ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Last year, for the first time in franchise history and just the 26th time in league annals, Broncos pass catchers hauled in more than 400 receptions -- 402, to be precise. And although it was a singular accomplishment for the club, it was not all that special viewed through the prism of recent league history; last year, six teams completed 400 or more passes, and 16 of the 26 teams all-time to break 400 have done so in the last six seasons.
That is the first, most important pre-requisite to having enough passes to keep plenty of targets involved in the offense. It's what the Broncos didn't have in the season before Peyton Manning's arrival; that's why Eric Decker's team-leading 44 catches in 2011 would have ranked fifth a year later.
But with Wes Welker now in a Broncos uniform, the dynamic is slightly different. Even if the Broncos' emphasis on increasing the tempo results in 100 more plays -- which, based on last year's run-pass ratio and completion percentage, would mean 37 more completions -- the chances of Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker matching their 94- and 85-reception tallies from 2012 and of Welker reaching his New England average of 112 catches is remote.
That's because even with such outside and slot firepower, tight ends and running backs will get passes thrown their way. Denver's tight ends combined for 98 receptions last year; its running backs grabbed 68 passes. Assuming the runners, tight ends and Decker and Thomas match their 2012 totals and that the Broncos run six more plays a game, that would leave 96 receptions for Welker -- impressive, but not up to his previous standard.
Spreading the wealth like that might disappoint fantasy players who held on to Welker, Thomas and Decker in their keeper leagues. They figured the tally of Welker would remain the same, and the totals for Decker and Thomas would increase with more experience. But in the real world, it could make the Broncos' offense nearly unstoppable, which could propel them to their first Super Bowl in 15 years.
They'll have to share, taking the lessons from nursery school and well-meaning Saturday morning cartoons and applying them to NFL game days two to three decades later. But this won't be a problem, Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase believes -- even though Thomas and Decker are just beginning their prime years.
Why does Gase believe this? The answer rests in the 2011 season, when a more traditional offense was discarded at midseason in favor of a ground-heavy attack that featured liberal doses of the zone-read option. The Broncos ran 319 times in the second half of the 2011 season -- more than any team has run in its final eight games since 1988 -- and their 176 passes were the second fewest attempted in the second half of a season since 1990.
It would have been easy for Decker and Thomas to pout. In Thomas' case, he was back in a similar offense to the one he had at Georgia Tech. But they kept their cool, and reaped the rewards later.
"I've never been around in my short career two guys that were so unselfish. Adding Wes to that group – it even amps up," Gase said. "Nobody talks about, 'How many balls am I going to get? How many touchdowns?' You don't have to worry about that. It's, 'OK, here's the best matchup for this game and that's what we're going to expose.'"
And sometimes that matchup -- and the game plan with it -- changes, which means that no receiver will know for certain at kickoff whether he's destined to become that day's dominant pass-catcher or just a decoy. It is therefore futile for any Broncos passing target to set weekly or season-long goals.
"t's tough. It's tough. Because as you know, just (Manning) coming from the Colts, he's spreading the ball around, because you never know who's going to be the guy," Thomas said. "So it's hard to set goals. You basically just go out, work hard every day and hopefully, whenever you get your chances, you make plays and it just works out."
Whether it "works out" isn't defined by catch totals.
"I like to win, and I want to be on a team that's winning," Thomas said. "So whatever it takes to win, I'm all down for it."
Added Gase: "These guys are all about winning. We keep talking about the same thing. Our goal is to get to the last game and win it. And that's what these guys are focused on. The amount of catches they get during a season? Those guys don't talk about stuff like that. They just want to win."
Individual accomplishments? More catches? Irrelevant. They want the ring.