What a nice little landmark. Prediction #50 just happens to be the last in my series of NFL team predictions.
Today's absurd prediction:
Good coaching prevails in the AFC West as Denver takes the division and earns a 1st-round bye.
Mike Shanahan has a less talented team, but his superior game planning and motivational skills give his Broncos the edge over Norv Turner and the Chargers. Thanks to the losses to Indianapolis, the coaching in San Diego, and the aging of Baltimore, there is a bye available for the taking, and I think the Broncos will pull it off.
Here's the breakdown for the Denver Broncos:
Coaching Changes: B+
Not many people pointed to the loss of Gary Kubiak as offensive coordinator as the reason that Denver failed to produce a 1,000-yard running back for the first time in forever. I think it's entirely possible that was the case. But Rick Dennison is in his second year now, and should be improved. Interesting thing about Dennison - he played professional football, as a linebacker for the Broncos. He may, in fact, be the only former defensive player in the NFL to serve as offensive coordinator. (Anyone know of anyone else?) He worked as offensive line coach and special teams coach for ten years in Denver before his promotion in 2006, so he's a Bronco through and through. Defensive backs coach Bob Slowik was promoted to defensive coordinator, replacing Larry Coyer. Mike Shanahan has two Assistant Head Coaches, Mike Heimerdinger (QBs) and Jim Bates (LBs), and an Associate Head Coach, Steve Watson (WRs). There's a chance of this becoming a too-many-cooks situation; but all three were with the team last year (and Watson has been there since 2001) and if there had been power struggles, changes would have been made.
Four picks. That's it. One in each of the first four rounds. Three of them were used on defensive linemen. They had to move up to ensure they got Jarvis Moss, who is an excellent pass rusher but may be a liability against the run early in his career. Second-rounder Tim Crowder is much better against the run and can also attack the passer, but is a little slow physically and mentally. DT Marcus Thomas may be a huge steal from round 4, a top talent who slid due to character issues. If the guy straightens out and works hard, he could be a star. Trivia note - Thomas was drafted with a pick that was originally Denver's. It was traded to Atlanta, then to Minnesota, and then back to Denver. The other pick, a third rounder, was used on OT Ryan Harris, who could eventually be quite good as a left tackle if he bulks up.
Player Movement: A
Perhaps only the Patriots did a better job of addressing needs in free agency than the Broncos. The WR depth was bolstered with the additions of Brandon Stokley, who they got cheap thanks to injury concerns and now looks like he's approaching 100%; they nabbed Travis Henry, who should be thrilled to finally be where he'll be utilized and appreciated; and they got Dre Bly to man the half of the field Champ Bailey can't get to; all excellent moves. Newly acquired LBs Warrick Holdman and D.D. Lewis will compete for a starting job opposite Ian Gold. The competition at DT should be tight. The venerable Sam Adams was brought in, and while there's not much left in the tank, he'll do fine in spot duty as he plays mentor to Thomas; former first-round disappointment Jimmy Kennedy was traded from the Rams; Alvin McKinney and Gerard Warren return fighting for their jobs. It seems Shanahan loves to gamble; between his drafting of character risks and signing of injury risks like Stokley and new WR David Terrell (who has hardly played the last two years), not to mention the signing of aging veterans and underachievers. The Broncos retain much of last year's roster; except for Jake Plummer and Al Wilson who have been sent on their way, and the tragic deaths of Darrent Williams and Damien Nash. Nash's loss won't affect the offense in any way but emotionally, and Williams' hole has been filled by Bly.
This schedule works out pretty well for the young QB; Cutler gets to warm up against Buffalo, Oakland, and Jacksonville before having to face Indianapolis and San Diego. Of course, Indianapolis will be Travis Henry's show, since they'll have no run defense. Then they get to recover during the bye week, and the rest of the season is fairly smooth, with only a few truly difficult matches. Thanks to losing the tiebreaker to Kansas City, they draw Buffalo and Pittsburgh instead of the Jets and Cincinnati. And like the rest of the West, they play the entire AFC South and NFC North.
The big question for me is seeing how they deal with this offseason's tragedy. Sometimes such events inspire teams to have storybook seasons. Sometimes they distract and cause disappointment. Some players have their best games after a loved one's death, some can't focus. It seems to me the former happens more often - maybe that's just because it's a more memorable story than a forgivingly bad game, or maybe it's something to do with the mental toughness required of a professional athlete. Anyway, I'm expecting most of the Broncos to perform well in the face of devastation. The one I'm most concerned about is Javon Walker, the man in the car with Williams when he was shot. While the rest are dealing with an empty space, he is dealing with awful, haunting memories, and most likely the unfair sense of guilt humans experience when one survives a tragedy and another doesn't. I hope to see him have a monster season, but I can't be sure it'll happen. And that's it for the somber stuff. On a lighter note, it's Jay Cutler's second season, and I believe he'll do great now that he has a few games under his belt. I see him outperforming both Matt Leinart and Vince Young, though the Pro Bowl is still out of reach for any AFC quarterback not named Brady, Manning, Palmer, or Rivers.
The Record: 12-4
Travis Henry has a Pro Bowl season, opening things up for Cutler to spread the ball around at will. Cutler and Henry are outplayed by Phillip Rivers and LaDainian Tomlinson, but when the playoffs roll around, the Broncos will be much happier. Oh, also, Champ Bailey beats out Shawne Merriman for Defensive Player of the Year.