On game day, I watch the Broncos play as a fan. That is, I'm often cheering (or yelling in frustration) at my television as each play unfolds. I feel elated when we win. I feel somewhat depressed when we lose. Then throughout the week, I look back at the game, read lots of MHR articles and struggle to understand what happened (and yes this occurs when we win, as well as when we lose), and I try to assess what the previous games may, or may not, presage for the future.
What's been on my mind this week, now that we have lost three games in a row is: "What the heck just happened?" Actually, I've been impressed by the number of quality articles that have been put out these last couple of weeks as we've all struggled to understand the Broncos' woes. I've been amused by the number of folks who have suddenly appeared to say "See, I told you so. We're no good." I've been equally amused by the responses to those folks.
The questions that seem to be arising are things like: Is the collapse the fault of the quarterback? the offensive line? the running game? the special teams? the defense? the play-calling? the coaching? the way adjustments are being made or not made? all of the above? none of the above? karma? wishful thinking? Just what is going on here?
From where I sit, what we are seeing is the natural progression of a learning curve. Wikipedia defines "learning curve" this way:
The term learning curve refers to a graphical representation of the changing rate of learning (in the average person) for a given activity or tool. Typically, the increase in retention of information is sharpest after the initial attempts, and then gradually evens out, meaning that less and less new information is retained after each repetition.
The learning curve can also represent at a glance the initial difficulty of learning something and, to an extent, how much there is to learn after intial familiarity. For example, the Windows program Notepad is extremely simple to learn, but offers little after this. On the other extreme is the UNIX terminal editor vi, which is difficult to learn, but offers a wide array of features to master after the user has figured out how to use it. It is possible for something to be easy to learn, but difficult to master or even hard to learn with little beyond this.
In the rush of emotions that came with watching the Broncos surge out to a 6-0 record, after many folks talked about how terrible we would be this year, and how we'd do well to win 5 or 6 games, it was easy to forget about the issue of a learning curve.
We'd gone through the trauma of the firing of a venerated coach, we watched a popular (at least in some circles) player depart in a cloud of ill-will. We had almost an entirely new coaching staff. We went through a draft that left many of us scratching our heads in bewilderment. Approximately 50% of our roster was new this year. We were installing new offensive and defensive schemes. The learning curve was striking on multiple levels -- coaching, players, roster, and fans.
As an aside: we should realize that the term learning "curve" is something of a misnomer. The most typical learning curve looks more like a cross section of the Rockies as they run from Denver to Grand Junction. There are rises, plateaus, and valleys. Despite what many mathematicians and statisticians (apologies to my wife here -- she's a college math professor) would have us believe, the learning curve in reality is not a smooth progression.
Our coaching staff has a learning curve. They are learning how to function together. They are learning their responsibilities as they fit into the over all schema of Josh McDaniels. McDaniels is learning all of the ins and outs of being a head coach. That means he will progress quickly in areas that are familiar to him, while learning a bit more slowly in the unfamiliar ones. He will move ahead for a time, plateau, make mistakes, and appear to regress. The key will be how well he learns from those plateaus and down slopes.
All of the players on our team were deemed to have the skill sets necessary to play in the NFL. With the possible exception of the rookies, they have all had a chance to learn the basic skill set of their position -- blocking, tackling, catching, running, throwing, kicking, etc. IMHO, the defensive skill set is a smaller collection of skills, and therefore quicker to pick up. Thus we saw the defensive unit surge ahead of the offensive unit in mastering the basic skill sets. Now, here comes the rub. Remember our definition of learning curve: "Typically, the increase in retention of information is sharpest after the initial attempts, and then gradually evens out . . . It is possible for something to be easy to learn, but difficult to master . . . ." IMHO, we are seeing that effect in all three of our units. The players easily mastered the skills with which they were already familiar, but as each game as gone on, the retention of how to apply them to varying circumstances -- in other words, the ability to generalize that knowledge to different approaches (such as Pittsburgh's no huddle approach, or strongly physical defensive line play) -- causes some lags and even declines in performance. For the players, the key will be how quickly they are able to internalize new teachings given them by the coaches and translate that into performance on the field.
Again, remember that nearly 50% of our roster is new this year. That means that 1/2 of our players have not played with the rest of the team prior to this season. I've read repeatedly here at MHR how important team chemistry is and how hard it is to be successful when the players haven't jelled. Well, there's a learning curve involved in that as well. It takes time to reach the point where there is an instinctive trust of the players around you. Now, I have to admit that I have not coached beyond coaching some college intramurals, and PE programs for my students in public schools. Yet, the truth of what I've read from the more knowledgeable posters here at MHR, I've seen on a smaller scale in those settings. I think it's safe to say, from having watched the Broncos for quite a number of years, that when one player doesn't trust the guy next to him to do his job, that player begins to try to do things that are not a part of his own job, thinking he needs to make the play his teammate won't make (shades of Terrell Owens' making statements about how his team would have won if the quarterback had just thrown him the ball). The key for the players as a group will be remembering in every game McDaniels' admonition: No more 'My bad,' just do your job, and by extension: trust the guys around you to do theirs.
Yes, fellow Broncophiles, we too have a learning curve. I'd be willing to guess that the overwhelming majority of us came into the Broncos camp during the Shanahan era. We became, in his early years, accustomed to winning. We became adoring fans of the type of quarterback who scrambled away from pressure and mounted 4th quarter comebacks. All the while, forgetting the struggles he went through to get to his highest point -- the winning of a 2nd Super Bowl. We mourned his retirement, and lamented his replacements. We surged with joy at our first post-Elway playoff game, only to be let down. We exulted over a trip the AFC Championship game, only to have our hearts broken. The point is, we went up and down, right alongside our beloved Broncos. Then came the trauma of the offseason, and we were forced to once again begin a learning curve. It is difficult to learn to trust new coaches and players. It is difficult to learn to take that leap into the unknown. It is frustrating to see a fast start followed by a slump. Yet that is part of the learning curve. Learning the names of the new coaches and players. Learning the new terminology of the offensive and defensive schemes. Learning what constitutes a bad throw as opposed to an intentional throwaway. The reality is that no-one expected us to go undefeated, but we were blinded and taken in by the glitz of 6 straight wins. The key for us as fans, is to learn as much as we can about the coaches, players and schemes so that we can trust that we are a path that will lead us back to the Super Bowl, and so that we can continue to cheer on our Broncos on each and every game day.
IMHO, we are now in that portion of the learning curve, where the sharpness of the initial learning is beginning to even out and even regress somewhat. As both a teacher and a fan, this is truly the most frustrating time to be watching a student -- whether it is one of my own, or a member of my favorite football team. It is that time when I want to take them by the shoulders, shake them and scream "You've shown that you can do this!!! So, DO IT!!!!!!!!!" (given the fact that doing this to one of the players would probably be hazardous to my health, I guess I should be glad to be living in LA).
What I have found, in the midst of 20+ years of teaching, is that if I patiently continue to teach my students what I want them to learn, the learning curve will again turn upwards, and (in most cases) they will exceed my expectations. The Broncos started this year by exceeding my expectations. It has not surprised me to see them plateau. And, if McDaniels is as good a teacher as his players and associates say he is, we will see the Broncos reverse this slump and begin to rise once more.
Keep the Faith!!! 13-3 until we ain't (and yes, 13-3 is still a mathematical possibility, so there! :D )