ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Teams that make the Super Bowl sit on an odd bridge between the present and the future.
Their coaches and players are concentrating on the moment, getting ready for the title game and all of the trappings that go with it. But the personnel departments are, by necessity of the compressed time frame playing into February creates, on to the draft and free agency.
The scouts make the rounds to the college all-star games -- Broncos executive vice president of football operations John Elway made an appearance at the Senior Bowl -- as things get pointed toward the draft. Elway usually refers to the change from the in-season business of trying to win games week to week to the offseason business of the draft and free agency as “shifting gears.’’ And the Broncos shifted their first significant gear this week.
They signed defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio to a new two-year deal and it was a good call on both sides. Del Rio is good for the Broncos' defense and the Broncos are good for Del Rio.
And while there will be changes in the offing during the offseason after a dismal 35-point loss in the Super Bowl, Del Rio’s signing is an indication of a measured, objective approach to trying to be better in the 2014 season than they finished in the 2013 season’s final game. A Super Bowl loss routinely brings all sorts of crater-it hypotheses both near and far, to raze the fort as it were. But the bottom line is objectively, rationally, there isn’t some immense talent gap between the Seahawks and the Broncos. It’s just one team played with discipline, took advantage of opportunities and played to the moment while one team did none of the above.
No team puts up 606 points on offense in a season and needs to be scraped to the foundation. Overall, the Broncos need a little more physicality and more speed across the roster, especially on special teams.
And overall, because of injuries and the free-agency status of the players on the depth chart, the Broncos' defense will need more big-picture attention in the offseason than the offense. And one of the biggest impediments to the Broncos fielding any sort of consistent defense late in Mike Shanahan’s tenure, throughout most of Josh McDaniels’ brief tenure and even at the start of John Fox’s tenure, was the constant turnover at defensive coordinator.
When Fox hired Del Rio in early 2012, Del Rio was the seventh person in the job in a seven-season stretch. And over that span the Broncos changed the alignment of their base defense. They went big across the board, then went for speed across the board and often lived with inconsistent results because they had difficulty matching personnel to the constant changes in schemes each new defensive playcaller brought with him.
Del Rio’s new contract means the Broncos will have the same defensive coordinator in three consecutive seasons for the first time since the final three years of Larry Coyer’s time on the job in 2004-06. If the plan is good, if the right decisions are made on the depth chart, then that kind of continuity can mean something.
The Broncos, because of injuries throughout the year -- five defensive starters closed out the season on injured reserve -- as well as linebacker Von Miller's suspension for the first six games of the season, the Broncos were never able to find the level of play this past season they had for most of 2012.
But one mark of a defense's potential is being able to take away what an offense wants to do and make them do something else. And camouflaged somewhat by the amount of Super Bowl wreckage is the fact the Broncos did that. The Broncos held Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch to 39 yards rushing on 15 carries -- 2.6 yards per carry -- in the game and held Robert Turbin to 25 yards rushing on nine carries in the game.
No, they didn’t tackle particularly well in the game -- something that was an issue throughout the season -- and they didn’t consistently pressure Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. But they did make it difficult for the Seahawks to do what they most wanted to do offensively.
The Broncos will need to dive into the draft to fill in spots in the secondary and at linebacker. The return of Quanterus Smith, a fifth-round draft pick who spent the season on injured reserve because of a torn ACL he suffered in his senior year at Western Kentucky, should help the pass rush.
They found out Danny Trevathan could well be one of the build-around players on defense, and that Terrance Knighton was just what they hoped at defensive tackle, and a guy like Malik Jackson (fifth-round pick in ’12) is just the kind of homegrown contributor the Broncos need to add to the depth chart.
“[Knighton and Jackson], and I would say Danny Trevathan is the other one, that are young players, kind of below-the-radar kind of players, not considered stars by any means, but they played a very big role for us,’’ Del Rio said last week. “They played well all year. Malik in particular, he got his chance … and really blossomed. Terrance we brought over hoping we could resurrect his career and get him back on track, had him previously in Jacksonville. And Danny is a young player, he’s in his second year now with us and he’s really starting to blossom.’’
And with Del Rio back, the Broncos can push for progress in a system that’s in place instead of installing yet another playbook and hoping for the best.