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Skinny
08-30-2007, 01:02 PM
An off-season of heartache has taught these players that they've got to seize the day -- and hold on to their leads

WHAT'S NEW?

This is a team in the pennant race in Week 15 every season, and 2007 should be no different, with the acquisitions of Dre' Bly and Daniel Graham filling needs at cornerback and tight end, respectively. The biggest x factor, of course, is second-year quarterback Jay Cutler, who, after stumbling in his first two NFL starts in relief of Jake Plummer last fall, looked competent in his last three. The Broncos averaged 28 points a game in their 2–1 finish, and Cutler has had a full off-season to work with the two players who should be his biggest targets this year: wideout Javon Walker, in his second season with the Broncos, and tight end Daniel Graham, signed in free agency from New England. Coach Mike Shanahan tired of seeing his light-bodied defense get overrun by physical offenses as the season wore on (San Diego put up a combined 83 points on Denver in Weeks 11 and 14), so he replaced speed-loving coordinator Larry Coyer with beef-loving Jim Bates and made an important switch at middle linebacker, supplanting seven-year starter Al Wilson with D.J. Williams, who's more of a sideline-to-sideline playmaker.

WHERE THEY'RE HEADED

As the Broncos get down to the business of football, they must still contend with two painful losses in the off-season -- the deaths of cornerback Darrent Williams, who was killed in a shooting early on New Year's Day, and reserve running back Damien Nash, who succumbed to apparent heart failure last March. The message from the club leaders was, in essence, not to waste your chance, either at life or at football. "I can guarantee you this," says Walker, who cradled Williams in his arms as he died that night eight months ago. "If Darrent knew that night was going to be his last night, he'd have done something in his life differently. I just want every guy here to take advantage of the opportunity he's given."

In a football sense, and obviously not to minimize the loss of two friends and teammates, Walker's words are apt. Denver, 8–0 at home in 2005, plummeted to 4–4 at Invesco Field last year, costing the team a shot at the playoffs. In three of the four losses the Broncos blew a fourth-quarter lead. Twice, versus San Diego and Indianapolis, they surrendered 28 points in the second half. Shanahan is convinced the problem wasn't just with the wearing down of the defense, which was the NFL's stingiest through Week 9. (Denver allowed 98 points in the first half of the season, 207 in the second.) He thinks the sputtering offense -- rated 22nd in the NFL, uncharacteristically low for a Shanahan attack -- put excess pressure on the defense to play great every week.

So Shanahan made six decisions he felt would turn the team around. He shook up the defense with the Bates and D.J. Williams moves, and, to fill Darrent Williams's spot, brought in Bly, a ball-hawking corner who had 19 interceptions in four seasons with Detroit. On offense he put his full faith in 2006 top pick Cutler, opting to bring in only a solid backup, Patrick Ramsey, instead of a veteran passer who'd give Cutler a run for the starting job. Everyone's favorite fantasy sleeper, Travis Henry, came from Tennessee to bolster the running game (he's the tough inside runner the Broncos like, with a little outside speed), while Graham, who felt he never got the ball enough in New England, broke the bank (five years, $30 million) to play in Denver, where he should be more of a threat than his 24 catches a year with the Pats would indicate.

It's a terrible football cliché to put the weight of a team on the shoulders of a quarterback, but that's what the Broncos are doing with Cutler. Intriguingly, though, in training camp Cutler moved from group to group with confidence but quietly, not wanting to push things prematurely, and trying instead to be the type of leader a veteran team would respect. "He handles himself well," Walker says. "He knows the way to gain respect is by earning it." After working four days a week for four months with quarterbacks coach Mike Heimerdinger, Cutler emerged from the off-season a more patient and decisive player. "This off-season was huge for me," Cutler says. "I think I can do it now. I'm not scared."

So Cutler will lead a changed team into a season of big hope. He, Walker and their 51 teammates will have reason to make sure they don't exit 2007 with the same regrets they took away from '06. "Javon thought the world of Darrent," says Shanahan. "We all did. Damien too. The hurt never goes away. You move on, and you make sure you don't leave anything to chance." -- Peter King

http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/football/nfl/specials/preview/2007/scouting.report/broncos.html

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