Two years removed from parade, Broncos struggling to find Super fits

"When you're 5-11," Broncos executive John Elway said, "there are obviously some issues that we have to get handled." EZRA SHAW/GETTY IMAGES

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It will likely pass with a murmur at most, but Friday is an anniversary of sorts for the Denver Broncos.

An anniversary of one of the city's best moments in its long love affair with the team, and a measuring stick for how quickly things can slip from your grasp in the pro football life if you're not careful, not diligent, not shrewd and perhaps are a little bit unlucky.

Friday will be the two-year anniversary of when roughly one million folks gathered in the streets of downtown Denver, some before sunrise to secure the best spots, to celebrate the Broncos' Super Bowl 50 victory. A day linebacker Von Miller has called "a forever kind of day."

Yet two years later, here are the Broncos, a team that has now missed the playoffs in each of those two seasons and finished 2017 at 5-11. Sunday's Super Bowl -- in which the Philadelphia Eagles defeated the New England Patriots 41-33 -- was a reminder of how much work there is to be done.

Early in this offseason, president of football operations/general manager John Elway was asked if the Broncos would be able to quickly return to Super Bowl worthiness. He hinted at the workload when he took a step back from his usual Elway-esque "there is no Plan B" confidence.

"We hope so, you never know," he said. "I think that when you're 5-11, there are obviously some issues that we have to get handled. I think that is our goal. ... I don't want to raise the expectation level by saying, 'Yes, automatically we're going to get back there.'"

The Broncos got their own Super Bowl preview in November, when they faced the Eagles and Patriots in back-to-back weeks. The Broncos were outscored 92-39 in those two games combined and allowed seven touchdown passes.

Sunday's title game underlined again how Denver's top priority must be Elway's professed desire to improve at quarterback and on offense. Both teams, the Eagles especially, played with bravado, a go-for-it confidence the Broncos rarely showed in 2017, even on the team's beloved defense.

The Eagles converted 10 of 16 third downs and went 2-for-2 on fourth down, despite playing in the highest-pressure situation the NFL has to offer. That enabled Philadelphia to win a game in which its defense allowed a staggering 613 yards and didn't force a punt.

Behind all of that offensive history, the Eagles took a roster with its foundation in the draft and got top performances from the players they had acquired in the months leading up to and even during the season. None more than the game's MVP, quarterback Nick Foles, who was reacquired during the spring as a free agent and signed to a two-year, $11 million deal.

Foles is a player with some football scars but showed on the game's biggest stage that he had learned from his journey. While the Broncos struggled to find their identity on offense for much of the season -- they ran the ball more than they threw it in just five games in 2017, but all five were their victories -- the Eagles had a plan, and stuck to it when Foles replaced the injured Carson Wentz.

Their top two rushers in the Super Bowl -- LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi -- were add-ons who flourished. The Eagles traded for Ajayi just before they faced the Broncos in November, and that was the first game he played for Philadelphia.

Objectively, the Broncos don't have a player like Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, though few teams do. But from a talent perspective, many personnel evaluators would say Denver's group of Miller and cornerbacks Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr. and Bradley Roby is a rare find as well.

The Eagles -- beyond having Tom Brady at quarterback -- did this season what the Patriots have done for some time. They knew what they were looking for as they reeled in players to fit roles, and then those players were coached to play at the top of their abilities in those roles.

In the minds of those who rank rosters inside the league, few Broncos players reached a higher level in 2017, and Denver didn't seem to have a plan for what kinds of players it was looking for to fill jobs. That, too, is a Super Bowl lesson and something Elway, who has won the title game both behind center and as an executive, had observed as well.

"We have to do a better job with that," he said. "We didn't do a great job of that this year."