> This is ateam in the pennant race in Week 15 every season, and 2007 should be nodifferent, with the acquisitions of Dre' Bly and Daniel Graham filling needs atcornerback and tight end, respectively. The biggest x factor, of course, issecond-year quarterback Jay Cutler, who, after stumbling in his first two NFLstarts in relief of Jake Plummer last fall, looked competent in his last three.The Broncos averaged 28¬†points a game in their 2-1 finish, and Cutler hashad a full off-season to work with the two players who should be his biggesttargets this year: wideout Javon Walker, in his second season with the Broncos,and tight end Daniel Graham, signed in free agency from New England. Coach MikeShanahan tired of seeing his light-bodied defense get overrun by physicaloffenses as the season wore on (San Diego put up a combined 83¬†points onDenver in Weeks 11 and 14), so he replaced speed-loving coordinator Larry Coyerwith beef-loving Jim Bates and made an important switch at middle linebacker,supplanting seven-year starter Al Wilson with D.J. Williams, who's more of asideline-to-sideline playmaker.
> As theBroncos get down to the business of football, they must still contend with twopainful losses in the off-season--the deaths of cornerback Darrent Williams,who was killed in a shooting early on New Year's Day, and reserve running backDamien Nash, who succumbed to apparent heart failure last March. The messagefrom the club leaders was, in essence, not to waste your chance, either at lifeor at football. "I can guarantee you this," says Walker, who cradledWilliams in his arms as he died that night eight months ago. "If Darrentknew that night was going to be his last night, he'd have done something in hislife differently. I just want every guy here to take advantage of theopportunity he's given."
In a footballsense, and obviously not to minimize the loss of two friends and teammates,Walker's words are apt. Denver, 8-0 at home in 2005, plummeted to 4-4 atInvesco Field last year, costing the team a shot at the playoffs. In three ofthe four losses the Broncos blew a fourth-quarter lead. Twice, versus San Diegoand Indianapolis, they surrendered 28 points in the second half. Shanahan isconvinced the problem wasn't just with the wearing down of the defense, whichwas the NFL's stingiest through Week¬†9. (Denver allowed 98¬†points inthe first half of the season, 207 in the second.) He thinks the sputteringoffense--rated 22nd in the NFL, uncharacteristically low for a Shanahanattack--put excess pressure on the defense to play great every week.
So Shanahan madesix decisions he felt would turn the team around. He shook up the defense withthe Bates and D.J. Williams moves, and, to fill Darrent Williams's spot,brought in Bly, a ball-hawking corner who had 19¬†interceptions in fourseasons with Detroit. On offense he put his full faith in 2006 top pick Cutler,opting to bring in only a solid backup, Patrick Ramsey, instead of a veteranpasser who'd give Cutler a run for the starting job. Everyone's favoritefantasy sleeper, Travis Henry, came from Tennessee to bolster the running game(he's the tough inside runner the Broncos like, with a little outside speed),while Graham, who felt he never got the ball enough in New England, broke thebank (five years, $30¬†million) to play in Denver, where he should be moreof a threat than his 24¬†catches a year with the Pats would indicate.
It's a terriblefootball cliché to put the weight of a team on the shoulders of a quarterback,but that's what the Broncos are doing with Cutler. Intriguingly, though, intraining camp Cutler moved from group to group with confidence but quietly, notwanting to push things prematurely, and trying instead to be the type of leadera veteran team would respect. "He handles himself well," Walker says."He knows the way to gain respect is by earning it." After working fourdays a week for four months with quarterbacks coach Mike Heimerdinger, Cutleremerged from the off-season a more patient and decisive player. "Thisoff-season was huge for me," Cutler says. "I think I can do it now. I'mnot scared."
So Cutler willlead a changed team into a season of big hope. He, Walker and their 51teammates will have reason to make sure they don't exit 2007 with the sameregrets they took away from '06. "Javon thought the world of Darrent,"says Shanahan. "We all did. Damien too. The hurt never goes away. You moveon, and you make sure you don't leave anything to chance."
(M) Monday (T)Thursday
9 at Buffalo
7 SAN DIEGO
29 GREEN BAY(M)
4 at Detroit
11 at KansasCity
25 at Chicago
2 at Oakland
9 KANSAS CITY
13 at Houston(T)
24 at San Diego(M)
Opponents' 2006winning percentage ... ¬†.504
Games againstplayoff teams ... 6
AN OPPOSINGTEAM'SSCOUT SIZES UP THE BRONCOS
> You can'toverestimate the importance of knowing the system as a quarterback for MikeShanahan, which is why I really think Jay Cutler will struggle in his firstfull year as the starter. I don't know if he's accurate enough anyway. That wasthe only rap on him at Vanderbilt. . . . I know Travis Henry enters the seasona little nicked, but he's the right back for this offense--he's not blindinglyfast, but he has great instincts and he never runs side to side, just north andsouth. . . . Daniel Graham was a great get at tight end, but they better notforget Tony Scheffler, who's got excellent hands and gets open like Todd Heap.. . . Good move picking up Dre' Bly because he'll get all the interceptionswhen teams realize it's fruitless to throw to Champ Bailey's side. Can't figureout why teams didn't know that last year.
THE KING 500
"I'm so muchmore comfortable this year, in the offense and healthwise," says Walker,whose surgically repaired right knee never felt right in 2006. He still had69¬†catches for 1,084¬†yards and nine¬†TDs, all team highs. Walkerhad 100% attendance in the off-season workout program and is comfortable withQB Jay Cutler. A 90-catch season might be in the cards. Says Walker, "Thisoffense is perfect for me."
Instant access tothe latest and best Broncos stories, stats and blogs from across the Web,handpicked by SI's editors.
COACH MIKESHANAHAN (131-81 in NFL), 13th season with Broncos
(R) Rookie (college statistics)
TRAVIS HENRY (NEWACQUISITION)
HT 6' 8"
MONTRAE HOLLAND(NEW ACQUISITION)
HT 6' 2"
HT 6' 3"
HT 6' 4"
HT 6' 4"
DANIEL GRAHAM(NEW ACQUISITION)
SAM ADAMS (NEWACQUISITION)
JARVIS MOSS(R)(NEW ACQUISITION)
SACKS 7 1/2
DRE' BLY (NEWACQUISITION)
TODD SAUERBRUN(NEW ACQUISITION)
> 2006 RECORD9-7 NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 8/25/21 DEFENSE 12/21/14
Next! Henry gets the chance to be the latest big-gaining back in the Broncos' system.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH