In Denver, even the Broncos fans who describe themselves as realists will generally go with 10-6 when asked how the Broncos will do in 2012. Those who say 9-7 generally throw out a caveat of, “They have a very difficult schedule.” If you hear an 8-8 prediction it will almost certainly be paired with the qualifier of, “I just don’t think Manning will be able to go a full 16 games.” Then there’s Grantland.com’s Bill Barnwell.
He has Denver going 8-8 and states it will take a vintage performance by Manning just to hit that mark. In all fairness Barnwell builds his case empirically. It’s research-based and statistically supported. The main point of it all is that the Broncos had no business winning as many games as they did last season, and according to several NFL trend-analyses, they should expect reality to catch up this season. In other words…luck runs out.
Even with Peyton Manning in Denver, some doubt the Denver Broncos will be among the league’s elite. (personal photo)
The potential flaw with Barnwell’s analysis is exactly the thing that makes it a well-supported argument: it’s based on stats. If there was one phrase that captured the madness of Tebowmania last year it would have to be, “You just can’t explain it.” From a statistical perspective that holds true. As Barnwell notes, the Denver Broncos performed well beyond what they should have, notably winning games due to a highly improbable onside kick recovery in Miami, and a truly absurd sequence of events against the Chicago Bears.
The thing is, from both a viewing and data perspective, the 2011 Denver Broncos season was a ludicrous statistical anomaly. In any type of scientific study the numbers from last season would be thrown out as a sheer fluke.
Just how backward was the 2011 team? The average NFL team attempted 34 passing plays and 27 running plays during each game last year. The Denver Broncos were the exact opposite, attempting 27 passes and 34 rushes on average each game. Just gonna throw this prediction out there…that’s not going to be the case with Peyton Manning as quarterback. It seems like only a slight difference (7 plays per game), but it greatly reflects the inherent problem of projecting the 2012 team based on 2011 performance.
The Denver offense is certainly the biggest reason why a projection based on 2011 numbers is likely a crapshoot. However, Barnwell goes a step further in assessing Denver’s defense as average at best, stating Joe Mays, Justin Bannan, and Wesley Woodyard would be situational players on “good teams,” and “the players behind them are even worse.”
Here’s the thing…while Denver may be light on talent at linebacker, the team has made moves during the offseason which at best will be upgrades, or at worst, extend depth. Even more telling about the Denver defense is that it wasn’t actually that bad last year. The Broncos defense gave up 24 points per game on average. That number is of course heavily skewed by three blowouts against the Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions, and New England Patriots. In those games in which the offense sputtered out long before the scoring floodgates opened, the Denver defense gave up 135 points. Remove those three games, and during the 13 game remainder of the 2011 regular season campaign the Broncos defense averaged 19 points allowed. The Pittsburgh Steelers led the league with 17.
Now granted that’s kind of saying, “The Broncos defense is fine as long as it’s not playing premier teams,” and this year there is no shortage of good teams on the Denver schedule. Again though, with an offense that was more comfortable with a halfback dive rather than anything resembling a forward pass on 3rd and 8, the Denver defense performed admirably given minimal help from the other side of the roster.
The Broncos also made defensive moves this offseason…and that could be the ultimate key to the team’s success. (personal photo)
Barnwell notes Denver’s point differential from 2011 of -81 should’ve been that of a team that went 6-10. Oddly though, the Denver Broncos recently posted similar feats when the team finished with a -89 point differential in 2007 (Cutler’s rookie year) and went 7-9. The next year, Mike Shanahan’s last, the Broncos finished 8-8 with a -78 point differential. Barnwell states that teams outperforming expectations based on point differential by two to 2.5 games have declined by roughly two wins in the following season. Yet Denver improved from 2007 to 2008, and even weirder, held the line at 8-8 in 2009, and even improved its point differential to +2 (despite the league thoroughly unraveling the Josh McDaniels playbook by week seven).
Maybe it’s the altitude.
Bringing it all back around, the general findings of that 8-8 prediction are that Peyton Manning is good, but didn’t necessarily come to a good team. So then it becomes a question of whether Manning will be good enough to defeat what history says, which is that the Denver Broncos shouldn’t expect to improve upon, or even equal, the success of the past season.
In that respect there are too many new variables, from offensive system, to a refreshed secondary, to the general concept of the Broncos having a much better chance to play with leads, rather than as a team just trying to keep the opposition from building too much of one. In essence, Peyton Manning won’t need to outplay history, as the myriad differences between the Tebow-led Broncos, and the Manning-led Broncos go far beyond a throwing motion.
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