An MHR University Emergency Edition
If you came into this season with great expectations (13-3), you've been brought back to Earth. It's time for an assesment of the team that doesn't swing too far towards fantasy ("But we really can go deep this year") and doesn't fall to the other extreme ("We suck!"). The truth is that what many of us have been saying has been proven, and it isn't such a bad thing. To wit: This is a team that is in full rebuilding mode, and we are right on schedule. If you want a championship this year (or expected it), I'm terribly sorry. If you got overly excited by the first few games (or depressed by the recent losses), I'm also sorry. But the pronouncements of several Broncos writers (Guru chief amongst them) that Denver is building a team for next year or the year after is dead on accurate. Those fans with patience will be rewarded.
It's time to set aside emotion and to hit the books and the chalk board. This is a team that is stocked with massive potential, but still has a lot of house cleaning to do. We are perfectly positioned for a deep run in '09 or '10. The offense is young and dynamic, but still young. The defense took a backseat to repair work in the reloading season to ensure a future dynasty for the offense. Over the next two years, the defense will benefit from a focus that will bring the team into balance soon, but not this year. And that's ok. There is a lot of bad news for Broncos fans, but only fans who live in the present and want it all right now. For those of you who are ok with a 10-6 season, some respectability, and a very, very bright future, you've come to the right place.
First though, I want to start with a little story...
Once there was a small restaurant owner who loved his little business and slaved over every minor detail. He barely slept, instead focusing on the love of his life, his precious restaurant.
He hired the best chefs and staff that money could buy. He paid them top dollar, and treated them like family. He bought only the best ingrediants. He personaly stopped by each table to ensure that customers were happy. His business soared, and became wildly successful.
One day, word got out that a food critic was coming to dine. The food critic had a reputation for making or breaking a restaurant. People knew and trusted his work, and the owner knew that no matter how good his business was, the critic's articles were going to determine his future.
One night, the critic came to dine. The owner did a smart thing. Instead of catering to the critic, he went about business the way he always did, providing wonderful food and service to each and every customer. He neither ignored nor smothered the critic. But then something happened. Something seemed to go terribly wrong.
The critic, upon receivng he meal, took one quick bite, got up and left. Oh, the horror! The owner and his staff were terrified! After the customers left for the night, the staff sat around and worried. "What did we do wrong?", they asked themselves.
I'll continue the story later. Suffice it to say that I watched the first half of the Monday Night Football game against NE, and saw what I needed to see. Much like the critic that took only one bite to know what he needed to know, I drove home from my father-in-laws house, and went to bed. Was I disgusted by what I saw? You betcha. But I saw enough in that first half to realize that we are right were the Broncos want to be, even if it isn't where the fans want to be. Allow me to explain.
...the bad and the ugly.
First, my disgust. In "MHR Chalk Talk" I wrote the keys for the week. The most prominant key was the first key for Denver (which was so critical I even put it in bold print). It said, "Limit turnovers". Denver allowed two turnovers almost right away (Andre Hall), and lost the turnover battle 5 to 0. This cost us the game more than anything. And what was my first and most important key for NE? "Gain at least 100 yards on the ground (starting RB Maroney may be out this game). NE hasn't had a 100 yard rusher yet this year." So what did we allow the Patriots to do? According to NFL.Com, "New England ran for 257 yards, its highest total since Dec. 22, 1985."
I'm glad that folks read MHR. I just wish that the NE Patriots wouldn't follow my advice.
First, let's agree on a few issues. As a team, Denver has some good points and some terrible points. Most teams do. For example, Denver cannot stop the run to save their lives. We can argue over whether the fault lies with the defensive line, the linebackers, or scheming. But for our discussion right now, that's not important. Let's just admit the obvious. Denver will not be a run stopping team this year, just like last year. In fact, let's just make a list of each premise that I have right now for the team. Some are good, some are bad, and some are just plain ugly.
- This defense cannot stop the run.
- This defense cannot stop the pass.
- Jay Cutler is the second coming. But he isn't old enough or wise enough yet to put it all together for a full season.
- We also have some terrific receivers, but they too are young and will improve with age.
- Despite the 3 sacks given in the MNF game, the OL remains one of the best pass blocking OLs in the League. Like 3 and 4 above, youth is an issue.
- Young and Hall have potential for great break away runs, and are thus fan favorites. But as discussed last year, both are injury prone, and neither is consistent.
- Scheffler is one of the best receiving TEs in the League, but is unable to stay on the field.
The underlining theme is our youth. They demonstrate great ability, but are also prone to gaffes. Jay has a rocket arm, and is great whether in or out of the pocket. He still makes "youth" mistakes, but is heading in the right direction, and doing so faster than can be fairly expected. By next year, Cutler will be leading this team to better pastures.
As good as the OL is, they are very young. Wiegmann is not going to be at center much longer, and his replacement (Lichtensteiger?) will be a key. But the tackle positions are set for at least the next 12 years. We are already good, and only going to get better.
But let's face some facts that many of us will have a hard time with. Selvin Young has quite a following. He bulked up in the reloading season because of accusations that he was too light to absorb much punishment. I won't get into the debate in detail here. What I will point out is that he wasn't in this game. A player, no matter how good, is useless if he can't stay healthy enough to play on the field. Selvin's back-up is Andre Hall. In my book, Hall has the speed to be a great change-up. He is not the kind of back I want to run often. Two fumbles cannot be excused. The bare minimum requirement for any running back is that you don't drop the ball.
I like what I saw from Pittman. Against a NE front seven that finally played up to it's star name potential, Pittman was able to gain respectable yards per carry. Again, it may not be the flashy "big play" look that fans want, but a bruising, power, one cut runner is what Denver needs to gain yards, keep the defense off the field, and wear down opposing defenses. Denver's pass game will be even harder to stop if opposing team's respect the run. I don't think that Hall and Young are either healthy enough or consistent enough to run the ball over the course of the game. This team needs Torain to come in healthy and able. Let us hope that he and Pittman can intimidate opposing defenses with a one-two power punch, allowing a Young or Hall to come in late in games for a few designed long yardage plays.
Outside of Marshall, Cutler loves to get the ball to Scheffler. For this reason, a lot of fans love Scheffler as the premier TE on the team. Except that he isn't. Graham is the number one TE on the team. Unlike Scheffler (who suffers from chonic foot problems and was out for this game), Graham is an everydown TE. He blocks better than any other TE in the League (something that most fans file under "who cares" when it comes to comparing a TE to a "receiving" TE). While he doesn't have the flashy catches that many receiving TEs do, he was the lone catch for a TD last night, had the second longest catch for Denver.
The real elephant in the room is the defense. Let's just admit the obvious. We can make all of the analysis that we want. We can see progress here and there (and I have), we can blame play calling or individuals. The bottom line is that this team has very few star talents on defense (DJ Williams and Bailey are solid, while Doom and Thomas continue to improve).
This team does not have a good pass rush. Even in last night's game (which saw 5 sacks for Denver), the sacks did not occur as a result of simple pass rushing. Denver loaded up the line of scrimmage, and brought massive blitzes. Without the blitzing, Denver does not always get effective pressure. Also, Denver continue to toy around with only rushing 3 linemen.
NE (on the other hand) showed a lot of four man fronts (something that NE likes to do against Denver). They got effective pressure against Denver's Secret Service offensive line, even without massive blitzes. Denver needs to have a capable front four, and they just don't.
Denver's DL was pushed out of the way for running plays, and only got pressure on passes when the rest of the team came forward to blitz. This was despite the injured status of a Patriots starting lineman and a starting RB. In a simple power scheme, NE RBs Morris, Green-Ellis, and Faulk each powered through lanes opened up against the defense, and each (often) required multiple tacklers to bring down.
The LBs were also a disapointment. Boss Bailey? Injured (again). Webster? A sack (on a play he wasn't even blocked), but only 3 tackles.
And scheming also seems to haunt this team. NE kept Denver out of the endzone, and helped their DBs get interceptions by doing something that Denver doesn't do consistently. NE puts both safeties deep and they keep the play in front of them (this is not a cover two system; it is the common usage for safeties on any team). This stopped big plays by Denver, and it allowed the CBs to take chances for turnovers.
The fearless leader of MHR, Guru, has written that Denver is in the third year of a five year rebuilding plan. One could quibble over particulars, but I won't. The fact is that his premise is correct. Denver is building a powerhouse team, and this year's team is not the end goal. As I wrote earlier, Denver has to be pleased with the plan, even if fans are disgusted with the present.
Some folks may be eager to defend the paradigm that Denver is bound for glory this year. They will correctly point out that Denver is leading the AFC West, and has already beaten the main AFC West Rival that can challenge for a playoff spot. But I think this misses the point. I have mantained from before the season that Denver may have a record close to 10-6, with a reasonable (50/50) shot at the playoffs. A playoff appearence should be a minimal goal for any team in the NFL with a good program, but it is also not "glory". I expect Denver to make the playoffs, and to play in the bye round. I give Denver a very small chance of advancing, with little to no chance of getting to the SB. Some may think this is terrible! But I think that would be very short sighted. While Denver will try to advance as far as possible, the rel goal is '09 or '10. And I think that future is more beautiful than a short term desire for glory this year.
We've looked at the bad and the ugly. Let's examine the good.
The offense is pretty much completed. We have youth in just about every key position. The penalties and turnovers were horrible last night, if you were looking at a veteran team. Denver is still a youth movement, and they look pretty decent even though they haven't hit full stride yet.
Cutler is the franchise QB. Marshall is the franchise WR. Royal is the franchise number two WR. Stokley won't be the slot receiver forever (age and concussions), but he will hold the position until the team decides whether to get a "thrid amigo" or to put more emphasis on depth at TE.
At TE, Graham won't be around forever. Whether or not Scheffler's foot improves, I believe that the TE position will get Denver's attention in the next two or three years, and Denver will ensure the pick is one that Denver fans will fall in love with.
Tho offensive line has the youth and talent to play well now, and yet improve for years to come. Losing Nalen (and soon thereafter Wiegmann) will set the stage for a battle at center, but the guard and center positions will do just fine.
I continue to believe that Denver knows how to scout and use RBs. Torain will be a hero or he won't be. I believe that Young is on the bubble right now and needs to stay healthy. I think Hall may be in the doghouse. Pittmann is not going to be the face of our RB corps, but he will be a solid and neccessary part of the team.
No, the real work for this team is the defense. And the good news (as much as it sounds like spin) is that the team can focus much attention on the defense, perhaps for two or three years (given the youth and talent on theoffensive side of the ball).
Marcus Thomas seems to improve each game. I liked what I saw from Thomas last night (four tackles and two assists), though he still has a long ways to go. DRob is not the answer to this team's woes. He plays well enough, but is far from dominating.
Ekuban plays well, but is getting older. Doom has a future if the rest of the line can be improved.
At LB, the only solid play has come DJ. Bailey has turned out to be a continuing injury risk, and both Webster and K2 have proven themselves enough of a non-factor that several other LBs are being tried out in games.
Champ Bailey is highly paid, and coming up on the end of his contract. He presents an intersting dilemna. Do you pay out the nose, and shut down his side of the field? Do you trade him for some picks or players (or both), and improve several positions at the expense of one? Do you let him go, and pocket the cap room to build up the defense that way? Bly (whether because of being overated or not having any support in the pass rush or from two safeties) is also coming up soon for contract considerations.
Lowry and Manual were the stars for Denver last night (though they could have been easily overlooked). Lowry was second only to DJ in tackles (Lowry with 7 tacks, 5 assists) while Manual was third (5 tacks). Still, something is badly wrong when the safeties are getting the tackles.
Denver can devote the draft, free agency, and any potential trades to the defense. I expect to see a major overhaul of the defense in the next two years. Will we lose consistency? Yes. But I expect the decisions will result in Denver gaining several playmakers (whether by intent or accident). If Denver stumbles onto one good DT, the entire defense will improve somewhat. If Denver stumbles onto just one good LB, the LB corps goes from 1/3 talented to 2/3 talented (and can focus attention on just fixing the last position). One good CB can either mitigate the loss of Bailey some day, or complement him better than Bly. If any of the front seven positions are fixed, the safeties may be allowed to play the natural "goalie" position they are supposed to play, negating the need for a great safety. But even so, a good safety pick-up in such a scenario would serve to prevent big plays like we saw in each of our losses.
The offense is already very good, but young enough to make some bone headed errors. By next year, this will be a "NE Brady led" or "INDY Manning led" level talented offense. What reamins to building a SB team is putting a defense with that offense. Give the team one or two years. The offense will still be around, playing very well and with many years left.
Shanahan has bought himself time to fix the defense, while growing the offense. If your goal is a SB appearance in the next few years, than this year is a bright moment because it is part of the path that Mike has built. If this year is your goal, you might not enjoy the season. But if you can look at the big picture, and see that this year is the journey and not the destination, you can smile. Yes, even after last night's game.
The owner called the newspaper and aked to speak with the critic. When the critic answered, the owner apologized for anything that might have been wrong. He told the critic about the hard work, the love, the effort, the time, and the money he had invested.
The critic just laughed. "You must think I had a bad experience! Not at all! The food was great, the atmosphere was great, the service was great, and I loved it all. Your restaurant is in first place in my book, and my article will reflect that. Your phone call tells me that you interested in continuing improvement. Someday, I think your restaurant will be known far and wide. Just keep doing what you are doing".
"But you only had one bite", said the owner.
"That's true. But this isn't my first restaurant I've looked at either. I've been around the block a few times. I know what a good place looks like, and what doesn't work. There are always things that need work, and there are always positives and negatives. I tried the food and it was great. But I also looked ahead. Your business is expanding, and you are making the right moves to put together a chain of restaurants some day. The food is just a part of the equation. I know what it takes to have a successful restaurant. You are a winning owner, and you are willing to do what it takes to always expand and grow."
I've been watching football for a few years. I've been around the block. I've endured losses, both for the Broncos (whom I love) and teams that I have coached at the academic levels (and it is very personal to have a team win and lose when you are one of the coaches). I've learned a few things during that time.
- Don't let the wins get you too high. Use your head, not your heart.
- Don't let the losses get you down. Use your head, not your heart.
- Shoot for the moon, but keep your expectations realistic.
- Recognize that there is a trend within a season, but also from season to season. Know the difference.
- Sustained improvement from season to season is more valuable than within a season.
Given that., now consider this...
- We are a better team than last year.
- We can expect to be even better next year.
- Who came into this season expecting us to beat NE? (We didn't)
- Who came into this season expecting us to beat SD? (We did)
- Who came into this season expecting the NFC South to be so good? (Note that we have beaten both NFC South teams we have played).
And now, I want to use our own words from an old article I wrote, called The '08 Schedule Overview (Pt. 1).
First, a poll (that covers our first 8 games, including the upcoming MIA game after the bye):
Denver wins how many games in the first half of the season?2%
7 or 82 votes32%
4 or less12 votes
67 votes | Poll has closed
If we beat MIA, Denver is meeting or exceeding the expectations of 64% of MHR members who voted.
Here are some other worthwhile quotes from the article. Keep in mind how optimistic people are, even assuming losses to JAX, SD, and NE. (In fact, we beat SD, and lost to JAX and NE as expected. KC is the only real bump in the road here)...
My bottom line? We are right were we expected us to be, and we felt good about being here when we predicted it. Now is not the time to be upset! We are in a good position based on our pre-season hopes. Many of us would be happy with 4-4 or 5-3 after the MIA game, according to our pre-season hopes, but when it happens, we express sorrow?
Shake it off Denver fans!
We are right where I thought we would be, and it's a good place.
We lead the division. We are better than last year. We have a shot at a playoff spot to prepare our youngsters for next year. We can reasonably expect to improve next year.
Now get out there and cheer your team on!