Fewer than 11 months ago, a million people packed downtown Denver for the Broncos’ championship parade, a jubilant sea of orange cheering on the Mile High City’s latest athletic accomplishment.
But that February day, and the glory of the Super Bowl 50 victory, seems a long way away right now, and Denver’s many avid sports fans find themselves in a sudden downward spiral.
The Broncos floundered in the second half of 2016 and missed the playoffs. The last-place Avalanche are tanking. The Nuggets are again the definition of mediocrity. And early last summer, the Rockies took what looked like a promising year but ultimately limped to the end of yet another missed postseason.
Put another way: What kind of sports town has Denver become when the Rapids—a franchise that until this season’s MLS semifinal showing had been the laughingstock of the league—are the lone local bright spot in major professional sports?
This vacuum of losing the city currently finds itself in is anything but sudden. Even before the Broncos used their suffocating defense to march to the Super Bowl win last season, there were signs of Denver’s impending athletic downfall.
The Broncos’ patchwork 2016 plan—calling for an overreliance on the team’s defense to make up for a lackluster offense—has unraveled. Neither the Nuggets nor the Avs, undergoing respective coaching turnovers and regular season woes over the last several years, seem to be able to find a consistent winning identity. And the Rockies still have plenty of work to do if they want to contend in the National League West.
The good news is, all four of the town’s major franchises have at least some positive pieces in place. The Rockies have improving (though still inadequate) pitching and an excellent offense and defense. The Nuggets have a dynamic young core and multiple attractive trade assets, and the Avs have a roster filled with individual talent. The Broncos are the defending champs (for at least a few more weeks).
For the Avs and Nuggets (owned by the Kroenkes) and the Rockies (owned by the Monforts), it might be a matter of lighting a competitive fire under the top brass. All three teams need to spend more to acquire big talent while also spending smarter, and they need to establish coaching stability—which the Rockies hope newly hired manager Bud Black will do and the Avs are banking on with first-year coach Jared Bednar.
For the Broncos, none of these things are a problem, and front offices don’t get much more competitive than the one run by John Elway. The team’s culture of success began when he was its quarterback, and a return to success next season will likely involve retaining key players on D, revamping an offensive line that’s been at the root of the team’s troubles this fall, and continuing to develop the QB position.
Until those steps happen, Denver sports might continue to be rough sledding. The Avs are clearly in free-fall and desperately need multiple sparks to alleviate the team’s spotty goaltending and anemic offense, which ranks dead last in the entire league. The Nuggets have to avoid the injury bug while establishing an identity and figuring out which pieces they want to build around. (Nikola Jokic appears to be the team’s most likely future superstar.)
And even though Rockies owner Dick Monfort has said the team will have a record payroll in 2017, the signing of left-handed reliever Mike Dunn to a franchise record three-year, $19 million contract (the largest deal the team’s ever given to a free agent reliever) isn’t exactly a game-changer. The Rockies still need to make more moves to bolster their pitching, but at least they have the offensive assets to make that possible.
For now, though, Denver sports fans need to bundle up and hunker down. It’s going to be a long winter, with no championship parades in sight.