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Broncos have to develop in August, or else


We already knew that Mike Shanahan was excited about the Denver Broncos even before the start of training camp for the 2008 season. But now, heading into his 14th season, the head coach has taken it a step further, and even more removed from his normal personality.

On a Denver radio talk show last Friday, Shanahan said, "We're not going to miss the playoffs." Pressed immediately to clarify if that meant he was making a guarantee, the coach simply said, "Sure sounds like it."

That's an extremely tall order for a team that hasn't made the postseason since 2005 and was humbled twice last year by rival San Diego, the AFC West champion, 41-3 and 23-3. If we assume, as we should, that winning the division is unlikely at best, that leaves one of the AFC's two wild-card berths as the most reasonable goal. Yet, the Broncos will have to contend against the likes of Jacksonville, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Tennessee.

Last year, the AFC's wild cards went 11-5 (Jacksonville) and 10-6 (Tennessee). Denver finished 7-9 but could have been as far down as 4-12.

In other words, the Broncos can't count on sliding into the playoffs at 9-7. They have to improve by three wins, if not four, regardless of what San Diego does.

That means being ready when September and the regular season arrive, starting at Oakland on Monday, Sept. 8, and followed by San Diego coming to Denver on Sept. 14. More specifically, it means the Broncos must jell quickly and develop the right habits in exhibition games, even more than usual.

The preseason schedule starts Saturday, Aug. 9, at Houston (6 p.m., Channel 11), followed by home games against Dallas (Aug. 16) and Green Bay (Aug. 22) before a trip to Arizona on Aug. 29. That last exhibition always is a rag-tag game, as teams hold out veterans and anyone with as much as a hangnail. So it's safe to focus on those first three August games as being crucial for Denver.

Contrary to what you might think, though, the list of concerns does not begin with the Broncos' defense, no matter how bad it was last year.

From early indications, and reports out of camp, the defense will be better, probably much better, with new coordinator Bob Slowik following the highly disappointing Jim Bates. The down linemen are a year older, and the linebacking corps is far more solid with new acquisition Boss Bailey and D.J. Williams on the outside while Nate Webster and Niko Koutouvides compete for the inside spot. There's still some uncertainty at safety after John Lynch's departure, but any secondary with Dr Bly and Champ Bailey at the corners has to be formidable.

This doesn't mean the defense has to be dominating in preseason just promising. If you see the first unit looking sharp, and backups making noticeable plays, that should suffice. It's also true that most coverages, blitzes and situational strategies will remain under wraps until the games count, anyway.

Denver's offense is another matter. Sure, quarterback Jay Cutler has been impressive and appears on the threshold of a quantum-leap kind of season. But the running backs are mostly unproven, which means likely starter Selvin Young must assert himself in the next three weeks, especially with rookie Ryan Torain now out for up to eight weeks with an arm injury. That might mean different plans for veteran signee Michael Pittman, who had been strangely vanquished to No. 3 fullback in the team's first camp depth chart.

Shanahan continues to lavish praise on the receivers, but a skeptic might be more squeamish with Brandon Marshall suspended for the first three games (or two, if he goes through counseling), Eddie Royal having not played, veteran Darrell Jackson trying to mesh with Cutler, and Brandon Stokley's role not so clear yet.

Watch to see how well the Broncos can run the ball in these first three exhibitions, and also how effective Cutler can be at finding Royal and Jackson. Unless those elements are in place, Denver will have much trouble proving the head coach right.

Bits and pieces: Because many have asked, here's a follow-up on Rex Wade, the longtime Broadmoor Golf Club fixture who was the subject of Rich Tosches' column in last week's Independent. Wade did attend the first day of the Senior Open, and The Broadmoor provided him with an electric scooter that allowed him the mobility to reconnect with many friends. "It was wonderful," he says. He watched the rest of the weekend on TV. . . .

All four of the Broncos' preseason games will be picked up live locally on Channel 11. FOX Sports Rocky Mountain will show replays thereafter. . . .

From listening to Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun at the Falcons' football media day, he won't hesitate to give freshmen a chance to help the varsity from the start. Two names to remember, coming out of the AFA Prep School, are quarterback Tim Jefferson of College Park, Ga., and tailback Paul Weatheroy of Portland, Ore. Calhoun also was highly pleased with the returning players in the grueling early running tests, calling the group's performances "outstanding." . . .

Thumbs down to the Mountain West Conference for not naming any Air Force players to its 10-year anniversary all-star team. Chad Hall, last year's do-everything star, could have been included as a returner or extra back. Or, offensive lineman Ben Miller (1999-2001, and now an AFA assistant) would have been deserving.

Sports Shot

Here we go again
High school fall sports begin preseason practice on Monday, Aug. 11, with first contests (including football) on Aug. 28.

Could be worse
Broncos receiver Brandon Marshall will miss two or three games for his offseason misbehavior, but he's lucky the suspension wasn't more severe.

See the headline?
Stan Brock, Army's head football coach and a former All-American offensive lineman at Colorado (1976-79), is being treated for prostate cancer but will continue to coach.

Don't miss it
Opening ceremony, Beijing Olympics, 6:30 p.m. to 11 p.m., Friday, Aug. 8 on NBC.

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