The Denver Broncos could have entered the off-season as the second best team in football, instead they chose to enter it as the team that face-planted on the largest stage, and lost their last game of the 2013 season by 35 points.
Broncos general manager John Elway attacked the off-season like his roster was much weaker than the one that led Denver to a 13-3 regular season record and AFC Championship.
For the most part leaving his record-setting offence alone, Elway focused primarily on the defence this off-season, adding three Pro Bowlers to the unit in pass rusher DeMarcus Ware (three years, $30 million), cornerback Aqib Talib (six years, $57 million), and safety T.J. Ward (four years, $22.5 million).
In far less talked about moves, the team also added WR Emmanuel Sanders and offensive linemen J.D. Walton and Winston Justice.
"Everyone keeps talking about, ‘Well, you're doing this to win now.' I say, ‘No, we're doing this to win (from) now on.' That's what we're doing. We're not mortgaging our future," Elway told 850 KOA in Denver after the deals.
Whether the three moves help the Broncos sustain the success they've enjoyed the past couple of seasons or puts them in a future salary cap bind, it's clear Denver's best chance at a Super Bowl coincides with Peyton Manning's remaining years behind centre.
Manning's neck injury that cost him his last season in Indianapolis is now of little concern but the five-team MVP will be 38-years-old this season and may only have two or three championship-calibre seasons left.
The Broncos have a stable of young, talented players (some of which are due new contracts next off-season) but it's clearly Super Bowl or bust in Denver the next three years, the last three years of Manning's contract.
Much was made about the Broncos' Super Bowl implosion at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks (rightly so) and many figured Denver would use the off-season to expunge any weaknesses the Seahawks exposed. While Elway certainly shored up the team's defence, he did little this spring to improve the team's offensive line that was bullied by Seattle's relentless pressure defence in the Super Bowl. Denver will rely upon a return to health from left tackle Ryan Clady to improve the unit's fortunes after only making two depth signings in free agency and not addressing the position until late in the third round of the NFL Draft.
With his role reduced and his speed diminished, the Broncos released 12-time Pro Bowler Champ Bailey during the off-season. Bailey had spent the past 10 years of his Hall of Fame career with Denver.
The Broncos benefitted from CB Bradley Roby dropping in the draft to select him with the second last pick of the first round. Roby should help fill the void left by Bailey and could start in his first year.
Denver's two biggest losses in free agency shouldn't be felt all that much in 2014. Starting receiver Eric Decker put up huge numbers for the Broncos before signing for big money with the New York Jets this off-season, but Manning can make almost any receiver into a star and one of Andre Caldwell, Emmanuel Sanders, or second-round pick Cody Latimer should fill Decker's void this year. The other big loss, running back Knowshown Moreno, was a star only in the Manning-run offence and second-year man Montee Ball, arguably the more talented runner, should give the team a similar level of production at the position this season.