KESSINGER: In an extended playoff drought, breaking Denver’s dry spell

15 months have passed since the Denver Broncos won Super Bowl 50. None of Denver’s four major teams have made the playoffs since then. Each team has a chance to break the drought, but none are guaranteed to do so.

Terry Frei
Image Credit: Mat Smith, 5280 Sports Network

Denver is no stranger to dry spells. We hide in the Rocky Mountains’ rain shadow, where the East Coast media can’t seem to find us. In between snowstorms, the last two decades have also included wildfires and water restrictions.

Then there’s this sports drought that started after the Broncos won the Super Bowl 15 months ago. Since the victory over the Carolina Panthers, none of the four major sports teams have made the playoffs. The Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche have both missed the playoffs twice while the Colorado Rockies and the Broncos each missed during their last season. You don’t want to rain on the Super Bowl parade, but there’s no need for fans to be forgiving to the Denver teams for their current lack of success.

Denver didn’t even enjoy its honeymoon period as Super Bowl champions. Instead, the city went into panic mode as soon as Peyton Manning retired. Last season felt less like a victory tour and more like a pity party with the constant quarterback dread that’s been ongoing.

In fact, the media covered the Tony Romo saga this spring more than it covered the Super Bowl 50 victory last spring. The arguments of Paxton Lynch versus Trevor Siemian (or Mark Sanchez anyone?) began as soon as ‘rising star’ Brock Osweiler left town.

I’m only being a little harder on Denver than I need to be. I hope that fans enjoyed the championship more than the media did. If we’re not going to relish the championships, why are we fans? I don’t need any more controversy in my life with the current state of our politics.

The question then becomes, who can break Denver out of its playoff drought first?

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The last extended stretch for Denver without a playoff berth lasted from January of 1992 to January 1994. It began when Broncos lost to Bills in the AFC championship, and ended when the Broncos lost to the Raiders in the Wild Card game. At the time, Denver only had the Broncos and the Nuggets. The Rockies joined Major League Baseball in the middle of the drought, in 1993.

It was a time of transition for both the Broncos and Nuggets. Dan Reeves was fired after the ’92 loss and Wade Phillips was the coach. The Nuggets were suffering from the mistake of firing Doug Moe and would make the playoffs only twice from 1991-2003.

The current drought also comes at a time of coaching turnover. All four teams have switched coaches in the past two years. In fact, Nuggets coach Michael Malone is the longest tenured coach after two seasons. Avs coach Jared Bednar has coached one pitiful season. Bud Black has not yet managed the Rockies for a month and Vance Joseph became the Broncos coach in January.

The Rockies have the next opportunity to end Denver’s playoff woes, at the 20-month mark, in October. The Rockies have shown signs of life in their first month, but gauging the stamina of the Rockies is tricky. They usually follow up good Aprils with bad Mays and Junes. They always struggle with injuries and the bullpen faces fatigue regularly. Still, the Rockies are tallying real wins for the first time since 2010.

The Broncos missing the playoffs for a second straight year isn’t inconceivable. The Broncos are facing a transition year with a new coach and without a clear starting quarterback. Their defense still looks historic, but the effect of losing defensive coordinator Wade Phillips won’t be known until the season begins.

The NHL has the most parity in terms of cycling through playoff teams each year. It’s the only reason the Avs have any hope. All they have to do is find a stable roster that actually plays defense. It sounds easy, but assembling an offensive line for the Broncos will probably take less effort.

The Nuggets came very close to making the playoffs this year. With Nikola Jokic as the centerpiece, the Nuggets have a direction again. However, they play in the toughest conference in North America that won’t allow any teams to coast into the playoffs. The Nuggets must find the right balance of players around Jokic and develop their other young players. The NBA playoffs in 2018 are in no way guaranteed for this team.

Let’s say there’s a bet on the table—either all four teams make the playoffs or none of the four teams make the playoffs in the next year. Which bet do you make? I would bet that none of the four teams make the playoffs because they all seem likely to struggle just to squeak into the postseason.

If the Broncos fail this year, you have to be worried about them. It likely means a continued quarterback controversy and an erosion of defensive talent. Careers are short in the NFL, after all. The Broncos have the most to lose by not make the playoffs, followed by the Nuggets and Rockies. The Avs are so bad that they have nothing to lose.

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Instead of the playoffs, we’re wondering about smaller things. Can the Avs win the draft lottery with only a 20 percent chance? Can the Rockies stay healthy? Can the Nuggets find the right roster? Can the Broncos develop a quarterback?

The Avalanche won Stanley Cups in 1996 and 2001 and the Broncos won in 1998 and 1999. It felt like championships were a part of Denver. My 10-year-old self had no idea that fifteen years would pass before a new champion was crowned in this city.

With less lofty aspirations, I would just like to care that much about a game again. There’s a level of emotional investment that only comes in the playoffs. It can’t be recreated on a dollar hot dog Tuesday at Coors Field.

This is the state of a drought. We’re left with a city hoping for the start of a new playoff reign.