ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- After a lengthy meal, the last taste is what lingers on the tongue. Last season, the final one from the Broncos' special teams was particularly bitter: Seattle's Percy Harvin fielding a short kickoff and dashing through the Broncos' kickoff coverage team for the 87-yard touchdown that deflated the team and effectively ended all hopes of a comeback.
But the play didn't happen in a vacuum. Almost every injury that beset the Broncos throughout the 2013 season helped set the table for Harvin's return.
There are excuses, which no one wants to hear. But there are also reasons, which are necessary for proper dissection and constructively improving for the future. And while the Broncos unearthed some quality special-reamers as a result of injuries and depth-chart movement -- a group led by tight end Jacob Tamme -- the unit's coordinator, Jeff Rodgers, was left shuffling "so many different guys with so many different roles," as he said during the week of Super Bowl XLVIII.
A mix of the good and bad encapsulated the entire 2013 season for the Broncos' special teams as a whole. They had two return touchdowns and should have probably had a third against the Chargers in the playoffs, if not for a penalty. But fumbles plagued the return game, and another potential touchdown was lost when Eric Decker tripped in the open field on a divisional-round punt return.
Kicker Matt Prater broke the hallowed, 43-year-old record for the longest field goal by slamming a frigid ball 64 yards through the north uprights at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Four days later, the special teams was responsible for one of the season's costliest penalties -- a 5-yard infraction that wiped away a three-and-out from a defense that desperately needed it, allowing the Chargers to chew up more clock as they held off a Denver comeback. And so it went.
For every moment of brilliance, there was a bouncing football that glanced off Tony Carter's leg in overtime. Some of it was within the Broncos' control; some of it was luck that results from playing a game with an oblate spheroid.
What is clear today is this: fewer injuries and a bit more consistency in the lineup will do more than anything else to get the special teams back to the level to which it aspires. It's a realistic goal; that's the level it reached in 2012.
But getting there will require some different faces -- none more prominent than whoever ends up handling kickoff and punt returns. Rookie Isaiah Burse appears to have the inside track on both duties, but is by no means a lock for the role; competition for him will be extensive. But Burse's experience on both kickoffs and punts mimics the dual-threat role that Trindon Holliday had for most of the last two seasons; if Burse can protect the football better than Holliday, he could be a long-term answer.
SPECIAL TEAMERS: THE BASICS
Matt Prater:** He returns after his best season -- one didn't require the dramatic last-minute and walk-off kicks that helped keep the Broncos afloat during some of his previous years. Prater's only missed field-goal attempt in the regular season was from 52 yards; his 25-of-26 season sent him to the Pro Bowl.
Britton Colquitt: The extent of his job has changed in recent years; he punted just 65 times in 2013 and 67 in 2012, after firing 101 punts during the 2011 season. His gross punting average declined by 1.8 yards from 2012, but his net average dropped by 3.3 yards, in large part because opponents averaged 3.6 more yards per punt return in 2013 than 2012.
Aaron Brewer: He has been perfect as a long snapper in the two years since earning the job as an undrafted rookie in 2012. Given the typical career length of proficient long snappers, he could be on his way to a long and successful NFL career, if he remains healthy.
Isaiah Burse: The undrafted rookie has the first, best shot at handling return duties, because of his experience at both kickoffs and punts at Fresno State. "Obviously other teams were calling me and making offers, but every offer they made, Denver was one-upping them every time," Burse said in May. "That, right there just sold me, like, I really want to be a part of the Denver organization, and then the fact that they really liked my return ability, I feel like I can come in and compete right away."
Emmanuel Sanders: The free-agent pickup's speed and quickness came in handy on returns in his four seasons with Pittsburgh; he has career averages of 10.9 yards on 16 punt returns and 24.8 yards on 41 kickoff returns. He has three fumbles on 57 career kickoff and punt returns -- but just one on 28 combined returns the last three seasons.
Wes Welker: The 11-year veteran was more of a "punt catcher" than a "punt returner" when he was used in crucial situations and punts expected to be fielded inside the 10-yard-line. He could man that role again in a pinch, but could be behind Sanders in line for pinch return duty.
Andre Caldwell: An option on kickoff returns, Caldwell was the only Bronco other than Holliday to return more than two kickoffs last year, averaging 23.5 yards on six returns.
Omar Bolden: The defensive back's primary role on special teams is as a gunner, but he has some pro experience on kickoff returns -- 16 over the last two years for a career 19.6-yard average.
Jordan Norwood: The veteran has limited return experience; he has four career punt returns in the regular season, all with Cleveland in 2012.
Ronnie Hillman: His straight-line speed and explosion could make him an option on kickoff returns, but he doesn't have any NFL regular-season experience in this line of work.