I was musing over the vagaries of the Broncos' fall from grace on Sunday. Losing a second year in a row to the Raiders late in the season, at home, is about as unconscionable as anything I can imagine. It hurts on a deep level, and for a lot of reasons. Let's face it - when you can't stop JMR on one drive for the win, you shouldn't have won. Denver's loss was by far the most disappointing of the season.
Like the lists of player problems and mistakes that I've been making as I work through the film room material each week, the list of miscreants from this game was long. I don't tend to easily abandon hope and I generally can see the brighter side of things. There weren't a lot of things to celebrate this time. Most of the problems are just the same mistakes from the same offenders that I've seen each week. We have often won in spite of foolish errors. This time, we threw away a game that we could have and should have won.
And, it was the raiders. What part of 'getting up for a hated division rival' didn't the Broncos get? Finding the Broncos' mistakes during this game really is pretty much shooting fish in a barrel - you can hardly miss. So saying, I'm taking down the Remington pump-action 12-gauge and aiming at a few.
Every Broncos fan is concerned about this. There is a factor here that Josh McDaniels talked about last week, though, and while I don't agree with him, it makes the situation pretty clear.
Our offensive line isn't getting any movement in the center on short yardage. That's unforgivable - if you have a 3rd-and-1 you should be making that play 9 out of 10 times, but that's not happening and it seems that over the course of this year, it probably won't.
It doesn't matter if we run Peyton Hillis, LaMont Jordan or Knowshon Moreno at the middle of the line. None of them has the power of levitation. They are being hit in the backfield or swarmed just as they come up to the line and in today's NFL, that spells disaster. People have talked, rightfully, about which players they would prefer toting the ball in those situations, but McDaniels was very clear about this. He said, in essence, that it's up to the offensive line to move the pile and that his approach isn't going to change on this today, tomorrow or next season. I can make a pretty good argument that this isn't in the best interest of the team, and I imagine that you can do the same, but as the Coach said, that's not the issue. The issue is that McD expects the line to get a push and create the opportunity of getting yardage even though they just flat out aren't doing it.
If you're going to tell me that recognizing this should lead to a change in approach, I'm with you. The problem is, he's not going to make that change. While I emphatically disagree with his perspective regarding making a change, I also understand why: the offensive line is the basis of the entire game. It is followed closely by the defensive line and the cornerbacks, in my own views (more about this later), but the O-line is the rock upon which a team is built. Ours is, to steal a metaphor, built on shifting sands. That's where most of the issues with the running game are coming from. It's not doing our passing game a lot of good, either.
I can say with certainty that Tyler Polumbus has struggled during each of our losses. I can say with equal certainty that the Broncos will be looking for other options at backup tackle following this season. The same likely goes for Russ Hochstein, who didn't have a very good game either after convincing me that he was stepping up, and for Casey Wiegmann, who may retire in a few weeks. That's 3/5 of the most important group to a building team that isn't playing well and that is A Very Bad Thing.
If you were irritated by the running game, I'm with you. If you think the issue is Moreno, we disagree. Oh, it's not that I hold him blameless; not by any stretch. He's learning a variation on the running back position that requires a very specific skill set and which he has not yet mastered. While we can argue about whether or not he should have learned it by now, the simple fact is that he hasn't. He had a poor day compared to recent games and I had hoped for better from him, but even so - he's not getting a lot of favors from the guys who are responsible for blocking, and that's never going to be good. I recall watching one of the best of all time, Walter 'Sweetness' Payton, running behind moderately bad O-lines for years. Walter was one of the best to ever play the game and he still suffered a lot of bad and/or negative plays because of the line. Moreno isn't, at this point, another Payton, and he's not able to make up for their problems - nor should we expect him to. We should expect him to show improvement over the season, and he has. He's also not there yet, and we should expect him to keep working hard until he is - and for a long time to come.
The defensive line - the defensive front 7, really - has been hit with a problem all their own, and it's not a new one, either. They once again started freelancing and ignoring gap discipline and control. The results were the same that they have been each time this happens - we were gashed for long running plays and missed opportunities for sacks and hurries. Mike Nolan commented on that after the game:
"There was a common thing from the standpoint of where it happened," Nolan said. "It happened on cutbacks - all but two of them. And it really just has to do with the responsibility to stay home ... We have to do a better job of maintaining our responsibility on the cutback. It was really just a case of us over-pursuing on the backside."
It was, of course. Does it concern me that we're making such fundamental errors this late in the season? Certainly. Did it surprise me when I looked over the game film? Not at all - after looking at just the stat lines, you could make a sizable bet about the cause. It is the same cause that has been behind the other breakdowns in the defense.
So, let's talk a little about the team. Should they be better? Should fans be happy that they've done as well as they have? Should fans feel concern? The answer to each of those questions is 'Yes'.
I tend to agree with Steve Nichols - the refs have a job that no one tends to like, and in general, I expect a blown call here and there. That doesn't excuse the game-long litany of missed, blown and made-up calls that went on on Sunday. Home team advantage? Who did Josh McDaniels irritate on the refs crew? Sheesh...
I was talking with some football friends about this and an issue came up that helped put things into a better perspective: Despite the difficulty of dealing with the loss to the raiders, we're pretty much where the more positive folks said that we'd be way back in training camp. Folks like many of the site members, darned few of the media, and Josh McDaniels himself.
It was during training camp that some pundit (thinking himself funny, I suspect) asked Josh about the team's Super Bowl chances. McDaniels didn't bat an eye. "We're not a Super Bowl team," he said calmly. At that time, listening to the tone, I didn't hear this as typical coach-speak. He thought for a brief moment and dismissed the notion as pointless. He should have. He inherited a bad team, did a very good job for a single offseason and has done what he can do with the players he has, but he knows the problems of the team far better than we do. He's more familiar with the players as he watches them practice, something that we don't get to experience.
It was close to that same time that someone talked to him about how the media was claiming that the Broncos were going to be losers over the course of the year. McDaniels stirred up the media by saying that he'd never been on a loser and didn't expect to start now. You know what? Even if we drop the last two, we can't have a losing season. A single victory gives us a 9-7 record. Do you recall what was said about that possible record when we dealt our own pick to Seattle and kept the Bears' pick? Things have changed, in that respect.
From where I sit, it looks like McDaniels came from a winning club, with both the right players and the right attitudes, and migrated from there to Denver. He inherited a club that wasn't ready to take on the playoffs - or the Ultahamma Grannies, for that matter. We will get there, but we aren't currently Super Bowl material. He could see that, and he was right. I'm sure that the difference was fairly stark. This is not a SB team, and it's a much better team than it was last year. However - until the offensive line is righted and the players who lose their wits easily are weeded out over time (just as a start), we are what we are - about the middle of the pack.
The simple fact is, I loved Mike Shanahan's work - he was one of the best offensive coordinators of all time. But despite a brilliant start, he wasn't as good as a head coach over time, and he wasn't a great GM. He made player-personnel deals that still amaze and astound and not in good ways. He left the defense feeling like second-class citizens and by the time Pat Bowlen said 'Enough," Shanahan had built a club with a losing attitude. Josh McDaniels did what you can do in one offseason and I love the direction that the team is taking, but they didn't build Google in a day and this is going to take time - just as most folks said at the beginning of the year.
Lots of members made good points, back then. "He's young and inexperienced," some pointed out. "He will make some bad decisions based on his lack of experience." He has. Lots of good ones, too - more good than bad, to my way of thinking, but definitely lots of both. It's his first year as a head coach and he's still learning. Nothing new there. Is there an argument that he'll get less good with experience? I'd love to hear that one - actually, no, I wouldn't. Scratch that.
"They don't have the personnel," others noted. Those folks were right too, in degree. We recently just don't keep up with good teams and we can't stop a mediocre one on the wrong week. There are a lot of good reasons for that, too. We have a team that can only count on winning if they play a nearly faultless game because even with a lot of very smart personnel moves, we are in the first season of changing the team. And, we don't have enough players who are that good. We still have some locker room problems - and that's not going to change this year; but change it will, given what evidence we've seen since February.
For those who ask why we'd bother changing if this year will be around 8-8, 9-7, 10-6, there are some danged good reasons. If you look at last year, we were not just stagnating - we were falling down the rabbit hole. You can say that we still have a long way to go to get back to fully competitive and you'd be right, but it's just not rational to claim that we're no better off than we were in December of 2008. Here are a few reasons why:
1. The Broncos are actually building a team. We want to win games while we build one, and so far we've won more than we've lost. The long season is showing the cracks, imperfections and outright weaknesses that couldn't get dealt with in a single year. The more film other teams have on us, the more they take advantage of them. What, we were going to do this in one year? Most members expected the final 2009 record to be about the same, a little worse, or perhaps even a bit better than 2008. That's exactly where we are, too. There's a long list of things that are better, though. Start with pass coverage and move on from there.
2. The word 'defense' no longer refers solely to the person that represents one of our players in a trial. I don't miss the negative role models that Denver had become burdened with. I don't miss the ones like Maurice Clarett and I don't miss the Travis Henry's. I don't miss a revolving door at defensive coordinator - nor do I miss the lack of quality players that it has consistently represented. I don't believe that the defense is a second-class organization any longer, either. They aren't ready, in one jump, to handle playoff teams and playoff football, but that's a long way from where we were a year ago when we got some lucky breaks and still didn't make the playoffs. We actually have players to build on, a scheme that works when players play well and coaches who will have had a year with their better players - and some new better ones to replace the folks who couldn't keep their cool in the locker room this year.
3. McDaniels will improve. I didn't go into this season expecting him to be without his own difficulties. Did you? He's blown some calls and he's the first to make note of that. Folks are going to question his decisions on play calling - that goes with the job. Even so - do you deeply miss the play calling of Jeremy Bates? I don't. I think that McDaniels has more than earned a chance to show Denver and Broncos Country just how far he can go with a team that he builds, not inherits. Unless, of course, you miss Nate Webster, Jamie Winborn and Dewayne Robertson.
4. We have a lot of young players who make typical younger-player mistakes. Not all are rookies, either. Wesley Woodyard, for example, has had a roller-coaster season. He looks great one week and gets burned the next; sometimes that happens from quarter to quarter. I don't know if he's going to work out, but he's a very good prospect and a very good special-teams player, so you work with him. The best teams have extensive player development, and for us, that will take time. We need time to develop him, and that goes for Josh Barrett, Alphonso Smith, Darcel McBath, David Bruton , Richard Quinn, Spencer Larsen and a whole bunch of other players. Tony Carter showed last week that he's worth a long look. It's not all defense - Kenny McKinley contributed last game, Peyton Hillis may or may not have potential, Ryan Clady is still learning the game, Ryan Harris (who is one of our best) is hurt again, and Tyler Polumbus has been hit and miss (mostly miss). We've got a lot of players who need to develop and some that won't make it through the next training camp. That's okay, too - that's how you build. You develop the best that you can get each season and you let Brian Xanders do his thing on contracts. I hear a lot of things about what the Broncos will and won't do about money, but no one is ready to set out hard numbers yet. We're talking about things that are interesting, but right now, we don't have the knowledge to say we'll do this or we'll do that. One thing I can say? We will be developing players, replacing some with better players and continuing to coach up and develop the ones who do the best. It isn't a quick thing to do well, either.
5. We have needed a plan for years. Now we have one. Will that plan change and adapt? Of course. But even as much as I loved Mike Shanahan, every year was the same plan - claim that you're a player or two away, replace the defensive coordinator, move a bunch of defensive players around, pick up a lot of new (or old) street veterans and repeat the following offseason. Even the offense was troubled - the issue of not picking up short yardage wasn't a sudden thing, this year. It was the same last year. Management too often neglected the team for too long to demand perfection in a single year.
I get the fact that many people don't like McD's play calling. I don't see that as the same kind of problem that some do - I see a lot of problems, far worse problems, with execution. Do you feel that they should be further along? Probably so - and I do, too. But given what he had to start with, I really can't complain all that much. Should we progress next year too? Yes. If we don't, I'll be as irritated as anyone, but I can't sit here and claim that I thought that we'd be all ready by now, problems fixed and ready to hit the playoffs. I didn't. the challenges that each of us saw were real then, and they still are. That doesn't make them overwhelming - we're doing pretty well, just not as well as we'd like to. If the Broncos have the interior of the line improved over the offseason, a lot of things will come together. We could use a few upgrades at certain other positions, too. Like I said - this won't be quick, but at least it's finally started.
6. We're using our players far better. In one sense, this is an expansion of #1, but it's more than that. Do you recall the fuss made about Mario Haggan? His original acquisition was the Goodman's work (and he was well chosen), but his excellence of application is due to his own efforts, Josh McDaniels' and Mike Nolan's. Andre' Goodman has weaknesses, but his coverage is usually excellent. Renaldo Hill? He was a great steal and has been a team leader on the field. How about Bruton and McBath - did we choose well? When you look at who has been brought in and how they have done, we are far above average - finally! There are more changes to make. It will take time to fully use this principle of identifying and obtaining the best of who is available (and the 'best' is NOT necessarily the most expensive), but look at the start that we made this year.
7. We are getting takeaways. Yes, I'd love to see more, but they come when your coverage and rush are both there. On the other side of the ball, I don't listen to the school that claims that Orton should have more INTs - when did anyone keep that stat? However - do you recall how many TOs we didn't get last year? That's changed, in a big way. We're bringing in better players and they are playing a better scheme. It's a process - not an event.
8. Things take time. While this is unfortunate, it is essential. You don't rebuild the kind of disaster that we had a year ago in one offseason, especially when you look at the level of turnover and the issues of developing communication among the players. Top teams tend to congregate near the top of the league - and, they tend to have built the team through vision, coaching and acquisition. The Broncos have begun that process.
Look back at the reasons that were given by so many, guaranteeing failure in the short term. Some of the theories were overstated, but even then there were kernels of truth in many of them. Of course we're struggling. It's Year One of a major reorganization.
Here's something that isn't a problem - the Broncos aren't struggling late in the season because they did so last year or any other year. They are struggling because they are installing new systems, bringing in new players and, yes, it does take more than one season. Belichick, first season with the Patriots? 5-11. Bill Walsh, first season with SF? 2-14. Chuck Noll, first season with the Steelers? 1-13. The list of folks who took over dysfunctional teams and did better than 9-7 in one season is a short one.
Mike Shanahan did a lot of great things for the Broncos and he's earned a place in history, but his last few years were circling the drain. Let's not blame the plumber who took the job of fixing the problems that were left behind. The problems aren't few and they aren't simple. They have little or nothing to do with whether or not you like a draft pick after less than one season, which is kind of silly anyway (If someone can find me a single example of a professional football coach, NFL level, who would agree that it's a good idea to judge a draft after less than a season, I'll apologize for calling this behavior silly. Yes, I do believe in civil and rational discourse, but not in listening to the same inaccurate renderings, over and over. I'm trying to be polite but still pointing out that it's absurd). The problems aren't about whether or not Peyton Hillis is playing well enough to replace LaMont Jordan or whether or not you hate Robert Ayers, Alphonso Smith or whoever. It isn't about whether you think Eddie Royal is being used right or if he's been discovered to have a tell that is costing him, because none of us knows that info anyway.
What it is about is whether or not you're willing to defenestrate yourself over the fact that it takes time to turn a program around. Only a fool would try to walk backwards into the future. Do you want to try doing so, while looking behind you at the things you aren't happy with? I've seen a lot of good football this season and some bad football, but I haven't seen a thing that convinced me that the program isn't going in the right direction.
The question of how the Broncos will play in Philadelphia is misleading. The real issue is, which Broncos will show up? The guys who stopped Dallas and New England in the 4th quarter or the guys who laid down for JaMarcus Russell? The coaches get a lot of flack if the players don't execute, but that's often not their issue - especially if they're still playing with some leftovers who laid down for the last management team. The Broncos do have the players to win this game, even on the road in Philly.
They don't however, have the players who can make a batch of mistakes whenever we get close to scoring or stopping the other team and still win. Maybe the Colts can do that, this year. Even the Saints found out that they can't play that game without losing at it sooner or later. One consistent? The two games that Tyler Polumbus and Russ Hochstein played well recently, we won. The defense needs to step up as well and quite over-pursuing on the backside, but we have had the ability to outscore other teams. We haven't always used it - we're still leaving points on the field. Those (including Tom Brady, who knows a bit about this) who noted that the system takes a couple of years to implement were also right.
It's a multiple-timezone trip to the East, and that's rarely good news for Denver. Week 1 saw us eking out a win in Cincinnati. We haven't managed to play well for our East Coast wins. But, that doesn't mean that we can't win this game. It isn't the kind of challenge that Indianapolis is, but it's a big one, even so. We are still, hard as it is to believe, in the playoff hunt. This game matters a a lot, on that level. Since I don't see us going deep into the playoffs, I'm not as concerned with whether we win as how we approach playing this one. Having had the game moved to the later time slot on Sunday afternoon is an advantage - Let's hope that the Broncos make the best use of it!
Even after dissecting the dissonance from Sunday, there are far worse things in the sports world than being 8-6 going into Philly. I'd like to offer two examples.
In the first, we have only to look back on our NFL record-setting collapse at the end of last season. We dropped a similar game last week and it's easy to consider the two seasons in similar fashion - but to be honest, that's a pretty extensive exaggeration. Among the things that we didn't do this year are to give away the ball constantly. We also have actually recovered some, even though we didn't do enough on Sunday. Even so, both are improvements. So are our players and coaches. They're not perfect yet? I agree. They're not better than Slowik and Bates? Of course they are. And, there are worse fates. Just ask Steve Rosenbloom at the Chicago Tribune:
"There will be the usual griping about the Cover-2 defense today. But the Bears played hardly any of it Sunday. Really, they haven't played it much all year. And they didn't play a lot of it last year.
The Bears play a lot of two-deep safeties only when they get opponents in long down and distances. And they haven't been able to do that much lately.
"The defense has evolved away from the (Cover-2)," Cameron said. "I had to change my whole mindset because I remembered going against Lovie (Smith) in St. Louis and playing all the (Cover-2). Looking at all of their games, I realized how committed they are to playing single coverage on the outside."
See, it's really not about the scheme at this point. It's not even about the players.
This is what bankruptcy looks like. There simply is nothing left."
At the Broncos' worst, they aren't close to this. We no longer leave a standard Cover-1 shell, even though our rushing defense was inexcusable against Oakland. Chicago has done exactly what Mike Shanahan and Bob Slowik combined to do - ignore the modern usage of the safety position and invite completions on the outside, balanced by leaving large openings to run through. Baltimore was appropriately grateful for both invitations, exactly as they should have been, and the rout was on.
Not only did Jay Cutler throw his 23rd, 24th and 25th INTs, while notching not a single TD (19/25 for the season, for those who hate Kyle Orton today) and not only did he manage a vile 7.9 QB rating, his backup (C. Hanie) threw for a lousy 8.3 QB rating and still out-performed Jay.
You thought the Broncos game was discouraging? There is a line of folks paying good money to jump off the former Sears Tower rather than watch Chicago take on Minnesota next week. One of the Baltimore writers summed it up well:
Baltimore Sun sportswriter Kevin Van Valkenburg, in his "Five Things We Learned" from the Ravens' victory, notes Fox analyst Brian Billick's comparison of Jay Cutler to Jeff George and takes it one step further: He speculates that Cutler might be the secret spawn of the former Colts quarterback. "They're both from Indiana, and both strong-armed, knuckle-headed, franchise-killing quarterbacks," Van Valkenburg writes. "Cutler is either the worst good quarterback of his generation, or the best bad quarterback of his generation, just like George. The resemblance has become too much to ignore. At this point, all he needs is a mustache."
Steve Rosenbloom had a number of good lines this week (which is also very much like shooting fish in a barrel, but it's still a living for him). This one was a great short summary, though:
"Cutler's first interception was a pass forced to Devin Aromashodu, a bad decision that has become the house special. But hey, at least it took him four plays before throwing a pick."
Well, at least he didn't make anyone wait long to see how the day was going to go ;-). It's a cheap grin, but it beats weeping over the Broncos season. Rosenbloom's headline of the season may have been:
Holiday special: Order your Jay Cutler No. 7.9 jersey and get three INTs thrown in for free!
In the second possibility I've referred to, we could still have Jay Cutler and a few less draft picks. I couldn't guess who we would and would not have, since the decisions in the draft were dependent on those 5 picks between 1-90, but I'd hate to see this team without David Bruton, Darcel McBath or Knowshon Moreno. I know - Moreno is having some rookie problems, but he's also a very good RB with a bright future. About a year ago, I wrote an article on the problems of teaching a running back the Broncos' rushing system. It's one of the toughest to learn, since much of it is counterintuitive. That means that I'm far from being deeply concerned with Moreno, who still leads all rookies in rushing yards.
But let's face something head-on: Jay Cutler is doing a Jeff George imitation that out-rivals Jeff George. He's helpfully starting games by tossing an INT or two just to let everyone know what kind of game it will be. His line is weak and his receivers less than optimal, but you just can't blame anyone but Jay for his increasing ability to create completions with players in various and different uniforms. There's just something so, I don't know, egalitarian about that. On one level you have to admire his generosity of spirit, in the best trends of the holidays.
Folks in Denver didn't think that Jay had a lot of giving in his nature, and I'm glad that we've put that lie to rest. While some, like the male population of Illinois, might bicker about just who he's completing passes to, you have to give him credit for two things. First, he completes a lot of passes, and secondly, he obviously believes far more in sharing the ball than anyone could have suspected last winter. I wanted to take this opportunity to thank him for his dedication to those principles. He's also done everything in his power to protect the Broncos' investment in Chicago's draft pick. How can you describe such a man as petty, mean-spirited or self-serving? Considering all that he's been serving up, I think that we owe him an apology. Sorry, Jay. I guess that I had no real idea just how much you liked the Broncos. But as things have played out, I appreciate you more than I did since the day Mike Shanahan and Company drafted you. Your actions have been a much needed ray of joy in an otherwise bleak and dismal week.
Just keep it up for two more games, Jay. That's all I want for Christmas. Happy Holidays to all!