When the Denver Broncos were on a six-game winning streak, the fans rejoiced at the sight of a team that clearly demonstrated a sense of purpose.
The defense was hungry for respect and up until Halloween, had taken it. They had taken it from the nay-sayers, the main-stream media, the bloviators, and all the spiteful fans. The offense played close to the vest, was very careful with the football, and scored just enough to win games against some quality opponents. They were going through a steep learning curve and will continue to do so for another year or two. The special teams units were less effective than we had hoped, but managed not to make any game-changing mistakes, so we gave them a pass, dubbing them "a work in progress."
The coaches appeared capable, driven, and were seemingly bringing out the best from a group of players who were just getting to know the new schemes and one another. Fans were beginning to jump on the bandwagon. Here at MHR, suddenly there were many more visitors and new members, anxious to be a part of the Broncos journey. The signs of an incomplete team were evident though, as we were not beating our opponents - we just did enough to win. As fans, we looked the other way and remained positive, assuming that good leadership from our coaches and veteran players would save us most of the time. And, we expected small improvements from week-to-week, as was evident in the first six games. Our optimism and expectations blinded some of us to the inevitable defeats that were headed right for our team - a four-game losing streak.
Once they occurred, the outcry could be heard from all directions. The laundry list of solutions to our problems grew, as the fanbase began to rationalize our defeats: Ben Hamilton was washed up as he must be suffering from post-concussive syndrome, Chris Simms was no longer an NFL quarterback, Mike Priefer needed to be replaced as soon as the season was over, Peyton Hillis was in the doghouse for inexplicable reasons, the defense was questioned as they looked tired and undisciplined, Kyle Orton was injured and should have sat out until healthy, Knowshon Moreno was too careless with the football, Tyler Polumbus was no Ryan Harris, Andre Goodman suddenly couldn't cover any more, Alphonso Smith was a wasted draft pick, Le Kevin Smith, DJ Williams, and Andra Davis were missing their gap assignments, and I began calling McD stubborn and naive...I think you get the picture.
So how did we suffer those losses? What happened? One week, we were trying to name our defense, and in the next, Broncos Country suddenly got quiet, or actually, less noisy than usual. Coming out of the bye, I was getting ready to write a fanpost called "A Bronco in Motion, Stays in Motion." And then we seemed to just hit a wall. Only it was more like we hit it four times.
In my opinion, we lost to the Ravens for more than simply abandoning the zone-blocking scheme. We lost because they were so sick of losing, they were willing to suffer paralysis for the sake of getting a win and snapping their three-game losing streak. Knowing what we know about our team, that game would've been a loss, regardless of the circumstances.
The following week on MNF, we lost against the Steelers because we were still trying to run the power running game with undersized offensive lineman, to no avail. When dropping back to pass, their secondary sat on our short routes and clogged them up. While it's possible that had we gone back to our style of running, we still would've lost to the champs, it's realistic to assume that had we run early and often, we could've at least kept it a competitive game, right to the very end. The most disturbing statistic from these two losses were not just the margin of our defeat, but the total rushing yardage - 84 yards, or 42 per game.
Against the Redskins, we lost because of Orton's injury, a lack of communication on special teams, and abandoning the run early. Special teams simply served the game momentum to them on a silver platter. That was hard to watch and it is fair to say we were disappointed, since that should have been a victory for us. Basically, the Broncos beat themselves in that game.
Without Orton against the Chargers, and in light of how Simms had played the week before, we were not likely to repeat our week 6 performance, and the result was just as some of us had expected it to be. Losing by 29 points was a bit surprising, however.
The bandwagon had cleared. The media was back to bashing the Broncos: Bob Golic on ESPN's "Mike and Mike" did not hesitate to redeem his preseason prediction that the Broncos perhaps were the team they all expected to see this year. In other words, we were now expected to face the reality, that perhaps John Clayton, Bob Golic, Jaime Dukes, and all the other doubters were right about the Denver Broncos all along. They simply miscalculated the inevitable Broncos' record by a few wins and losses. Right?
Wrong. Then came the Thanksgiving game against the Giants and the Broncos were fuming. They were the week 8 equivalent of the enraged Baltimore Ravens. It was a statement game, much like the one in San Diego back in week 5. You could see it in their eyes during warm-ups and they played like it. The team's momentum had been going in the wrong direction and enough was enough. Denver wasn't going to go without a fight!
How could this be? How could the team that most call the mules or donkeys have any fight in them? They're just a soft bunch of finesse players, who fold when hit in the mouth. They don't handle pressure and certainly aren't a team anyone needs to be worried about...r...right? Well, for those who said that it didn't matter who was the coach, or who played in Denver, that the results each year were still going to be the same, forgot to realize that this 2009 squad is filled with quality veterans who have leadership qualities. Days prior to the Giants game, our leaders emerged and called a players only meeting. What exactly was discussed we will never know, but as mentioned in Guru's article, they came together and evaluated their current situation. Who else but Brian Dawkins began first, and he was followed by all others that had something to say. Their meeting was constructive, honest, and positive:
"We are on the same page," tight end Daniel Graham said. "There were a lot of emotions out there. No one likes losing. Frustrations came out a little bit. This team will stick together. We are going to fight through this together."
I love this team.
The fact that they beat down the Giants on Thanksgiving indicates to me, that the team just may now be turning the corner. They have evolved in phases and are entering the next one. They first had to get accustomed to the new coaches and schemes. They had to learn to play together. They found out who they really were in victory and defeat. Most recently, they've discovered what needed to be done to stop the freefall and turn back to their winning ways. Credit goes to the veteran leadership on the team for this. It also goes to coach McDaniels for bringing Brian Dawkins over as his first FA acquisition. This is why he's with us.
The win against the Giants needs to be credited to the teamwork put on display by this very good Broncos team. The efforts of David Bruton on special teams coverage, Matt Prater's booming kickoffs, Brandon Marshall's insane catches, Daniel Graham's bone crushing blocks, and Elvis Dumervil's two sacks and a forced fumble were exemplary, to say the least. They deserve the game ball.
So now that we're back in the saddle again, what can the team do to avoid another losing streak? They can start by not repeating their recent mistakes, and that goes for the coaches, not just the players. Here are my list of "don'ts":
- On an emotional level, the New England game was McD's Superbowl...I enjoyed seeing him celebrating the victory, but was slightly concerned that he'd lose some of his fire for the remaining 11 games. Watching him in the press conferences after our losses, he seemed emotionless - a stark contrast to Mike Tomlin's quiet fury when the Steelers lost their 4th game of the year. (I want my coach to be angry when he loses and happy when he wins. I also cringe when he jaws at a San Diego linebacker.)
- Taking a week off during the bye was well-deserved, but made me pause as well. It just gave me an uneasy feeling that the team was beginning to celebrate their success too soon. Obviously this can't possibly happen again, as we only have one bye in a season.
- Going for it on 4th and 5 in a couple of games now, while electing to punt on 4th and short is a head-scratcher. It happened to work against the Giants, but it won't work against every team in any given week.
- When it's 1st and goal, 2nd and goal, and/or 3rd and goal, Tony Scheffler has no business watching from the sideline. He, along with Brandon Marshall are absolute headaches for opposing defenses inside the red zone. I believe the game announcers stated repeatedly that Brandon Marshall was a "nightmare" for defenses. They were quoting the one and only Prime Time, "Neon" Deion Sanders.
- Our running backs have at times tried to do too much. While I admire their sheer determination to fight for every inch, they must protect the football better. Lost fumbles, especially in the red zone have hurt our chances of staying in the game.
- Orton doesn't have to do much more than what he's been doing thus far. He simply needs to continue being Orton and get more comfortable with McD's "playbook." This is a "do."
- If Tyler Polumbus is struggling to offer pass protection and the defense is overloading to his side, he should not be left on an island. Spencer Larsen, Daniel Graham, Peyton Hillis, and/or an offensive lineman need to get their hands dirty on the right side of the O-line to allow Orton to deliver his throws.
- During the losing streak, the defense was beginning to miss tackles, lost some of their discipline, and their play was looking eerily similar to last year's defense. Fatigue and frustration at times got the better of them, as they began jumping off-sides, delivering a late hit against the opponent's quarterback, and generally playing sloppy football. Granted we've suffered some bad calls by the zebras, but we can't allow it to rain yellow flags.
- Special teams has failed to communicate with each other, and if you ask me, that starts with their coach (the best examples of this are the mental errors against the Redskins fake field goal and the failed on-side kick attempt against the Chargers.) Yes, better blocking on returns would help as well, but we can't expect Eddie Royal to be scoring TDs on kickoffs or punts in every game. A noticeable improvement in opening holes for whoever is running with the ball would help shorten the field for our offense.
- These are all correctable and I believe the Broncos can do it. That I believe, has already begun tonight.
Like Steve Nichols described in his "Thanksgiving MHR Chalktalk," our beloved Broncos are a delicate machine. If we are able to execute offensively, defensively, and on special teams, we are able to stay competitive enough to win most of our games. I agree that we are a Porsche that runs out of luck when it's in the mud. We need maintenance much sooner than does a more brute force, powerhouse team. Of course, a more established team also has a little more depth in the trenches than we do. That certainly helps.
To get back to winning, the Broncos must find a way to maintain their focus, preparation, and on-field communication - easier said than done. Psychologically, we cannot expect our team to stay angry indefinitely. Conversely, we also cannot expect them to be happy for any period of time, either. Human nature is a sine wave of emotions, where the only constant is change, as we consciously struggle to stay where we are emotionally, for any length of time. How can they maintain their focus then? By watching film from weeks 8-11.
To those who think that the mid-season slump was another indication that the Broncos are falling apart again, I say that the four-game slide occurred in the middle of the season and there is still quite a bit of football left to be played. Also, the veteran leadership on this 2009 team is head and shoulders above what we've had since the team lost Al Wilson.
I like Ronnie Fields, Kenny Peterson, and Ryan McBean. They have been the vanguard of our defense, and have overall performed admirably. Grooming young D-linemen are in the works and until our future defense has come together, these guys will continue to do a great job up front.
I love not just Brian Dawkins, but the recent leadership of Vonnie Holliday and Kyle Orton. Vonnie was not afraid to challenge his defensive team mates during the Chargers game. Kyle Orton just gives me the impression that he could be in a body cast and still try to play to help the team. How can one not rally around a guy like this?
I love what the coaches have been able to do thus far, and they deserve praise for righting this ship this year. I'll be the first to call anyone out if they are not holding up their end of the bargain, but if I zoom out and look at the big picture, many more good decisions have been made by them, than mistakes.
Did I forget to mention that I love Pat Bowlen for the great owner that he is?
Even if we won't win every game that remains on our schedule, I am grateful for the competitive spirit that's being shown by the Broncos organization. Stay positive, friends. We're just getting warmed up.