Denver lost the AFC West in disappointing fashion tonight. It was probably the worst possible way to end a season- Phillip Rivers celebrating in our faces, the national media just itching to label us one of the greatest collapses in NFL history, our bitter rivals running the score up on us against an utterly helpless defense, and even Al Michaels and John Madden expressing pity at our fortune. But you know what? Before any of you rushes to call out the coaching staff, keep this in mind: the 2008-"2009" Denver Broncos played very, very good football to finish 8-8. Quite frankly, it's amazing that we even played .500 ball over 16 games.
Our All-World cornerback missed half the season (probably more, when you acknowledge that Bailey wasn't anywhere near healthy for BUF or SD). D.J. Williams, on the doorstep to a Pro-Bowl berth starting the season, missed 5 games. You can slam Boss Bailey all you want, but fact is, he's a very decent LB in this league. He missed 11 games. Our safety poached away from SD- Marlon McCree missed 9 games. Even Elvis Dumervil missed a couple games. In essence, the (arguably) 5 best players on the defense missed, on average, half the season. Half the season. I'm not saying we'd have a great defense if those guys had been healthy all year. But do that to any other defense in the league, and they'd be decimated too.
You can talk all you want about this team's "heart," about its "determination," about its "desire to win." You can blame this last loss, and this season in general, on them. And you'd be dead wrong. I don't care how much "heart" a practice squad rookie has. He can "want" as much as he pleases to tackle Marshawnn Lynch. He can be determined as hell to cover Chris Chambers. But at the end of the day, he's still a practice squad rookie attempting to single cover a Pro Bowler. It's still a no-name, undrafted, random dude attempting to tackle Marshawnn Lynch. There's that old saying, "hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard." What it fails to tell you is that hard-working talent beats plain hard-work to a pulp.
Yes, the coaching was questionable at times, especially defensively. But think about it: we were playing practice squad players regularly against not just NFL players, but against some of the best teams in the entire league. The fact that we defeated teams like the Jets, and like the Falcons is insanely remarkable. I just can't stress that enough. We had the same guy play fullback and middle linebacker... and we won! I cannot fathom how you can blame the coaching for this season. Take one look at who we put on the field this year, and tell me with a straight face that the reason we lost 8 games was that we were outcoached 8 times.
And now, on to Mike Shanahan.
Like Guru has said, this is the 3rd year of a 5 year re-building plan. The biggest gripes I've seen against Shanahan go thusly:
- Struggles to adapt/change according to new surroundings/opponents
- Lack of young player development
- Needs to be less involved in the front office.
Let's tackle those one a time, starting with my response to 1: are you #@$%# kidding me? Denver's offense under Shanahan has traditionally been predicated upon the run; I doubt you need me to re-write that cute little graphic that every station shows every game about our RB's over the years. This year, we've lost enough running backs to qualify the position for World's Most Dangerous Job. Shanahan has transformed this offense from one based on the run into perhaps the most explosive passing attack in the league. In one season. No other offense in the league has been forced to lean this heavily on the pass and maintained such success. Every week, our opponent knows exactly what we'll do; yet, Shanahan has kept Denver up at the very top of every offensive rank. I don't see much merit in this critique. Find me another coach that can literally re-write his entire playbook and still keep his team in the top 5 offensively, in one season. Then we'll talk.
2. Another contention that confuses me. Cutler has rapidly elevated his game this year. Brandon Marshall has played terrific football, even counting the drops, and seems to understand that it's for the good of the team when he isn't thrown to. How many 24 year olds in this league understand that? Eddie Royal has grown tremendously this season. Wesley Woodyard really showed us something. Elvis Dumervil had a quiet year, but a lot of that must be attributed to frequent double teams as a result of the rest of D-Line's struggles. The Broncos are teeming with young talent, talent that I think is growing perfectly on schedule.
3. This one I can see some argument behind. We've certainly had a few busts on the defensive side of the ball. Quite possibly, someone devoted full-time to off season acquisitions would serve us well. That said, Ryan Clady, Eddie Royal and Peyton Hillis turned out to be amazing picks, didn't they? The take-home message is that there really isn't much of a rational argument to push Mike out the door. All the nebulous words in the world can be tossed out there- "negative attitude", etc- but they don't mean much next to his accomplishments.
Bob Slowik is another question. I agree that he definitely made some iffy calls, and often. The thing is, he was put in a lose-lose situation. Make all the right calls, his defense still probably stinks- Nate Webster is his starting middle line backer after all. Make all the wrong ones, and he gets slammed even more. I want to see what he can do with a semi-adequate defense, one where Webster and Marquand Manuel don't get regular playing time. Most of the really great defensive coaches in this league have the ultimate fall back option- tremendous defensive player IQ and ability. Pittsburgh's Dick LeBeau is considered among the finest defensive minds in the game. What you have to realize is that he isn't infallible; it's just that when he is, he has James Farrior and Troy Polamalu to cover for him. This is true of most of the top DC's in the league. That's why I want Slowik to hang around for another season; there's no way this season was a reflection of his true coaching ability.
Finally, I've seen quite a few citing our post-Plummer record. Frankly, that is pretty ridiculous- we've gone through a completely new cycle of defensive players, have had to adapt the playbook to the growth of a new quarterback, and have suffered through the injury season from hell. Going .500 throughout all that is not a bad thing. At all. Unless you're the New York Yankees, re-building inherently implies some pain and struggle. To overlook the goal and concentrate on that struggle is to succumb foolishly to impatience. We're on the right track. The offense has been tranformed into a stellar unit. With the draft ahead, the defense is up next. I'm not ashamed in the slightest to be a fan of the Denver Broncos tonight. And you shouldn't be either.