We’ll unfortunately have quite a long time to conduct a belated airing of grievances on what allowed the 2016 Broncos season to unravel, and there’s no doubt improvements in skill and talent must be made. But at the same time, it’s important to recognize that luck plays a factor in football, acting as a bulwark against overcompensating for identified problems.
It should be accepted that the Broncos got some good luck on their way to a Super Bowl title in 2015. That’s nothing to be embarrassed about: every Super Bowl winner has a few balls bounce their way (often, literally). Similarly, in 2016 that luck was less than favorable for Denver. This article will aim to sharpen that perception.
Here are three specific categories where luck turned against Denver from 2015 to 2016:
It looked like 2015 had the potential to open up with a bad bang on the injury front: Ryan Clady went down early, and his slated replacement, rookie Ty Sambrailo, followed Clady to IR not too long after the start of the regular season. But other than that, the only significant injury problems the Broncos endured in 2015 were a nasty but short spat at the safety position, especially during the Pittsburgh/Oakland losing streak. There was, of course, Peyton Manning’s six game absence, but that observation then brings up the old debate of Manning’s overall effectiveness in 2015–and even then, the Broncos went 4-2 in those games.
In 2016, injuries struck more often at the wrong times. Start off with Vance Walker going down in training camp to hurt depth at defensive end. Continue it with the backfield being ravaged, ultimately resulting in CJ Anderson, Andy Janovich, and Kapri Bibbs all going on IR. Add in some defenders going down at inopportune times—Aqib Talib at Oakland, Derek Wolfe at New Orleans and during the game at Kansas City, and particularly Brandon Marshall during this latest three game slide, of which TJ Ward joined him on the sidelines on Christmas. (DeMarcus Ware also spent four games out in both 2015 and 2016.) Finally, losing Trevor Siemian for a home game against Atlanta certainly can’t be ignored.
Teams like the Chargers are surely shedding only crocodile tears at the quantity of injuries the Broncos suffered. But with enough close margins, those type of injuries can certainly matter. Speaking of which…
Luck in close games
When a game is within one score (eight or fewer points), we all know that weird things–for better or worse–can dramatically change the outcome of the game. In the past two seasons the Broncos have found themselves in plenty of those close games.
In 2015, the Broncos were an astounding 9-3 in close games, including three overtime wins. Let that sink in for a moment: if every close game went against the 2015 Broncos, they’re staring at a 3-13 record. Even it out to 6-6, and they’re at 9-7, at or near where they will land in 2016.
As for 2016, the Broncos’ close game record is 3-4, a regression just slightly below the mean. Things could have been worse in those close games, and if so the Broncos could be staring at a rare top ten draft pick at 5-10. But bounce a few balls in the Broncos’ favor, and the best case scenario would be 12-3, solidly garnering a sixth straight playoff berth. (Speaking of 12-3 teams, another certain team with that record went 9-2 in close games…)
Also, speaking of bouncing balls…
Once a ball is lodged free, it’s quite uncertain as to whose lap it’s going to land in. But regardless, the potential for extreme changes in field position and scoring takes place when each fumble occurs.
In 2015, the Broncos were on the favorable side of fumble differential, tied for fourth with the best margin at +5. In 2016, they stand in the other direction at -3. I do not know if this includes last night’s 4th quarter meltdown, but if it doesn’t it only makes the point stronger. (Again, I also hasten to point out who is far and away leading the league in fumble differential in 2016–and who is also in second place.)
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The bad news is that the Broncos got their share of bad luck in 2016. The good news is that luck of the past has no bearing on the luck of the future. But the most important takeaway is that regardless of the presence of luck in football, much work must be done to strengthen a team to the point where the team can overcome strikes of bad luck when they happen. That’s the job that the Broncos must execute upon in the 2017 offseason–and thankfully they have a general manager in John Elway whose level of competitive nature suits the sensibility of Broncos fans: never settling for 7-9 bullshit, always striving to be the best of the best.