Uncharted territory for blundering Broncos | AspenTimes.com

Uncharted territory for blundering Broncos

Arnie Stapleton
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

Broncos tight end Tony Scheffler loses control of a pass during the third quarter Monday in San Diego. ( Lenny Ignelzi/AP)

ENGLEWOOD ” The last time the Den­ver Broncos finished below .500 was 1999, when John Elway was learning what it was like to sleep late on Sundays and Terrell Davis blew out a knee.

This year, the Broncos (6-9) will post a losing record for just the second time in the 13-year Mike Shanahan era, with injuries and key departures again playing a part.

But while a letdown was expected eight years ago following back-to-back Super Bowl wins, the Broncos began this season with high hopes after an offseason spend­ing spree and roster shuffle brought in Dre’ Bly, Daniel Graham, Travis Henry, Simeon Rice, Sam Adams and Brandon Stokley.

The Broncos (6-9) were assured of a los­ing season after a 23-3 loss at San Diego on Christmas Eve.

The festering frustration finally broke free when safety John Lynch ripped off LaDainian Tomlinson’s helmet early in the game and flung it 10 yards, drawing an unsportsmanlike penalty.

“Obviously, frustration figures in,” an embarrassed Lynch said after the Chargers completed their season sweep by a com­bined 64-6 score. “I think you’re trying to put some juice in your team and just play­ing intense. It is something I’ve never done in my career. I am embarrassed by it.”

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Lynch thought coming back for a 15th NFL season was going to give him a shot at a second ring. Instead, it’s been one of his most disappointing campaigns and has him wondering if it’s worth it to come back in 2008.

“We had very high hopes coming into this year. It’s been an extremely frustrating year. And to get whooped a couple of times by a division opponent is no fun, and you’re out there trying to do everything you can to win,” he said.

The Broncos finish up against Minneso­ta (8-7), which can still sneak into the NFC playoffs with a win and some help from Dallas, so the Vikings are going to be fired up to send Denver to its second 6-10 mark under Shanahan, who also had that record in 1999 following consecutive champi­onships.

The Broncos, who have allowed 30 or more points six times this season, haven’t been able to recapture the emotional lead­ership of two spark plugs who left Denver after last season.

Leading tackler, team captain and emo­tional locker room leader Al Wilson was sent packing because of concerns about his injured neck and high salary. D.J. Williams was moved from outside linebacker to the middle to replace him, and although he has a ton of tackles, he’s not the heart and soul of the unit the way Wilson was.

Jake Plummer, who lost his starting quar­terback job to rookie Jay Cutler with five games to go last season, retired in the spring, refusing to report to Tampa Bay, who traded Denver for his rights. Although Cutler shows promise, the offense hasn’t really rallied around him they way it did Plummer.

The offense lost Rod Smith to hip surgery in the offseason and Ben Hamilton to a concussion in training camp. Tom Nalen went down early in the season and was fol­lowed by Stephen Alexander and Nate Jackson. Javon Walker and Travis Henry have been hurt most of the year, too.

The defense lost Ebenezer Ekuban to injury and Gerard Warren to a trade in the preseason and, when the players proved unable to adapt to new defensive boss Jim Bates’ system, Amon Gordon, Sam Adams, Simeon Rice, Curome Cox and Sam Brandon, among others, were jettisoned, as well.

And poor drafts have come back to haunt the Broncos this year.

Instead of producing plenty of players in their primes, the drafts of 2002-04 are amazingly forgettable. Williams is the only one of the 28 players selected in those years who is still on the team.

This year’s draft class consisted of four defensive line­men, including top pick Jarvis Moss, who is on injured reserve. The team’s top rookie is undrafted running back Selvin Young.

The Broncos are pinning their turnaround hopes on a top-notch 2006 draft class that features Cutler, wide receiv­er Brandon Marshall, who could finish with 100 catches, pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil, athletic tight end Tony Schef­fler and promising offensive lineman Chris Kuper.

They’ll also have to hope to hit the jackpot again in this year’s draft, and they’ll start with a high pick thanks to their first losing season this century.