Former Heisman Trophy winner and Super Bowl champion Charles Woodson made a visit to Dove Valley this week. The Broncos are looking to sign the veteran defensive back as they make their own championship push.
By all accounts, the visit went fine, but Woodson left Denver without a signed deal in place. And that couldn’t be better news for John Elway and the Broncos.
Ever since the Mike Shanahan era, Denver has had this nasty habit of signing old safeties who are well past their prime. Rather than working to get younger at the position they have tried to patch pieces together and hope the secondary would hold up just well enough for the Broncos to be successful.
The same approach occurred under the Josh McDaniels regime. McDaniels ignored the need for youth on the defensive side of the ball (specifically the secondary), used high draft picks on offensive weapons and hoped to get solid production from veteran free agents on defense.
When John Fox took over as head coach, he and John Elway addressed positions that had given the Broncos trouble in recent years. They started using high draft picks on impact defensive players and took aim at getting younger at many of the skill positions.
Part of Elway’s brilliance as executive vice president of football operations has been finding the right veterans to plug in where production has taken a slight hit. The pursuit of Woodson would break that standard; it would turn Elway into a man grasping at straws in hopes of walking away with a championship.
The Broncos history of chasing veteran defensive backs can be traced back to one man: Peyton Manning.
After Manning dismantled the Broncos in the 2004 playoffs, Shanahan knew he was going to have to revamp his secondary. While his biggest move was to trade his star running back, Clinton Portis, for Champ Bailey, the signing of free agent safety John Lynch was seen as equally important.
Lynch arguably had one standout season as a Bronco and helped the team get to the AFC Championship Game in 2005. After that year, however, his production began to decline and he became a shadow of the man who helped lead the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Super Bowl title.
His 2005 season resulted in four sacks, two interceptions and four forced fumbles. During the next two seasons, Lynch would total one sack, two forced fumbles and no interceptions. He left the Broncos during training camp of the 2008 season and retired. Although he made the Pro Bowl in each of his four seasons with the Broncos, his numbers suggested that he was nowhere near the player he was in Tampa Bay.
When McDaniels came aboard, he also noticed a weakness at the safety position. A seven-time Pro Bowler happened to be on the free agent market and McDaniels chased him. Rather than building the position through the draft, McDaniels hoped that Brian Dawkins would be a quick fix.
Although Dawkins was a great vocal leader on the field, it was clear his best days were behind him. In his three years with the Broncos, he totaled three interceptions and four forced fumbles.
In 2006, Dawkins picked off four passes and forced five fumbles while playing with the Eagles. When he sat out the end of the 2011 season with a neck injury, what was missed most about Dawkins was his ability to line up the defense and put the players on the field in a position to succeed. But time had taken a toll on his on-field play and the Broncos didn’t miss a step with him gone in 2012.
When Elway took over, he didn’t like what he saw at the safety position. Dawkins was getting older and there wasn’t anyone who could even play next to him. In his first draft, Elway made a point of taking two safeties: Rahim Moore and Quinton Carter. Carter proved to be more ready in their rookie season and was given more playing time than “The Dream.”
But in 2012 something happened to Moore. He very quietly became the most improved player on defense. His tackling total doubled from the previous season and more often than not, he found himself in the right position to make plays. His contributions wouldn’t make for a great highlight reel, but he was doing the job he hired to do.
And then the AFC Divisional Playoff against the Ravens came. In what will go down as one of the most heartbreaking moments in Broncos history, Moore took a horrible angle on a deep ball from Joe Flacco to Jacoby Jones. Jones scored a touchdown with seconds remaining to tie the game and send it to overtime, and we all know how that ended.
Since that day, Moore has taken most of the blame for that loss. Forget about the two deep long touchdowns that Bailey gave up to Torrey Smith. Ignore the overly conservative play calling in the fourth quarter. And don’t think about the two Peyton Manning interceptions in that game. To most, they never happened.
The most important aspect of that game’s aftermath was Moore’s ability to stand in the locker room and field questions, owning up to his mistake. That is a gaffe that Woodson would not make. But as a young player, he also probably learned the hard way.
Without Moore’s blunder in the playoff game, the safety position is of no concern for the Broncos. The desire for an upgrade stems entirely from one play that was made in the final game of the season.
Signing Woodson would once again affirm Denver’s commitment to winning a Super Bowl in the upcoming season. But looking back at the history of veteran defensive backs on this team, it may not provide the spark that most are hoping for.
Rather than looking to a veteran seeking one last shot at a title, maybe the Broncos should lean toward a younger, hungrier player with something to prove.
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