The Denver Broncos are no longer a threat to win the AFC. By the end of next season, they might not even push for the AFC West title.
Denver has won four consecutive division championships and reached the Super Bowl last year. All of those accolades came under former head coach John Fox, who was surprisingly ousted after losing in the Divisional round to the Indianapolis Colts two weeks ago. Fox’s replacement, Gary Kubiak, was hired because general manager John Elway knows him well. Kubiak was Elway’s backup in Denver from 1983-91 before becoming his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach from 1995-98, winning two Super Bowls.
Kubiak is a well-respected offensive mind, but a mediocre head coach. In eight seasons at the helm with the Houston Texans, Kubiak managed only two playoff appearances and a pair of postseason wins, never advancing past the round Fox was fired for losing in. Kubiak’s shortcomings can’t be blamed on a lack of talent, with Houston the hot pick multiple years to win it all.
Denver has a massive offseason ahead of it, even if you assume Peyton Manning will return. The Broncos have a host of key free agents including Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Wes Welker, Orlando Franklin and Terrence Knighton. It could be tough keeping Knighton, who was dismayed when Jack Del Rio left his post as defensive coordinator to become the Oakland Raiders head coach. There are also reports that Julius Thomas will walk when free agency begins March 10. Welker won’t be missed all that much when he leaves, after catching 49 passes for 463 yards in 2014.
Still, potential departures and a new coaching staff – not too mention a rapidly aging Manning – are serious issues. Denver also plays in a very good division with the Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers both boasting consecutive winning seasons. The Chiefs are of particular concern for the Broncos, led by a proven head coach and sporting the second-youngest team in the NFL. After some expected cuts, Kansas City will also have ample cap space, perhaps targeting Franklin to help fix its biggest problem; the offensive line.
With Manning in clear decline, Kubiak unproven as a winner and a defense that disappeared down the stretch, the Broncos are on the way down. It would be mildly surprising if they don’t reach the playoffs next season, but not stunning. Denver has a brutal schedule including four games against the Chiefs and Chargers, along with road contests versus the Pittsburgh Steelers, Detroit Lions and Indianapolis Colts, and home dates facing the Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens, New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers.
For years, Denver has been a foregone conclusion when putting together the playoff picture. Don’t be taken aback if next year Kansas City and San Diego are fighting for the division title while a familiar foe languishes behind.