As the National Football League cranks up quickly for another year, with most trades and free-agent signings crammed into one crazy week, the Denver Broncos will let their followers know immediately how they are approaching the 2011 season.
They have two basic choices.
Plan A: Go for it. This would mean doing everything imaginable, as quickly and aggressively as possible, to create an instant turnaround, from that disastrous 4-12 mark of last year to 8-8 or even better this season. It might seem far-fetched, but given the current circumstances, it could happen.
Plan B: Build for 2012 and beyond. In other words, Denver team executives John Elway and Brian Xanders, along with head coach John Fox, would play their cards conservatively in the days ahead. Their approach might mean settling for a record in the 6-10 or 7-9 range this fall, but with the Broncos in much better position to become playoff and/or division contenders again next year.
Don't worry about being able to tell which direction Denver is taking. It probably will be as simple as what happens at quarterback.
If the Broncos hang on to Kyle Orton, building a stronger running game (Fox's preference) around Orton's higher-percentage short passes, that'll be a clear indication than Plan A is in operation. That also would mean the Broncos pushing much harder in free agency to bring in the likes of running back DeAngelo Williams to form a tandem with Knowshon Moreno.
Also, if they go with Plan A, you can expect Denver to pounce on some of the over-salaried veterans being cut by other NFL teams during this transition to a new salary cap. Some might re-sign with their current teams for less, but many others will test the free-agent waters. In the let's-win-now scenario, the Broncos would fill their most glaring holes with established players at linebacker, defensive tackle and the offensive line.
As for Plan B, that starts with committing to Tim Tebow as the quarterback, with Brady Quinn as backup, and trading Orton for a future draft pick and perhaps a younger player with promise. It also would mean spending extra money only to lock up or keep the players Denver would build around, which still could include a runner like Williams. But it would not include going after veterans being cut elsewhere, such as Baltimore runner Willis McGahee. Denver has to find more help at defensive tackle, but in Plan B the targets would be lesser-known free agents and castoffs.
Another position will foretell the Broncos' philosophy: inside linebacker in the 4-3 defense. If that inside guy is rookie third-round pick Nate Irving of North Carolina State, backed up by later draftee Mike Mohamed of California, that'll tell you the staff is in patience mode. But if you see Denver going after a solid veteran inside linebacker — like Tennessee's Stephen Tulloch or Buffalo's Paul Posluszny — that would be a strong Plan A signal.
Besides rewarding fans with more wins now, there are a couple good arguments for Plan A. For one, the bonanza of talent being cut by other teams might never be this good again. So why not grab as many of those veterans as possible, even if they can only make a difference for a year or two?
That would put the pressure on Orton, starting ahead of Tebow entering the season. As long as Orton remains on the roster, making almost $9 million in 2011, he has to be playing. That's far too much money to waste on a backup.
Also, if the Broncos go with Plan B, the new staff will be making big projections about many young players without having been around them through several months of post-draft workouts and classroom sessions, as usually would be the case. This would include Tebow and rookies like Irving, Mohamed, safety Rahim Moore and offensive tackle Orlando Franklin — newcomers who haven't had any NFL coaching yet.
Certainly, the Broncos could take either path into 2011 and make a good case. They've already put Orton on the trade market, and offers are in the works. But they still might keep him, go for it now and refuse to surrender a year to rebuilding.
Just watch Denver's transactions, and we'll all know the answer. Soon.
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