An insider’s guide to the 2019 NFL season and your Denver Broncos
For the Aspen Times Weekly
The wait is over, football fans. 214 days after the New England Patriots won their sixth Super Bowl Championship in franchise history, the NFL season kicks off once again.
At Soldier Field in Chicago on Thursday, Sept. 5, the 2019 NFL season erupts as the Chicago Bears host the Green Bay Packers on NBC in the first of 256 regular season NFL games to be played this year.
After a full slate of 13 games on Sunday, local fans will finally get to see their Denver Broncos, with a new quarterback and a new coach, on Monday Night Football (8:20 p.m. Aspen time on ESPN) in the finale to Kick-off Weekend. The Broncos travel to Oakland for what will likely be their final game ever in the “Black Hole,” Oakland Alameda County Coliseum, the venerable home of the hated Raiders who are planning on moving to Las Vegas next season.
This is anniversary season for football, as the game celebrates a number of chronological milestones.
It was 150 years ago that the first college “football” game in America was played in New Brunswick, New Jersey. On Nov. 6, 1869, Rutgers defeated College of New Jersey, now known more poetically as Princeton University, 6-4 to usher in what is now considered “America’s Game.”
That coincides with “NFL 100,” a promotion celebrating the centennial season of the league, something you will hear plenty about if you tune into any NFL game this year. The organization, now known as the NFL, was founded as the American Professional Football Association (APFA) in a Canton, Ohio, garage in the fall of 1920. Jim Thorpe, yes, that Jim Thorpe, was the president of the APFA (or the first Roger Goodell).
And to bring the birthday theme even closer to home for Broncos fans, this is the 60th anniversary of the Denver Broncos inaugural season, as they were charter members of the American Football League founded in 1960. It is worth noting that in their first game as a franchise (and the first ever AFL game) they defeated the then-Boston Patriots, 13-10. And no, Tom Brady was not the Patriots quarterback. If they play the Patriots this year it will come in a welcome playoff appearance, as New England is not on the Broncos’ regular season schedule.
Yes, the numbers align for 2019, but for Denver Broncos fans the most important number is 54. As in Super Bowl 54, which will be played in Miami on Feb. 2, 2020.
Ah, it was a time.
In another anniversary, one tinged with sadness, this will be the 15th NFL season since the passing of one of Aspen’s most passionate football fans. Hunter S. Thompson was an inveterate gambler and a sick fan when it came to the NFL. Gatherings on Sundays and Monday nights at Owl Farm in Woody Creek for games were sacred events and involved more than the occasional intoxicant. Those who attended (Bastian and Braudis and Bradley, amongst many more) remember game days as some of the best Sundays of their lives.
The Good Doctor’s final NFL game was the Super Bowl in February of 2005. Tom Brady led the Patriots to a 24-21 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. Two weeks later, yes, on a Sunday, Hunter took his life. He left behind a hand-written note for his family scrawled on a piece of paper with a black marker. It was titled:
“Football Season is Over.”
Thompson, had he survived to this day, would be 82 and no doubt it would still be interesting to hear his take on the issues of the day. What would he think of Andrew Luck and Rob Gronkowski’s retirements? How about the black-balling of Colin Kaepernick? Would he be amazed that Tom Brady, at age 42, is still at the top of his game?
One thing is for sure, he would be in front of a television come Monday night, watching the Broncos and the Raiders. And he would be rooting for his team.
Yes, the Oakland Raiders.
YOUR 2019 DENVER BRONCOS
It seems longer ago, but we’re just four seasons removed from when Denver reigned supreme in the NFL, winning Super Bowl 50. Following the retirement of Peyton Manning, things went downhill so precipitously that the feat now feels like a distant mirage. Since the 24-10 Super Bowl win over the Carolina Panthers at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, in February of 2016, they’ve gone 20-28.
It’s time for a new pair of jeans.
For this one, John — that would be John Elway, general manager and team icon — decided to go a bit old school by bringing in a new old coach and a new old quarterback, along with fresh talent from the bottom up. When the Broncos hit training camp this year, 42 of the 90 roster players were first-timers with the team. The final roster (not yet available at press time) will undoubtedly see a reboot and rely on many names unfamiliar to all but the most fervent of Broncos fans.
The new old coach, Vic Fangio, is a gray sweatshirt-sporting, retro-cranky, central casting head coaching novice who contradicts all of the current conventions established by coaches recently coming into the NFL.
For starters, Fangio is a defensive mastermind in a league that currently reveres lightning-fast-paced offenses. He came from the Chicago Bears, where he was defensive coordinator, a position he has held for five NFL teams going back to 1995, or the last century.
Secondly, he has never been a head coach. At any level. Not high school. Not college. Not in the Not for Long (NFL) league. When he walks onto the field on Monday night as the 17th head coach in Broncos history, he will be making his head-coaching debut. A rookie, if you will.
Finally, Fangio is older than the franchise. He turned 61 in August, making him one year older than the Broncos themselves. This in a league that has seen eight head coaches hired in the past three years who were under the age of 40. That is a third of all NFL franchises. A first-time head coach from the defensive side of the ball who bucks the age trend by making the playoffs in 2019 will, if it happens, be a very big story.
Of course, the rub here is that the Broncos’ bread is buttered on the defensive side of the ball, Fangio’s bailiwick. At least that is the perception. With stars like pass rushers Von Miller and Bradley Chubb (26.5 sacks between them last year) and the return of Chris Harris Jr. at cornerback and Justin Simmons at safety, you would think the Denver D would be stout. But last year the group finished 22nd in the NFL in yards allowed and 13th in points allowed, giving up over three touchdowns per game. Maybe Elway’s choice of a defensive genius is the right move.
Offensively, one name that will be familiar to Broncos fans is that of new quarterback Joe Flacco who, at age 34, will try to replicate what Manning did, resurrecting his early-career skills and leading the Broncos to a championship in the sunset of his playing days. Flacco won a Super Bowl with Baltimore following the 2012 season with one of the great postseason runs (11 TDs and 0 interceptions), but has been pedestrian at best since that shining moment. And 2012 was six seasons ago, an eternity in sports. A trade for a fourth-round pick, peanuts by NFL standards, brought the former Ravens quarterback to Denver.
But Flacco embodies leadership and stability at the position that has been an Achilles heel for the Broncos for three seasons. And he looks the part. 6-6, 245 pounds, chiseled jaw, good hair. He will look even bigger and better if he can open the year with a win in Oakland. If he falters, calls may come for an untested rookie, Drew Lock, who the Broncos traded up to select with the 42nd pick of this year’s NFL draft. Lock looked shaky before a preseason thumb injury sidelined him in training camp, but he has, as they say, the tools to potentially shine one day. Or so John Elway hopes.
Lock was placed on the injured reserve list with the injured thumb this week and won’t be eligible to return until eight weeks into the season. The Broncos also signed former Los Angeles Rams backup quarterback Brandon Allen. He has never thrown an NFL pass.
Flacco’s supporting cast comes with asterisks. The Broncos rookie sensation, the homegrown, Denver-born and -raised, CU-schooled running back Phillip Lindsay comes off a Pro Bowl year as an undrafted free agent. He was the first undrafted offensive rookie ever to make the Pro Bowl. But he ended last year on the sidelines with an injured wrist that came, get this, in a Monday Night Football game at Oakland! Irony is a key player in the NFL.
As far as receivers go, Emmanuel Sanders, who is also returning from injury (torn Achilles), will need to lead a receiving corps filled with young pups that has a combined total of seven NFL touchdowns among them. Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton (who has been fighting a hamstring injury in camp) need to become household names if the Broncos are going to challenge in the AFC West. And keep an eye on Noah Fant, a speedy tight end from Iowa who was drafted in the first round, who can make plays.
The schedule has a few quirks that could benefit a team that last won at home on Nov. 25, 2018, when they beat the Steelers. Three of their final five December games are in Broncos Stadium at Mile High where they have traditionally had a home-field advantage. But last year they had a losing record of 3-5 in Denver. Winning at home is key with Chicago, Jacksonville, Cleveland, Tennessee and the rest of the AFC West all visiting Denver.
Yes, for this year to end in celebration it will take, as the old saying goes, “something old (Fangio), something new (Lindsay), something borrowed (Flacco), something blue (the color of their alternate home uniforms).”
That is if they hope to make it to the altar of the Super Bowl in Miami for the ninth time in 60 seasons.
Few clubs in America are more exclusive than that of NFL owners. There are just 32 franchises and one, the Green Bay Packers, is owned by a group of 360,000 or so shareholders. So just 31 families or individuals own teams. And, as might be expected of such an august group of well-heeled families, many have found their way to Aspen.
You may have seen the “Star” of the Dallas Cowboys or the headdress-clad Indian chief logo of the Washington Redskins on the tails of a pair of jets that frequent Aspen’s Sardy Field. That would mean Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, and/or members of his family, are visiting their homes in Aspen. Or that Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, is in town to check out the length of the lawn at his house near Buttermilk. Occasionally the Cowboys and Redskins jets are parked side-by-side in an NFC East pairing.
Stan Kroenke, who owns the Los Angeles Rams, met his wife Ann Walton on a ski vacation in Aspen, and the pair have owned significant properties on Red Mountain and in the Roaring Fork Valley. He also owns a number of sports teams, including Denver’s Nuggets and Avalanche, and the Arsenal football club in England.
Over the years, other NFL owners and their families have been frequent Aspen visitors, skiers and property owners, including the Pittsburgh Steelers Rooney family and the Clarks who own the Kansas City Chiefs. Not to mention the late Pat Bowlen of the Denver Broncos who met his first wife, Sally Parker, on an Aspen ski vacation.
And then there is Dean Spanos, owner of the Los Angeles Chargers, who has publicly longed for the Aspen ski bum life. As a Los Angeles Times profile in 2017 put it, Spanos would “give it all up to run a hamburger stand in Aspen, Colo. He’d flip burgers in the back. His wife Susie would wait tables. They could shut down at 1 or 2 p.m. and go skiing. Life would be simple.”
Maybe the 520 Grill has an opening.
Aspen Times Weekly columnist Kelly J. Hayes is a spotter for NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” and previously spotted for ABC’s “Monday Night Football.” He hasn’t missed a game since he started the job in 1986. This season he will work alongside Al Michaels and Chris Collinsworth on the Sunday night broadcast, which has been the No. 1 broadcast show in television for eight years. It won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Live Sports Series this year.
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