By Mark Schiff
If you’ve already repressed the memory of the Denver Broncos Divisional Round stinker against the Indianapolis Colts in January, all is forgiven. It may not have had the gut-punch shock of their upset loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the 2013 playoffs or raised the ghosts of past Super Bowl humiliations, but the Broncos looked alarmingly apathetic in their 24-13 loss to the Colts, so much so that it drove their head coach John Fox — winner of four straight AFC West titles — straight out of town.
Although the defense looked sloppy and Peyton Manning was off his rhythm (likely as a result of an injury that wasn’t fully disclosed until after the season), the Broncos greatest failure in the game was schematic. The play calling was unbecoming, especially on third down, where Manning routinely threw deep and missed. The defense failed to make adjustments as they surrendered a back-breaking, 8-minute field goal drive in the fourth quarter. Add in Fox’s questionable coaching decisions and it was clear that in a town harboring perennial championship hopes, a change was needed.
Fortunately, the breakup proved to be amicable. Fox and Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase landed in Chicago and the Broncos hired one of the only coaches that would appease skeptical fans, Gary Kubiak. John Elway’s backup QB and the team’s offensive coordinator for 11 seasons, including their two Super Bowl wins, “Kubes” has long been a revered name in Broncos lore. His return to the sidelines conjures sweet memories of a similar era when he was working with a Hall of Fame quarterback in the dusk of his career.
As the Broncos head back to the future in their quest for a third Super Bowl, here are a few notable headlines ahead of their week one season opener at home against the Baltimore Ravens.
On punt returns, Emmanuel Sanders is the man
Denver’s special teams looked dreadful in the preseason and the team hasn’t had a real threat in the return game since the boom-or-bust Trindon Holliday. It’s telling that Sanders’ response to the news that he’ll be handling punt return duties in the season opener was, “Why not?”
“It’s an opportunity to get the ball in my hands. It’s an opportunity to make more plays,” Sanders said earlier this week.
Last year in his first season with the team, Sanders indeed proved an explosive playmaker with the ball and Kubiak said that although he hasn’t handled punt returns full time since his senior year at SMU, Sanders’ upside in the role looked too appealing to pass up.
“I think you look at touches, that’s the most important thing and when you’ve got a dynamic player like that, if there’s any other way to get him a touch on the field (you do),” Kubiak said.
As for injury concerns at the position, Sanders said “you’ve got to be very cautious” and notes, “you’ve got to play it smart, and that’s what I’m going to do.”
Kubiak immediately faces his old team
If the Broncos head coaching position hadn’t opened up, Gary Kubiak would still be happily employed at his old gig: Offensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens. Now, Denver’s new head coach finds himself going up against his former employer in his first game on the job.
“It’s funny how that works,” Kubiak told reporters Wednesday.
Kubiak joined the Ravens in January 2014 following an 8-year stint as head coach of the Houston Texans, and in his only season as Baltimore’s offensive coordinator, the team set franchise records in points (409) and yardage (5,838). After stepping in abruptly as a starter in the wake of Ray Rice’s suspension, running back Justin Forsett finished with 1,266 rushing yards, fifth-most in the NFL, and Joe Flacco set personal marks in yards (3,986) and touchdowns (27).
As you might have guessed, the Ravens aren’t a team out for revenge on their despised ex-coach.
“It won’t be weird. I’ll go say hi to those guys,” Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said of Kubiak and Rick Dennison, his former quarterbacks coach and Denver’s new offensive coordinator. “I had a great relationship with all of them. I’ll probably just go up to them and joke around about something, nothing probably too serious.”
Mark Schiff is a freelance writer and music journalist for AXS.com. In 2013, his coverage of the Seattle Seahawks ended in heartbreak when they defeated the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. Now covering his beloved hometown team, his knowledge and passion for pro football has resulted in multiple fantasy football championships. Find him on Twitter at @mihilites.