ENGLEWOOD, Colo. The last time the Denver Broncos finished below .500 was 1999, when John Elway was learning what it was like to sleep late on Sundays and Terrell Davis blew out a knee.
This year, the Broncos (6-9) will post a losing record for just the second time in the 13-year Mike Shanahan era, injuries and key departures again playing a part.
But while a letdown was expected eight years ago following back-to-back Super Bowl wins, the Broncos began this season with high hopes after an offseason spending spree and roster shuffle brought in Dre' Bly, Daniel Graham, Travis Henry, Simeon Rice, Sam Adams and Brandon Stokley.
The Broncos (6-9) were assured of a losing season with a 23-3 loss at San Diego on Christmas Eve.
The festering frustration finally broke free when safety John Lynch ripped off LaDainian Tomlinson's helmet early in the game and flung it 10 yards, drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
"Obviously, frustration figures in," an embarrassed Lynch said after the Chargers completed their season sweep by a combined 64-6 score. "I think you're trying to put some juice in your team and just playing intense. It is something I've never done in my career. I am embarrassed by it."
Lynch thought coming back for a 15th NFL season was going to give him a shot at a second ring. Instead, it's been one of his most disappointing campaigns and has him wondering if it's worth returning in 2008.
"We had very high hopes coming into this year. It's been an extremely frustrating year. And to get whupped a couple of times by a division opponent is no fun, and you're out there trying to do everything you can to win," he said.
The Broncos finish up against Minnesota (8-7), which can still sneak into the NFC playoffs with a win and some help from Dallas. So the Vikings are going to be fired up to send Denver to its second 6-10 mark under Shanahan, who also had that record in 1999 following consecutive championships.
The Broncos, who have allowed 30 or more points six times this season, haven't been able to recapture the emotional leadership of two spark plugs who left Denver after last season.
Leading tackler, team captain and emotional locker room leader Al Wilson was sent packing because of concerns about his injured neck and high salary. D.J. Williams was moved from outside linebacker to the middle to replace him, and although he has a ton of tackles, he's not the heart and soul of the unit the way Wilson was.
Jake Plummer, who lost his starting quarterback job to rookie Jay Cutler with five games to go last season, retired in the spring, refusing to report to Tampa Bay, who traded with Denver for his rights. Although Cutler shows promise, the offense hasn't really rallied around him they way it did Plummer.
The offense lost Rod Smith to hip surgery in the offseason and Ben Hamilton to a concussion in training camp. Tom Nalen went down early in the season and was followed by Stephen Alexander and Nate Jackson. Javon Walker and Travis Henry have been hurt most of the year, too.
The defense lost Ebenezer Ekuban to injury and Gerard Warren to a trade in the preseason and, when the players proved unable to adapt to new defensive boss Jim Bates' system, Amon Gordon, Adams, Rice, Curome Cox and Sam Brandon, among others, were jettisoned, as well.
And poor drafts have come back to haunt the Broncos this year.
Instead of producing plenty of players in their primes, the drafts of 2002-04 are amazingly forgettable. Williams is the only one of the 28 players selected in those years still on the team.
This year's draft class consisted of four defensive linemen, including top pick Jarvis Moss, who is on injured reserve. The team's top rookie is undrafted running back Selvin Young.
The Broncos are pinning their turnaround hopes on a strong 2006 draft class that features Cutler; wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who could finish with 100 catches; pass rusher Elvis Dumervil; athletic tight end Tony Scheffler; and promising offensive lineman Chris Kuper.
They'll also have to hope to hit the jackpot again in this year's draft, and they'll start with a high pick thanks to their first losing season this century.