Denver Broncos 2014 Season Review: Coming Up Short

After a Super Bowl appearance last year, the Broncos had high expectations but ultimately failed to get back to the big game.

A high-octane offense paired with two high-profile signings on the defensive side of the ball seemed to point to the 2014 version of the Denver Broncos being able to avenge its embarrassing 43-8 loss against the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII last February.

And although the Broncos once again coasted through the regular season, finishing 12-4, their failure to achieve the ultimate goal, a Super Bowl championship, is what most will remember about this team.

Peyton Manning has said he wants to make a speedy decision regarding his future in the NFL, but it’s fair to wonder if we’ve seen the last of one of the greatest of all-time. If he does return and can play at a relatively high level, the offense in 2015 should again be near the league’s best.

But even if he does not, the Broncos appear to have found their future workhorse tailback in C.J. Anderson and also return the dynamic receiving duo of Demaryius Thomas (assuming his re-signs) and Emmanuel Sanders. On defense, newly acquired Aqib Talib and DeMarcus Ware are also still under contract.

Looking back at the 2014 season, a few things emerge -- some good and some bad. Let's dive in.

The Good

The emergence of Anderson was probably the story of the season. Thrust into action by both injury and inconsistent play from Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman, Anderson averaged 124 total yards in the last 7 games of the season. He also scored a touchdown in all but two of those games, including a three-score game on two separate occasions.

Anderson finished tied for the second-best Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per carry (0.10) and sixth in terms of pure Rushing NEP (17.93) among running backs with at least 100 carries.

As a team, the Broncos finished with the ninth-best rushing attack when adjusted for strength of schedule. The combination of Anderson and a physical offensive line can be credited. It will be interesting to see how Anderson fits into Gary Kubiak’s offensive scheme given his success with running backs in the past.

The Broncos also finished with the fourth-best passing attack when adjusted for strength of schedule due in large part to the two previously mentioned wide receivers.

Demaryius Thomas continued his ascendency into the upper echelon of NFL wide receivers in 2014. Voted to his third-consecutive Pro Bowl, Thomas set career-highs in both receptions (111) and receiving yards (1,619) finishing behind only Antonio Brown in both categories. He also recorded his third-straight 10-plus touchdown season (11).

Thomas racked up the third-best Reception NEP (140.59) and the 23rd best Reception NEP per target (0.76) among the 87 receivers with at least 50 targets.

Now an unrestricted free agent, it seems obvious that the Broncos need to make every effort to lock up Thomas long-term. Not only is his raw talent unmistakable, but he’s now produced results for three seasons in a row.

Emmanuel Sanders was a gem of an offseason addition by the front office. Coming over from the Pittsburgh Steelers were he was marred by drops and injuries, Sanders flourished in the Manning offense finishing with 101 catches, 1,404 yards, and 9 touchdowns. Although Sanders did not match Thomas in Reception NEP (125.70), he was the eight-most efficient receiver on a per-target basis (0.89) among those with at least 50 targets.

Shifting away from the offense, the defense, which is normally an afterthought when discussing the Broncos, ended the season as a solid all-around unit. According to our metrics, they finished 11th against the run and 10th against the pass, good enough for an 11th best overall finish. The rush defense finished second in rushing yards allowed per game (79.8) behind only Detroit.

They boasted two players with 10 or more sacks -- Von Miller (14) and DeMarcus Ware (10) -- and two players with 4 interceptions -- Talib and Rahim Moore. With the majority of the defense returning in 2015, this unit could again be a solid piece for the franchise as they push for a deep playoff run.

The Bad

It’s difficult to parse out negatives about a team that lost only four games all year, including their playoff loss. But just as Anderson starting dominating games late in the season, Manning’s disappearance at times, and therefore the passing game in general, is worth touching on here.

Peyton Manning had another terrific year from a raw statistical perspective. The regression from his record-setting 2013 season happened just as expected, but even so, Manning still finished with a 167.47 Passing NEP, good enough for second behind only Aaron Rodgers. He was also the third-most efficient passer on a per drop back basis (0.27).

Under closer inspection however, Manning did the majority of his damage early in the season. In his last six games, Manning averaged just 230 yards passing per game and had a 1:1 touchdown to interception ratio during that span. It’s tough to pinpoint exactly why Manning faded late in the year, but it’s worth noting.

Another lowlight was the kicking performance of Brandon McManus. After Matt Prater was released, McManus stepped in but struggled, hitting on 9 of 13 field goals, including just 2 for 5 from 40-plus yards. The Broncos rectified the situation by bringing in veteran Connor Barth, who hit 15 of 16 field goals starting in Week 13.

Moving Forward

The obvious question as we move towards the offseason is whether or not Manning will return. Until we know the answer, the Broncos’ 2015 prospects remain partially unknown. It would presumably be Brock Osweiler’s gig to lose if the Sheriff does decide to hang it up, barring a free agent addition this offseason.

Regardless of Manning’s decision, they should still have a solid running game, a tough offensive line, a tremendously talented receiving corps, and a very good defense.

All the elements are there for Kubiak and company to form a Super Bowl-ready squad in 2015.