Talk to people whose mental stability relates directly to what kind of season the Denver Broncos are having, and you can't help but notice a different emotion this year. It's not good, either.
In every summer since, oh, perhaps the final pre-John Elway years, Bronco fans have been an excited bunch as July rolled into August. Dreams of playoffs and Super Bowls danced in their heads, no matter what.
Even last year, after Josh McDaniels replaced Mike Shanahan as head coach, the maniacs still couldn't hide their optimism. The new Boy Wonder would replace the Mastermind and nobody would know the difference. Heck, if McKid turned out to be as smart as Bill Belichick said he was, maybe Denver would launch a new renaissance.
That was 2009. Not 2010. Now, the mood has changed. Nobody is thinking back to Denver's stunning 6-0 start last fall and envisioning a repeat. Instead, practically everybody who bleeds orange feels the way last season ended — with eight losses in the last 10 games for an 8-8 finish — might tell us more about what to expect from the Broncos this time around.
As one Bronco Nation media veteran told me last week, "You know, they might really be bad this year."
In the past, that kind of talk could get you into a ruckus in most neighborhood taverns. Now it brings sad nods of agreement.
As training camp convenes this weekend at Dove Valley, I haven't found a single Denver fan who has great expectations for this team. It's more like hoping for the best but clearly bracing for the worst.
Worst, as in 6-10 or 5-11, something like that. Worst, as in a year of Quarterback Roulette, while building for the future.
With that, let's examine the five biggest areas of concern:
• Offensive line: Left tackle Ryan Clady is still rehabbing from an offseason knee injury (playing basketball), and the Broncos need him to return on schedule and healthy. Also, among last season's forgotten realities was the fact that when right tackle Ryan Harris went down with a serious toe injury, the offense was never the same. This line could have two rookie starters, Zane Beadles at left guard and J.D. Walton at center — scary for a team that needs a ground game.
• Running backs: Knowshon Moreno didn't live up to his first-round billing as a rookie, wearing down late even without being overused. He's still explosive, especially when catching passes out of the backfield, but he needs that line. Correll Buckhalter provides a solid presence, but he'll never be a headliner. Behind them, Denver is sorely lacking unless oft-injured free agent J.J. Arrington can finally begin reaching his potential. Watch for Denver to grab a veteran from the late cuts by other teams for more depth.
• Wide receivers: Take out Brandon Marshall's 100 receptions a year, and this bunch won't scare opposing defenses. First-round pick Demaryius Thomas must develop quickly, because Jabar Gaffney, Eddie Royal and Brandon Stokley are no better than Nos. 2, 3 and 4, in some order. The sleeper might be second-year player Kenny McKinley, and rookie Eric Decker could make everyone forget Tony Scheffler. Clearly, Denver needs a deserving No. 1 threat to emerge.
• Inside linebackers: Denver has been hurting here for years, and in a 3-4 defense, that's ominous. D.J. Williams could be fine on one side, but the prospect of either Mario Haggan or Akin Ayodele as the second starter doesn't feel good enough. If Williams can become a consistent playmaking force, as he has shown at times, that's a good beginning. But playoff teams need a stable of linebackers.
• Quarterback: How much more consistent will Kyle Orton be in his second year running this offense? Can Brady Quinn push Orton enough in preseason to be more than a backup? And, of course, will Tim Tebow have any impact in his rookie season? Orton will get the first shot, but the most interesting subplot of Denver's preseason will be how much progress Quinn and Tebow can make. If Orton excels, Denver could improve on its 8-8 finish of last year. But if the Broncos struggle early, we might see Tebow and many losses after Halloween.