Between the end of the 2008 NFL Season and the draft of 2009, the Broncos have gone through major changes in identity. Among these:
- Denver's two-time Super Bowl-winning coach Mike Shanahan was fired.
- Denver's QB of the future Jay Cutler demanded (and received) a trade elsewhere.
- Denver received a bag of first-day picks for '09 and '10.
- Along with the head-coaching change, Denver changed at offensive and defensive coordinators.
- Several players were let go, and several new players came aboard.
- Denver fans received the new schedule, and it looked brutal to most observers.
The thinking amongst fans can vary widely. Those who look purely at the win / loss record will divide into "La La Land" optimists (those 13-3 types) and the "gloom and doom" crowd (those who believe the team record will be the same or worse). Those views are fine, but there are other ways to judge a team.
Imagine a poor team has a moderate schedule and has a poor record. Now imagine that the same team gets better with coaching personnel and players the following year, but faces a tougher schedule? The team might be "better", but the tougher record could cover that up. The team may have the same record the next year, or even lose an extra game or two. Would it be fair to judge the team as "worse" off?
Let's take that thinking a step further. What if everyone just "assumed" the team would perform poorly since the schedule was going to be tougher? Perhaps the tougher team might be at a level to compete with teams that were previously thought to be too good. Perhaps that team might now be at a level to compete on an even playing field.
Could Denver be such a team? Consider the following thoughts.
Denver has improved at many player positions
First, consider the safety position. Brian Dawkins is sorely missed in Philly right now. He revolutionized the safety position in football, and (even at his age) continues to play at a star level. Renaldo Hill lines up next to him. Denver can still develop Josh Barrett and Vernon Fox behind them, or (as some fans hope) get a safety in this draft (perhaps Patrick Chung).
Two things come to mind here. One, the personnel at safety are certainly an upgrade. Two, with the new head coach and defensive coordinators running the show, the safety position will likely be used properly for the first time in about two years (safeties out of the box in zone support). This should support the cornerback positions mightily.
And at corner, Denver still has Champ Bailey. Across from him Denver has parted ways with Dre' Bly and picked up Andre' Goodman.
I continue to feel Bly had a bad showing at the same time Bailey's stats dipped (neither had two "over safeties" for two years, and no pass-rush help up front in the same time period). This was quadruple trouble for Bly, who also had to contend with extra passes (being across from Bailey) and the disadvantage of being a gambling-style CB without safety support.
Either way, Goodman is a solid CB and will have the advantage of better safety support and a more-aggressive pass rush. (How do I know the pass rush will improve? I think it is just reasonable to believe that our new coaching staff will not be rushing only three players like the old regime did. Call it an educated hunch). Rashod Moulton, Josh Bell, and Jack Williams might compete for the nickel position. Then again, a draft pick may round out the position.
The linebackers still have Williams, the hands-down "safe" veteran on the corps. Newcomer Andra Davis is likely to be the run stopper at an ILB position. Fan favorite Wesley Woodyard is also likely in the mix. If he can stay healthy, Boss Bailey is a contributor as well. A lot of fans want to see Spencer Larsen at LB again (instead of FB). Newcomer Darrell Reid might surprise a few folks, too. This leaves Mario Haggan and Louis Green to fight for reserve spots on the depth chart. Right?
Wrong! In the hybrid 3-4 defense, we can expect some of the current DEs to get a shot at an OLB position. Players like Doom (Elvis Dumervil) and Jarvis Moss have been discussed for such a role, and perhaps others. I also haven't mentioned the possibility of a draft pick coming in and making some noise in camp this summer.
Now consider the following for the LB positions. In a 3-4 defense, a team can have a group of linebackers that are not as elite as they would need to be in a 4-3. The reason is because you have an extra LB on the field to play with. Denver has quality linebackers, but may now add a LB on the field. I think this bodes well for the defense.
The defensive line is the one question mark on the defense, but I think it is already in better hands than last year. Ronnie Fields is a true NT, but may not be the answer. Marcus Thomas or Carlton Powell might play at backup NT or move to DE. In the meantime, our DEs can be contributors, but we might lose some of them to the OLB squad. With improved coaching, a better system, and perhaps a draft pick, the line can't do worse than last year. At the very least, with at least one LB joining the rush, we should see a better pass rush than we have for some time.
All in all, on the defense I expect that we are improved at SAF, CB, and LB. At DL we will either break even or improve somewhat. With the change in coaching, I expect the DL to get some help (such as an extra rusher, and an actual system so that players know what they're doing this year). I'll be surprised if a draft pick or two isn't spent on the DL.
The first thing one notices is the loss of Cutler. I've made my own thoughts on Jay clear. I'm not going to start bashing him after believing he was our future QB last year. We lost a good QB, but it was his own doing. Story over.
However, the compensation we received was fantastic. Two first-rounders and a third-rounder. We also traded a fifth-rounder to get Orton (that's my context. It wasn't a QB for QB trade).
Now we have two QBs that won't set the field on fire (Kyle Orton, Chris Simms), but they will be careful in managing the games they play. Remember how bored Jake Plummer was when he was "forced" to manage games instead of being set loose? Those were the games with no INTs, resulting in wins. The same goes for Cutler. Remember when he had to play a couple of teams where he was coached to just "take what they give you"? He WON those games. And that's what these guys do. Boring? Sure. But I can do with a lot less INTs and a lot more balance on the offense.
And these QBs have excellent weapons. Brandon Marshall is still here, and his (injured) arm is going to be better than last year. Eddie Royal is still a high-octane performer. Brandon Stokley is still one of the most dangerous threats at slot. I'll take this combo of receivers any day. Several other WRs are on the roster, but not likely at all to crack the starting lineup.
And we're improved at RB. Peyton Hillis is healed, and will get a look (having survived the big purge in the offseason). Ryan "The Train" Torain will get another chance to prove himself post injury. While names like Selvin Young and Andre Hall are still around, it's hard not to notice pick-ups with names like J.J. Arrington and Correll Buckhalter. Throw in LaMont Jordan to round out the roster, and this is a very deep running-back corps.
Most importantly, the OL coach (Rick Dennison) and RB coach (Bobby Turner) are still around after the "night of the long knives", so the running game is likely to be something to behold (having been shelved by last year's "pass happy" coordinator).
The OL is still intact. The biggest need is depth for the future on the interior. But for now, Denver sports two of the youngest and best OTs in the game of football (Ryan Clady and Ryan Harris), and a solid interior to match. Our QB should be safe, and our RBs should do some damage.
I like the idea of Andrew Pinnock at FB (FB Hillis can keep playing RB, and FB Spencer Larsen can play at LB). And we still have Daniel Graham at TE; one of the best blocking-TEs in football (and a better than average receiving-TE). The only question is whether Scheffler returns. If he does (and his foot stays healthy), we have two terrific TEs. If not, we play as a one TE team. No big deal. (Or we go after another TE).
Denver has draft picks to play with
Not just several draft picks, but first day draft picks. This means the potential to score immediate impact players, and long-term solutions. Reading over the previous two sections (offense and defense), you can use five picks on the first day this year to patch up an area of need. Then there remain several later picks to pin some hopes onto. Next year, Denver will likely have at least four first-day picks.
I'm just using some old coaching intuition here (and as a HS level coordinator I obviously never drafted players), but I think it's reasonable to assume that out of five first-day picks, we won't bomb on all of them. Surely at least one or two will pan out. And we should still have a later pick that surprises us too. I'm guessing that we have a minimum of four players that come out of this draft that turn into fan favorites during this season. That would be a terrific draft (in my opinion).
The new HC and coordinators are a wild card (but a good one)
Nobody knows how Coach McDaniels and his crew will work out. He may shock the football world and take Denver deep into the playoffs, or bomb worse than our darkest fears. But I will say this. The defensive play-calling was abysmal last year, and I detected no hint of any formal system on that side of the ball. I remember a player being quoted as saying that the guys on the defense didn't know their roles, the expectations, or the defense in general. That affirmed my suspicion.
The offense wasn't much better. Chuck the ball deep and often, and don't establish any kind of run. This led to untimely turnovers and fresh defenses every time we took the field, and defenses could predict a deep spread almost every play.
So in my mind, it comes down to the idea that we may have a bad coaching crew, but they won't be any worse than last year. And it isn't likely that they are that bad. In fact, our coordinators and HC have already made moves towards establishing systems. We know that the defense will be in a 3-4, and we've heard "Ameboa" thrown around for the offense (which is more of a personnel philosophy than a system). At least these guys have a plan, and that makes them better than what we had last year.
Brutal. There's no lipstick to put on this pig. It's a rough schedule.
Dont take 'em for granted, but -
Bengals (4-11) - likely win
Browns (4-11) - likely win
Raiders (5-11) - a bad team, but also a division rival. On the other hand, they don't know what to prepare for this year
Chiefs (2-14) - see the note on the Raiders
Toss up -
Cowboys (9-7) - not a great team, but a group of very, very talented individuals
Chargers (8-8) - I believe they are in decline, but still dangerous
Redskins - (8-8) not a strong team in the NFC East, but not a bad team by any stretch
Eagles - (9-7) Will have to adjust to life without Dawkins. But often a contender in the NFC.
Tough. Very Tough -
Patriots (11-5) - and they get Brady back
Ravens (11-5) - I don't think this team was a fluke
Champion Steelers (12-4) - A solid organization from top to bottom
Giants (12-4) - as tough as they come in the NFC
Colts (12-4) - I think this team is about to start trending downwards, but they still have incredible talent
Here is how I view the schedule:
Four teams are on my "should win list". Two are division rivals, so that's 6 games altogether. Rivalry games are often split, but we have the advantage this year of new coaching and systems to confuse the bad guys. Instead of a split, I think we win 3/4 of the KC and Oak games. We are "supposed" to beat teams like CLE and CIN, so let's say we do. Chalk us at 5 wins so far.
There are four "toss-up" teams. Note that none of them were below .500 last year. I think we split SD. I'll be conservative and say that we can beat the Skins, even if we lose to DAL and PHI. Two more wins, and we get to 7 wins so far.
Five teams remain, and to be honest I just don't think we should be beating any of them. But "any given Sunday..." So I'm going to say we pull out an upset in one or two games. This gives us about 8.5 for the season.
Sounds depressing doesn't it? I don't think so, and here's why...
Denver needs to do two things this year.
First, they need to prove (to some fans at least) that the loss of Shanahan and Cutler isn't the end of the Broncos franchise. And they have to do it with a very daunting schedule. Football-savvy fans (like the ones to be found at MHR) will look at on-field performance, not just the record. If the Broncos play solid football, even in losing efforts against strong teams, the core group of intelligent fans will give the team a pass for '09. They will do this because they see progress, even if the record isn't fantastic.
Second, despite the reasoning of the above paragraph, everyone is still going to want something solid to hold onto, either a good record or a playoff chance. That's just the nature of the beast. Can Denver manage a good record, or a close shot at the playoffs?
I think they can at least come close. Remember this above all else: We are not competing with the rest of the NFL. We are only competing with the AFC West during the regular season.
In my mind, Oakland has been run into the ground by Al Davis for several years. Oakland fans (like our
good friends over at SABP) have even started to notice this, and Al seems to be losing the support of fans that were once solidly in his corner.
Kansas City is a good organization, and they are in a long-term building mode. Where Oakland has been impatient and gambled on instant gratification, KC has been slowly trying to rebuild with a patient but wise approach. They are moving up the talent ladder. And while the climb is slow, they are taking an approach that will pay off for a long time. I think they mirror Denver in this respect, but Denver starts out ahead.
SD is a team that has been ahead of Denver, but declining. I predicted they would worsen last year, and they did. Still, in the recently bad AFC West, 8-8 deserved a playoff spot. The key is, "Have SD and DEN switched places yet". In other words, is Denver now able to be the top team in a poor division?
If so, Denver has a shot at the playoffs. The flip side is that, despite the higher ranking SD had last year, the two "similar ranking" games SD and DEN got this year would seem to help SD a little more than DEN this year. It is just an unfortunate quirk.
But have no doubt. Denver controls its own destiny. The key games are the games against SD. That, and the hope that one places in a team moving up with youth over a decent team that's getting a little older.
(And who knows. Without the Rivers-Cutler rivalry, perhaps Denver fans can go back to hating the team they really want to hate more.)
For me, I'll be looking for on-field performance above all else. Winning may be "everything", but I'll be looking for indications that we will be passing SD, while keeping KC at bay.
All the best,