Quick, what will be the biggest sports story in Colorado for the rest of August?
If your answer is the Rockies' continuing surge through the summer — they were 42-18, or a remarkable .700, from early June through Monday night — you would be wrong.
Fascinating baseball races might rule over all else in many pro-sport markets, but not along the Front Range.
Here in Colorado, with the Rockies conveniently gone for an East Coast road trip starting Friday, all eyes will turn to the Denver Broncos as they begin their 2009 preseason schedule Friday night at San Francisco, then next weekend (Saturday, Aug. 22) at Seattle.
I'm trying to remember a more highly anticipated exhibition opener for the Broncos. Only one might rank higher: August 1983, when Denver fans enjoyed their first look at John Elway. The rookie from Stanford stepped onto the old Mile High Stadium field for the first time, led the Broncos on a touchdown drive against Seattle, and the maniacs treated it like the Second Coming.
This situation, of course, is far different. Denver fans are much less patient now. They've just endured the final three exasperating years of the Mike Shanahan era, with all of its late-season, late-game collapses. They're on the rebound from their latest fling with a frustrating quarterback, having suffered through the likes of Brian Griese, Gus Frerotte, Jake Plummer and Jay Cutler.
Now it's not just about embracing (or not) a new quarterback, though Kyle Orton will face more merciless scrutiny than most teammates. Denver's followers will be doing instant evaluations on a new first-time head coach, Josh McDaniels, who looks young enough to be Elway's kid. They'll also be checking out top draft pick Knowshon Moreno, a runner with talent and credentials who must bear the burden of comparisons with other ex-Broncos from Georgia, such as Terrell Davis and Olandis Gary.
And, of course, there's the Denver defense that was so awful, especially against the run, during Shanahan's slow fadeout. With at least eight new starters, and a switch from the 4-3 alignment to a 3-4, this defense should bear no resemblance to those of recent years. But does change mean improvement? Nobody knows yet.
What should Denver's hard-to-please fandom focus on for these first two games? Not the final score, especially at San Francisco, where head coach Mike Singletary has a quarterback battle between Shaun Hill and Alex Smith, putting both under pressure to perform. Most likely, the 49ers will win this one.
As for the Broncos, here's a quick list of players and factors to follow:
• Orton is obvious, but forget about the stats. Check his poise in the pocket, how well he looks for secondary receivers, his play-action fakes and his short-range accuracy. Not to mention his command of the offense.
• McDaniels' demeanor. He'll likely be emotionless, like his New England mentor, Bill Belichick. But what will McDaniels do when the defense is on the field, and during timeouts? Don't judge all of his play-calling (yet), which almost certainly will be conservative, but see what he does on short-yardage situations and how predictable he is, for instance, in bad field position.
• Running backs. This is where Denver has the most competition, without enough room for everybody. After the Broncos gave up Wednesday on oft-injured Ryan Torain, who was waived (with a medical settlement to follow), and with veteran LaMont Jordan also banged up, this looks to be Moreno's big chance to make a splashy preseason debut, along with veteran Corell Buckhalter. Don't expect to see much of Peyton Hillis, unless McDaniels would rather show the fullback side of the offense than all the passing nuances.
• Outside linebackers. Keep an eye on first-rounder Robert Ayers, who has every chance to earn a starting spot. But it's more important now to see how Elvis Dumervil, Tim Crowder and Jarvis Moss adapt to the many defensive changes. Can they help stop the run, rush the passer and cover some receivers? That's a lot to ask.
• Andra Davis was brought in from Cleveland to play beside D.J. Williams at inside linebacker. Those two, arguably more than anyone else, will provide the best early signals of what to expect from the defense.
• Body language. Watch the sideline atmosphere, how coaches interact with players, and offense with defense, especially during tough times. That'll tell you more than the score.