The Sunsets are Orange, and I Still Don't Care

stopped supporting the Denver Broncos when Josh McDaniels was fired, supported the St. Louis Rams when he coached for them, and now support the New England Patriots. I also wished for professional success for certain players (e.g. Kyle Orton, Knowshon Moreno, Brandon Lloyd), but only wished for team success when they went to new teams. My NFL philosophy, now, is more about rooting for individuals instead of teams. Consequently, I have the contradictory task of rooting for the Pats (McDaniels), Miami Dolphins (Moreno), and Buffalo Bills (Orton). (In other words, everyone but the Jets.)

I realise admitting I'm a McDaniels supporter makes me look crazy to many Broncos fans, or those who perceive him as a sleeper agent sent by Bill Belichick to destroy the Broncos. In the first year after his firing, I got into a fair amount of arguments with them, but then, I've resisted responding to thoughtless jabs at the former. Today, though, I was spurred into thinking about the events that led up to why I quit on the team I loved so much, and realised I've never written (in detail, anyway) about one of the catalysts. I thought today, with the 2014 NFL season officially underway, would be a good one to revisit the day I quit on the Broncos.

Jake Plummer

Jake Plummer was my favourite Bronco by far when he was their QB, and even though they lost the AFC Championship game in the 2005 season, I always felt that was a magical season. Not only was Champ Bailey the best defender in the world that year, but Jake the Snake epitomised the creativity and excitement that I loved about football. He was the opposite of the sterile Peyton Manning of the world, and lacked spoilt persona NFL QBs tend to have.

Following that 2005 season, however, Jay Cutler was drafted, and the inevitability of Plummer's departure was all but written in stone. When the 2006 season started with Cutler on the bench and Plummer still starter, I convinced myself that maybe things would be okay. As it should be, the rookie would learn under the veteran, and Jake the Snake would once again get to lead the Broncos to the playoffs. That wasn't meant to be.
Broncos fans have always had a weird relationship with QBs. When you have John Elway for two decades, it becomes hard to see any successor without Elway colouring your view. Plummer couldn't escape Elway's shadow. When Cutler was drafted (he with the arm stronger than Elway's... or so they say), Plummer had Elway hanging over him, and a cannon-armed rookie tugging at his jersey. And then, with every game—and most crucially after two games in a row were lost—Broncos fans and media started clutching that jersey harder and harder. People didn't want Plummer anymore. Mike Shanahan, for all his power in Denver, couldn't resist. He benched Plummer, and the season died with Jake the Snake's career.

This wasn't how the Broncos were supposed to follow-up the magical 2005 season, running the QB who took them there out of town, tail between his legs and lust for football pounded to dust. For the longest time, I had to tell myself it was about the uniform, not the player donning it. Team before player. It's just a business. And so on. Eventually I got rid of the sour taste left in Plummer's wake; a year later, I was proud to be a Broncos fan again, even though the memory of Jake the Snake still loomed.

The promise of Josh McDaniels

When McDaniels was hired, my interest in the NFL was at its peak. The Broncos had realised that it was time for a clean break, time to undo years of nepotism and dysfunctional management, time to do away with tired philosophies, time to rebuild. Having known about McDaniels from his Pats days, I was excited about his amoeba-style offence, which could bend to every situation and adapt to every challenge. I decided to learn everything I could about it and the person who was to coach it. As the Cutler mess, 2009 draft, and free agency rolled by, I quickly understood what McDaniels was building. He wanted talented cornerbacks and safeties who could lead the team in interceptions. Why? To force turnovers so the Broncos would have the ball more than opposing teams. He wanted to switch to a 3-4. Why? To enable more creative pressure and containment schemes, that could force QBs to force throws to an expectant secondary. He wanted a highly talented RB. Why? The Broncos needed someone who was versatile enough to block, run, and catch with equal proficiency, and who could get to the second level (and beyond) against the nickel and dime, where he could wreak true havoc against players hoping to cover receivers, not take down a RB with a full head of steam. And above all, he wanted a QB willing to learn how to bend to the needs of an offence with no shape.

McDaniels's vision for the Broncos was cyclical. An aggressive defence that would force teams into coughing up the ball, an offence that could methodically exploit the opposing defence's weaknesses to capitalise on those turnovers, and then back to the defence to start it all over again. Failing that, it would be a defence that could systematically nullify an offence's best players.

Unfortunately, vision and reality didn't coincide. Even though the Broncos were in a rebuild, fans, the media, and even Pat Bowlen didn't want to believe that. People saw the Broncos as an 8-8 team in 2008. So, logically, they had to be 8-8 or better in 2009 to make firing Shanahan worth it. Opening the season 6-0 did wonders for McDaniels's reputation, but the subsequent losing made the newfound, begrudging respect for him amongst the media and fans a temporary stop in their rage-train.

Luminaries like Woody Paige hated McDaniels. It was the fact that he was a kid that he despised. How can someone in his early-30s think he has the right to lead the Broncos? A 30-year-old coach isn't mature enough for that. Sure enough, McDaniels made many mistakes (as does every coach learning on the job), but he should never have taken the job in Denver. Not with a petulant media unused to rebuilds, or a town in which only Peyton Manning can step out of John Elway's shadow.

Every week, as I saw McDaniels's gameplanning for each team unfold and fell in love with his style, I would read the next article about "McHoody" decrying the ruination of the precious Broncos. And every week, I was convinced that McDaniels just needed time... time to fix that receiver corps, time to grow McBath and Bruton, time to plug the holes in that front-seven, time for Orton to finally get it. That last one was important. Because, just like Plummer, Orton didn't have the prized cannon for an arm. (And, just as with Plummer, Orton too was run out of town because of a shiny rookie QB.) But I knew it was only a matter of time before his ankles healed up and he could start putting weight into his throws, and only a matter of time before he didn't have to think about every play in that tome of a playbook, but just execute them instinctively. Then the cretins at the Denver Post would see what this noodle-armed QB could do.

Promise to ash

In the midst of a miserable 2010 season, however, all the bad luck the Broncos had coming their way had caught up with them. Now, the media was more ferocious than ever, and the fans had joined in. McDaniels had destroyed their wonderful team, they said. That team that hadn't been to the playoffs since ol' Jake the Snake was cast aside.

When Pat Bowlen came out to state that he would not be firing McDaniels, I made my ultimatum: if McDaniels was fired in 2010, I'd be done with the Broncos. I didn't genuinely believe I'd follow through, but after that year and a half, I'd invested too much time in the Broncos, learning every bit of information I could about them, and writing a dozen articles for a Broncos blog about them. What was I going to do if he was fired? Where would all this information go? Well, it probably wouldn't happen. I knew Bowlen was too strong-willed to bow to the media.

I still remember the day he was fired. I was sitting in bed with my fiancée, and we were laughing about something. Then I turned to the laptop and checked if there was any Broncos news. The headline hit me like I'd been smashed in the face by a brick: Josh McDaniels fired as Broncos coach. I collapsed in her arms. That day, I was betrayed by my team. It had done the one thing I begged it not to do. Everywhere, millions of people danced in joy, others laughed at the arrogant, immature coach who'd destroyed a franchise. I sat on that bed, my heart pumping supreme anger and sadness. I knew my Broncos fandom was over. I didn't have to convince myself anymore, I didn't have to think about it, I just knew.

Somehow, I was eventually okay with Plummer being run out of town. He had his chance, after all, and had managed the glory of taking the team to the AFC Championship game. I resolved to continue to visit my favourite Broncos blog, thinking I could find solace in the few like-minded individuals. Sadly, not only had the Broncos cowed to the media, but they began to join in the ensuing blitz on McDaniels's reputation. They started leaking details that clearly blamed him for the team's problems. The final nail in the coffin, which severed my ties to the Broncos entirely, was an email conversation with one of the aforementioned blog's writers. We had discussed McDaniels's approach to deferring on opening kickoffs, which had changed over time (the Broncos began to receive first instead of deferring when McDaniels began scripting the opening drive). Eventually, I admitted that I was struggling to continue to root for the Broncos; not only was I unhappy with the firing, but I felt it was ethically questionable to ruin his name in the media now that he was gone. I didn't get a reply.

The agony of losing a team differs with each individual. If you never really cared to begin with, then it won't matter much in the end. If the team moves to a different city, you may feel betrayed or you may continue to support them. If you spend every day thinking about their next game, you may be profoundly affected.

I spent my whole life thinking John Elway was the greatest QB ever. I had spent hours learning about the Orange Crush, making idols out of Randy Gradishar and Lyle Alzado, even though I'd never seen them play. I was one of those people who had campaigned for Floyd Little's induction into the Hall of Fame (going so far as doing it in a film script). I also campaigned for a return to orange uniforms. I had written articles and stories about them, paying the price of sleep deprivation to do so. I had won countless virtual Super Bowls in NFL videogames—all with the Broncos. I rooted too hard for a sports team.

For me, quitting on the Broncos meant not only time wasted on a doomed pursuit, but a significant change in my perception of history. Was Elway still the greatest QB ever, now that I no longer had a stake in that judgement? Was Gradishar still deserving of a place in the Hall of Fame? How did I feel about Lionel Taylor, the AFL's best receiver, and who was the first person with 100 catches in a season? It was all made worse when I found another idol, Terrell Davis, jumping on the anti-McDaniels bandwagon. How could I continue to respect the man when he was jumping on the bones of my Bronco hopes and dreams?

In the end, I found that I bled orange and blue only until I was kicked in the gut and the blood I spat out was red. The McDaniels firing permanently ruined my relationship not only with the Broncos, but football in general, and I went from someone who was obsessed with the tactically riveting sport to one who couldn't watch a game without a deep pit forming in his stomach. And even though that feeling has lessened since 2010, my animosity towards the Broncos has not. And it's unlikely that I will ever enjoy an NFL game quite as much as I used to then.

I just can't watch Knowshon Moreno barrel through an unsuspecting linebacker without thinking what could have been—and the hatred it took to rip McDaniels's promise away from me.


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