ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- If Ronnie Hillman had rushed for one more first down, if Rahim Moore had played three yards deeper, if Matt Prater had not caught dirt on a 52-yard field-goal attempt, if several other what-ifs had gone in the Broncos' favor, then kickoff and punt returner Trindon Holliday would have become a nationwide folk hero on Jan. 12.
Instead, a performance unlike any other in NFL history, one in which Holliday became the first player to return a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown in the same playoff game -- and the first in at least 62 years to score on punt and kickoff returns of at least 90 yards in any game, period -- was in vain.
Holliday's game belongs to the ages, but will forever be tinged with heartbreak. He is the Broncos' version of Harvey Haddix, who threw 12 perfect innings for the Pittsburgh Pirates in a 1959 game against the Milwaukee Braves, but got no run support and was felled by an error and a double in the 13th inning for a 1-0 loss. Like Holliday, Haddix treaded into territory no one had ever before reached -- against a lineup featuring Hall of Fame sluggers Henry Aaron and Eddie Mathews, no less -- and it still wasn't enough to win.
But here's the footnote to the pitcher who quickly became known as "Hard Luck Harvey" in the wake of his epic night at Milwaukee County Stadium: one year later, he was credited with two wins in the 1960 World Series after scattering six hits and two walks over 7 2/3 innings in two appearances; his work helped Pittsburgh eke past the New York Yankees in seven games.
If Holliday's year after history ends the same way as Haddix's, Broncos fans will be giddy -- and odds are, that kind of success in the next act will require Holliday and the specialists being more than just bit players.
While the Broncos' special teams was fairly effective, there are improvements needed. Holliday needs to cut his fumble frequency; after joining the Broncos, he fumbled once every 9.6 times he returned a punt or kickoff (including the postseason). Much of Holliday's work in the offseason focused on that.
"It's the main priority. You can't go anywhere without the ball," he said.
Another specialist who wants a better 2013 is Prater, whose missed attempt against Baltimore was the final blow in a season that saw him start 11-for-11 on field-goal tries before missing seven of his last 22. At one point, he missed five of 11 attempts before finding his form in the final four games of the regular season.
"It's tough," Prater said. "I think there are a lot of things that go into a little slump but it's just like any sport. You have your ups and downs and you just have to bounce back and worry about the next kick -- that's always the most important one."
Prater's last two seasons haven't matched his previous two, when he drilled 85.7 percent and 88.9 percent of his field-goal attempts. He believes a full offseason -- which he hasn't had since 2010, his most accurate year -- will help, along with a tweak to his form.
"This year I think I'm going to change just a little bit on field goals, shortening up my steps a little and try to be a little more consistent with that so I'm a little more in control on the approach," he said.
Unlike Prater, Colquitt's statistics have been on a steady ascendancy the last three years. This summer, he has a bit of competition this training camp in the form of undrafted rookie Ryan Doerr.
Doerr's chances of unseating a punter with the AFC's best net average in 2012 are slim. But Colquitt knows how Doerr feels; in 2009, he was the young punter brought in to push Brett Kern, who won the job but was cut at midseason in favor of Mitch Berger.
Kern helped Colquitt, and now it's Colquitt's turn to pay it forward.
"I want to help him out because I was there at one point. That's just kind of the way the league is," Colquitt said.
"I feel like even when I came in competing with (Brett) Kern, he was good to me. He showed me things that I didn't know. I feel like that's kind of my job as a veteran in that position. Also when teaching, if you've taught somebody younger than you or showed them things, it actually helps you, too, because it helps you to focus on those things as well.
"It's kind of practice for yourself, too. So, in a way, I'm selfishly teaching this kid. I'll help him out all I can, and I think it will help me out."
THE SPECIALISTS: THE BASICS
Aaron Brewer: The Broncos wanted to find a long snapper who could make more plays in coverage while maintaining quality snaps, and they found it in Brewer, who was perfect on his snaps as a rookie and had three special-teams tackles -- three times as many as his predecessor, Lonie Paxton, amassed the previous season.
Britton Colquitt: One has to always note the home/road splits with a Broncos punter; as Colquitt admitted in May, "My buddy from another team said that a friend on his team said, 'Just on principle, I can't vote for a punter from Denver for the Pro Bowl.'" That's well and good, but last year, Colquitt's net average in road games was 42.0 -- which would have tied him with Cincinnati's Kevin Huber for the AFC lead. (Colquitt's net average at home was 42.3 yards.)
Trindon Holliday: From 2002-08 -- and earlier, from 1984-96 -- the Broncos had just three touchdowns on kickoff and punt returns. Holliday surpassed both of those totals in just 12 games. Holliday's two scores on kickoff returns also matched the Broncos' total from 1967-99. And the Broncos didn't have a touchdown on either a kickoff or punt return for nine entire seasons, from 1988-96. The point of those stats? To remind you to savor what you're watching when the 5-foot-5 Holliday plays larger than life.
Matt Prater: Although his field-goal percentage was 25th last year, he ranked second in the league in lowest percentage of kickoffs returned -- 33.7 percent, only trailing Tampa Bay's Michael Koenen (31.0). Altitude certainly helps; Prater's home percentage was 15.1 percent; on the road, 57.8 percent were returned. The league average was 53.2 percent.
Ryan Doerr: The former Kansas State product is likely auditioning for the entire league, not just the Broncos. His gross punting averages hovered between 40.8 and 41.3 yards in college; that won't be good enough in the NFL, so absorbing the coaching and guidance he receives will be crucial to his long-term chances.
Quincy McDuffie: He led Division I last year with a 34.2-yard average on kickoff returns and was recommended to Fox by UCF coach George O'Leary, whom Fox described as a "good buddy" with whom he coached in San Diego two decades ago. "He's got kind of Trindon Holliday type of speed and quickness," Fox said. "We'll see where that takes him."