Of all the lessons learned from years covering the Denver Broncos, one stands out: Sometimes, all you have to do is go to the nearest bar and listen.
In the past two weeks, during visits to a handful of local watering holes, I made it a point to converse or eavesdrop whenever the Broncos were being discussed. Some excerpts, all from people who are long-standing, and knowledgeable, Denver fans:
Something's wrong with quarterback Jay Cutler. He's not as sharp mentally as he was earlier. And he's apparently not playing the leader role as much.
Nobody realizes how much Denver's offensive line is missing longtime center Tom Nalen, who is out for the year (and likely will retire) with knee troubles.
The defense might be as bad as last year, even worse against the run.
Running back Selvin Young is a bust, and Michael Pittman is easily Denver's most dependable back.
Whenever rookie runner Ryan Torain is ready, the Broncos should throw him into the lineup and hope for the best.
Wonder who will be the next defensive coordinator, or to put it another way, Mike Shanahan's next scapegoat?
All of those observations came before the Broncos capsized again Sunday in that inexcusable 24-17 home loss to Jacksonville. It was as if many fans could see it coming, even after Denver had improved to 4-1 with a hard-earned 16-13 win (with a decent defensive performance) against Tampa Bay.
"Yeah, but that was against Brian Griese," one beer-drinking fan pointed out, noting that the Bucs had no spark with the former Denver quarterback at the helm. "How can you feel good about stopping Griese?"
Nobody assumed anything about the Broncos going into their game last Sunday. Denver fans were hoping to feel much better about the season ahead but not until after Jacksonville. After all, it was the Jags who exposed the Broncos' many troubles last year in a 23-14 thumping (more lopsided on the field than on the scoreboard). So it wasn't like Denver was unaware of what to expect this time.
With a win and a 5-1 record going into Monday night (Oct. 20) at New England, followed by a bye week, the Broncos would have had more reason for optimism.
Instead, once again, they have to be highly concerned like many of their fans.
We could talk all day about the offense, and about Cutler slipping back into some of his past bad habits, making wrong decisions and forcing too many throws, then sulking. Yes, some of his receivers were hurt Sunday. No, the running game hasn't held up as well as expected. Perhaps it's true that, when he has all his targets available again, the situation might improve. But that's not a certainty.
Denver's bigger worry has to be its defense. All you had to do in the Jacksonville game was watch the replays. Time after time, the Broncos' defensive front was handled, pushed around and maneuvered out of the way. The linebackers, when not being blocked, were painfully slow to react and usually were in chasing mode, particularly Nate Webster, who appears incapable of pulling his weight as the vital middle linebacker in Denver's 4-3 alignment. And safeties Marlon McCree and Marquand Manuel, despite both having at least seven years in the NFL, look more like journeymen backups than accomplished starters, too often going for the big play (and missing) instead of making a sure hit or tackle.
That defense made Jacksonville look like a superpower, as the Jags rolled up 26 first downs and 416 yards, 155 on the ground. And now Denver ranks 32nd (last) in the league in pass defense, 30th in total defense and 28th in scoring defense.
Jim Mora, the former NFL head coach and outspoken NFL Network analyst, put it another way Sunday night: "They can't stop anybody. And if you think about it, it's actually been a while since Denver had a good defense."
So the Broncos, while still leading the AFC West at 4-2, can't feel good anymore about their chances of holding off San Diego (now 3-3) down the stretch.
But then, most of those fans in the watering holes already knew that.
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