The Broncos' ambitious spending is exciting, but promises nothing
We all know this by now, but every couple years or so it still bears repeating when one NFL team seizes the spotlight and monopolizes most of the headline moves made in March: Despite all appearances, the Denver Broncos did not win next season's Super Bowl in the opening 24 hours of free agency. It just feels that way.
And for the 2014 Broncos' sake, they had best do everything they can to fight that feeling.
First off, an admission: I like the aggressive, all-in approach defending AFC champion Denver adopted in an attempt to dramatically upgrade its defense. Adding Browns safety T.J. Ward, Patriots cornerback Aqib Talb and Cowboys defensive end/linebacker DeMarcus Ware -- at the cost of a hefty $60 million in guarantees -- should put the Broncos defense nearly on equal footing with its record-breaking offense. And for a team that has only had to hold most of its opponents under 30 points to win, that has to be quite the comfort zone to inhabit.
So what's to worry about if you're Denver, fresh off two consecutive 13-3 seasons and last year's return to the Super Bowl for the first time in 15 years? These weren't glamor moves made just to energize a fan base or sell hope to a franchise that has lost its way for far too long. These were expensive but potentially perfect acquisitions to improve Denver's deficiencies in the secondary and in the pass rush.
These were the proverbial final pieces of the puzzle. Kudos to John Elway and Co. for going out and locking them into place.
But even knowing all that, and understanding the Broncos' plan, I still can't dismiss the lingering sense that Denver's spending spree might not work out as planned. Because when has any team's free agency splurge -- at least on the Super Bowl-or-bust level -- truly gone as planned? I can't decide if their high-profile acquisitions of the past two days makes the Broncos the most massive Super Bowl favorites in recent memory, or merely the latest ill-fated "dream team'' candidate?
Teams making the kind of free-agent shopping expenditures that Denver just made have not seen the story end happily. The on-paper improvement that seemed so obvious in March has not translated to on-field production in the fall. Miami last year, Philadelphia in 2011, Washington in any number of the early seasons of Daniel Snyder's ownership -- they all fit the profile. Dismiss the trend if you dare, but NFL teams that win the offseason don't usually win the postseason.
In recent professional team sports, history says adding too many shiny new parts to a roster can lead to unforeseen chemistry issues and a lack of locker room cohesion. Multiple big signings also build expectations up to sky-high levels that become burdensome to teams, not helpful. Somehow, the whole has often become less than the sum of its parts in such situations. And more all-star talent hasn't usually produced the desired results -- the Miami Heat exception notwithstanding.
So hurrah for Denver's willingness to go for it while the Manning-provided Super Bowl window of opportunity stays open for a little longer, but caution to those who think all that talent is destined to come together seamlessly in the Mile High City. It will register as a bigger upset if it does, rather than the other way around.
I know. I know. Show me another all-in, go-for-broke, big-spending team in free agency that had league MVP Peyton Manning at quarterback and was already a Super Bowl-level club. That's the difference, many say, and those are valid points. It does seem like an unprecedented splurge to be making for a franchise coming off a Super Bowl season. Usually it's a club trying to make a name for itself and break out of the doldrums, not a defending conference champion. The Super Bowl teams generally are in a defensive mode, doing all they can to retain their own free agents and fight off the effects of their success on their own salary cap. Not staying on the offensive, in lean-forward mode.
True, but here's another fact that can't be denied, no matter how much the Broncos might wish to ignore it : You have to beat long odds to just get back to the Super Bowl in successive years. The 2003-04 Patriots were the last team to reach two consecutive big games; the 1993 Bills were the last Super Bowl team to earn its way back after losing the game the year before; and in the scenario that Denver must try to emulate, the 1972 Dolphins of 17-0 fame are the most recent NFL team to lose the Super Bowl one year and then rescale the mountain and win a ring the next season.
That was more than 40 years ago. Before free agency changed the game and before Manning was even born. And to that, all I can add is that sometimes history teaches us things, and sometimes it means little. It doesn't mean it can't happen again. It doesn't mean it won't happen again. It just means it hasn't happened in quite a while. Being open to interpretation, maybe that statistic portends that Denver won't reach its goal this season despite its obvious talent upgrade. Or maybe, if you're an optimistic Broncos believer, it says John Fox's team is about to go 19-0 and win it all. Good luck with that reading.
No matter how glitzy the signings, there are no guarantees supplied by free agency, even though Denver's moves have been well-received. The Broncos certainly look much stronger on defense with Ware, Talib and Ward joining the likes of on-the-mend veterans like Von Miller, Chris Harris and Derek Wolfe, as well as productive defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. But things have a way of getting complicated for Super Bowl contenders, as Denver learned in 2013, overcoming much to win the AFC.
I don't really buy it, but what if Dallas' assessment of Ware proves more correct than Denver's, and he's heading for the downside of his career, rather than a return to elite form in 2014? What if Talib's relatively quiet and productive New England tenure turns out to be the exception, and the inconsistencies of his stint with Tampa Bay are replicated to some degree with the Broncos? (He has a history of marijuana use, and now he's moving to Colorado, where weed has been legalized for recreational use). What if Ward doesn't supply the impact as the in-the-box safety Denver needs and expects?
The Broncos look loaded, but looks are deceiving in the NFL, and it's one reason the game consistently surprises us. Denver realizes everything will have to be re-earned this season, and the roster upgrade may give it the best possible shot at taking that last step, the one the Broncos have been plotting since the moment they signed Manning in 2012.
It's the only step that matters in Denver this season, winning the Super Bowl and finishing the job in the brief time left in Manning's Hall of Fame career. It was a giddy and productive 24 hours for Denver, to be sure. But the success of free agency and what unfolds next season might wind up being very different things. The Broncos felt the need to spend big on some big names and hopefully reap big results. But free agency at that level is always a roll of the dice, and even the best-laid plans can look like poor gambles in time.