Managing expectations for Broncos this season

Posted June 11, 2012 @ 5:53 p.m.
Posted By Eric Edholm

Tuesday starts three days of minicamp days for the Broncos and, no stunner here, three days of reports on the arm strength of one Peyton Manning.

It’s exciting to think about a Manning revival, a reprise of the brief Joe Montana madness in Kansas City in 1993 and ’94.

Joe, of course, left unfinished business on the table. The Chiefs won the division his first season in town, made the AFC title game that year, and went back to the playoffs the next season, where they lost in Round One. Montana was never heard from again on the field, and the Chiefs actually won more games in three of the next nine seasons with Steve Bono, Elvis Grbac and Trent Green as their starting quarterbacks.

Manning clearly hopes for more. And the table would appear to be mostly set, with the Broncos coming off a home playoff victory and with a coach in John Fox who is 6-4 in the postseason with a Super Bowl appearance.

The Broncos might be the prohibitive favorites to win the AFC West (and PFW’s pick, too), but the Broncos and Manning have quite a few obstacles to overcome this season. Here’s a look at the biggest things that could keep them from getting back to the postseason this year:

The schedule

In a word, brutal. We all know the history tied between fast starts (or slow starts) and making the playoffs. Those teams that win early on have a far better chance of making it, and those that do not put themselves in difficult holes.

Consider the Broncos’ opening gantlet of the Steelers in Week One (revenge, anyone?), the Falcons in Atlanta in Week Two, back to back home games against the Texans and Raiders, followed by two roadies against the Patriots and Chargers. After the bye, it softens little. The next four out of the gate are the Saints, Bengals, Panthers and Chargers again.

Another element that will irritate Fox: With the arrival of Manning, five of the Broncos’ games are in primetime, including two on Monday and one on a Thursday. Coaches, especially creatures of habit such as Fox, like consistency with their start times.

If the Chargers and Chiefs get back on track this season — health and better coaching should help — then the Broncos easily could find themselves at .500 or below heading into December.

The defense

They were good on third downs, did well sacking the quarterback and were OK against the run. That’s the good news. The bad is that coordinator Dennis Allen, who got this unit to improve markedly down the stretch before the playoff loss at New England, is gone to Oakland, replaced by Jack Del Rio.

Del Rio, who hasn’t run a defense since 2002 (his one previous year as a coordinator), has quite the chore. There are pieces to build around in pass rushers Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil and mainstays such as Champ Bailey and D.J. Williams, even with his propensity for tweeting out parts of the new playbook.

But there are questions at defensive tackle, safety and with the overall depth of the unit. Take away Miller and Dumervil and where are the playmakers?

Of those first 10 opponents, nine ranked in the top 13 in offensive yards last season. There cannot be a lag time adjusting to the new scheme.

The receivers

The world wants to make Demaryius Thomas a star following his 80-yard, Steeler-slaying catch and run in the dramatic OT playoff win. I am not ready to go there yet. The knocks on Thomas coming out of college remain the same: inconsistent hands and route running and a proneness for injuries. Fair knock or not, the last point must be made. He has missed 11 games combined his first two seasons in the NFL and remains a raw work in progress at age 24.

Reggie Wayne didn’t fully earn Manning’s trust and run routes the way the QB wanted until he was in his fourth season (at age 26), and Thomas isn’t at that point yet.

TE Jacob Tamme will be a frequent target, and a reliable one. But he’s a chain-mover, not a difference maker. Can Andre Caldwell (who has yet to develop), Eric Decker (creaky knee), Matt Willis (20 career catches) and some other receiver step up — Manning operates with three, four or five on the field at nearly all times — to fill this void? Debatable.

Let’s put it this way: If they are leaning on Brandon Stokley, whose last TD catch came in the 2009 season, they probably are in trouble.

Manning

Hey, he might look great zinging passes through crisp mountain-air defenses in shorts and shells, but how will Manning look against the aggressive defenses of the Steelers, Texans, Raiders, Chargers, Saints, Bengals and others? James Harrison comes to town in Week One. The Saints — and we know how they treat star quarterbacks — play hosts in Week Eight. Welcome back, Peyton.

If you asked me today if Manning will play 16 games, I would bet yes. But that doesn’t mean he’ll be healthy. Manning would sell his soul to prove the proverbial doubters wrong by playing every game this season, but he might also sacrifice his body and welfare to do so.

The neck is one major, major concern. The rest of the body, including the arm that lost strength and stamina, is a very important other. Manning is used to a certain level of protection that kept him mostly out of harm’s way in Indy. And though the Broncos’ sack numbers (27th in sack percentage allowed) are a bit misleading because predecessor Tim Tebow took too many himself, the line is not without its question marks. ORG Chris Kuper, one of the team’s better pieces up front, is coming off a dislocated ankle and broken leg and hopes to be ready for the start of training camp.

Manning should have exactly the scheme he wants in place with flexible and smart coordinator Mike McCoy giving him the autonomy he deserves. But are the rest of the pieces in place? It’s far from clear.

Division

The AFC West is not as strong as many divisions, but the Chiefs and Chargers could be stronger than they were a year ago.

The Chiefs suffered huge injuries early (S Eric Berry, RB Jamaal Charles, TE Tony Moeaki, WR Jonathan Baldwin) and one big one late (QB Matt Cassel) that hurt their season. Inconsistent coaching also ailed them, leading to the firing of Todd Haley, and Romeo Crennel showed in a late-season win over the Packers that he still can run a defense.

The Chargers also were beset by fluky injuries to several starters or projected starters, and they never seemed to have all of their offensive weapons on the field at the same time. That led to QB Philip Rivers trying to do too much in an uncharacteristic 25 turnovers, as he tried to make up for a defense that took a huge step backwards in many categories. New coordinator John Pagano should be a big upgrade over Greg Manusky, whose system and coaching style the players never bought into.

Throw in the Raiders, who bring in Allen as their head coach with a strong knowledge of how to attack the Broncos’ defense. He coached them very well last season and helped mask some obvious shortcomings.

All four teams in the division were within a game of each other at 8-8 (Broncos, Raiders and Chargers) and 7-9 (Chiefs), and it’s clear that the competition will be thick again. Don’t expect any team to run away with it.

It’s not that the Broncos can’t win the division. It’s just that Manning might not be good enough, or full healthy enough, to overcome a lot of clear concerns that currently reside with this team.

Temper your enthusiasm accordingly.