OVERSHADOWED BY TRAGEDY

The 2006 season was one of the most eventful in Broncos history — starting with the draft-day trade up to pick Vanderbilt quarterback Jay Cutler just months after Jake Plummer had led the Broncos to the AFC Championship Game.

It began with the defense playing at a historic pace. In the first six games, coordinator Larry Coyer’s unit allowed just 44 points and two touchdowns. The point total is the best for any defense since 1977, and the touchdown tally is the best for any NFL team through six games since 1940. The Broncos were 5-1, and even though left tackle Matt Lepsis was lost to a torn ACL and Plummer’s numbers were down, the team looked like a serious contender.

Then, problems struck.

The Broncos’ long-time nemesis from Indianapolis gashed them for 34 points in a 34-31 loss. The defense began to buckle, allowing 2.4 touchdowns per game in the final 10 weeks — nearly half a touchdown more than it surrendered in the first six games combined.

Finally, after back-to-back defeats in November dropped the Broncos to 7-4, head coach Mike Shanahan benched Plummer for Cutler. Plummer would not start again and after being traded to the Buccaneers in the following offseason, Plummer opted to retire after 10 NFL seasons.

The offense as a whole was struggling, particularly on the injury-riddled line. But as is so often the case, the quarterback took the blame, even though it was not a coincidence that the Broncos went 5-1 with Lepsis in the starting lineup that season and 4-6 without him.

Cutler had some flashes of brilliance, but he also looked like the rookie at times. The Broncos went 2-3 with him as a starter, including a season-ending 26-23 overtime defeat to the 49ers that knocked the Broncos out of the playoffs on a tiebreaker with the Chiefs.

But within hours of that final loss, the entire season was rendered meaningless after second-year cornerback Darrent Williams was shot and killed in the early hours of New Year’s Day while in the back of a limousine, dying in the arms of teammate Javon Walker. At just 24, Williams left behind a heartbroken family, a stunned city and a shattered team. Just 54 days later running back Damien Nash collapsed and died at his St. Louis home. The pall over the Broncos would linger throughout the following season.

2006 schedule

Date Opponent Score
9/10 at st. louis rams 10-18
9/17 kansas city chiefs (OT) 9-6
9/24 at new england patriots 17-7
10/9 baltimore ravens 13-3
10/15 oakland raiders 13-3
10/22 at cleveland browns 17-7
10/29 indianapolis colts 31-34
11/5 at pittsburgh steelers 31-20
11/12 at oakland raiders 17-13
11/19 san diego chargers 20-48
11/23 at kansas city chiefs 10-19
12/3 seattle seahawks 20-23
12/10 at san diego chargers 20-48
12/17 at arizona cardinals 37-20
12/24 cincinnati bengals 24-23
12/31 san francisco 49ers (OT) 23-26

2006 offense

Pos Player Starts
qb jay cutler 5
qb jake plummer 11
rb mike bell 3
rb tatum bell 13
fb kyle johnson 7
fb cecil sapp 1
wr brandon marshall 1
wr rod smith 16
wr javon walker 16
te stephen alexander 14
te chad mustard 4
te tony scheffler 5
c tom nalen 16
t george foster 13
t matt lepsis 6
t adam meadows 3
t erik pears 10
g cooper carlisle 16
g ben hamilton 16

The Broncos play their 700th all-time regular season game at Pittsburgh and defeat the Steelers 31-20.

Rookie Jay Cutler is named the Broncos’ starting quarterback, replacing Jake Plummer.

Broncos President and CEO Pat Bowlen is inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame.

2006 defense

Pos Player Starts
de ebenezer ekuban 15
de john engelberger 1
de kenard lang 16
dt michael myers 16
dt demetrin veal 1
dt gerard warren 15
lb ian gold 15
lb nate webster 2
lb d.j. williams 15
lb al wilson 15
cb champ bailey 16
cb darrent williams 14
db domonique foxworth 5
s curome cox 4
s nick ferguson 10
s john lynch 16

Record: 9-7
Third place, AFC West