DENVER (CBS4) – The Denver Broncos are one win away from their first Super Bowl appearance since they won Super Bowl XXXIII in 1998. But the Broncos faced many more challenges to get to the point they’re at now than the team led by John Elway and Terrell Davis 16 years ago.
Since last season ended with the loss to the Ravens in the playoffs a year ago, the Broncos have endured many challenges that could have caused large setbacks, including a head coach undergoing heart surgery, team executives accused of driving while intoxicated, a star play suspended the first six games and numerous injuries to key players.
Even before the season began the Broncos learned they would be without star linebacker Von Miller after he was suspended for violating the league’s drug policy. Miller appealed the suspension but lost.
Miller’s six game suspension came after the league learned that he attempted to cheat a drug test. He wasn’t able to practice or even travel with the team during the unpaid suspension.
The Broncos went 6-0 without Miller.
Miller then played in just over eight games, but then he tore his ACL during a win against the Texans in Houston on Dec. 22 and was done for the season.
Also before the season began two Broncos executives were charged with DUI during the summer. Tom Heckert, the Broncos’ director of pro personnel, and Matt Russell, the team’s director of player personnel, were both suspended after the team learned about the charges against the two.
Heckert was suspended one month without pay and Russell was suspended 60 days without pay.
Heckert was arrested in June but it didn’t become public knowledge until after Russell’s arrest on July 6. Heckert’s blood alcohol content was .162 when he was arrested.
Russell crashed his SUV into a police vehicle near Breckenridge to start a chain of events that led to his arrest. His blood alcohol content was .246 when he was arrested.
Both suspensions were made on the same day news of practice squad offensive lineman Quentin Saulsberry’s arrest for DUI in May became public. He was waived by the Broncos in August.
It was during the Broncos bye week when head coach John Fox became ill on a golf course while vacationing in North Carolina. Fox learned he would need to undergo aortic heart valve replacement surgery and miss substantial time from his team.
Fox was aware of his heart condition but was planning on having the operation performed after the season concluded. In an interview with NFL Media’s Michelle Beisner, Fox said he “believed there was ‘no doubt’ he was close to death with his heart issues.”
The team named defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio as interim coach. Del Rio was a former head coach in the league with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He led the Broncos to a 3-1 record while Fox was out for a month.
“I was away for a month, and Jack Del Rio, the rest of the staff our players … there’s not too many times when your head coach goes away, and they worked through it and didn’t miss a beat,” Fox said on Wednesday. “That’s what you hope with a team that they can stay pretty even keeled — not experience all the ups and downs — and keep their focus and keep grinding.”
Losing cornerback Chris Harris for the season to a torn ACL last Sunday against the Chargers was just the latest in a season full of injuries to key players. The rash of injuries began during the summer when the team learned it would start the season without center J.D. Walton, who hadn’t played since breaking his ankle in Week 4 in 2012. Walton was eventually released in December.
Then the injuries just kept coming. Including the injuries to Miller and Harris, some of the more significant injuries that occurred in 2013 are as follows:
– Offensive tackle Ryan Clady was lost for the season in September after suffering a Lisfranc injury to his left foot.
– Cornerback Champ Bailey on Wednesday called this season his “most frustrating” because problems with his left foot limited him significantly. He was only able to play in five games, but was on the field in the playoff win over the Chargers, playing in the slot.
– Tight end Joel Dreesen missed most of training camp and was ruled out for the first two games after having a setback from knee surgery in the offseason.
– Defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson suffered a dislocated hip in the second half of the team’s loss to New England in November and was placed on injured reserve.
– Safety Rahim Moore underwent emergency surgery to alleviate lateral compartment syndrome in his leg on Nov. 18 and hasn’t played since, although it’s still possible he could play in the AFC Championship game.
– Defensive end Derek Wolfe was placed on injured reserve on Tuesday. He hasn’t played since Week 12 after suffering seizure-like symptoms on the team bus heading for Kansas City to play the Chiefs.
– Star tight end Julius Thomas sat out Week 12 and 13 with a knee injury but is back and playing better than ever.
– Wide receiver Wes Welker sat out the final three regular season games after suffering a concussion against the Tennessee Titans in Week 14. He returned for last Sunday’s divisional playoff game against the San Diego Chargers and caught six passes for 38 yards and a touchdown.
But the Broncos look pretty healthy heading into Sunday’s AFC Championship game against the Patriots. All active players fully participated in practice on Wednesday with the exception of safety Mike Adams, who was limited.
The Broncos host the Patriots this Sunday. Kickoff is at 1 p.m. on CBS4.
– By Matthew J. Buettner, CBSDenver.com