Broncos reeling from offseason losses, tragedies
Vail, CO Colorado
DENVER – The Denver Broncos embark on a new season minus their heart and soul on both offense and defense and still searching for answers to the unthinkable.
Linebacker Al Wilson, their captain and leading tackler last year, was waived in the offseason with a neck injury that could force him into retirement. Rod Smith, the franchise’s career leader in catches and touchdowns, begins the season on the injured list while recovering from hip surgery that might ultimately end his illustrious career.
Weighing on many of their minds, Darrent Williams’ killer remains a mystery, as does the cause of death of backup running back Damien Nash, who collapsed after a charity basketball game in St. Louis in February. That was two months after Williams, one of the league’s rising young stars, was gunned down in a drive-by shooting on New Year’s Day.
The Broncos are at once eager to put their tragic offseason behind them and doggedly determined to honor their fallen teammates.
Wide receiver Javon Walker, in whose arms Williams died, carries a heavyweight championship belt with him wherever the team goes. It features the Broncos logo in between studded photos of Williams and Nash.
“This is going to be a tough season and these two guys would have helped us out tremendously,” Walker said. “For me personally, as long as I got these two on my back, I’m going to go out and play hard each and every week and they’re going to travel with us to each and every locker room and to every game that we go to.”
Although the Broncos are wearing decals with the Nos. 27 and 29 on them, they are careful not to suggest they’re trying to win for the fallen players lest they diminish their memories.
“That would be disrespectful,” said defensive back Domonique Foxworth, who was one of Williams’ closest friends. “Darrent and Damien were so much more than football players.”
The Broncos are trying to move on, and a cathartic visit with Williams’ mother this preseason in Dallas, not far from where Williams was buried, went a long way toward helping his team heal.
Dre’ Bly replaces Williams opposite Champ Bailey, giving the Broncos the most productive cornerback interception tandem in the NFL and probably the strongest secondary in the league.
The front seven isn’t so polished. All four starting linemen are new, with John Engelberger and Elvis Dumervil at the ends and Sam Adams and Amon Gordon in the middle, although Dumervil will rotate with a group that includes rookies Jarvis Moss and Tim Crowder, among others.
D.J. Williams moved over from strongside linebacker to the middle, but has been slow to acclimate, and Nate Webster replaced Williams on the outside opposite Ian Gold. If this unit continues to struggle, Williams and Webster could switch places.
The first-string defense was dismal in the preseason, allowing 44 points and 547 yards in roughly six quarters, although as safety John Lynch pointed out, “Coach (Mike) Shanahan doesn’t like to tip his hand, either, so we haven’t shown a lot.”
There’s no denying, however, that the Broncos have been too slow to adapt to new coordinator Jim Bates’ system; Bates had a much easier time implementing his ideas in Miami and Green Bay.
“We’ve got to put the whole picture together,” Lynch said. “This scheme’s been proven to work and we’ve just got to execute it right.”
Shanahan blamed the defensive doldrums on a mixture of new personnel and a new scheme.
“Anytime you talk about a unit, you’ve got to have 11 guys going the same direction, and one guy a little bit off can make you look pretty average awful quickly,” Shanahan said.
Two starters who didn’t fit into Bates’ style, end Kenard Lang and tackle Gerard Warren, were jettisoned, and Ebenezer Ekuban, the starter at right end who moved inside on passing downs, tore up a knee and is out for the season.
Things haven’t looked well-oiled on offense, either.
Walker is joined by Brandon Marshall, who replaces Smith at split end, and free agent Brandon Stokley in the slot, with second-year pros Domenik Hixon and Brian Clark providing Denver with a deeper pass-catching corps.
Travis Henry signed a five-year, $22.5 million contract to be the new workhorse running back after Tatum Bell and Mike Bell split snaps last season. Henry was dogged during camp by a sprained left knee and revelations he had fathered nine children by nine women, a fact that came out in a child support case in Georgia.
Tight end Daniel Graham also signed a big-bucks contract to come to Denver, but injuries to the linemen and receivers prevented second-year quarterback Jay Cutler from wowing anybody this preseason ” unlike last year, when his arm strength was in such stark contrast to then-starter Jake Plummer.
Cutler’s been bothered by tendinitis in his throwing wrist, and more than that, he’s been vexed by injuries all around him.
Although left tackle Matt Lepsis returned from a blown-out knee that severely crimped the line’s ability to open lanes for the running game last season, the line has still been a turnstile. Free agent Montrae Holland supplanted Chris Kuper at right guard and left guard Ben Hamilton, who has not missed an offensive snap ” 5,407 in all ” since becoming a starter in 2002, was out for the entire preseason with a concussion, leaving Chris Myers as the starter.
“We’re working things out,” Cutler said. “I feel comfortable with the guys. I’m going to feel even more comfortable once we get everyone back and healthy.”