Sometimes a Bronco pulls a horseshoe out of its, uh, hindquarters.
In Denver’s case, they’ve done it twice in two weeks. The team currently sits atop its division and the AFC with a 2-0 record thanks to late defensive TDs that its offense should have scored earlier.
After eight quarters of sloppy, identity-seeking play, much of the Broncos-related sportsyak this week, locally and nationwide, will be whether the team should abandon new coach Gary Kubiak’s offense in favor of the one Peyton Manning prefers.
The coach’s run-first style was supposed to be the perfect way to protect the increasingly fragile and vulnerable 39-year-old QB. On the other hand, the Broncos put themselves in a position to win on their last drive against Kansas City last Thursday by going back to the no-huddle, shotgun-based passing game that’s helped Manning set all those records.
What’s the answer? Probably something in between that tilts more toward Manning’s preferences. After all, Kubiak will be here awhile; Manning is likely living his Denver swan song, and the team’s defense appears to be so potent this year that number 18 doesn’t have to be as all-world as he’s been in the past to keep racking up the W’s.
The Broncos’ offensive offense is merely part of a predominant trend across the NFL. The first two weeks of the regular season have played out like a series of gridiron train wrecks throughout the league, turning virtually every “expert” prediction upside down. Consider: Seattle, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, and Baltimore—four teams that just a few weeks ago could easily have been projected as the NFL’s final four in January—are a combined 0-8. Veteran commentator and NFL Hall-of-Famer Troy Aikman said the Eagles performance on Sunday was the worst he’d ever seen in 15 years of calling games. Then on Monday night, the Colts looked even more putrid.
What’s the culprit for all these bush league displays? For the past several years, players, coaches, and league officials have been debating the schedule. The players want fewer preseason games than the four they currently have because it would reduce injuries, but the owners don’t want to lose that revenue. Meanwhile, the league office has floated the idea of an 18-game regular season, which would replace two of the August games and generate even more money. The players have objected to this as well, and it’s tough to argue against the injury concerns. In just two weeks, numerous stars, including Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, and Terrell Suggs, have suffered setbacks that will cost them all or a big part of 2015. (The Broncos lost Ryan Clady, the all-pro anchor of their offensive line, in the preseason.)
As the debate about the number of games has raged on, teams have responded by treating the preseason differently than they once did. As recently as a few years ago, the starters would play increasing amounts through the preseason’s third game, then usually sit out the fourth to avoid any last-minute boo-boos.
But in the past few years, injury-shy coaches have held out their top players throughout the preseason, in many cases for for all but a few token snaps, and sometimes altogether. What this means is that most teams are now entering the regular season without much game-speed work, so it’s little wonder that we’re seeing so many penalties, turnovers, and flat out poor play. It’s not clear yet what a solution for this might be, and the NFL—not to mention all those supposedly good 0-2 teams—can’t be thrilled that one-eighth of the season is already over while they’re still working out the kinks.
Of course, timing and precision is much of what’s made Manning and the Broncos’ offense so superb over the past several seasons, and this year he’s also breaking in a Clady-less offensive line that, to put it mildly, has disappointed. It’s been a fugly first two weeks, but thanks to what appears to be a top-5 defense, the team’s record is “perfect” as of now. It’ll likely take at least a few more games to figure out if the Broncos are actually good.