BACK IN THE PLAYOFFS

Mere days after the 2010 season concluded, the Broncos made a massive front office decision that would alter the franchise’s future immediately. On Jan. 5, 2011, the team hired John Elway as Executive Vice President of Football Operations and General Manager, and just eight days later, he made his first move. By hiring former Panthers boss John Fox as head coach, Elway had a seasoned set of hands to help him as he learned his new craft on the job. A few weeks later, he re-signed cornerback Champ Bailey, ending rumors that the All-Pro would leave to pursue an elusive championship ring elsewhere. And with the No. 2 overall pick, Elway selected Von Miller, adding a transformative piece to the defense.

But those — along with a four-month lockout that shredded the offseason — were only sidebars to the story that dominated not only the Broncos, but the entire NFL.

That story was the play of quarterback Tim Tebow.

A first-round pick of the Broncos in 2010, Tebow was perhaps the most unorthodox quarterback to play in the modern NFL. His throwing motion was slow and elongated. His passes often fluttered, especially when going outside the numbers. He completed just 46 percent of his passes. Instead of running away from defenders, he ran to contact like an old-school fullback. And his visible, fervent religious faith helped make him a constant talking point for not only sports shows, but news ones, as well.

His style wasn’t sustainable for long-term success. He couldn’t run a traditional offense that was predicated on short timing routes. Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy went to work designing a run-first scheme that emphasized the zone-read option. Passing became a change-of-pace tactic, focused on deep routes designed to try and keep the safeties and cornerbacks honest and prevent them from crowding into the box.

To say the offense was a work in progress was an understatement. Few coaches and teams in modern NFL history have ever junked an entire scheme on the fly. But it was necessary to try and save the season. For the Broncos to work, the risk of big mistakes had to be minimized, and the defense had to complement it by preventing big plays and when in duress, holding opponents to field goals.

For two months — and one stunning playoff game — it did.

A revived defense featuring Bailey, Miller and a healed Elvis Dumervil became dominant, at one point holding four of five opponents to 13 or fewer points. The defense kept the Broncos in games, setting Tebow up for the improvisational, madcap late-game drives against fatigued defenses that carried the Broncos from a 1-4 start to a six-game winning streak that eventually gave them the AFC West crown with a modest 8-8 record.

As defensive coordinators figured him out late in the 2011 season, his production plummeted and his turnovers spiked. But in the wild-card round, Pittsburgh was caught off-guard, and his 80-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas caught the slow-to-react Steelers in coverage, sealing a 29-23 overtime win that left Denver’s fans ecstatic.

It was first-year success beyond what almost anyone expected for Elway, Fox and the Broncos. But they knew they had to find a quarterback upgrade — and two months later, they fortified the position in the most stunning fashion imaginable.

2011 schedule

Date Opponent Score
9/12 oakland raiders 20-23
9/18 cincinnati bengals 24-22
9/25 at tennessee titans 14-17
10/2 at green bay packers 23-49
10/9 san diego chargers 24-29
10/23 at miami dolphins (OT) 18-15
10/30 detroit lions 10-45
11/6 at oakland raiders 38-24
11/13 at kansas city chiefs 17-10
11/17 new york jets 17-13
11/27 at san diego chargers (OT) 16-13
12/4 at minnesota vikings 35-32
12/11 chicago bears (OT) 13-10
12/18 new england patriots 23-41
12/24 at buffalo bills 14-40
1/1 kansas city chiefs 3-7
1/8 pittsburgh steelers (OT afc wild card)
1/14 at new england patriots (afc divisional) 10-45

2011 offense

Pos Player Starts
qb kyle orton 5
qb tim tebow 11
rb willis mcgahee 14
rb knowshon moreno 2
fb spencer larsen 6
wr eric decker 13
wr brandon lloyd 4
wr eddie royal 8
wr demaryius thomas 5
te chris clark 6
te daniel fells 15
te virgil green 3
te/fb dante rosario 3
te julius thomas 1
c j.d. walton 16
t ryan clady 16
t orlando franklin 16
g zane beadles 16
g chris kuper 16

Von Miller is named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, the first Denver Bronco to win the award since 1991.

2011 defense

Pos Player Starts
de robert ayers 13
de elvis dumervil 14
de jason hunter 2
dl ryan mcbean 3
dt brodrick bunkley 13
dt marcus thomas 11
dt kevin vickerson 4
slb mario haggan 1
slb von miller 15
mlb joe mays 12
wlb d.j. williams 13
lb wesley woodyard 7
cb champ bailey 13
cb andré goodman 16
cb cassius vaughn 3
db chris harris jr. 4
db jonathan wilhite 2
s david bruton 1
s quinton carter 10
s brian dawkins 12
s rahim moore 7

Record: 8-8
First place, AFC west