Perhaps no team in the National Football League had a better opening two weeks to the 2017 season than the Denver Broncos. A close win over the Los Angeles Chargers was followed by a 42-17 blowout win of the Dallas Cowboys.
By the end of the season, Vance Joseph’s team had gone through three quarterbacks, two of whom are no longer on their roster, endured eight straight losses and went into the offseason severely lacking an identity.
Since then, General Manager John Elway has made a splash, bringing in former Minnesota Vikings quarterback Case Keenum, following his outstanding campaign where he led the Vikings to the NFC Championship game.
Bill Musgrave has also come in as the team’s offensive coordinator. Elway is hopeful that the Colorado native can bring his 2016 form over, when Derek Carr was an MVP candidate. The Oakland Raiders were top ten in both rushing and passing offense under his guidance.
Wide receiver Courtland Sutton and running back Royce Freeman were added through the draft. Now the task in front of Head Coach Vance Joseph is clear: end the identity crisis in Denver.
After their blowout loss to the Philadelphia Eagles Joseph took full responsibility for his team’s floundering: “It starts with me,” said the former Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator. “I say that because we have to figure out our brand of football.”
Elway attacked the offseason in what could an attempt to mirror the system in which Keenum had so much success in last season: a variety of quality pass catchers, a strong running game and a dominating defense to create turnovers.
Organisations that do not boast a franchise quarterback have long leaned on this formula to go deep into the post-season – there have exceptions to the rule such as Seattle. But unless a team has Aaron Rodgers or prime Peyton Manning taking the snaps, then a ball-control offense is often what works.
Jacksonville used the formula to hide the deficiencies of Blake Borltes and get to the AFC Championship game while the Buffalo Bills rode LeSean McCoy and an opportunistic defense to their first postseason since 1999.
Denver lifted the Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl 50 with the same blueprint. However, since then the roster has lost key players and not hit on high draft choices, leaving their roster thin.
Broncos Country will be hoping their draft woes are over. Chubb, drafted fifth overall, will be paired with star linebacker Von Miller to give much needed juice to the pass rush. Third-round pick Freeman will step into the void left by C.J. Anderson, who departed for Carolina via free agency, and his new GM is excited about his potential.
“He’s a big banger that we haven’t had for a while, so we’re excited to have him.” The two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback said.
Freeman is a 229-pound back who carried the ball 947 times for the Oregon Ducks, adding 79 catches in his 51 college games. That blend of duality is what sees a back stay on the field for all three downs.
Joseph spoke about his frustrations with his running game throughout 2017, most notably after their shutout loss to the Chargers.
“He [Siemian] is most comfortable when the running game is effective,” said the second-year Head Coach. “Right now, every third down is eight, nine, ten, so that’s a tough spot for a young quarterback to be in.”
Joseph also spoke of his preferred identity after a week 16 loss to Washington: “Our formula was to run the football and to keep the third downs makeable.” He said.
Joseph is clear about his vision entering what could be a make or break year for himself as Denver Head Coach. He wants the Case Keenum commanded offense to control the game on the ground and suffocate the opposition.
Denver traded away cornerback Aqib Talib and Trevor Siemian while releasing Cody Latimer, Virgil Green and Bennie Fowler as part of their overhaul. Often, teams experiencing a metamorphosis require such drastic changes to personnel, both on and off the field, the same can be said of the Green Bay Packers and division rivals Oakland Raiders.
Denver have been no strangers to this themselves, being forced to mutate from a pass heavy attack with Manning to a ground-and-pound offense in which the five-time MVP was nothing more than a game manager who leaned on Anderson and his star-studded defensive unit.
Elway has reloaded and given his coaching staff a new arsenal of weapons on both sides of the ball.
Joseph must now re-establish a modus operandi that carried Denver to Super Bowl 50. Failing that, 2019 may see the 45-year-old take on a new identity of his own, but not as Broncos Head Coach.
Photo copyright: The Denver Post.