It was all going so perfectly. The Denver Broncos had bested every foe, the defense looked historically effective. Every bounce was going their way and bad calls were easily dismissed and forgotten. They seemed capable of so much, and our concerns seemed so very little.
Where did they go wrong?
What happened during that fateful bye week back in October, that stripped their winning ways from them as surely as the first blasts of frigid fall storms stripped bare the leaves from the trees? What godly brow furrowed in consternation upon hearing they had cut their punter? What tendencies had the rest of the league learned of, what Pandora's box had been opened, its secrets strewn about like candy from a Pinata? Had they shown too many of their cards? Had they lost too many key players, and had their stars finally gotten too old, too outmatched? Was it our fault? Were we too proud of our team, too pleased with their success, too happy? Had we somehow angered the football gods? Woe!
No, it is all much simpler than that. Josh McDaniels made a mistake. Just a mistake, and darkness, rivaled only by winter at the poles, has ensued. As it had to.
Because some mistakes, though small, will eat away at you, little by little.
And that adds up.
As a baby, you very likely don't remember that you couldn't see.
Which isn't entirely accurate. You could see, but your perception was a blurry fog, a swirling mix of colors and shapes. Your understanding of this chaos was low, as was your comfort level with it. It takes an infant months to learn the skill of focusing its eyes, of sharpening and clarifying its view of reality. Those are hard months too, full of effort and exertion, the consistency of which few people maintain into adulthood.
What if, upon discovering the amount of toil required for a clear view of the world, you decided that you would rather take it easy, and work on teething, or grabbing your foot, or getting your head through the bars of your crib? What if you had decided to shift your focus elsewhere?
It is one thing to be blind. It is something else entirely to refuse to see.
Coming off a convincing win versus the Chargers, the Broncos and their 6-game winning streak went into team headquarters, high on victory, confident in their direction and in themselves. By late morning, the reporters had arrived to ask their questions of the coach and team, only to find that there was no team. A skeleton crew of coaches ghosted about, but the players were nowhere to be seen.
We didn't feel like it was in our best interest to go out there and do a lot of practicing this week so we didn't," coach Josh McDaniels said today. "We want to give them a few days to get their minds off football, and get refocused and ready to go."
Never has an eclipse stolen onto the scene with such quietude.
A week of no work in the middle of an NFL season is so risky as to be more foolish than any number of onside kicks and goal-line reaches combined. Even as the relaxing midseason vacation unfolded, many of us felt a tremor of unease, a nagging sense of disappointment, as reports from faraway places seemed to say that the rest of the league was continuing to move forward. Articles out of Baltimore talked about how the Ravens, in the midst of their own losing streak, hadn't taken any time off, and were back in pads and on the practice field, looking for answers.
One can only assume that McDaniels felt the Broncos had the answers that they themselves needed, as they turned their attention to scouting their own tendencies and addressing the weekly slow starts that were plaguing the Broncos offense. Though they talked at length about the importance of upcoming opponents, they took that critical time and chose to look backwards, at sunk costs and issues wholly irrelevant to the Ravens. In the NFL you are either moving forward or backward, either progressing or regressing as a team. Denver worked harder, perhaps, than any team in the league to come together through the offseason, under incredibly averse circumstances, and then at the first opportunity, they squandered that. When a team takes a week off, what they risk is their cohesiveness, their consistency. Some teams are good enough that such a setback can be overcome with a small amount of extra work. Denver wasn't that good yet. And now it shows.
In the example of the baby above, it should be noted that over time, the effort required to focus the eyes reduces, as the skills involved progress. In fact, you probably find now that it is, quite frankly, effortless to focus your eyes. Instead it takes excruciating effort to unfocus them and keep them that way, a sort of mirror reflection of the original endeavor. Any delay in the process of learning to focus the eyes MUST be made up eventually. If you never pay the piper, you will never be anything but blind.
Like that baby, the Broncos must learn again how to focus. The lens of the offseason was a picture of a team with no hope nor chance to win consistently. That lens clarified the Broncos' goals, but when they stopped to look back and reflect, they saw those questions answered, and that lens lost its ability to keep them focused. They have to recapture that, but in a different form, because that form is lost to them. Personally, I don't listen to them (the players and coaches) when they talk about focus and refocusing, etc. It is one of those things that is easy to talk about, and oft misunderstood in its importance. But then a player will say something which catches my ear. It is different. It is not a bromide. It is real, it is true, and within it, you might just think you hear the first rumblings of an unshakeable commitment.
"I’m done feeling the loss. I’m sick of it, and I know everybody else is. It’s been a long time since we’ve won, so let’s get back on the field and win a game. That’s all we are talking about from here on out is just winning."
It was an emotional outburst from Kyle Orton, fueled by a frustration that goes beyond losing games. But like the white smoke that trails after a stunt plane, his next statement spelled out clearly where he was coming from:
"Good teams bounce back. I’ve lost four games in a row before in my career, and we went on a nine-game winning streak. That’s what we need to do."
Throughout this short week, he has held onto that high-up thought, to the idea that when this thing turns around, it can turn around for good. Just yesterday he said,
"We started off-my rookie year, we lost three or four games in a row and came back and went on a nice long streak, so hopefully, we can do that. It just takes one (game) either way. If you lose one game, it is tough to get that winning feeling back and (it) just kind of builds and builds and builds the more you go. It just takes one win for us. We're not going to be given the win, by any means. We've got to go out and earn it and take it. Once you get that (winning) feeling, it is a lot easier to keep it on that roll, too."
Kyle can't quite put the words to it, but what he is talking about here is the virtue of focus. Losses tend to lead to losses because the mind thinks about the situation, not the future. It takes a sublime effort to continually pull the mind away from the problems of the here and now and to focus it on goals, on the future. The true cost, however, comes in the consistency with which you must maintain this effort. This isn't a once-a-week endeavor. Practice is about more than experience. It is about maintaining a focus on one's goals. The reward? It will eventually require less and less effort to focus on those goals, even though the effort is constant. At that point you can begin to excel in your pursuits, consistently. Orton understands this. Apparently Brian Dawkins does too, as he called a players-only meeting.
To Dawkins, consistency is the key. Consistent preparation in the film room. Consistent practice habits. Consistent effort.
"I can't fluctuate and be tossed and turned by any storm that comes about," Dawkins said. "I have to be consistent."
My good friend Emmett recently provided to this community a sterling list of quality items upon which the Broncos can direct their focus, if they choose to. These "Winning Ways" are proven, and fundamentally sound, but what they all have in common is that they require effort. The bye week was more than a week without football; it was a week without effort, while a forest of playoff contenders grew up unchecked around them. They stood still, for a moment too long, and only now are they realizing how hard it is to catch up once you've fallen behind.
Giants coach Tom Coughlin realizes this, having helped his team right the ship after their own 4-game losing streak threatened them with obscurity.
Coughlin said there can be different vibes associated with winning streaks versus losing streaks. During a winning streak, it may seem as if every bounce of the ball is going your way. During a losing streak, a team might feel as if it cannot catch a break."It is the most difficult thing because I think everybody understands that one game can turn it around for you," Coughlin said.
The Broncos need to work harder. Not hard. Working hard isn't good enough. They have to work harder. Once they have put in enough work this week to feel confident that they can compete with the Giants, they need to go back out and put in more work. They need to make up for the abyss of the bye week, while they still have time. Only when they have finally realized the enormous debt they incurred during that lost time, will they be able to get down to the business of getting it paid off. Each week that passes without overcoming this adds even more work that must be done, like interest added to a loan.
There is a lot of good waiting for them on the other side of working harder. Kyle and Dawkins' comments are like the first sliver of light, as the eclipse begins to wane.
In that, we can find hope. All will be well as long as the light returns.