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Rebuilding blind faith


You probably don't know Jim Martinez, but if you like the Denver Broncos, you probably understand his thinking these days.

Jim has been a typical, loyal fan of the Broncos for, well, let's just say decades. We talked last May about Denver's preseason outlook for 2007, and we were at opposite extremes. Jim thought for sure the Broncos were on the brink of returning to the Super Bowl. My response was not to expect anything better than 8-8.

"I didn't believe you," Jim said last weekend when we saw each other again, exactly a year later, and began catching up on his favorite team. "But I do now."

Denver went 7-9 last season, missing the playoffs for the second consecutive year. But the sad difference was that the Broncos never really looked like a legitimate playoff team, and the two lopsided losses to San Diego (41-3 and 23-3) showed more than anything how far they had slipped in the AFC West.

If Jim's mood was any indication, Denver lost more than just the nine games in 2007. And the recent NFL draft didn't help. Along the way, the franchise apparently has also lost that blind loyalty among many fans who have believed for 30-plus years that their Broncos would win every game they played, without question.

That's not the case anymore. Actually, this time the upbeat observations came from me.

It's encouraging that Denver's team doctors discovered quarterback Jay Cutler's diabetes. Hearing now that he lost 32 pounds, falling from 235 to 203, starting in the middle of last season, makes even this skeptic more willing to give Cutler another chance, if not more. He'll be stronger, right? And the fans will pull for him, right?

To that, Jim simply shrugged and said, "But they have so many other problems."

Perhaps, but my answer was that the defense has to be better, if only because of the linebackers. Last year, even before training camp, the idea of D.J. Williams moving from outside to inside linebacker looked like a serious mistake. And despite trying his best, Williams never could make it work. Now he's back outside, defensive coordinator Jim Bates is gone, and the Broncos have signed free-agent Boss Bailey to play inside.

Still didn't help.

Jim Martinez is right, of course, about the holes to fill. Placekicker Jason Elam is gone, along with tackle Matt Lepsis, receiver Javon Walker and others who were disappointing last year. Nobody knows if running back Travis Henry can stay healthy for a whole season, and the depth at receiver is alarmingly thin.

Then there's the schedule, a killer for the first seven weeks. It starts Monday night, Sept. 8, at Oakland followed by San Diego at Denver. After hosting New Orleans, the Broncos go to Kansas City, host Tampa Bay and Jacksonville, then go to New England.

So the Broncos could easily be 2-5 on Oct. 20. In fact, if they are anything better than that, they might have a shot at 10-6 and perhaps a wild-card playoff spot.

It'll take at least that for Jim Martinez, and probably many other Denver fans like him, to believe anything is possible again.

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