Bob Leverone/Associated Press file photo
Bob Leverone/Associated Press file photo
Champ Bailey insists the script in Denver is going to flip this year.
For most of the last decade, the Broncos have made late-season swoons an annual rite of winter in the Rocky Mountains.
Altitude. Aptitude. Attitude. Whatever the reasons, the Broncos have followed strong starts with fading finishes. In the six seasons before this one, they were 23-34 in November, December and January.
It’ll be different this season, vows Bailey, who points to a new strength and conditioning coach who uses cutting edge techniques and philosophies and a new quarterback who won’t allow anybody to let up.
The Broncos (7-3) can wrap up a 4-0 November with a win at Kansas City (1-9) today, and their December slate includes a rematch against the Chiefs and just one game – at Baltimore – in which they might be underdogs.
After a brutal early-season schedule when Peyton Manning still was finding his new bearings, the Broncos have built a three-game cushion in the AFC West on the strength of a five-game winning streak, and their remaining opponents are a combined 20-30.
A walk through the Broncos locker room, however, doesn’t reveal any let-up, no sighs of relief or perilous swagger that was evident in other years following their AFC championship game appearance after the 2005 season.
The Broncos lost five of their last seven in 2006, four of their last six in ’07, and Mike Shanahan was fired after they blew a three-game lead over San Diego with three weeks to go in ’08.
Josh McDaniels’ first team lost eight of its last 10 after a 6-0 start, missing the playoffs in 2009. He didn’t even make it through the next season, getting fired in the midst of a franchise-worst 4-12 campaign that was marked by an embarrassing videotape scandal and six losses in their last seven games.
John Fox entered the fray last year, but after going 4-0 in November during the height of Tebowmania, the Broncos lost their last three games, backing into the playoffs at .500.
The Broncos also started strong and staggered down the stretch from 2001-04, so this nasty habit goes back a ways.
Bailey figures this group is better prepared both physically and mentally to handle the stretch run, and the two biggest reasons for this optimism are the arrivals of Manning, with his notorious high standards keeping everybody on point, and strength and conditioning coach Luke Richesson.
Richesson, 38, replaced longtime strength and conditioning coach Rich Tuten. He followed defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio to Denver from Jacksonville, where he worked for three seasons after an eight-year stint as the performance team director at the renowned Athletes’ Performance in Tempe, Ariz.
A former safety at Kansas and the husband of 1992 Olympic gold medal swimmer Anita Nall, Richesson uses new-fangled techniques in his training programs, including MMA drills during offseason workouts. His program focuses on flexibility, stretching and maintaining core strength, which the Broncos say have reduced pulled muscles and other soft-tissue injuries and which they believe will help them avoid late-season fatigue from all of their training at mile-high altitude.
“I think he’s done a tremendous job,” Fox said. “I think the science of strength and conditioning, in particular in football, has changed quite a bit. It’s differed over history from maybe some other sports, whether it be baseball or basketball. I think football is coming back to a little bit more of that style and that science.”
Fullback Chris Gronkowski, who has played in Dallas and Indianapolis, said he was surprised when he first worked out in Denver in the offseason because players stretched for half an hour before picking up a single weight.
Rather than trying to stretch out tight muscles in the cold weather, the Broncos also conduct their walkthroughs at the start of practice now and only after their blood is pumping 30 minutes later do they gather for stretching exercises.
The muscle pulls that dogged them in the past are fewer and farther between nowadays. They’ve had 100 percent participation in practice several times this month, almost unheard of for NFL teams once the leaves begin to fall.
“This is the healthiest team I’ve been on,” Gronkowski said. “Either we’re getting lucky or this stuff is working.”
Bailey has become a big fan of Richesson’s.
“His program is more structured. I think what we did in the past wasn’t bad. It’s just making sure everybody gets the right work done. We focus on that, so we know everybody’s doing the same thing, straying strong,” Bailey said. “That’s the main thing, just trying to be strong this time of the year. So, he really measures your strength to see how you are, if you’re backing down or whatever.”
That’s why Bailey said the usual late-season swoon isn’t on the Colorado horizon this year.
“And it’s a lot more mental than people say. It’s not all physical,” Bailey said. “As the season goes on, you kind of get caught up in that routine, just forget how you got there, what it takes to get going, getting better. And I think now we’ve got a mentally strong team, so I don’t see that happening.”
Helping form that mental tenacity is Manning, who is such a stickler for detail and efficient preparation that nobody dares slack off in practice or meetings, wide receiver Brandon Stokley said.
Bailey, Stokley and other veterans who have been through the fading finishes that ruined strong starts in Denver, such as Wesley Woodyard, D.J Williams and Elvis Dumervil, have another drill sergeant on their side now.
“Yeah, all the leaders have got to play a role in that because we’ve been here, done it,” Bailey said. “We’ve seen it go bad. Now, we’re seeing it get better.”