The 2016 season was the first in which the Broncos missed the playoffs since 2010, when the team finished 4-12 on the season.
Since that forgotten season, the Broncos have had extraordinary success, including five straight AFC West championships, two Super Bowl appearances and a Super Bowl victory in 2015. But at 4-9, the 2017 version of the Broncos isn’t too far off from that 2010 group.
It’s a question that rarely needs to be answered in Denver: what does a team that won’t make the playoffs have left to play for? After the team’s fourth win on the season, All-Pro cornerback Chris Harris Jr. answered just that to the media: “A lot of guys are playing to stay in the league or stay here. Everybody’s being evaluated at this time right now. You’re trying to put on good tape for next season.”
It’s a straightforward, humbling answer given by Harris. Harris sheds some light to a harsh reality that without playoff aspirations, many players are doing their best to show enough promise to the front office to remain on the Denver Broncos, secure a new contract or prove to other NFL teams that they deserve a roster spot if they’re not retained by the Broncos.
The Broncos currently have 12 unrestricted free agents slated for the 2018 offseason, including starting tight end Virgil Green and starting linebacker Todd Davis.
Aside from the business aspect of playing for future employment, Pro Bowl receiver Emmanuel Sanders offered a different take on what he has left to play for: “We are just going out and having fun, honestly. That’s my mindset: go out, have fun and enjoy football. My whole life I played this game for fun and for the love of it, and I am going to keep that energy and that passion for it.”
While players play for the hope of maintaining a roster position on the Broncos, or another NFL team, or for the love of the game, the Broncos as a whole are also playing for positioning in the offseason. If the team continues to lose games, their draft selections are improved.
However, finishing with a better record could prove to other free agents in the offseason that the Broncos are still a talented team that, after the right offseason acquisitions, can be a competitive force in the AFC. The free-agent quarterback class appears to be one of the more promising in recent history, led by veterans Drew Brees, Kirk Cousins and Sam Bradford.
Other potential options at quarterback could be Bills’ Tyrod Taylor, who has a buyout option at the end of the season, or Eli Manning, who the Giants appear ready to move on from and can save close to $10 million by releasing him in the offseason.
The Broncos will travel to Indianapolis to face the Colts on Thursday Night Football, a game that could have more significant meaning than two teams trying to get to the offseason.
Of course, no one is sure what will happen to Pro Bowl quarterback Andrew Luck, who has missed all of 2017 with a shoulder injury. After the Colts traded for quarterback Jacoby Brissett, there have been rumors of Luck possibly being traded due to his inability to stay healthy for the Colts.
If the Broncos finish the season 4-12 as they did in 2010, it’s more than likely that few, if any, of these quarterbacks will want to play for a team that finished with one of the worst records in the NFL.
The Broncos, as a team, will also be playing for the jobs of their coaches, and head coach Vance Joseph in particular. Team general manger John Elway has never been shy to make changes to his coaching staff, relieving his previous staff of their duties after the team failed to make the playoffs at 9-7.
It’s been a long season for the Broncos and their fans, who had such high expectations entering the 2017 season. Many expect numerous changes in the offseason, but before then, there are still three games left to play in the season. Even without a shot at the playoffs, there is still plenty left to play for, from job security, to how the team approaches the offseason, and of course — the love of the game.