MHR University - System Issues and the 2008 Broncos

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MHR University is a labor of love for me.  I try to give the members of MileHighReport.com and those who link us from other sources (like Sports Illustrated) the very best in lessons about football theory and applied practice that I can.  I have to admit when I have a bias though, and my biggest bias (other than being a fan of the Broncos) is that I am very geared towards strategy over tactics.  In short, this means that I am not so much of a down in the trenches thinker, as much as an overall gameplan thinker.

As such, when I was a defensive coordinator at the scholastic level, I trusted my assistants to coach the important basics (tackling, stance, etc) and left them alone to do their jobs.  I was rewarded by a head coach who trusted me to to run the defense without interference.  I developed a fascination with systems run on both sides of the ball and how they matched up, and devoted much of my learning to that portion of football theory.

This was a fortunate development on my part.  As we approach the halfway mark of the 2008 season, it is identity as a defense and identity on offense that seems to haunt the Broncos.  I take a lot of pride in the fact that the wise and informed members of MHR were discussing defensive identity even before the season began.  Stories, FanPosts, and Comments came out about what our defense would do.  Show Blitz?  Zone Blitz? 4-3?  3-4?  We watched together as the season progressed, and scratched our collective heads trying to figure out what the system was.  I admit feeling ignorant, trying to give answers where I had none.  And then it happened.  "There is no system!"

After an embarrasing loss in NE the obvious became apparent.  Players said it, sportswriters said it, the MHR faithful said it.  Let's take a closer look at what this means, and what can be done.

Styles

Here is the quote that tells it all:

"What type of defense are we?" Williams asked as the Broncos, despite the recent travails, hit the bye week with a 4-3 record and a one-game lead in the AFC West. "Are we a 3-4? A 4-3? Are we a finesse defense? Are we smash-mouth? Do we blitz a lot? Play zone? We've got to pick something and just run it and do it."  D.J. Williams - Weakside Linebacker

Identity is an issue that goes to the heart of any endeavor involving teams or individuals with goals.  The German army in World War 2 was a blitzkrieg offense.  NATO during the Cold War held to a defense by attrition identity.  Aerosmith is defined by the distinctive vocal sounds of their lead singer, harmonizations, and a stage prescence marked by entertainment.  Pink Floyd is marked by the low tones of the lead singer and haunting, surreal lyrics.  Garry Kasparov was marked by adventerous, romanticist attacks in chess, and a bias for the Carro-Kann defense as black.  Batman is a detective with gadgets who can kick some butt and uses pyschological warfare.

In football, teams have core philosophies that players and coaches rally around.  The Raiders defined rough play on the edges of the rules.  The Steelers - smash mouth football.  The Colts - Tampa 2 defense and a timed offensive spread machine.  The 49ers and the West Coast.  Denver and the Zone Block.  The Pats - extreme defensive adjustments from game to game within the framework of their Fairbanks-Bullough defense.

In this light, the statements of D.J. Williams are very disturbing.  "Who am I?  Where am I?  Why am I here?" are questions for philosophers, not football players in the heat of battle.

Blame

It is easy to overreact to a loss.  As I wrote a couple of days ago, members of MHR overwhelmingly considered a 4-4 or 5-3 record after week 8 to be a good thing when asked in the pre-season.  It was not only an expectation at the time, but a hope as well.  Few people expected a win in NE.  I also wrote that we might be a better team than JAX, but in terms of systems they negate a lot of what we do.  While the loss to KC was tough, it was made up for in spades by beating SD (who is the only real contender for the AFC West with Denver).  Our two big wins came against NO and TB, two worthy adversaries.

But MHR staff member Zappa noticed problems early on.  He pointed out that our points on offense were decreasing.  He said this early on, and his analysis was proven true.  MHR leader Guru was quick to point out that turnovers on offense were killing us, and spilling over to the defense in terms of reduced production.  He was right.  Styg and I openly discussed our confusion about what kind of defense Slowik was building.  All of a sudden, after week seven, Lee Rasizer, Michael Lombardi, and others are saying the same thing.  Who are the Broncos?

Problems like this can be blamed on everyone.  Some will point out poor calls by the officials (MHR University rejects such thinking.  We get good calls and bad calls).  Some will blame players (with some fans believing that the elevation of second and third stringers who couldn't win starts in the preseason may be the answer).  Some will blame the coaches (a very few fans were calling for Shanahan's head after the first loss of the season!).  Some will blame the front office (after praising them after the draft).

The truth is (except for the officials being blamed), there is enough blame to go around.

A Trip Down Memory Lane

Remember the draft?  Moments before the draft, many fans of the Broncos had lists of players they wanted, and positions they wanted addressed.

First off the board was Ryan Clady.  He was a great pick.  He hasn't allowed a sack through 7 games, and his run blocking is better than average already in his rookie season (and improving).

After that, fans went crazy (at least at MHR).  "Who in the heck is this guy?" and "Where is our DT pick?" where the mantras of the day.  And then, something funny happened.  Within 24 hours, all was forgiven.  Members jumped over each other to praise the choices.  "Hey, I took a second look at this guy, and he's a real steal!"  Every player got this treatment.  A wave of euphoria swept the Bronco faithful.

Clady, as mentioned a moment ago, was a terrific pick.  Eddie Royal in the second round was a terrific pick too.  Beyond that, the jury is out.

People know that Torain is coming, and expectations are high.  Carlton Powell is IR for the season before even getting started, but folks have written that they are excited to see what he can do when he returns.  Jack Williams has the unfortunate nom de guerre "JMFW", even though he hasn't yet done a "mf" thing yet.

My point is that we as fans can be very fickle.  We criticize officials, but wouldn't dare try their job even at the Pop Warner level.  We blame the players, though most of us would be carted off the field after one play.  We blame the coaches, though none of us have any inkling of what it takes to be pro level coach.  Never the less, we are fans and we have the obligation to speak out.  The team is playing for our dollars and our approval, and so we do our best to observe and comment on the team as best we can, mood swings and all.

Let's set aside our fandom for a minute.  Let's set aside our anger at the loss.  Let's also set aside our division leading record.  Let's instead focus on who and what we are as a team.

Identity

The offense during the Shanahan era has been succesful regardless of whether we've had Elway or Plummer.  Why?  Teams know that they will get a heavy dose of several things.

  1. First and foremost, Denver's strong reputation for 1000 yard+ rushers behind the most innovative OL blocking scheme in football.
  2. QBs who can throw on the run, and often use misdirection plays like the bootleg to humble a defense.

On a much more detailed level, Denver has used the zone block (one cut variation) as the primary system, and a west coast offense to help set up the run.  High percentage completions to the outside edges of the field set up the runs up the gut, several of which break big.

Not this year.  While Denver still zone blocks, they run much less.  Everything now seems geared towards Cutler's arm, and the playcalling and play diagrams indicate more of a spread offense than the west coast.  This places Cutler in the Marino mode of football - The QB will carry the team to the exclusion of all else.  Cutler may be the second coming of Elway in Denver, but is this really the best identity for the team?  It was the addition of Shanahan and T. Davis that allowed Elway to use his talents to the upmost.

This spread offense shocked the first two teams we played.  But TB and KC played the correct counter (zone out the big plays), as did JAX (pressure and attrition, even without sacks).  TB lost, but played a great game.  NE did everything that JAX and TB did.

The lesson?  Teams adjusted to our new identity quickly, and it no longer worked.  The spread offense had a shock value, but isn't a quality pro level system as used by Denver.  Denver tried to regain the identity against NE (sly move by Shanahan), but was killed when A. Hall fumbled twice.  Denver was behind in points, and now had to abandon the run game and threw the ball up all night long, exactly what we knew would happen if Denver turned over the ball and got behind early.

There are two goals for a system to be effective.  First, it must be executed better than the opposition runs their system.  Second, it must not fall into a predictable pattern (even while staying in the bounds of a set system).  Denver has gotten away from what it does best (violating rule one), and is predictable.

The defense is much more problematic.  So absent is any indication of a set system, that even the smarter than average fans, writers, even players themselves do not know who to blame.  Is it individual effort (failure to tackle, overpursuit, constantly missing simple one gap assignments), or is it coaching (players are confused because they don't know what to do from week to week)?

The absence of a system is a terrible thing for a young team.  Many of the young players that have come to Denver this year have gotten an awful lesson.  They haven't been taught a unifying theory of football.  They are learning that everything changes from week to week, and the only constant is the individual player.  What this leads to is a lack of "knowing one's role" on a team and within a system.  It leads to poor technique.  It also leads to self doubt.

A vet like Champ Bailey may not get this.  In the Rasizer article Bailey blames team mates for atttitude.  While attitude may be a correct evaluation, it may miss the underlining diagnosis.  Why is there a bad attitude?  Bailey's position as a CB will show next to no variation from system to system.  But the front seven have nothing to go on.  Take D.J. and his comments.  D.J. has been moved to every position on the LB corps.  Two years ago he played in a man based system.  Last year he made the radical move to "contain", which is as different from classical "man and zone" programs as anything imaginable in football.  This year we switched to, wait for, the absence of any definable system at all!  If D.J. is confused, what do we expect from our rookies and guys new to the team?

Causes / My Experiences 

BroncoMan (MHR member) makes a solid point:

Granted there are some very good ex-players who are coaches, but let’s face it most of the players in the league who were starters don’t make great coaches, I call it the Jorden effect. Most of the guys who were long term starters got by on their athletic skills and being better than the next guy, they aren’t classic students of the game...

I am tired of handing these coaching jobs to ex players and coaches sons, lets get guys that are coming up through college systems that have new ideas and aren’t yes men. Just my two cents.

Lombardi points his finger at the coaches, and makes the point that they aren't evaluating talent well on defense, and aren't developing the defensive players that they have.  This makes sense too.  If we aren't developing a certian type of offense or defense, then we're just picking players that we think are "good", not players that "fit".  Look at teams like Oakland (Davis), Washington (Snyder), and Dallas (Jones).  They spend hge sums of money for top notch talent, regardless of whether someone fits a system or not.  Most years it is a failed approach.  Lack of identity not only trickles down to how players perform, but trickles up to player management (evaluations and searches).

Back to Broncoman's comments; let me share what worked for me as a coach.  I was never really an athlete.  In every athletic pursuit I've ever undertaken I've been average.  But I listened and I learned.  I also found I had a knack for understanding human behavior and teaching (which led to jobs in each of those fields).  I found that I could take complex systems (be they math, science, or the run contain) and break them down into bite sized pieces for scholars or athletes, get the information across, and motivate them to execute.

Take chess.  I used to travel overseas and play (despite a rating that wouldn't garner much respect anywhere).  I didn't win any major tournaments or matches as an adult, but I was playing for love of the game.  But as a coach...   As a coach I was able to build the most dynamic teams of both children and adults because I knew how to get concepts across.  My middle school team played on an international level against the best teams from the former Soviet republics.  Not one, but two kids I coached at a local YWCA went on to obtain scholarships to play in college.  Several of the kids surpassed me quickly after a few years of coaching.  Remember "Searching for Bobby Fischer", the movie with Ben Kingsley?  In real life, Bruce Pandolfini is one of the best coaches going.  On the other hand, he himself isn't one of the top players in the world.

Every place I have coached at, and every sport (ranging from chess, to debate, to football, to track, to wrestling) has been wildly successful except one, when I spent a year as an assistent coach for a wrestling program at a HS.  There, the coach based his program on teaching from former wrestlers (many of whom were former students).  It was a terrible program, and the kids didn't learn much.  Every fancy move in the book was taught (for all of about a minute each), and fundemental principles of sound technique were tossed to the wayside.  I came into the program as a coach who (as an assistant head coach in middle school) had been with a program that had (get this) never lost a team event.  It wasn't me, it was the head coach (who also taught me everything about HS football coaching).

I wasn't used to losing, and I wasn't used to be shut out of the process.  After a year, I had had enough and left.  But I learned a valuable lesson.

The best coach I have ever worked for taught me that the basics come first.  Along with the basics, the team needs an identity.  Beyond that, everything else is just icing. 

I was obsessed with identity (which comes full circle to my love of systems).  My defenses were known for being fast and not wearing down.  My track team (I coached distance) had a training program that was compared in the local press to Army Ranger training for its harsheness.  My debate team (while good at research) was known for speaking points.  My chess teams trained by attending USCF events, instead of just sitting around after school and playing (every player was required to read and do a report on "New Ideas in Chess" by Larry Evans).  Our wrestlers had basic techniques down to second nature, and also never got winded.

I'm not bragging.  In fact, I wasn't the head coach for any of the athletic programs.  The credit goes to the kids who put forth the effort, and the head coaches who ran the programs.  The head coach that mentored me ran the HS football program (he brought me up from the middle school), and ran the middle school wrestling and track/field programs.

I learned that identity builds cohesiveness.  We can bring our own individual traits to the table (he was intense, I was calm), but we shared a common bond.  Our job wasn't to build character, but to reveal it.  Our job wasn't to win games, but to teach the kids to win games.  Our job wasn't to out-coach the other team, but to beat them on the field with sound skills. 

We taught the kids to play every play as if it was the only play that mattered.  It was kind of Zen like.  Sometimes the coach would blow the whistle for no seeming reason.  "Really", he would ask "don't lie to me.  Who's really running through their head everything we talked about today?  Are you focusing on your stance and what you're about to do, or are you just going through the motions?  Is this just another play in practice, or are you playing this drill as if your family's life depends on it?"

Ok, I'm clearly no professional coach.  But I know schemes when I see them.  I and several other sharp minds from across MHR have been trying to decode the defense.  "Are we moving towards X scheme?"  "Are we building in stages?"  "Are we changing the base formation?"  "What happened to last week's zone blitz?"  And now we have our answer, and D.J. Williams and several writers have proven us right.  There is no system.  No, we aren't missing something.  Even the players don't know what the program is.

Moving Forward

Thank God for the bye week.  We can do one of two things.

We can continue on the current course and still have a respectable season.  Shanahan is so brilliant that he can cover for injuries and other deficiencies.  But we as fans won't have the confidence that we are a good team.  We'll see the wins as hollow, and the losses as devestating.  Worse, we'll have nothing to build on moving into next year.

Or we can make a move.  Changing staff in midseason is a recipe for disaster.  Adjusting the attitudes of the coordinators is very possible.  It's what a head coach should do.  Maybe Mike should say the following to his coordinators:

"We have the players that we have.  We might make some changes for next year, but you go to war with the army that you have.  I want gameplans and playbooks on my desk by tomorow morning.  I want to hear what is going to be done on two fronts.  First, I want to know how we are going to develop players as individuals so that they get better this year.  Second, I want to know what we are going to do to improve as offensive and defensive units aside from individuals.  In that light, I want to know what two things our team is going to be known and feared for on each side of the ball over the next next nine games.  I also want an honest assesment of what areas we'll have to trade off for to accomplish those goals, because I realize that every system has exchanges. 

I'm not asking you guys to win games here.  I'm asking for something more critical.  I want to know what this team is going to stand for.  When you put team identity first, the wins will follow.  I have players in the newspapers saying they don't know what they are supposed to run from week to week.  That's not acceptable.  Pick something, stick with it, and drill it into the ground.  Players on this team can get demoralized by losses.  I want them too.  What isn't acceptable is that my players are demoralized because they don't know what is expected of them.

If we are losing games because guys don't execute, we'll get new guys.  But if I start to believe that guys aren't executing because they can't define 'Broncos Football', I'm going to think the problem is higher up.  But that won't be an issue because I'll have those reports tomorow and we're going to take care of this before it gets any further.  I want the basics coached, and I want a team identity.  Get back in the morning with your proposals."

It wouldn't hurt if Mike makes MHR mandatory reading for the coaches too.  We aren't pro level coaches (though we think our advice doesn't stink).  But we are the purchasing consumers.  As Guru like to say, "Brand is important".  Right now the financial base of the team, the fans, want our team to have an identity (a brand;  something we can rally around and brag about from year to year).

What is our defense going to be known for?  How about our offense?  My vote is to bring back the run heavy zone blocking and let Cutler pick apart defenses with high percentage passes and the occasional deep throw.  On defense, heck, pick something and get good at it.

Now, who wants an Orange Crush?  A Steel Curtain?  A Doomsday Defense?  It doesn't have to have a neat brand name.  But it needs to be recognizable (such as the physical play of the Jaguers.  Most people can't name the defense, but they know it is physical).

Thoughts?

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