You have to hand it to John Fox. He's not blind to reality in his second season as head coach of the Denver Broncos. He understands that one player, even if it's Peyton Manning, does not instantly turn a good team into a title team.
So as Fox reflected last Saturday night on Denver's ugly 30-10 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, he didn't try to sugarcoat the truth.
"We've got work to do," Fox said. "And our '2s' have to do better."
Two thoughts had gone through my mind, watching the Broncos look decent for a half with mostly first-teamers, then awful in the second half with backups. First, it was hard to remember Denver losing a preseason home game by 20 points or more, which meant checking records. Second, like Fox, my biggest concern was how badly the Broncos' backups looked.
Let's take care of the history part. Indeed, it had been a long time since a visitor spanked Denver so badly in an exhibition game. You have to go back 31 years, all the way to a 33-7 loss to the New York Jets on Aug. 7, 1981, to find a more lopsided home defeat in August. Only three other home defeats were worse, and they all happened when the Broncos were perennial losers: 52-21 to Oakland in 1966, 39-16 to Minnesota in 1968 and 41-19 to the Jets in 1974.
So yes, this setback was unusually bad. But still no reason for panic.
Worry, yes. Panic, no.
Seattle, looking impressive in coach Pete Carroll's third year, piled up three second-half touchdowns because its reserves were clearly superior, with a 302-37 edge in total yardage after halftime. It started with quarterback Russell Wilson — a third-round draftee out of Wisconsin — totally outplaying Denver's second-round pick, Brock Osweiler, but the Seahawks also used three backup runners who overshadowed their Denver peers. Clearly, if Osweiler isn't consistent enough, Denver has to give Caleb Hanie more of a chance to settle in as the No. 2 quarterback.
Likewise, the Broncos' No. 2 defense gave up all kinds of big plays, with blown assignments and missed tackles everywhere.
It should be said that Denver's starters actually are on track. Manning is shaking off the rust nicely, and his short-range accuracy is phenomenal. The first defense, pushed by new coordinator Jack Del Rio, might be even more encouraging, especially if linebackers Joe Mays and Nate Irving continue to improve.
With two more preseason games remaining (2 p.m. Sunday at home vs. San Francisco, then Aug. 30 at Arizona), the Broncos have three clear priorities:
• They need more useful depth at running back, with Knowshon Moreno and rookie Ronnie Hillman having shown little yet. If both deliver, taking the load off Willis McGahee, the offense will be fine. But this team won't go anywhere if it has to lean too heavily on Lance Ball and Jeremiah Johnson. Moreno and Hillman have to begin earning their roles in these last two exhibitions.
• All the receivers must step it up, with sharper pass routes and fewer drops. As good as Manning is, Denver will suffer unless Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas and tight end Jacob Tamme can catch everything that comes to them.
• If depth at linebacker is thin, and late-arriving veteran Keith Brooking can't make a difference, Denver should watch for help from veterans cut late by other teams. Del Rio obviously is helping with the front-liners, but he needs Brooking.
The game Sunday against San Francisco likely will be the last August appearance for Manning and McGahee, but it's still important for almost everyone else. Most likely, the 49ers' backups will be at least as solid as Seattle's were.
And the Broncos don't want to be on the wrong kind of preseason history again.