I was asked by my editors at FOXSports.com to list three reasons why the Denver Broncos won’t be repeating as Super Bowl champions, so here it goes:
While we’re at it, here are reasons 4-6.
Quarterback, quarterback, quarterback.
Mind you, Broncos general manager John Elway has some other challenges ahead. Seventeen players are set to become unrestricted free agents — led by outside linebacker and Super Bowl 50 MVP Von Miller, who will be receiving the franchise tag if not re-signed by March 7.
The Broncos may not have the salary-cap space to re-sign some key contributors like defensive end Malik Jackson and linebacker Danny Trevathan. Denver could use an upgrade at tight end — Owen Daniels is 33 years old — and must plot how best to handle the left and right tackle positions.
There also are the inherent challenges faced by every Super Bowl team that have contributed to no franchise being able to win back-to-back titles since the 2003-04 New England Patriots.
Denver now has a target on its back against every opponent it faces. Injuries are unpredictable. There is more outside pressure and distractions than before. Avoiding the tendency to live in past glory can be tricky. And, quite frankly, there may be better teams in the AFC next season, led by the Patriots and Steelers. Winning the AFC West won’t be a cakewalk either with Kansas City coming off an 11-5 season and Oakland starting to emerge with stellar young talent.
But even with all those hurdles, the Broncos have enough star power returning on the NFL’s top defense to make another Super Bowl run.
The problem is the quarterback position is the biggest obstacle to Denver doing just that.
Regardless of whether he plans to retire — and the probability is a mile high that he will — Peyton Manning won’t be back with the Broncos. Manning simply can’t make the throws he once did, and a resurgence in 2016 is unrealistic considering his age (39) and history of neck problems. Elway also needs Manning’s $19 million salary to put toward keeping his heir apparent in Denver as Brock Osweiler is set to become an unrestricted free agent.
That’s where my confidence in Denver winning a second straight Lombardi Trophy takes a dip.
The 2015 season provided a good news/bad news scenario regarding Osweiler.
The good news was that Manning’s foot injury allowed the Broncos to get their first look at Osweiler as a starter after 3½ seasons on the bench. There were positive things that can be built upon, like his arm strength and mobility. Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak will be able to implement more of his offensive system in 2016, with Osweiler comfortable under center and better able to run bootlegs and waggles than Manning, whose lack of mobility forced Denver to field a hybrid attack in 2015 that never quite clicked. The Broncos also will look to complement Osweiler with a better running game than the one whose production was spotty this past season.
And now for the bad news.
Osweiler wasn’t good enough to keep the job once Manning was sufficiently recovered to play again seven games later. He simply didn’t seem ready to grab the torch.
As much of a shell of his former self as Manning was, the end result Sunday against Carolina justified Denver’s decision to go back to the future Hall of Famer.
But all of it shows how far Osweiler must go before becoming a difference-making quarterback.
That distance – even with all the other positives on the Broncos – will likely prove too great for Osweiler and Denver to bridge in their quest to win Super Bowl 51.