Monday, December 31, 2012

How the (AFC) West was Won

Against all odds, I have managed to make it a month without posting anything too blatantly biased or focused on any Denver team for this blog, at the risk of turning off the intended general audience of nationwide sports fans (which admittedly to this point consists of the three of us and four of our friends...but hey, we can still call ourselves nationwide). However, while home for break, I had the fortune of attending both Broncos home games and witnessing firsthand the surgical dominance of one Peyton Freaking Manning. As a lifelong fan of the team, I have witnessed the quarterbacking struggles they have gone through since Elway's retirement in 1999 - certainly nothing as awful as teams like the Browns (whose winningest quarterback by percentage since the team's return is amazingly a 2-2 Jake Delhomme) and the Bears (who haven't had a decent QB - and sorry Bears fans, you still don't - since Jim McMahon), but it seems like no team has had performance so consistently mediocre from the most important position over the last 10-15 years. Check out this random list of starters since Elway's departure: Brian Griese (defining "Replacement Level" performance at the QB position), Chris Miller (who?), Gus Frerotte (to my knowledge still the Broncos single-game yardage record holder), Steve "Why Is My Finger Bent This Way" Beuerlein, Danny Kanell, Jarious Jackson (again, who?), Jake Plummer, Smokin' Jay Cutler, Kyle Orton, and some guy who got on ESPN a few times last season. Chances are if you know football, you have heard of most of those guys: primarily inconsistent, occasionally memorable, and always thoroughly mediocre.

After living through those 13 seasons, I was struck by how different the Broncos looked with a truly great quarterback running the offense. The offense took on a look than I had ever seen before (I was 8 during the last Super Bowl run), and was a complete 180 degree shift from our "Offense" last season. Some of the credit for this has to go to John Fox and co. for completely rebuilding the system in such a short time, but what other events caused such a complete turnaround in the last 12 months? For my money, here were the four most important moments in turning around the franchise:

Jan. 15, 2012: Patriots 45, Broncos 10

The somewhat hidden backstory to the 2011 Broncos season was John Elway's predicament in dealing with the most polarizing sports figure ever to hit the NFL landscape. Despite Tim Tebow's obvious shortcomings as a quarterback, many Broncos fans (including myself) were nonetheless mesmerized by his ability to pull close games out of nowhere and would have loved to see Tebow stay on at quarterback next season. Had he somehow gone into Foxboro and led the undermanned Broncos to a victory over one of the greatest QBs ever, Elway would have basically had no choice but to bring Tebow back and hope for the best. We all remember how that turned out - the Pats jumped out to a huge first half lead and were never threatened the entire game, with Tebow going a solid 9/26 and producing a ridiculous 14 negative plays in the game. Elway, who some contended spent the entire season setting Tebow up for failure, was thus left with a slim gameplan by which he could replace "The Chosen One" and avoid inciting riots across metro Denver: if he could bring in a proven quarterback, release Tebow to a team of his choice, and produce a better season than the smoke-and-mirrors 8-8 of the prior year, Broncos fans might just be able to forget the whole episode ever happened.

Well, except for this play.

Mar. 7, 2012: Colts Release Peyton Manning

Aha! With the Colts' abysmal 2-14 campaign in 2011, they earned the first overall pick in a draft that happened to have a total stud QB prospect out of Stanford. Owner Jim Irsay was put in the extremely awkward position of choosing between a top-5 all-time QB for 2-4 more years of uncertain quality, or a rookie QB for 12-15 years of far more uncertain quality. He made the difficult decision to go with Luck, jettison Manning, and put probably 25 other teams on notice that a QB legend was hitting the market. Looking back, the Colts seem to have done just fine with their decision and probably don't regret it at all. A few other teams who were initially interested have also made out ok, such as the Redskins and 49ers. But other suitors, such as the Chiefs, Dolphins, Titans and Cardinals, have had fairly disastrous seasons after not landing Manning as was plan A. Although the Broncos defense would have been solid regardless, it is likely they would have fallen into this camp had things played out a little differently. Of course, all this is irrelevant, because...

Mar. 20, 2012: Manning Chooses to Sign with Denver

This was, without question, the biggest free agent signing in Denver sports history, but the reaction at the time was more mixed than I would have expected. People basically fell into two camps here: delusional Tim Tebow fans, such as my good friend Max, and armchair physicians still concerned about Manning's surgically repaired neck. The first group were generally either fundamentalist Christians or woefully uninformed about football - unless Tebow really did turn out to be the second coming of Christ, statistics dictated that he simply could not continue to win as he had in 2011. The second group, however, had a more legitimate argument, as nobody had ever attempted to play in the NFL after this type of surgery before.

Indeed, Manning would struggle slightly in the preseason and early stages of the regular season, earning the hilarious nickname "Mr. Noodle" after an absurd 3 INT performance against Atlanta that dropped the Broncos to 2-3. This game opened Manning, Fox and Elway up to legitimate criticism for their handling of the situation, and led to even more griping amongst Tebow supporters, despite the fact that he couldn't beat out Mark "The Human Turnover" Sanchez in New York (Side Note: although I think Sanchez has handled the Jets media circus in remarkably classy fashion this year, it is generally not a good sign when 3 of the first 6 AutoComplete entries for you are "Mark Sanchez rape," "Mark Sanchez butt fumble," and "Mark Sanchez sucks." Mark Sanchez is also a fan of musical theatre). This set up a showdown game against San Diego for early control of the AFC West.

Oct. 15, 2012: Broncos 35, Chargers 24

For the first half of this game, I was at the gym, only occasionally checking the score and becoming more and more depressed as the Chargers jumped out to a huge 24-0 halftime lead. Unfortunately for them, they did not account for Mr. Manning returning to prime form in the second half and tossing the ball around to the tune of 167 yards and 3 touchdowns. Of course, they also didn't account for Philip Rivers having terrible karma and committing about 31 turnovers in the second half, two of which the Broncos returned for scores, giving Denver an unlikely victory and early control of the division. I came home that day fully expecting to watch a near-comeback in the second half eventually fall short; instead I bore witness to exactly what it was like to have Peyton Manning on your team and not the other team.

The entire decade of the '00's, the list of NFL players I dreaded facing the most went as follows:

1. Peyton Manning
2. (left blank out of respect for Manning)
3. Dante Hall
4. Ray Lewis
5. Probably Jim Sorgi (who only entered the game after the Colts had already decimated us so badly that there was no hope)

Yet in just 12 months, Manning has gone from the most hated Broncos opponent to one of my favorite players ever. I don't think we will win the Super Bowl this year, but at this point, I am happy the franchise has made such a dramatic turnaround, even if we did have to lose Tim Tebow to do it. In this case, it really appears that change was a good thing.

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