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Timeline 25: Remembering the biggest Colorado sports stories of 2017

Jul 21, 2020, 6:43 AM
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On March 6, 1995, The Fan was born. In the 25 years since, a lot has transpired on the fields, courts and ice in Colorado, giving the hosts and listeners who’ve been part of the station during that time plenty to talk about and debate.

During the course of the next few weeks, we’ll take a look back at that history, remembering the good times and the bad, the winners and the losers, the successes and the failures. It’s a series we’re calling “Timeline 25” and it continues today with a look at a one of the strangest years in Colorado sports history – 2017.

***

Starting to Come Together

After seven straight losing seasons, including three that saw the franchise fail to reach 70 wins, the Rockies found a winning groove in 2017. Thanks to a new skipper, promising young pitchers and a lineup stocked with big bats, Colorado became relevant again.

Four consecutive losing seasons under Walt Weiss was enough to force the Rockies to make a managerial change. Bud Black became the new man in charge, pushing all of the right buttons during his first season on the bench.

When it came to filling out his lineup card, things were pretty easy. Nolan Arenado was established as one of the best players in baseball, both at the plate and in the field. D.J. LeMahieu joined him as both an All-Star and a Gold Glove winner, as the second baseman blossomed.

But no one saw their stock shoot up in 2017 as much as Charlie Blackmon. The centerfielder started for the National League in the Midsummer Classic, batting leadoff. And by the end of the season, he had captured the NL batting title.

Black really earned his paycheck managing his pitching staff. Four young starters each reached double digits in terms of wins, as German Marquez (11), Kyle Freeland (11), Jon Gray (10) and Antonio Senzatela (10) kept the Rockies in almost every game. That allowed Greg Holland, the closer who also earned an All-Star invite, shut the door, as he racked up 41 saves on the season.

It all added up to an 87-75 campaign, which earned Colorado the second wild card berth. Unfortunately, the season came to a premature end, as the Rockies fell to the Diamondbacks in their playoff game, falling 11-8.

Nonetheless, a corner had been turned. With a young, talented core, Colorado appeared poised to be a contender for years to come.

***

“Leader of Men”

After leading the Broncos to a 9-7 record despite playing two quarterbacks (Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch) who had never thrown an NFL pass prior to the start of the 2016 season, Gary Kubiak stepped down as the team’s head coach on January 2, 2017. He cited health issues, which he’d battled since he was in Houston.

During the search for his successor, Denver zeroed in on two candidates – Kyle Shanahan and Vance Joseph. Shanahan was the sentimental favorite, as he was the son of Mike Shanahan, the head coach who led the Broncos to back-to-back Super Bowl titles in the late 1990s. But Joseph was someone John Elway had been interested in for years, having wanted to hire him as the team’s defensive coordinator in 2015 before his then-employer, the Bengals, wouldn’t allow him to interview for the job.

Ultimately, the Broncos went with Joseph, introducing him at a press conference on January 11. He was touted as a “leader of men” and a “CEO type” by the team and some new outlets, partly because he didn’t have a resume worthy of much hype.

During his one season as the Dolphins defensive coordinator (2016), Joseph’s group was the 29th ranked defense in the NFL. That’s not exactly the type of production that normally garners interviews for a head coach position.

In addition to VJ, the Broncos also retooled the rest of their coaching staff. Mike McCoy returned as the offensive coordinator, following his failed stint as the Chargers head coach. And Joe Woods was promoted to replace Wade Phillips, who was let go despite having the fourth-best defense in the NFL.

The hyperbole continued with Woods. He was touted as a “rising star” by the team, despite the fact that he’d been a defensive backs coach for more than two decades, across eight different stops.

This group of coaches was dubbed a “dream team” by some members of the media, which was perpetuated during the team’s opener, when ESPN sideline reporter Sergio Dipp told the “Monday Night Football” audience that Joseph was “having the time of his life” on the Broncos sidelines.

As the season unfolded, the same couldn’t be said for Denver fans. Quickly, it would become apparent that the hype was nothing more than team-generated spin.

***

A Big Man Steps Up

At the beginning of the 2016-17 season, the Nuggets were experimenting with their own version of the “Twin Towers.” Both Jusef Nurkic and Nikola Jokic were seen as up-and-coming big men, so Denver was looking for ways to incorporate both centers on a nightly basis.

In mid-February, however, plans changed. That’s when one of the two centers stepped up, took the job and became the future centerpiece of the franchise.

On February 10, 2017, the Nuggets were in New York to take on the Knicks. Heading into the game, most of the storylines centered around Carmelo Anthony, who was facing his former team.

By the end of the night, however, the narrative had changed. All of a sudden, the future had become clear.

In a 131-123 victory, the Nuggets overcame 33 points from Anthony because their center had a game to remember. On the biggest stage in professional basketball, Jokic went off for 40 points, going 17 of 23 from the field, while also posting nine rebounds and five assists.

Michael Malone instantly saw the possibilities. Denver had a unique talent on their hands, a big man who could be the focal point of the team’s offense.

As a result of this outing, the Nuggets made a critical decision. Jokic was going to be the centerpiece moving forward.

Three days later, Nurkic was traded to the Blazers. And the stage was set for “The Joker” to become a stsr in Denver.

***

A Total Collapse

Heading into the 2017 season, there was plenty of optimism surrounding the Broncos (see above). Even with a new coaching staff, the team was expected to build upon their 9-7 finish the year before.

Early on, that certainly looked to be the case. After a perfect preseason under new head coach Vance Joseph, Denver started the regular season 3-1. They headed into their bye week feeling good, like things were back on track.

And then, the roof caved in.

The Broncos were a heavy favorite when the injury-riddled Giants came to town on October 15. But with two weeks to prepare, and facing a team that could hardly field a full wide receiver corps, Denver was embarrassed in front of a national TV audience on “Sunday Night Football,” losing 23-10.

The low points didn’t end there.

The next week, the Broncos were shut out for the first time since 1992, losing 21-0 to the Chargers in Los Angeles. That was the second-straight defeat in a losing streak that would ultimately reach eight games, ending with a 35-9 setback in Miami when Adam Gase was calling onside kicks in the fourth quarter with the game in hand.

A once promising season turned into a total disaster, as Denver finished 5-11. It was their worst record since 2010, the final year of the Josh McDaniels era.

***

Laying the Groundwork

The Avalanche were a team going nowhere. During their first season under Jared Bednar, Colorado had posted a 22-56-4 record, finishing dead last in the Central Division.

But after that 2016-17 campaign, the team made moves that would pay dividends down the road. They were building a foundation for the future.

The biggest move came on November 5, 2017, when the Avs traded Matt Duchene. The center had superstar talent, but he was disgruntled in Colorado. After biding his time and waiting for the best deal possible, Joe Sakic finally sent Duchene packing.

In a three-way deal involving Ottawa and Nashville, the Avs acquired Samuel Girard, Vladislav Kamenev and a second-round pick in 2018 from the Predators as well as Andrew Hammond, Shane Bowers and first- and third-round picks in 2018 from the Senators.

It was quite the haul, one that would provide Colorado with some key pieces for the future. But that wasn’t the only key addition.

On June 22, the Avalanche used the fourth-overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft on Cale Makar. The defenseman would spend the next two seasons playing college hockey at UMass, winning a Hobey Baker Award in the process, but he’d become a future star in Colorado.

This year, Makar is a finalist for the Calder Trophy, honoring the NHL’s top rookie. And if the Avs are going to make a run for the Stanley Cup, the defenseman will play a key role when the league resumes play in the coming weeks.

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Timeline 25: Remembering the biggest Colorado sports stories of 2017