All of us have our opinions on what went wrong with the 2008 season and most of them are far better informed than the MSM. I took a statistical look at the past season and found that my perceptions were often not supported by the statistics. As we think about what needs to be fixed and the various candidates to do the fixing I think it would be instructive to compare our collective perceptions with the statistical facts.
Mark Twain said, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics!" Let's look at some statistics on our 2008 Broncos.
By now most of us are aware that the Broncos were 2nd in the league in yardage on offense, but a mediocre 16th in scoring. While yards gained garners a lot of attention, it's points that really matter. It's instructive to note that only two teams in the playoffs scored fewer points than the Broncos. The question is why didn't the Broncos score more points? What happened?
Field Position - while the Broncos were first in the league in yards gained per drive, they were also dead last in starting field position. It's tempting to blame the STs for dismal field position but the statistics tell a different story. Though the STs were nothing to brag about, statistically they weren't the cause of poor field position. The Broncos were 13th in net average punt return and 12th in net average kick return.
What killed the Broncos on field position was the defense. The Broncos were last or next to last in yards surrendered per drive, points allowed per drive, in takeaways per drive, and in punts per drive. As a result the Broncos frequently were forced to drive farther to score than other teams.
Turnovers - The Broncos had the fewest punts per drive in the NFL, but they also had the most turnovers per drive (3rd in interceptions and 3rd in fumbles) of any team. Many of those were Red Zone turnovers. You cannot score if you turn the ball over.
Many posters have expressed the view that the Broncos would have won more if they had run more. I generally tend to agree with this view. The Broncos were 12th in rushing yardage but tied for 2nd in yards/carry. Despite their pass-happy ways the were 1st in drive success rate. While a more balanced attack may have lead to fewer interceptions, the Broncos were also one of the most fumble prone teams in the NFL. Cutting down on turnovers, fumbles as well as interceptions, needs to be a focus area for the team.
We all know the defense was virtually nonexistent in 2008. The Broncos rank near the bottom in nearly every defensive category looked at. What is particularly interesting though, is the number of long plays surrendered, especially long running plays. The Broncos surrendered 20 runs over 20 yard and 6 runs of more than 40 yards. If the Broncos had cut the long runs down to the league average they would have been a top 10 run defense (hard to imagine). So what causes those long runs: lousy gap discipline and poor tackling. I've blamed much of the defense on poor talent, but those seem to be coaching issues more than talent. This indicates to me that we don't necessarily need a great strategist as DC, just someone who makes assignments clear and stresses fundamentals.
The other item that stands out on defense are the glaring lack of takeaways. While we were 26th in the NFL in sacks, we were dead last in takeaways. It's interesting that both SD and Indy allowed opponents to complete a higher percentage of passes than we did. While both teams had slightly more sacks than we did (28 & 30 v. 26) they had 2.5 times as many interceptions as we did (15 v. 6). While I don't think our DTs are anything special, this makes me wonder how much of the problem was the lack of timely blitzing and the ineffective pass coverage schemes, especially the poor use of the safeties.
Before looking at these stats I felt like there was damn near no one on defense worth keeping. But the more I look at it, the more our problems seem to be coaching/scheme based, at least as much as player. I don't think we'll be confused with the Steelers or the Ravens, but with the right coaching this unit may be closer than I thought. If the Goodmans can land us another draft like 2008 we may see a significant improvement.
Earlier I stated that our special teams were average, but that bares further examination as well. Our punt coverage unit was 13th in net return yards, but that is misleading. Kern was #7 in gross punting average while also leading the league in fewest punts returned (50% touched-back, fair caught, or downed inside the 20). Meanwhile the punt coverage unit gave up almost 24 yards per punt returned - dead last.
The kick coverage team was similar. Prater was 12th in gross average and 6th in percent touchbacks. But the coverage unit surrendered a dismal 24.7 yards per return, 25th in the league.
The return units were slightly better. The Broncos were 13th in punt returns but only 25th in kick return yardage, which no doubt contributed to their lousy field position. What do you expect when the defense cannot keep the other team form scoring and your return team can't return it.
What significant here is, continuing a theme from defense, the number of long returns, punts and kickoffs, that the Broncos yielded. As with the defense, that seems to indicate a lack of lane discipline as well as poor tackling.
These statistics indicate areas of focus for this team in order to improve.
- While running the ball more may help, the real key here is for Cutler to cut down on the number of interceptions, particularly redzone ints.
- Lane/gap discipline - this is so fundamental that the ongoing lack of it indicates poor coaching to me. This needs to be a major coaching point next year. Players who can't/won't be disciplined (that's you Nate) need to be released.
- Tackling - to me, this seemed to be a product of too many players going for the highlight real hit instead of the sound tackling. Again a coaching point. Confusing schemes may also account for some of this.
- Pressure on the QB - I look at the D-line compared to the 2005 unit and I don't see that dramatic a difference, yet the falloff in pressure is tremendous. I can't help but wonder how much of this is poor schemes coupled with lousy play calling. We need a DC who can generate more pressure with the guys we have.
- More interceptions - some of this may be a product of the lack of pressure, but it also seems to be a product of poor safety play. I can't tell if that's the players of the scheme. Maybe HT can shed some light.
- Lane discipline & tackling on STs - this appears to be a spill-over from the defensive problems, but we desperately need to cut down on the long returns. Every kick should not be an adventure.
- Kick/punt returns - by now its obvious that this problem has less to do with the returners and more to do with the blockers. I cannot help but wonder if there's a sense that STs just aren't that important. The new HC needs to make STs a priority.