(Sports Network) – Had the 2010 NFL schedule not been released days before the Draft, you could have made a case that Roger Goodell’s fingerprints were all over this.
A moribund NFL franchise that’s fallen off from playoff contention and faced recent issues with simply filling seats for Sunday home games welcomes a hometown Messiah – albeit in a visitor’s uniform – to open a fiscally pivotal 2010 season.
Said hometown hero – who went to college just 71 miles down the road and racked up two national championships, a Heisman Trophy and the shameless devotion of millions – draws crowds from across the region, triggers thousands of jersey sales, and, while he’s at it, creates just enough of buzz about the local squad that it remains economically healthy and viable all season long.
In the northeast Florida diocese of Tim Tebow, nothing is impossible.
And in the big NFL offices in New York City, it might have amounted to a master scheduling plan.
Except, that is … if Tebow’s just a third-string quarterback novelty act at this point.
In that case, sorry Jacksonville, it’s just another home opener.
Kyle Orton handing the ball to Georgia alum Knowshon Moreno may not possess the local sexiness of a clipboard-clinging Tebow, but it might be more indicative – to Denver fans at least – of the prospective 2010 prowess of a team raft with fits and starts last season.
Young coach Josh McDaniels seemed on the verge of making people forget Mike Shanahan with a 6-0 start and lead-dog status in the AFC West, only to have it crumble into eight losses in the subsequent 10 weeks en route to a second-place finish behind San Diego.
The Broncos curiously drafted Tebow in the first round (25th overall) to join the passing morass already created by Orton and Cleveland castoff Brady Quinn, but the man whose jersey leads the league in total sales is nonetheless No. 3 on the depth chart entering Week 1.
Perhaps he can lay hands on a MASH unit of injured comrades in his down time.
Sack machine Elvis Dumervil (17 in 2009) will be absent for the entire year thanks to a torn pectoral muscle that landed him on injured reserve on Sept. 4. Also lost is LenDale White, who was brought in to team with Moreno but instead will watch from the sidelines courtesy of a season-ending Achilles surgery.
Moreno himself limps toward the initial game with a balky hamstring, but did participate fully in Wednesday’s practice. And caustic wide receiver Brandon Marshall (101 catches in 2009) is also gone, courtesy of a McDaniels-engineered offseason trade with Miami.
“The Broncos could go anywhere from 4-12 (to) 8-8 and no one in the national media would blink,” said Rich Kurtzman, a featured Broncos columnist on BleacherReport.com. “Realistically, 8-8 should be a mark Denver can get to once again, and if a multitude of things go correctly, the Broncos could even go 10-6 and make the playoffs for the first time in five years.”
As for the Jaguars, much of the chatter around them this week centers on whether fans will view Sunday’s game as a spotlight on whether the team misfired by not drafting Tebow with its own pick – 15 slots before Denver’s – in the opening round.
Columnist Gene Frenette of Jacksonville.com, however, cautioned that such an approach isn’t valid.
“A lot of people want to make this game a Tebow referendum,” he said. "As if the outcome, Tebow’s role in it, or the number of No. 15 jerseys in the stands will determine if the attendance-starved Jaguars made the right call by not drafting the popular quarterback.
“Folks, nobody has a crystal ball on this stuff. You can scream, rant or rave about Tebow until your voice gives out, but it doesn’t change the fact that he’s an uncut diamond. This is the smallest of steps on his NFL journey.”
Not helping matters in Camp Jacksonville is a difficult schedule, ranked fifth- hardest for 2010 in the league. The Jaguars’ upcoming foes combined for a 137-119 record (.535 win percentage) in 2009, with 11 of 16 reaching .500 and five of 16 making the playoffs.
The Jaguars lead the all-time regular season series with the Broncos, 4-3, breaking a deadlock in the series with a 24-17 win when they visited Denver during the 2008 season. The Broncos are 0-2 since beating the Jaguars by a 20-7 count in Jacksonville during the 2005 season. The Jags’ last home win over the Broncos came in 7-6 fashion in 2004. The road team has won the last three matchups in the series.
The clubs have also split two postseason matchups, with Jacksonville scoring a 30-27 road victory in a 1996 AFC Divisional Playoff and Denver returning the favor with a 42-17 home victory in an AFC Divisional Playoff the following season.
Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio is 3-1 as a head coach against Denver, while the Broncos’ McDaniels will be meeting both Del Rio and Jacksonville for the first time as a head man.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
The Broncos are an AFC-best 32-17-1 on opening weekend, having won 16 of their last 21 openers, and are 3-0 in September under McDaniels. The underappreciated Orton was important in that quick start last year and ended the season with career-bests in completion percentage (62.1), passing yards (3,802), touchdowns (21) and passer rating (86.8) in ‘09. In one start against Jacksonville with the Bears in 2008, he threw two TDs and had a 85.3 passer rating. Moreno was the top rookie running back in 2009 with 947 rush yards, 1,160 yards from scrimmage and nine TDs. His running mate, former Eagle Correll Buckhalter averaged 5.4 yards per carry (120 carries, 642 yards) last season. On the outside, wide receiver Jabar Gaffney posted a career-high 732 receiving yards on 45 catches and will be leaned on more heavily in Marshall’s absence.
The man chosen over Tebow, defensive tackle Tyson Alualu, will make his pro debut for the Jaguars alongside another first-timer in a Jacksonville uniform, former Green Bay sack master Aaron Kampman. Since 2006, Kampman is tied for fifth in the league with 40.5 sacks and he had 3.5 with the Packers last season. Incoming middle linebacker Kirk Morrison (ex-Raiders) will line up alongside Daryl Smith, who led the team with 150 tackles last season. Second- year man Derek Cox is back after topping the team with four interceptions at cornerback. Fellow CB Rashean Mathis is the top player in franchise history with 28 interceptions. Statistically, Jacksonville allowed 352.3 yards per game last season but was an overall plus-2 in turnover ratio.
WHEN THE JAGUARS HAVE THE BALL
Regardless of allegiance, absolutely no one should mistake David Garrard for Tebow – after all, he’s two inches shorter and has thrown for 13,269 more yards in the NFL. In two career starts against Denver, he is 2-0 and has connected on 39-of-54 passes (72.2 pct.) for 430 yards, two touchdowns and a 107.8 passer rating. In Jacksonville in 2009, Garrard registered 12 TDs vs. five interceptions and a 90.9 rating. Power runner Maurice Jones-Drew, who’s reportedly suffering meniscus issues, had a career-high 1,391 yards last season with 16 TDs. Last time out against the Broncos in 2008, he ran for 125 yards and scored twice. The Jaguars are 8-4 (.667) when Jones-Drew has goes for 100 or more in a game. As for Garrard’s aerial options, wideout Mike Sims-Walker had a career-best 869 receiving yards in 2009, best by a Jaguars receiver since 2005. He had six of a team-high seven receiving touchdowns at home. Lastly, tight end Marcedes Lewis had 518 receiving yards (career high) and caught two TD passes.
The loss of Dumervil and his pass rush is huge, especially considering the next-best returnee (linebacker D.J. Williams) had just 3.5 sacks. Still, Williams is an important overall member of the unit after recording a team-best 122 tackles in 2009. Up front, massive tackle Jamal Williams makes his Denver debut after 12 seasons elsewhere in the AFC West with the San Diego Chargers. In the backfield, two veterans, Brian Dawkins and Champ Bailey, return for another season. Dawkins, a hard-hitting safety, was selected to his seventh Pro Bowl last season. And since 1999, Bailey, long considered one of the league’s best cover cornerbacks, leads all corners with 46 interceptions. As a unit last season, the Broncos allowed 315 yards per game and had a plus-7 turnover margin that was third in the AFC.
A lot of familiar names, but not so many for fantasy owners to get excited about. Orton has a favorable matchup against a weak pass defense, but none of the receivers who’d be on “must-play” pedestals. And on the ground, Moreno’s legs may not be ready for a prime effort. For the Jaguars, Maurice Jones-Drew was a draft darling last year, but enters this year with similar questions about legs. If a defense must be picked, give the host Jacksonville unit a nod.
Going into last season, the Broncos with Dumervil and Marshall would have been a favorite in a Week 1 matchup. Without those two, however, and with Moreno anything less than 100 percent, the playing field is leveled. Expect a grinding game with the occasional big play and a raucous ovation from the locals if Tebow does see the field in any competitive capacity. As for results, the home- field advantage tips the scales.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Jaguars 17, Broncos 13