Ask Mase: If Broncos finish last, as some suggest, what would have happened?

Jul 24, 2022, 11:23 PM | Updated: 11:41 pm
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Random, Larry King-style thoughts from the road as I made the 957-mile trek back from Wisconsin to Denver this weekend:

… Many players took journeys like this back in the day. I’m sure a scattered few still do. But in the era of football when offseason work was minimal, the pre-camp road trip and the end-of-season drive home were standard operating procedure.

Former NFL defensive lineman and eventual author Pat Toomey described this in a 2016 NFL Films interview. But for him, the journey was once filled with dread, as he trekked to Tampa for the 1977 season. His Buccaneers went 0-14 the previous season.

“I found that as I got closer and closer to Tampa, I was driving slower and slower and slower,” Toomey recalled. “Then I stopped, and I rented a hotel room. And so, I called my wife. And I said, ‘Honey, look, I can’t do it. I can’t report.’ And she said, ‘You don’t have to. [General manager] Ron Wolf’s traded you to the Raiders.”

… Perhaps if the Broncos had not pulled off the Russell Wilson trade, I would have felt the same pangs as Toomey endured …

… As I said to a few people in recent weeks, “I doubt I could have drummed up any enthusiasm for a Drew Lock-Mitchell Trubisky quarterback competition. Although Lock-vs.-Baker Mayfield would have been interesting.” Ah, an alternate reality we won’t have to exprience …

… Lock’s 66 Madden rating makes me think that the perception of unwarranted hate for the now-Seahawks quarterback is real, at least on some level …

… It took almost as long to drive through Iowa as it did Nebraska. Not including stops, the Iowa portion of the journey took five hours and two minutes. The Nebraska component of the trip chewed up five hours and 17 minutes. You expect Nebraska to be interminable, but not so much the Hawkeye State …

… Iowa City is one of the most underrated college towns in America. I think I’ll try and stop there every time I make this trek …

… I think Iowa’s tourism motto should be: “Iowa: It’s bigger than you think.” It is the 26th-largest state in the nation. Slightly smaller than Illinois, slightly larger than New York. …

… It’s amazing how much of this nation’s midsection is covered by cornfields …

… Am I the only one who finds cornfields scary at dusk? …

… Nebraska’s tourism slogan is “Nebraska: Honestly, it’s not for everyone.” Chili and cinnamon rolls together aren’t for everyone, either, but I thought they were delightful for lunch Sunday at Leadbelly in Lincoln …

… I’d still much rather drive through Nebraska than Kansas …

… Storm clouds broke somewhere around Fort Morgan on Sunday evening as I concluded my drive. The sun shone through, orange streaks slicing through the gray. It felt like a metaphor …

But not everyone sees this moment as a ray of sunshine through six years of Broncos gloom. Some national pundits suggested last week that the Broncos remain a last-place team.

So, if that happens, what would have transpired?

First, the top three non-injury reasons why the Broncos could finish last:

1. Everyone else in the division exceeds expectations. Here’s how that could happen:

In Los Angeles, Brandon Staley’s fourth-down gambles pay off more often than not. The Chargers enjoy good injury luck, something that eluded them in most previous seasons. Justin Herbert becomes a bonafide MVP contender. Khalil Mack stays healthy and capitalizes off of the attention given by opposing teams to Joey Bosa.

Meanwhile, in Kansas City, the Chiefs don’t miss Tyreek Hill. That’s because JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling have touchdown tallies that approach the number of letters in their names. First-round pick George Karlaftis emerges as a potent pass-rush threat. Second-year linebacker Nick Bolton builds off of a strong rookie season.

Las Vegas has the biggest wild card of all: coach Josh McDaniels. If the Raiders succeed, it will be in part due to McDaniels’ growth as a coach and a person. In Denver, his problems rested in people management and having full control of personnel. Tactics and game plans were never a problem; in fact, he could be brilliant at this aspect. So, if the Raiders get all the good of McDaniels with none of the bad, they could be a Super Bowl contender.

2. The defense and special teams fail to gel. Bradley Chubb and Randy Gregory are just OK as an edge-rushing duo. Ejiro Evero has a bumpy first season as a defensive coordinator. The Broncos miss Shelby Harris’ predilection for breaking up passes at the line of scrimmage. Special-teams coordinator Dwayne Stukes can’t fix the multi-year issues of his unit in one offseason.

3. Just as Aaron Rodgers didn’t reach his peak working with Nathaniel Hackett until their second year together, so happens with Wilson. He’s good, but not transcendent. Meanwhile, the defense, as mentioned earlier, struggles to find its form without Fangio. The Broncos’ coaching staff learns on the job and improves as the season progresses, but fails to overcome some unexpected early setbacks during the settling-in process, The Broncos only manage to tread water in the AFC West’s treacherous seas and finish with eight wins.

That being said, key injuries are by far the most likely reason for a year that ends well short of playoff expectations.

And insurance policies? Well, if the Chubb-Gregory edge combination fizzles, perhaps the Joneses on the interior — D.J. and Dre’Mont — can keep up and pick up the slack. And with intriguing young depth at outside linebacker, the emergence of at least one among Baron Browning, Jonathon Cooper, Nik Bonitto and Malik Reed would help. But if the other three teams in the division are top-5, the Broncos could be very good and still finish last.

And old friend A Referee from Greeley checks in:

With new ownership soon to be approved and coming onboard, I’m wondering about the changes at Broncos corporate headquarters. Has Joe Ellis officially retired or has he maintained his office? What about John Elway, as well? What is happening inside the building to ready itself for the influx of new faces?

Elway still has an office, and this may not change in the years to come. Remember, George Paton worked 14 seasons in Minnesota, where former coach Bud Grant — who last stalked the sideline in 1985 — still has an office in team headquarters as a consultant. Paton values Elway’s counsel and presence.

Ellis said at the NFL Annual Meeting in Palm Beach nearly four months ago that he would see through the transition. Then, he would depart. So, he’s still on the job.

Offices will be set up for the new owners. But most, if any, changes will likely happen once they settle in.

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Ask Mase: If Broncos finish last, as some suggest, what would have happened?