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Keeping Faith in Moore

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --If you're a Broncos fan age 30 or above, you surely remember "The Fumble" -- when Jeremiah Castille stripped Cleveland's Earnest Byner of the football in the dying moments of the 1987 AFC Championship Game at Mile High Stadium.

You recall it as a moment of glory; perhaps you even have a picture or a newspaper clipping of it somewhere in a dusty book or on the wall in your basement. Browns fans recall it as the opposite, and they've never gotten that close to a Super Bowl since.

Byner was one of the biggest reasons why they won three division titles from 1985-87 and made the AFC title game twice; in that span he'd scored 24 touchdowns, gained 3,061 yards from scrimmage and averaged 5.3 yards every time he touched the football. But the residue from the fumble was so harsh that the Browns ended up trading him to Washington a year later for the Mike Oliphant.

It was a short-sighted move that cost Cleveland. Byner went to Washington, broke 1,000 yards twice and helped lead his new team to a world championship in 1991. Meanwhile, Oliphant gained just 119 yards from scrimmage in three years with Cleveland, and the Browns didn't have another 1,000-yard rusher for 17 years and averaged fewer yards per carry than all but three teams in that span. Their running game struggled so much that after Byner's peak years had passed, the Browns still brought him back to resuscitate their ground game, which he did on a situational basis in the mid-1990s until retiring.

The lesson of the Browns and Byner? Don't let one play -- no matter how cataclysmic -- overshadow larger trends. Cleveland did, and it led to a lopsided trade that remains among the worst in their annals.

Which brings us to Rahim Moore, whose misplay on the 70-yard Joe Flacco-to-Jacoby Jones touchdown with 31 seconds left in regulation of the Divisional Round game on Jan. 12 has been hashed, rehashed and belabored. It has also given rise to the notion that the Broncos' safety corps needs an upgrade, preferably through free agency, the avenue that brought them fellow starter Mike Adams last year.

But two questions must be asked when considering that notion. First, who can you find that is better? Second, who can you find that will be better, knowing that Moore is likely to remain on an upward trajectory?

Moore improved in coverage, but most importantly, he cut his mental mistakes. He missed fewer tackles -- according to Pro Football Focus, just eight in 2012, after having 11 in 2011 in less than half as many tackling opportunities. And he wasn't called for a penalty after Week 2, a stark change from 2011, when a frustrating season was encapsulated by his final work: a pair of 15-yard penalties in limited action against Buffalo on Dec. 24, 2011 and in New England 21 days later.

Moore studied tape, mentally adjusted to the demands of the pro game and made the second-year leap that every personnel executive and coach hopes from their players.

"He made great progress from year one to year two. I mean, outstanding," Head Coach John Fox said at this week's league meetings. "Maybe one of the most improved players on our football team."

The other asset of Moore is his price: he's a third-year player who arrived after the new collective bargaining agreement was signed. If the Broncos are to push for a championship without mortgaging their long-term future, the products of recent drafts must produce, thus making big-ticket expenditures like Peyton Manning's affordable within their salary-cap constraints.

That requires patience -- more than was shown in the previous decade, when promising draft picks or undrafted signees like Brandon Browner, Domenik Hixon, Tyson Clabo, Chris Myers and Mat McBriar all slipped through the Broncos' fingers. None were future Hall of Famers, but all became above-average starters, combining for six Pro Bowl appearances.

Teams can't afford to jettison promising talent too quickly, even if the short-term temptation to do so arises. That requires having faith in your player-selection process.

Such faith helped Moore get a chance in his second year and kept linebacker Nate Irving around for an opportunity to ascend to the first team this year. It's also created a team in which 19 of the 62 players on the 53-man roster and injured reserve were draft picks and college free agents signed since 2011, several of whom will be asked to shoulder expanded roles this year.

For nearly 17 games last year, Moore rewarded the Broncos' patience and faith through a difficult rookie season. Having faith that he will bounce back from one bad play is easy; keeping it after the 2011 season was more difficult.

The primary question now about Moore is his mental recovery from the misplay. Fox, for one, believes he has, saying in February that Moore had "spit the taste out" from the bitter defeat.

Time will tell if that takes root. But Moore's play in 2012 earned him the right to have that time to prove that, and not have the larger body of work rendered null and void by one play. They don't believe Moore will be the player he was in 2012 -- they believe he'll be better.

"He strides he made from his rookie year to this year were tremendous," said Executive Vice President of Football Operations John Elway at the Combine. "We expect him to make those same strides (in 2013)."

And if he does, the Broncos' patience with Moore will be rewarded -- just like it was for almost all of the 2012 season.