ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When it came to special teams in 2014, the Denver Broncos were decidedly ho-hum.
And it just didn’t look that way on the outside. It felt that way, at times, on those units as well.
"You know, if we make a big play, last year there’s like three or four guys celebrating," said safety David Bruton Jr., the Broncos' special-teams captain, this past week.
And that is, in many ways, the story of special teams for the Broncos last season. There was a little here, a little there, to celebrate. But all in all, it was not the kind of year that helped push a Super Bowl hopeful toward the goal all that much. It's not that the Broncos were consistently bad, but they weren’t consistently good, either.
They were in the so-so area with a smattering of big plays allowed, a handful of their own highlights, but with little real impact. In Dallas Morning News columnist Rick Gosselin’s annual special-teams rankings, the Broncos were 19th. Their coverage units were 29th in punt returns and 24th in kickoff returns.
In their own return game they were 20th in punt returns, eighth in kickoff returns, but without much real game-changing impact for much of the year. And over the course of the year they cut kicker Matt Prater, demoted kicker Brandon McManus and eventually used Connor Barth to kick field goals to go with McManus on kickoffs.
It’s all something, as the Broncos take the early steps in their offseason program, Bruton says can be, and needs to be, repaired a bit.
"We’re going to be attacking," Bruton said. "We’re going to be downhill all the time and a lot more enthusiastic on special teams. We’re building that in the meeting rooms … We’re getting down to a point where everybody’s echoing like one band, one sound-type deal. We’re all in it together. We know that."
When Broncos coach Gary Kubiak assembled his staff he hired Joe DeCamillis, whose first NFL coaching job was on Dan Reeves’ staff with the Broncos in 1988. And Bruton said even in the early days of the offseason program, DeCamillis is already trying to push the new agenda.
"He instilled this philosophy -- 'tip of the spear,' every game we’re the first people out there, kickoff or kickoff return," Bruton said. “We set the tone the whole game, so that’s what we want to do for our team. We set the tone and our team reverberates."
More speed across the board would help as injuries, especially at linebacker, eroded some of the Broncos’ ability to staff the special-teams units the way they had hoped. And with 10 draft picks in hand at the moment, the special-teams units will get a long look in the process as DeCamillis has already spoken of the need “to play faster than our opponents, when they look at it on tape I want them to know that we’re going to be a fast team and a physical team.''
And pumping up the return game would help as well. Omar Bolden revitalized things as a kickoff returner, but after trying several players before him, Bolden wasn’t the No. 1 option in the job until the Broncos’ 11th game of the season.
And of the four kickoff returns the Broncos had of at least 40 yards in '14, Bolden had three of them. He also had the team's two longest kickoff returns of the season -- 77 and 76 yards -- in the Broncos’ last two games of the regular season.
The Broncos were one of four teams in the league that didn’t have a punt return longer than 22 yards for the season (Indianapolis, Chicago -- with DeCamillis as Bears special-teams coordinator last season -- and Houston were the others).
"As the old man of the team -- one of the old men -- it’s very important," Bruton said. "It’s a role that you take on as you get older, and especially since I’ve been in that role for so long, special teams have really given the young guys their opportunity to play. It’s their first crack at it. I just try to bring them along, teach them things that I know and what I’ve seen … You’ve got to play free; you can’t let anything hold you back. Be fearless."