Browns), QB Caleb Hanie (from Bears), RB Ronnie Hillman (3rd Round, San Diego State), FB Chris Gronkowski (from Colts), WR Brandon Stokley (free agent), WR Andre Caldwell (from Bengals), MLB Keith Brooking (from Cowboys), CB Drayton Florence (from Bills), S Jim Leonhard (from Jets)
KEY DEPARTURES: QB Tim Tebow (to Jets), TE Daniel Fells (to Patriots), NT Brodrick Bunkley (to Saints), CB Andre Goodman (released), SS Brian Dawkins (retired), LS Lonie Paxton (released), QB Brady Quinn (to Chiefs), FB Spencer Larsen (to Patriots), WR Eddie Royal (to Chargers), TE Dante Rosario (to Chargers), OG Russ Hochstein (to Cardinals), DT Marcus Thomas (to Giants), DT Ryan McBean (to Ravens), DE Derrick Harvey (to Bengals), OLB Mario Haggan (to Rams), CB Cassius Vaughn (to Colts), CB Jonathan Wilhite (to Bears)
QB: The Canton-bound Manning may be the most controversy-free No. 1 quarterback in league history, but it doesn't mean the idea that he'll start all 16 games is anything approaching a lock. He has taken hits and made throws throughout the offseason and training camp, but Elway, Fox and Co. will no doubt be holding their collective breaths each time a black-and-gold rusher breaks free on Sept. 9. Sitting at No. 2 at the start of camp was former Chicago Bears backup Caleb Hanie (613 passing yards, 3 TD, 9 INT), who gamely subbed in for Jay Cutler in the NFC title game two seasons ago, then went 0-4 as an emergency starter for the Bears last year. Youngsters Adam Weber and Brock Osweiler (2nd Round, Arizona State), neither of whom have taken an in- season NFL snap, were also battling for positions throughout the preseason. The Broncos have been impressed with the 6-foot, 8-inch Osweiler, who's made a bid to overtake Hanie for the primary backup position.
RB: Veteran Willis McGahee went for 1,199 yards and four scores as part of the Tebow running circus last season and returns as the primary running option behind Manning, though his production figures to plunge a bit with a heavier emphasis on throwing the ball. Lance Ball (402 rushing yards, 16 receptions, 2 TD) is currently No. 2 on the depth chart behind McGahee, but figures to have a hard time holding onto that slot with 2012 third-round pick Ronnie Hillman (San Diego State) in hot pursuit. Knowshon Moreno (179 rushing yards, 11 receptions, 1 TD), a former first-round pick from the previous Josh McDaniels regime who missed most of last season with a knee injury, is also in the mix. Chris Gronkowski, a teammate of Manning's in Indianapolis, heads toward the season as the top option at fullback after coming over in an offseason trade.
WR/TE: Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas became a Denver legend when he hauled in Tebow's slant pass to begin overtime and finished the play 80 yards later to down the Steelers in last January's Wild Card Playoff. He figures to instantly benefit from Manning's presence as the No. 1 target after making 32 catches for 551 yards last season. On the other side is Eric Decker, who caught 44 balls for 612 yards last year and has connected well with his new signal- caller in the preseason. Veterans Andre Caldwell (37 catches with Bengals) and Brandon Stokley remain in the fold after being acquired in free agency, while fellow newcomers Joel Dreessen (28 catches with Texans) and Jacob Tamme (19 catches with Colts) will both see plenty of time at the tight end positions.
OL: Ryan Clady, started all 16 games at left tackle last season and made a second career trip to the Pro Bowl, even though he surrendered six sacks in 2011. That could be a caution for Manning. On the other side is big-bodied Orlando Franklin, who started all 16 games as a 6-foot-7, 330-pound rookie last season. Baylor product J.D. Walton started 16 games at center last season and will need to build a relationship with his new quarterback while being pressed by rookie fourth-round pick Philip Blake, who also played his college ball at Baylor. Zane Beadles returns as the starter at left guard and Chris Kuper enters his sixth consecutive season as the regular right guard.
DL: The most prolific pass-rusher up front in the Broncos' 4-3 scheme is right end Elvis Dumervil, who had 9 1/2 sacks and 42 tackles in 14 games. The Broncos lost tackle Brodrick Bunkley to the Saints in free agency, and his run-stopping production will need to be sopped up by tackles Ty Warren and Justin Bannan (31 tackles with Rams) inside and on left end by rookie Derek Wolfe, a second-round draft pick who racked up 9 1/2 sacks at the University of Cincinnati last year. Another option at end, 2009 first-round choice Robert Ayers (39 tackles), combined for six sacks over the regular season and playoffs. Denver is counting on a healthy year out of Warren, who's missed all of the last two seasons with injuries.
LB: Strong-side linebacker Von Miller transitioned from Texas A&M and debuted as the league's Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2011, racking up most of his 64 tackles and 11 1/2 sacks in 15 games before he was dogged down the stretch by a thumb injury. Holdover Joe Mays (75 tackles) and 2011 third-round pick Nate Irving will battle at the middle linebacker slot, while veteran D.J. Williams (90 tackles, 5 sacks) is lost for the season's first six games on suspension after off-the-field problems, leaving the door open for No. 2 weakside linebacker Wesley Woodyard to make an even bigger impact after he recorded a team-high 97 tackles last season.
DB: Joining left cornerback and future Hall of Famer Champ Bailey (39 tackles, 2 interceptions) on the right side is big-ticket free-agent signee Tracy Porter, an old adversary of Manning's from the then-New Orleans Saint's championship-clinching interception against the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV a few years back. Porter had 52 tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery in 14 games for New Orleans last season. Also available for coverage in extra defensive-back packages is veteran Drayton Florence, who had 50 tackles and three interceptions with Buffalo a season ago. Listed atop the safety slots are Rahim Moore (31 tackles, 1 INT) and offseason addition Mike Adams (64 tackles, 3 INT with Browns), who combined for 95 tackles and four interceptions in 2011. Moore, a rookie last season, is competing with fellow second-year player Quinton Carter (56 tackles, 1 sack), who started 10 games on the back end a season ago.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Top kickoff returner Eddie Royal's offseason departure to San Diego creates a void at that spot, with Caldwell, backup wideout Matthew Willis and rookie cornerback Omar Bolden (4th Round, Arizona State) among the candidates looking to fill the role. Decker averaged a sensational 22.2 yards with a touchdown on six punt returns last year, but the team may be hesitant to give him those duties due to his importance on offense. Ex-Jets safety Jim Leonhard has experience taking back punts and is an option. Kicker Matt Prater (19-of-25 FG's) was the point-scoring hero of many Tebow comebacks last season and has made 65-of-78 field goal tries in the past three seasons, including seven from 50 or more yards. Britton Colquitt handles the punts again after a season in which he posted a 47.4-yard average and landed 33 of 101 kicks inside the 20.
PROGNOSIS: Amid all the hysteria and all the late-game comebacks last season, it became difficult to ascertain how much of Denver's success might well have been divine intervention -- or simple good fortune -- and how much of it was due to talent. And perhaps more importantly, how does the talent that Tebow got to 8-8 with actually blend with Manning, who'll surely try to use it in different ways than his predecessor did? Unless No. 18 turns Thomas into a stud at wideout or Decker becomes an Austin Collie clone, it might actually be a case of the now-Jets backup simply being a better fit for a star-less lunch- pail unit than Manning will be. And if that's the case, then another 8-8 season might not be a high-end finish in a tightening division.
08/29 08:49:46 ET