The Denver Broncos' glory years of John Elway and Mike Shanahan (and before that, John Elway and Dan Reeves) drifted away quietly after Elway's retirement. Denver made the playoffs just once in the four seasons after that occurred, with Brian Griese as the No. 1 quarterback, and then endured a stretch of five straight years at .500 or worse (2007-11).
It's easy then to sit and point at Peyton Manning as the lone reason for the franchise's improvement from also-ran to Super Bowl favorite. In a lot of ways, such an assessment may be true.
As is often the case in the NFL, though, there is more than meets the eye. The current Denver team has surrounded Manning with a roster's worth of talent mostly added through cost-friendly deals in free agency or found in the draft.
Here's how it all came together:
Peyton Manning (free agency), Brock Osweiler (2012 second-round pick)
Obviously, the acquisition of Manning prior to the 2012 season was a game-changer for the franchise. The Broncos had made the playoffs -- and won a wild-card round game -- with one Tim Tebow at the helm, but the opportunity to add Manning was too juicy to pass up. The Broncos signed Manning and traded Tebow in March, then drafted Osweiler in April as Manning's backup.
The gameplan shifted dramatically after the Tebow-to-Manning move. Denver had the 31st-ranked passing attack during that 2011 AFC West title season, with Eric Decker's 44 catches and Demaryius Thomas' 32 leading the way. With Manning in the fold, the Broncos improved to the league's No. 5-ranked passing offense in 2012 (Thomas and Decker combined for 179 catches) and then set records in that regard this season.
Manning has won 26 regular-season games over 2012-13, which is the most ever for a Broncos quarterback over his first two seasons starting for the team. (John Elway had 22.)
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The Broncos are running lean and mean at RB, at least financially. They've used three draft picks in the past five years (including one each of the past two Aprils) on this position. The result: A deep and dangerous grouping, all making $1.7 million or less this season. Moreno's contract expires after this year wraps, so they'll have a decision to make there, but Ball's presence may have decided that fate already.
Willis McGahee was the lead dog when Moreno arrived in 2009. The Broncos then led the league in rushing during that Tebow-led 2011 season. Now, they're a a middle-of-the-road outfit -- ranking 16th in yards rushing last season and 15th in 2013. But when combined with the lethal passing attack, that's more than enough to keep defenses off-balance.
Wide receivers and tight ends
WRs Demaryius Thomas (2010 first-round pick), Eric Decker (2010 third-round pick), Wes Welker (free agency), Andre Caldwell (free agency); TEs Julius Thomas (2011 fourth-round pick), Joel Dreessen (free agency), Jacob Tamme (free agency)
Manning's signing was the headliner in 2012. Welker's addition moved the needle this past summer.
His addition plus the rapid development of matchup-nightmare Thomas helped propel the Broncos offense to sights previously unseen in NFL annals. Welker caught 73 passes and scored 10 touchdowns in just 13 games working out of the slot; Thomas scored 12 times with 65 receptions. This could be Decker's last run with the team: he'll be a free agent after the 2013 season concludes.
The plethora of weapons available to Manning proved far too much for most defenses to handle this season. Only once (in a 34-31 overtime loss to New England) was Manning held under 200 yards passing. Counting the postseason, he topped 300 yards 13 times and rolled past 400 on four occasions, including in the conference championship win over New England.
The splashy moves to land Welker and Manning have been critical, but some of the finest work done by the Broncos' front office -- ex-GM Brian Xanders, VP John Elway and head coach John Fox -- has come here. If Beadles and Franklin are considered values, then Clark, who was plucked off waivers from Minnesota four years ago, might constitute a downright steal. Snatching Vasquez from San Diego this past free-agent cycle helped solidify the interior of the line, while Ramirez has performed far more consistently than anyone would have predicted.
Manning's relative inability to escape the pocket keeps the pressure on this group up front. It responded by allowing all of 20 sacks, the lowest total in the league this season. The O-line was particularly impressive in playoff wins over San Diego and New England, keeping Manning clean and opening holes for the run game.
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A lot has been made of the Seahawks' ability to snatch up bargains like Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett from free agency to help their front seven. Denver deserves a tip of the cap, too, in that regard. Knighton, who has been an absolute godsend of late, came to the Broncos on a two-year, $4.5 million deal in the offseason; Phillips, the de facto fill-in for a suspended and then injured Von Miller, is working on a $1 million contract with no signing bonus.
Denver has mixed and matched through much of the year -- a challenge brought on in great measure by Miller's constant absence. Derek Wolfe and Kevin Vickerson also have landed on injured reserve along the way in 2013, and Williams' contributions have been somewhat light.
This unit has been underappreciated all season, only to steal the spotlight in shutting down the Chargers' run game in the playoffs. Denver actually finished No. 7 in rush defense this year (down from No. 3), with a respectable 41 sacks. There's no telling where the Broncos would be without Knighton and Phillips.
The Broncos float between standard 4-3 and adjusted 3-4 looks, so Phillips and Miller both could fall under this category. There is not a big name among the remaining linebackers -- Woodyard may be closest; his base salary of $3 million for 2013 actually is the team's third-largest behind Manning and Champ Bailey. Arguably the team's steadiest linebacker not named Von Miller this season, Trevathan was selected with a sixth-round pick gained in the Tim Tebow trade.
This is a solid but unspectacular group. Trevathan led the way statistically with two sacks, three interceptions and 129 tackles. Woodyard has seen the most action in concert with Trevathan, though Miller's absence has forced guys like Irving and Lenon to take on more responsibility.
CBs Champ Bailey (trade), Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (free agency), Tony Carter (free agency), Kayvon Webster (2013 third-round pick), Quentin Jammer (free agency); Safeties Duke Ihenacho (free agency), Mike Adams (free agency), David Bruton (2009 fourth-round pick), Michael Huff (free agency)
If there is a weak link for the Broncos, it probably lies here, especially after the loss of Chris Harris to a season-ending knee injury. This also is the spot on the field (aside from quarterback) where the Broncos have had to do the most work outside the draft to find starters. Only Webster was selected in the past four drafts, though Ihenacho was a 2012 undrafted free agent.
Denver ranked No. 3 in passing yards allowed in 2012. That number skyrocketed up to 27 this season, in part because Manning's offense hung so many points on the board, forcing the opposition to take to the air. Rodgers-Cromartie is the shutdown guy -- he drew Julian Edelman last week. But the oft-injured Bailey also pitched in a stellar showing versus the Patriots.
The safeties have been a mixed bag, though Ihenacho was one of the team's most pleasant surprises. Rahim Moore (who's expected to miss the Super Bowl) played nearly 700 snaps during the regular season at a higher level than his reputation showed following his late-game miscue against Jacoby Jones in last season's playoffs. [si_video id="video_60787131-8C87-21D7-A6ED-C00FFC7D9AD7" height="475"]