DENVER – Five things to watch when the Broncos face the Kansas City Chiefs at Sports Authority Field at Mile High here Sunday with the AFC West title at stake:
1. THE RETURN.
Slip inside the eye of your mind
Don’t you know you might find
A better place to play …
The Broncos haven’t faced one of their former starting quarterbacks in the regular season since Brian Griese started for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a 2008 game that Denver won. But by the time Griese returned to Denver, he had not been a Bronco in over five years, and the franchise had cycled through the entirety of the Jake Plummer era and had transferred its hopes and dreams to Jay Cutler. Griese was old news from a bygone era playing in a checkdown-flooded, eminently forgettable game, and he wasn’t even the most effective quarterback for the Bucs that day; Jeff Garcia was.
Griese was booed by the demanding home fans in his day. So was Plummer. Griese responded to the jeers by turning inward; Plummer replied with an upraised digit. Neither were as unloved by the Broncos’ fan base as Kyle Orton, who started 33 games over three seasons but left Denver with the worst record for a starting quarterback who started more than 10 Broncos games since Steve Tensi (10-21-1 from 1967-70).
That record didn’t help, even though he was saddled by the worst defense in the league for his 13 starts in 2010. Nor did his proclivity for shredding defenses between the 20-yard-lines but fading in the red zone, a trait that has followed him to Kansas City during his brief stint there.
And that’s where the ugliest sight and sound of Orton’s time in Denver began.
It was at the team’s annual stadium practice this summer, and Orton had just slid three yards short of a first down on third-and-nine from the defense’s 11-yard line. Angered by the decision and the failure to score a touchdown, most of the 17,982 on hand booed.
What support Orton possessed among the fan base seemed to evaporate that afternoon. His next few appearances at what would become Sports Authority Field would feature varying volumes of boos — the loudest coming in Week 5 against San Diego, which proved to be his last half as a Bronco. Teammates such as Robert Ayers and Willis McGahee rose to his defense and excoriated fans, but it was too late; the shotgun marriage between Orton and Broncos supporters was irretrievable. Many despised him and wanted someone else.
“Any quarterback doesn’t want to be looking over his shoulder and he doesn’t want to hear the clamor for another quarterback, you know?” said Chiefs interim coach Romeo Crennel, whose first game as their sideline boss was also Orton’s first start — a Week 15 win over the previously undefeated Packers. “(Orton) wants to be the guy.”
There appears to be no ill will between Orton and Broncos coach John Fox, general manager Brian Xanders or executive vice president John Elway. If anything, Orton ought to be somewhat thankful that they waived him in November; if he guides the Chiefs to a win Sunday, his chances of starting somewhere at the beginning of the 2012 season might have doubled.
And while Orton does not possess the personality type that surrenders to raw emotional compulsion as Plummer did on a December day in 2004, one couldn’t blame him if he wanted to win to prove a point to the fans who jeered him before and will likely do so again Sunday. But that’s as far as it will go, and if he does lead the Chiefs to a win, the chapter will certainly be closed from his perspective.
… My soul slides away,
But don’t look back in anger,
Don’t look back in anger,
I heard you say –
At least not today.
— N. Gallagher, 1996
2. WHAT DOES ORTON KNOW?
Much more about what the Broncos might do than vice versa, it would seem.
“He knows a lot about us, which could hurt us at some point, but we’ve got to make sure he doesn’t take advantage of us,” said cornerback Champ Bailey.
“He does know us, but we feel like we know the Chiefs, too,” said defensive end Robert Ayers. “(They are) a division team and the scouting reports and all that stuff helps us know the other team. That’s what we’re supposed to do.”
But some with the Broncos don’t expect Orton’s knowledge to have much impact on how the Broncos attack the Chiefs.
“We’ve changed some things. I’m not going to say what those things are,” said offensive coordinator Mike McCoy. “There’s a number of things we’re doing differently that they haven’t seen.
“We’ve shared information with the defense on things we know, and we’ll see what happens … we coached him for two and a half years, so there’s a lot of little things we know about him.”
If the Chiefs know about the Broncos, it’s because of what they’ve seen from playing them twice a year since the 1960′s, and not because of anything Orton knows.
“When I was at Carolina, we ran the same six plays in the two-minute drill for five years. We played the Falcons, Tampa Bay and Saints twice a year and we never changed those six plays,” McCoy explained.
“Everyone on the other team always knew the signals, this and that, but they never stopped us. So it’s just one of those deals. It comes down to players making plays.”
3. BACK TO THE GROUND.
Denver’s league-leading ground game was never so prominent in the offense as it was during the Nov. 13 game at Kansas City, when the Broncos ran the football 55 times — more than in any other game they’ve played since 1976 — and passed only eight times — the least for any game in the team’s 52-season history.
“We need to get back to what we were doing. We’re No. 1 in the league in rushing the ball. That’s what we need to get back to. That’s the mentality we need to have,” said running back Willis McGahee, whose carries have been limited in recent weeks as he grapples with the wear and tear of a season in which the nine-year veteran has already had more carries than the previous two seasons combined.
McGahee hasn’t surpassed the 20-carry mark in the last three weeks after posting at least 20 carries five times in the previous 10 games — including Weeks 12 and 13 at San Diego and Minnesota.
“I had a little hitch, so that really was the reason why (there were fewer carries),” McGahee said. “Once you go out there with a hitch, you start to over-compensate and start to injure more things. I think the best thing was to rotate in slowly.”
He said he feels good and up to full speed. If that’s the case, the Broncos’ offense — and their entire fate — might rest in his reliable grasp.
4. COPING WITHOUT BRIAN DAWKINS.
The 16-year veteran safety hasn’t been ruled out for Sunday, but he’s the first Broncos player to be listed as “doubtful” on the Friday injury report all season, and his absence from all practices this week and seven of the last eight quarters because of a neck strain doesn’t lead to any optimism that he will be able to return to the lineup Sunday.
“We definitely miss him,” Bailey said. I’m not going to shy away from saying it. I know this is a next-man-up business, but you can’t really replace a guy like that with his intensity and leadership.”
That leads the burden of safety work on the shoulders of Quinton Carter, David Bruton and Rahim Moore. With Dawkins injured and those three handling safety chores, the Broncos have struggled with communication and tackling issues — although Bailey noted last Saturday that the communication problems ebbed in Buffalo, placing missed tackles at the top of the Broncos’ problem list.
“These past few weeks, I’ve been tackling horribly. That’s a big thing we’ve got to pick up,” Carter said. “It’s detail and the little things leading up to the tackle. Running full speed. Taking the proper angles. Everybody flying to the ball. Just the little things leading up to the tackle.”
To that end, the Broncos practiced in full pads Wednesday, something they hadn’t done in the two previous weeks. The NFL’s new collective bargaining agreement forbids teams from holding more than 14 full-pad practices per regular season — and more than three in the final six weeks of the year.
“It helped just getting some reps and being able to put your body on somebody going full speed,” Carter said. “I liked it personally, and I feel like a lot of other guys liked it, just knowing where we are the last few weeks slacking off on the tackling. We needed that.”
That’s especially true with Dexter McCluster looming for the Chiefs. Considering how Buffalo’s C.J. Spiller and Minnesota’s Percy Harvin torched the Broncos for big gains in December, a dual-threat back with open-field moves is the last thing the Broncos want to see.
5. IGNORE THE SCOREBOARD.
Don’t think about the back door to the playoffs — which involves the Oakland Raiders losing to the San Diego Chargers, a result that would hand the Broncos their first AFC West crown in six years. Getting there through such a route would almost guarantee the Broncos a short postseason stay, seeing that the only momentum they would carry would be a three-game losing streak.
“We’ve got to take care of business. We can’t worry about anybody else,” said wide receiver Eddie Royal. “We’ve just got to go out and play good football and not be concerned about any other games, just take care of what we need to do.”
“It’s time to grow up, regardless of who you are, where you’re from,” added McGahee, who helped the Baltimore Ravens to three consecutive playoff appearances — and four playoff wins in those appearances — from 2008-10.
“Everybody has to step up and do what they need to do. That’s the whole plan — don’t worry about what’s going on outside of football, just worry about your job and do what you’re supposed to do: run the ball, blocking, passing, receiving, catching, tackling, anything.”
Returning to those basics represents a cliche’ … but it’s exactly what the Broncos must do if they are to prevent this season from resting alongside 2006, 2008 and 2009 in their litany of late-season collapses.