Hop on the bandwagon, Broncos fans

Last week, the NFL Network finished its offseason countdown of “The Top 100 Players of 2015,” releasing the final 10 players on this year’s list. And when they reached No. 5, it was hard not to feel like Clark W. Griswold when he was driving through the rainy streets of Flagstaff, Ariz., toward the end of “National Lampoon’s Vacation.”

At that point in the Top 100, it was revealed that Peyton Manning had been rated by his peers as the fifth-best player in the league. He finished behind only the NFL’s rushing champion from a year ago (DeMarco Murray), the man who won his fourth Super Bowl in 2014 (Tom Brady), the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player (Aaron Rodgers) and last season’s Defensive Player of the Year (J.J. Watt). That’s some pretty elite company – rarified air, by any definition.

That’s high praise when it comes from anyone; when it is voted on by other players, however, it speaks volumes. But it was also startling, as the thoughts of guys who have to face Manning on a weekly basis so drastically contradict the general consensus currently permeating the football world.

From media scribes to stat geeks in London to Joe Fan walking down the 16th Street Mall, it’s currently fashionable to bash the Broncos quarterback. Despite all he’s done during his time in Denver, a six-game streak to end last season – one in which his team went 5-1, keep in mind – is being used by all sorts of folks to write off the future Hall of Fame signal caller.

When it comes to writers and columnists, the notion is understandable; they’re trying to find a different angle, perhaps tiring of lauding praise on Manning for nearly two decades. And for the number crunchers at Pro Football Focus, a group that didn’t think the Broncos QB was worthy of a spot in their top-100 players list, it’s also easy to figure out; they’re trying to garner attention for their supposedly metric-based player rankings, hoping to prove that analytics work in football as well as they do in baseball.

But when it comes to the fans, the thought process is almost impossible to understand. In fact, it’s a total head scratcher.

When Manning arrived prior to the 2012 season, the Broncos were on a downward trajectory. Yes, Tim Tebow had led them to an 8-8 season and a place in the playoffs thanks to one of the most-improbable and enjoyable runs in recent NFL history, but that modicum of success had no staying power. In reality, Denver was a team that had gone 20-28 during the previous three seasons and hadn’t cracked the 10-win mark since 2005.

Since No. 18 chose the Broncos when he was a free agent, however, the orange and blue have been among the most interesting, relevant, exciting and competitive teams in the league. They’ve gone 38-10 during the regular season, earned the No. 1 seed in the AFC twice, played in a Super Bowl and posted the greatest offensive year in the history of the NFL.

That’s a pretty impressive résumé. Yet, there are people in the Mile High City who actually want to see Manning go; they’re calling for his unproven backup – a guy who has thrown a grand total of 571 meaningful passes (412 in college and 159 in the NFL) since his senior year in high school – to get a chance.

Nothing against Brock Osweiler, but that’s just crazy talk. All across the league, there are franchises who are clamoring for a viable quarterback; they know that having one is the only way to get into the exclusive club of teams that have a chance to win a Super Bowl year in and year out.

But for some reason, a certain percentage of Broncos fans want to voluntarily enter the group on the outside looking in; they want to rid themselves of arguably the best quarterback in NFL history, a guy who gives Denver a chance to reach the Super Bowl this season and any other in which he plays, for the unknown of a rebuilding campaign.

That’s the thinking that would cause Clark to slam on his brakes in the middle of the street, take a breath as he gathered his thoughts, turn toward those who want to run Manning out of town and utter one of the greatest rants in cinematic history.

“I think you’re all f***ed in the head,” he would say to them, fuming with disgust at their lack of gumption. He’s ready to stick it out until the end, knowing that the bumps along the way are what make the final destination so worthwhile. So he’s perturbed that others are more fickle and quick to change course.

“We’re ten hours from the f***ing fun park and you want to bail out,” he would add, suggesting that the end is in sight – whether it’s Walley World or the Super Bowl – which isn’t the time to lose faith, waver and look for an emergency exit. Instead, it’s the time to forge ahead, determined to get there no matter what obstacles are thrown into the path along the way.

“Well, I’ll tell you something. This is no longer a vacation. It’s a quest. It’s a quest for fun. You’re gonna have fun, and I’m gonna have fun,” he’d conclude, attempting to will people back onto the bandwagon, forcing them to go down a path that is in their best interests, whether they know it or not. There’s no wide-eyed optimism heading into the 2015 season; instead, it’s a mission with only one goal in mind, and everyone is going to enjoy the journey, whether they want to or not.

Is this a little overly harsh? Sure. But sometimes, people need a dose of reality. And often that’s best served right between the eyes, where it is impossible to ignore.

That’s the case with a lot of Broncos fans right now. In a city where every other pro sports team is in the midst of a down period, each of which would kill to be a title contender this season, the orange and blue are the lone bright spot in a sea of darkness; they’re the one franchise that is actually capable of winning a championship at the moment.

So to wish them into the no man’s land that is a rebuilding phase is silly; there’s plenty of time for that potentially never-ending ride of frustration down the road. For now, it’s much smarter to wring every drop of potential out of Manning and the current batch of Broncos; because whether fans in Denver see it or not, this is a talent-laden roster – one led by one of the five best players in the entire league – capable of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February.

It’s time to get on board, Denver. The ride promises to be a good one.

“We’re all gonna have so much f***ing fun we’re gonna need plastic surgery to remove our g**damn smiles! You’ll be whistling ‘Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah’ out of your a**holes!”

Clark W. Griswold knows what he’s talking about.