Football is important to me. I love the game, and it took up a lot of my time when I was a younger man. I loved teaching so much that I was one of the first faculty to arrive at our building each day and one of the last to leave. When I started coaching, I arrived at work about an hour before the kids arrived and left about an hour after practice.
It was one of those jobs (teaching and coaching; I was paid to do both) that one loves enough to look forward to in the morning and to miss on the way home. Then I got a family, and I had the best of both worlds (home and work).
But football isn't everything. It isn't even close. Here are the things I am thankful for today: My God (for everything), our military men and women (who protect everything I hold dear), my country (which allows me to enjoy the fruits of my labor), my family (from where my happiness comes from), my friends (who are like my family, and I include my MHR friends and family here), and my employer (I'm grateful to have a job during these tough economic times, and I'm grateful for each of my co-workers). I just wanted to get that out there.
But you aren't here to hear all of that. You want to know what has happened to our Broncos, and what we have (if anything) to look forward to. I'll give it a stab.
A Military Analogy
Many years ago, while studying foreign policy and military affairs for my grad work, I came across an interesting comparison of Soviet versus American military philosophy during the cold war. I think it is useful for our discussion of the Broncos today.
The US and the NATO allies believed that "quality" was important. We built the F-15 air superiority fighter, confident that a team of 2 such planes could shoot down dozens of opponents before being shot down. We built the M-16 Rifle, confident in the accuracy that such a weapon provided. We built aircraft carriers that contained more war birds than the entire air forces of most countries.
Our weapons systems were the best in the world. Expensive, accurate, precision machines.
Not so with the Soviets. They were fine with the quality gap. Their rationale was, "Fine. Your tank can destroy 40 of ours, but we outnumber you 200 to 1." And to some extent this was true. We had quality, they had quantity. But the differences were even deeper than that.
Take the M-16 rifle. It is very accurate, despite being mass produced. It has many features not found on most assault rifles. But the Soviet AK-47 is a very different weapon on purpose. The M-16 requires a lot of cleaning and maintenance. Drop it in mud or water, and you need to clean it right away (or even after a day on the range). Not so with the AK-47. What it gives up in precision it makes up for in endurance. The small parts are loosely fitted, so dirt, mud, sand and carbon don't slow it down. It can go for weeks or even months without proper cleaning.
Same with the fighter jets. Before an F-15 taxies out to take off, a crew of airmen have to search the runway for everything from rocks to dropped gear to prevent anything from getting sucked into the engines. The F-15 is a precision plane, and deadly to opponents. But it requires hours of maintenance, and clean, cleared runways. Not the Soviet Mig-25. It can land or take off in the dirt, and the on-board computers and sensors aren't built to win air engagements, but to function with little to no care in any environment.
Our carrier task forces can take and hold most countries in the world in land, sea, and even ground engagements. They are deadly examples of "force projection". What's the drawback? Back then, it was lone Soviet bombers with extreme long range air-to-sea missiles. Most of these missiles would get shot down (as would the bombers), but the catch is this: it only takes one missile to destroy the heart of a carrier task force. In other words, the fox loves to have all of our eggs in one basket.
So which was better? We had a Porsche, they had a muscle car (with a hemi). We could win the races, they could win if the fight was a demolition derby. NATO strategy was to slow down a Warsaw Pact invasion long enough for the "quality" of NATO firepower to take the toll on Warsaw Pact forces (known as attrition warfare). As a good American (and a veteran), I think the good guys had it right. It isn't about the numbers, it is about the quality. So, what does this have to do with the Denver Broncos?
The Broncos - A Lot of Quality, but Too Reliant on Precision
Denver has some great, even legendary names on both sides of the ball. Champ Bailey and Brian Dawkins are future HOFers. Elvis Dumervil is one of the best blitzing DE/OLBs in the NFL today. Brandon Marshall is a top ten receiver, and Offensive Tackles Ryan Clady and Ryan Harris are amazing. Daniel Graham and Tony Scheffler are terrific TEs, and there are many more players I haven't even mentioned. This is a team full of talent. This is a team full of quality.
In my estimation, the problem is "precision". Let me expalin.
Our own John Bena (MHR Chief Editor and Founder) has noticed that this team has little room for error. We were terrible in the pre-season, and our first six wins were by close margins. As I have written, we are "a team that finds ways to win, but doesn't dominate". We are a team built on precision, the idea that every part has to function just right for the "whole" to prevail. Coach McDaniels calls it "Every guy must DO HIS JOB". It worked great at first. For the first six games, our complex screens were outgunning defenses, and we moved the ball down the field. One mistake, a lost third-down conversion or an interception, and the whole thing would have come apart. Denver is not a shootout team, and EVERYTHING must go right for the team to succeed.
But Denver did it right. Orton didn't throw INTs, and the team made long trips down the field to score. In one game (against SD), every player worked together to help Eddie Royal score two returns for TDs (a punt and a kick). Precision ruled the day. And then we dropped our M-16s in the mud.
With our complex schemes, we rely on everything to go "just right". If Orton is injured, we get a backup QB. If he doesn't meet the "Orton's No INTs" standard, the team is dead in the water. If the team gets a terrible ratio of penalties proportionate to the other team (read Ted Bartlett's excellent treatment of the SD game in his latest ST&NO article), you just can't overcome that. If our punter can't win the field position battle for us, we're in tough waters already. Here's the problem:
We are a team that is built to keep games close, and to win those games. We rely on a dominant defense, and a mistake-free offense that can keep moving the ball forward. On defense, we have to keep scores low since our offense won't be putting up big numbers. On offense, we have to rely on intricate plays with no mistakes as we move the ball down the field yard by yard.
This worked for 6 weeks, even against some of the better teams in the League. We ran our program the way it is supposed to be run, and we caught a lot of good teams off guard. Then we ran into two physical defenses from the top 2 AFC teams of 2008, who beat the snot out of our precision ballet. Then we lost our starting QB for the second half of the WAS game. By the time we faced our fourth loss, we were playing our injured starter (after the backup played so badly we had to go back to Kyle Orton). Inexplicably, we didn't rely upon our attacking defense for the SD game, and seemed to hold back (again, see Ted's great article).
Is our coach bad? Not at all. He is using the players he has in only his first year. Consider that he "inherited" a lot of players, and a dysfunctional defense. He has changed the entire system, and only had one draft to bring in his own guys. He also had to deal with losing the previous QB (who demanded a trade before the coach was even hired). Given the new systems on both sides of the ball, and given that he hasn't yet had the years to assemble his own depth chart, he has done an amazing job. I remain in his corner.
We have what John Bena expected us to have after his observations from training camp. I also think we have what I expected. This is a team that has improved from last year, but is still improving. It is NOT a SB caliber team, nor even a deep playoff team. It is a team that would be lucky to make the playoffs, and wouldn't go far once it got there. But more importantly, it is a team that is on the right path. It is a team that has corrected most of the defensive problems of the last several years, and has held its own on offense, even with a new QB. Give this coach another year or two, and I think the improvements will continue.
We were spoiled by 6 quick wins, and I think many fans were blindsided. Again, let me reference Ted Bartlett. Ted writes that he has become a lot less emotional, and much more analytical. Ted mirrors my own way of looking at the Broncos. Some fans were hateful and spiteful, and all-too quick to lash out out our new coach and QB. 6 quick wins made those bandwagoners look foolish. On the other side of the fence, some fans (after a quick 6-0 start) were talking "13-3" and "Super Bowl". That fell apart pretty quick, didn't it?
Let's not get sucked in by emotion. Let's be thankful that this team has beaten four good teams (NE, CIN, DAL, SD) and two not-so-good teams (CLE and OAK), while losing to three good teams (BAL, PIT, SD) and one poor one (WAS). If, as my friend Tim Lynch has pointed out, we had a 6-4 record but NOT after 6 in a row, many of us would have been happy right now. I agree.
For me, my goal was an 8-8 season, but improved play (especially by the defense). So far, I feel we have done well. I won't let a string of 6 victories turn me into a Kool-Aid drinker, but I sure as heck won't let a 4-game slide turn me into a troll either. We're not a great team and we're not a terrible team. We're in the middle (better off than many teams) with new people in place to effect an improvement. Let's continue to watch our team and see what happens.
In the meantime, as our team grows together and the coach is able to bring in more of his style of players through draft and FA, expect to see a system that is flexible and not as reliant on perfect working parts. As time goes on, I expect to see a more physical team (already starting on the defensive side; not so much with our agile but smaller OL). I also expect to see a wider array of passing plays, many of which will be simpler. Denver has a lot of complex passing plays, but those will become even more effective as the playbook gets bigger, even if the newer plays are simple ones. Remember, this is only Orton's first year in this playbook. Given that, he's doing pretty well.
None of this means that precision is a bad thing. Certainly none of this means that each player shouldn't "do his job". What is DOES mean is that, as the team grows in the current system and gets better at it, the whole of the system will make up for the inevitable times that individual pieces aren't functioning ideally. Right now we aren't there yet. And that's okay.
The NY Giants Game
This is a game many of us penciled in as a potential loss at the start of the season. The Giants won the SB a couple of years ago, and have been a good team. Like Denver, they seem to have had some terrible problems in recent games. Denver started 6-0 then lost four. NY started 5-0 then lost 4. They won their last game (against ATL) in OT.
With both teams at 6-4 (and much of the scheduled opponents in common), here is how the teams match up in different categories (advantage in italics)
DENVER OFFENSE (stat and rank) NEW YORK (Gs) DEFENSE (stat and rank)
Offensive points - 17 (25th) Points allowed - 23.5 (24th)
Yards avg - 323 (22nd) Yards allowed - 282.2 (2nd)
Rushing yards - 112.4 (16th) Rushing yards allowed - 104.8 (11th)
Passing yards - 210.6 (19th) Passing yards allowed - 177.4 (2nd)
NEW YORK (Gs) OFFENSE DENVER DEFENSE
Offensive points - 26.6 (6th) Points allowed - 18.3 (7th)
Yards - 385.5 (4th) Yards allowed - 297.8 (7th)
Rushing yards - 133.8 (7th) Rushing yards allowed - 115.3 (18th)
Passing yards - 251.7 (8th) Passing yards allowed - 182.5 (3rd)
Denver's (only) real advantage seems to be stopping the NY passing game. In the prime stats (points on the board), Denver's offense and Denver's defense only trail their counterparts in NY by one ranking point. Still, the numbers don't look good.
The Giants are top ten in all eight stats, with the exception of rushing yards allowed (11th) and points defensed (24th). Denver, on the other hand, is in the bottom half of the League in all four offensive categories. On defense, the Broncos are top ten in 3 areas, but rank lower half in a fourth.
Is there a light at the end of this tunnel? There are some injury issues for the Giants at RB, and if they have problems running the ball then the Denver defense may have an easier time in the pass defense match-up. Continue to watch MHR for injury updates for both teams.
If Ryan Harris can return at RT, this may increase the Broncos' potential to what it was before he went down. Dawkins is a key playmaker on the defense, so his presence is important.
The Giants are a physical team. They like to control the trenches with physical play, and this can cause problems for the Broncos. Here is what I think both teams need to do to win this game:
Denver's Keys -
If the OL can give Orton time, I think he can do great things in the air. The Giants are good at stopping passes, but I think they do this more with their DL than their DBs. BAL and PIT got pressure on Orton, and Orton missed time against WAS and SD. Give Orton the protection he needs to do his thing.
Find a running game. I don't care how they do it. If Denver continues to slip in the running game, nothing will go right this season. In every game from here on out, Denver needs to try and push the run.
Mistake-free ball. Until Denver is good enough to dominate opponents, they can't afford turnovers or penalties. Play precision ball until you are good enough to play domineering ball.
NYG's Keys -
Win in the trenches. If you can out-muscle Denver's OL and DL, everything else will take care of itself. No number of star players for Denver can make up for a loss at scrimmage.
Don't let Denver get an early lead. Denver's confidence may be in jeopardy. Early success by the Broncos will allow them to play good football. However, if you strike early, you might convince the players that this is more of a "4 loss" team than a "6 win" team. Just as importantly, this year's fans are fickle. Start beating Denver early, and you'll have the crowd booing and leaving early. This makes audibles easier for the visiting team.
Run the ball. Denver's pass defense is better than the run defense. Recently, the run defense has been in decline. Pound the ball up the gut, and you don't allow star players like Bailey, Dawkins, and Dumervil to be such factors.
I hate to say it, but a quick look at each team would seem to make me lean towards the Giants. However, the Giants aren't as good as they have been, and Denver is better than they once were (I'm looking at the teams season by season, not just each week). Both teams "are what they are", which is to say "6-4". So either team can get this one.
A loss would pull either team closer to an even mark for the year, while a win would put them closer to winning 2/3 of their games. Both teams are in 2nd place in their divisions, and need wins to stay in the playoff hunt.
A brief note. I have been hard on some of Denver's fans this year. I can't stand that many of our fans were bigger "Cutler" fans or "Shanahan" fans than "Denver Broncos" fans. I also couldn't understand the idea of being against our new coach or QB, even though those two guys are united in trying to do what they can for our team. I still don't get those kinds of people.
But some fans "get it", and I love them for it. When Chris Simms came in and tried to be a starting QB this past game, I wasn't pleased by his effort. Chris has a wonderful story, and it would have been triumphant to have seen him come in and play 4 quarters of great football. Instead, Chris came in and fell flat. I remember watching him botch a play and sit on the ground, calling for a face-mask penalty and looking a little foolish. Chris may be a great guy, but I'm not excited by him as our backup QB.
However, when I saw Orton warming up on the sideline, I was filled with mixed emotions. The coach in me said, "No way do we risk our starting QB in this game! If he isn't ready enough to start, keep him off the field!" I still think Orton should have stayed out and rested. The risk was just too high. I wouldn't have had him dress out.
Still, Orton took the field. And the coach side of me gave way to the fan side (the emotional side). "HELL YEAH!" I thought. It was like Superman had arrived, and everything was going to be okay. Well, the game turned out badly, but there was a clear difference in QBs. Orton didn't have a run game to support him, was missing his key RT, and had a defense that wasn't up to its regular standards. Still, he came in with a noticable limp, and played without being mobile enough to properly plant and throw. He showed guts, and he gave the fans a moment of elation. He also wanted to get in the game and save his team, and that's what a leader does. I like this guy.
The fans wanted Orton, and they went wild when he took the field. That's the kind of fans I like. Smart move by the coach? I don't think so. Gutsy? Absolutely. But importantly, it showed the world where our real Denver fans stand - right behind our QB.
I hope those cheers on Sunday went a long way towards erasing the jeers of some fans during the pre-season. Orton is our QB until he isn't. That's the message the fans sent on Sunday, and I like it. A lot.