I didn’t go to Denver Broncos training camp last weekend intending to compare the experience to last year, but if you made the pilgrimage to Dove Valley the past two summers you know it’s difficult to not do just that.
I went to training camp Saturday for the same reasons other fans do – and this year, “other fans” seems to include the entire population of Denver. I enjoy the intimacy of practice, the proximity to players I’ll soon see every Sunday (or Monday) on TV. Very simply, I’m thrilled with the imminent return of football.
Especially thrilled this season. You know why. We all know why.
And it’s that palpable excitement that’s turned Dove Valley into the hottest spot in town. Through the team’s first five public practices, the Broncos have set two Dove Valley attendance records, with four of the five practices exceeding 4,000 fans. The lone practice that didn’t was halted and subsequently moved inside (away from fans) on a stormy Friday afternoon, and that paltry attendance was, well, pretty darn good:
- Thursday, July 26: 4,37
- **New all-time Dove Valley record, breaking previous record of 3,103 set Aug. 1, 2010
- Friday, July 27: 2,917
- Outdoor practice suspended
- Saturday, July 28: 4,443
- New all-time Dove Valley record
- Sunday, July 29: 4,003
- Monday, July 30: 4,271
What specifically makes Training Camp 2012 different than Training Camp 2011? For me, it’s twofold: players and fans, and that’s certainly a cause-and-effect type of relationship. Players that affect fan turnout, which in turn molds the overall fan experience.
1) Peyton Manning: This is the ‘Well, Duh’ reason, but it would be outrageous and downright silly to omit from the list. The man who is arguably the greatest at his position ever is now wearing the Broncos orange and blue, though admittedly, it’s still a “Is this for real?” sight. After missing an entire season with that much publicized neck, training camp has been our first opportunity to witness No. 18 in action. How is his neck? Has that affected his arm strength? Can he hold up? Is he worth that $90 million contract? For many, this is likely their first time seeing Manning in person, or at least up close where scrutinizing each millisecond of his effortlessly surgical tosses becomes a major plotline.
2) The Hype Factor: A direct offshoot of reason No. 1, the Broncos have gone from unlikely 2011 AFC West division champions under Tim Tebow to Super Bowl contender with Manning’s arrival. Sure, a lot of things have to go right for a deep playoff run to happen, but there’s nothing like the talk of a Vince Lombardi Trophy to fire up an already loyal fan base.
3) Draft and Free Agency Acquisitions: Manning was the star offseason pick up for the Broncos, but he wasn’t the lone acquisition. Denver made strides on defense, particularly the secondary, with CBs Drayton Florence and Tracy Porter (Go Hoosiers!) through free agency, and added some young talent to the defensive line with rookie Derek Wolfe. Offensively the Broncos upgraded at tight end, and there’s intrigue with a pair of rookies – one we don’t mind seeing a lot of in 2012 in RB Ronnie Hillman, and one we’d rather not see much of in 2012. (No offense to QB Brock Osweiler. That’s just how it goes.)
But the training camp differences extend beyond position drills or first-team scrimmages.
2011: For a Saturday 8:50 a.m. practice, we arrived at Dove Valley shortly before 7:30 a.m. (Note: I have precious little reason to ever be up before 7:00 a.m. on a Saturday. The truth is I have precious little reason to be awake before 9:30 a.m. on a Saturday.) Having read parking was limited, and especially worried about attending a weekend practice, I was pleasantly surprised just how easy it was to secure a spot in the team’s parking lot.
Nonetheless, we joined a short line – behind 25 people or so – and waited until gates opened just before 8:00 a.m. By the time gates opened, the line had grown considerably, but we had absolutely no problem at all finding a premium viewing space right around the 45-yard line…with ample leg room!
2012: Same wake up call. Similar arrival time to Dove Valley.
And that’s where the similarities end.
The facility’s public parking lot was full and closed off. Drat.
Some nearby lots, which belong to area businesses, were either full as well…or made it abundantly clear that if we parked there, our car wouldn’t be there when we returned. Double drat.
We did, however, find a relatively nearby business sans threatening signage.
Ironically, we soon found ourselves back in the team parking lot right near where we parked last year…at the end of a line. A long line. A “How on earth are we going to get a good seat?” line. Thanks to some ingenuity, we squeezed ourselves into this tiny little patch of grass at the 41-yard line, simply fantastic seats despite the sardine-like confines. Goodbye leg room.
2011: The Broncos were coming off a 4-12 season, a lengthy NFL lockout, and ripe with quarterback controversy – one fueled largely by the media.
What was seemingly a surefire deal that would send Kyle Orton to Miami fell through, leaving a player who once said he didn’t want to compete for the starting quarterback job competing for the starting quarterback job.
His main competition: Tim Tebow.
In the court of public opinion, at least the vocal public, it was Tebow or bust. The situation, quite frankly, was awkward. A pedestrian quarterback vying against a guy who may or may not have the chops to even play the position, yet who is among the most popular players in the league.
Well, that’s weird.
2012: The crowd was much rowdier this time. These fans are really into this team. It’s not about a certain player, though Manning is a big, big deal, but while fans inevitably showed up to see Manning in action, they were also there to see everyone who came out of the locker room with him.
The fans at Saturday’s practice were attentive and responsive, paying close attention to plays. They cheered for laser accuracy throws, solid catches, and broken up passes. (They also cheered for a breeze, for what it’s worth.)
On Field Product
2011: So this is where it gets a little cliché by training camp reporting/recounting standards. Last summer it was pretty obvious when you watched the quarterback cadre go through the motions that there was Orton…and then there was everyone else. Orton was accurate. Brady Quinn was hit or miss. Tebow was mainly miss, but in a way where you could feel the crowd collectively deleting the poor throw from memory as if expecting a breakthrough was going to happen on the next snap.
The rest of the team? Eh, Von Miller looked fast, but it’s hard to tell just what a pass rusher can be until he gets into a game situation. Eric Decker looked good, so did Champ Bailey, and that was about it.
2012: Flash forward to the beginning of this year’s camp. Whereas 2011 was more a question of “if”: if Tebow can throw a good ball, if Orton can keep passes away from defenders, if the defense can stand up to a running game…2012 is more a question of “how”: how close to perfect was that deep throw from Manning, how suffocating are those defensive backs, and how much is Denver’s young receiving corps going to improve under Manning’s tutelage.
The passes were crisp. The secondary was blanketing. The receivers were digging in on each play. The offensive and defense lines were grinding. For fans the overwhelming sentiment while witnessing all of this had to be, “Just how dominant can this team become?”
There are plenty of other observations I came away with from the most recent visit to Broncos Training Camp. In the next few weeks I’ll have more on all those lingering roster questions from what’s going on at linebacker, to who is the early frontrunner, in my opinion to backup Manning should doomsday occur. For now though, believe the hype. We’re likely in store for a very different looking Denver Broncos.