Everything you need to know about the Denver Broncos entering the 2013 season came clear last Saturday night. Not by what happened on the field, but what CBS showed on Denver's bench at several points during the 27-26 preseason victory against St. Louis.
There was Peyton Manning, always locked in, studying overhead shots and talking to others about what was working, what wasn't and why. Clearly, the quarterback will not be losing sight of one basic truth: As tremendous as last season was in so many ways, the Broncos died in their first playoff game, far from the Super Bowl. So the path to rectifying that really does start now.
Then there was Von Miller, the superstar outside linebacker, obviously having a grand time joking around with teammates on the bench and not caring a whit about strategy or the game itself. Certainly, he wasn't thinking about the fact that he won't be playing again until mid-October, thanks to a substance-abuse violation that Miller reportedly still minimizes as though he were the victim.
Wait a minute.
This is supposed to be the year when the Broncos would make us all remember 1997, the autumn that produced the franchise's first Super Bowl title. It looked so much like history repeating itself, with a championship-caliber team coming off a first-round playoff debacle. Longtime Denver followers will never forget the home loss to Jacksonville after the 1996 season, as shocking and bitter as the defeat to Baltimore nearly eight months ago.
But you can't repeat history by taking shortcuts and not measuring up. And this Denver team, despite being good enough to dominate the AFC West again, is not looking like a team that might win the Super Bowl, for three distinct reasons. (And that's not including all the pesky injuries that have had their effect, especially on the offensive line.)
1. Suspension. You can't lose your best defensive player for six weeks, after also losing his pass-rushing partner Elvis Dumervil to free agency, and not pay the price for it. Miller, after guaranteeing the Broncos would go all the way this time, had to beg his way out of an eight-game suspension. Nobody is saying the details of what specifically caused the disciplinary action, but Miller made bad choices that gave higher priority to personal pleasure than setting an example for his teammates. If he somehow can transform himself during the suspension, perhaps his story can have a happy ending. But that hasn't happened yet.
2. Running game. In simplest terms, when the Broncos won those two Super Bowls, they had Terrell Davis running at will. Now they have Montee Ball, Knowshon Moreno and Ronnie Hillman. Ball can't pass-protect, Moreno can't avoid injuries, and Hillman can't shake his mistakes. Not only that, but Denver has shown no sign of being able to run consistently against other first-team defenses. And there's no veteran like Willis McGahee now to pick up the slack.
3. Leadership on defense. Where is it? Perhaps free-agent veteran Shaun Phillips will emerge, but Champ Bailey can't provide it by himself, and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio can't make plays from the sideline. Let's look back at Denver's 1997 defense and see the difference with "internal enforcers" who would keep a Von Miller in line. We're talking about safety Steve Atwater, linebacker Bill Romanowski, defensive end Neil Smith and others like Tyrone Braxton, Ray Crockett and John Mobley. One can only imagine how Romanowski in particular would have dealt with someone like Miller facing a suspension.
Put that all together, and though it's easy to envision Denver going 12-4 or 11-5 and breezing to another division title, nothing looks certain beyond that.
In other words, don't get your hopes up — unless Von Miller suddenly matures, Montee Ball suddenly becomes a budding star and some leaders take charge of the defense. That's the only way this team can have a chance to win a Super Bowl.