A year ago this week, readers came to this space and saw the Denver Broncos' 2009 season projected to end at 8-8, the same as in 2008.
That final record turned out to be absolutely right — except that the fine print wasn't so accurate. My guess was that Denver would improve as last season went along, with a 6-4 record after Halloween. That, of course, couldn't have been more wrong, as the Broncos plummeted from 6-0 to a 2-8 finish. So it was hard to feel smug about nailing the bottom line.
Now it's the second year for head coach Josh McDaniels, the second year for quarterback Kyle Orton, the second year without Mike Shanahan's fingerprints throughout the franchise.
And the second year for nobody having any idea what to expect from the Broncos. Football logic would suggest they might show visible improvement, especially on offense, simply from everyone knowing the playbook's intricacies. And surely the defensive front has been upgraded, which often can provide the nucleus for an entire team.
Yet, for a handful of very sobering reasons, it's impossible to sit here before Denver opens its 2010 schedule at Jacksonville and imagine anything close to an AFC West title. The best hope, with a lot of luck and a big year from Orton, might be to contend for a wild-card playoff berth at 10-6 or 9-7. But don't count on that.
Realistically, inside the division, these Broncos can't think of themselves as being on the same level as San Diego. Their schedule is ominous, with other trips to Arizona, Baltimore, Tennessee and the long flight to face San Francisco in London on Oct. 31. And they simply don't look ready for a first-half schedule that offers only two likely victories.
Let's define the problem areas, then end with a month-by-month assessment.
• Running game: Knowshon Moreno needed a lot of preseason work and got none. Correll Buckhalter also was gimpy. There's no proven depth behind those two, and the line has dealt with injuries. Moreno still has upside, but he can't be close to a workhorse any time soon. This could be the league's worst ground game.
• No. 1 receiver: It's difficult to calculate the difference between departed Brandon Marshall and successor Jabar Gaffney. Let's just call it huge, and rookie Demaryius Thomas isn't ready to make an impact.
• Inside linebackers: Stop me if this sounds familiar. Denver hasn't had real playmakers on the inside since, well, Al Wilson (1999-2006). Every year, we've talked about the Broncos needing D.J. Williams to step it up, and that's the case again for him and fellow starter Mario Haggan.
• Sack masters: Take away NFL sack leader Elvis Dumervil, out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle, and who's left to apply outside pressure? Robert Ayers and Jarvis Moss haven't lived up to their potential yet. Either would be fine with Dumervil on the other side, but that's not the case.
• Defensive coaching: Don "Wink" Martindale never has been an NFL defensive coordinator until now, and last year he was supervising Denver's inside linebackers, who were inconsistent at best. Martindale's credentials don't look magical, and this defense needs some coaching wizardry.
Those uncertainties would appear to guarantee a slow start. Let's see...
September starts in Jacksonville, followed by Seattle and Indianapolis coming to Denver. Hard to imagine anything better than 1-2.
October looks like the pivotal month, if the Broncos want any hope for better than another 8-8. But they'll have to win at home against the New York Jets and Oakland — and the Raiders haven't lost in Denver since 2007. My prediction is 3-2 at best, 1-4 at worst, most likely 2-3.
November brings Kansas City and St. Louis to Invesco Field, wrapped around a trip to San Diego. Call it 2-1.
December-January has trips to Kansas City, Arizona and Oakland, followed by home games against Houston and San Diego. If this team actually does improve at the end (that hasn't happened to Denver for a while), perhaps 3-2 could happen.
And that adds up to ... 8-8, yet again — another average record for another average team.