Going into the 2009 season, the Denver Broncos are being written off by all but a very few media observers. The reasons for their disdain are not entirely specious - the Broncs have changed their head coach, offensive and defensive coordinators and schemes, replaced the defensive staff, starting quarterbacks, fired players wholesale (some of whom can't even get an audition with other teams, after a dreadful 2008), and turned over all of the position coaches save for offensive standouts Bobby Turner and Rick Dennison. The schedule, if you accept last season's rankings as valid, is nothing short of brutal. Their organization has had more drama than TNT.
But the process of rebuilding, if I can use the R word, is rarely easy. If you remove the statistics from the first few games of last season, the Broncos' offense was simply ordinary. Their ability to put points on the board and wins on their record was mediocre, while the defense was horrible. Head Coach Josh McDaniels has inherited a difficult task, but it's not impossible. He started the process by creating a game plan for the transformation of an organization that was too often laying down and accepting blowout losses as just 'part of the game'. He sold his vision to Pat Bowlen, Joe Ellis and Jim Goodman, and the die was cast.
"It's all very simple what my motive is - winning. That is the only reason I'm here. I'm not interested in talking about anything else but. Every minute of this job is done with winning in mind. That's all I talk to the team about. Winning is always the message."
Peyton Hillis. Josh McDaniels said, "he is kind of an older-school type of guy in terms of being hard-nosed. Everything he does is that way, you are right. Physical fits him. Tough fits him. (He) plays smart. He plays a lot of different positions on our team. He has got very versatile skills. Those are the things we look for in all our players, and Peyton seems to be one of the few that it all comes naturally to him. That is just the way he is. He is a great guy to have on your team, a great teammate. We are fortunate to have him on our team." Casey Wiegmann said that when Peyton went down last year, it took the air out of the Broncos' sails - his enthusiasm is that contagious. Hillis is involved in supporting early reading among grade school students.
Spencer Larsen. Won the inaugural Pac-10 Student-Athlete of the Year Award. Earned a 3.7 GPA at Arizona. Took 2003-4 off for a two-year Mormon mission. A vocal leader and co-captain of his Arizona team. In college he was referred to as the 'Heart and Soul' of his defensive squad. He has a reputation for not being shy about vocally demanding the best from himself and his teammates.
Darcel McBath. Defensive captain, Texas Tech, 2008 Currently playing as Brian Dawkins' understudy.
Kyle Orton. Team captain for the Chicago Bears. Quiet leader, well-liked by his teammates. Works with an environmental organization called Cool Globes in Chicago.
Lonie Paxton. Although eyebrows raised at his signing, Paxton has two things to commend him: He hasn't missed a snap in years, and he serves as vice president of Active Force Foundation, which offers disabled people the opportunity to pursue an active lifestyle
Kenny Peterson. He's never smoked or drank, and speaks to youth groups in the D.A.R.E about staying away from drugs and alcohol.
David Bruton. A captain at Notre Dame, Bruton carries his love for his son, Jarden, on his sleeve and his passion for football out on the field. Another young man with a lot going for him, he achieved a double major in political science and sociology while in college.
Lee Robinson,, CFA. His college coach, Earnest Jones, said, "...having Robinson is like having a coach on the field."
Tony Scheffler. 3.63 GPA in college.
Alphonso Smith. Defensive leader in college for Wake Forest
Brandon Stokley. Brandon served as the spokesman for the Meningitis Foundation of America (MFA) in 2004. A native of Louisiana, Stokley also assisted the victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita by donating clothing, food and supplies to people in the Gulf Region.
Casey Wiegmann. Along with being a leader on the Broncos offensive line, here's what denverbroncos.com has to say, "Spearheaded a fundraising effort by the Broncos that assisted in raising more than $50,000 to help rebuild his high school after it was devastated by a tornado on May 25, 2008... Served as an intern for the Legacy Financial Group during the 2005-06 offseasons... Worked as co-chairman for the Chiefs First Downs for Down Syndrome program, which raised $250,000 annually based on the production of the Chiefs’ offensive line, and is involved with the Denver chapter"
There are more, but the list is sufficient. The Broncos have loaded the roster with the smart and talented. The ones who lead are also those who excel, on and off the field. If the Broncos are to be successful in this rebuilding season - and I believe that they can be - they will have to rely on intellect, dedication and leadership as well as physical talent. they have begun to stack the roster with players who can lead on and off the field, those who are dedicated to more than just their own careers. As I did the research here, I found that nearly every player was involved with training camps for underprivileged children. Peyton Hillis and yes, even Brandon Marshall were involved in a child's reading program.
I am not going to suggest that this year will be easy. I don't know that we'll do more than come close to breaking even. I'm open to more, and I hope for better but I've read NFL history. These kinds of turnarounds aren't easy, and they're not usually fast. Yet the road back to prominence often requires sacrifice, and the Broncos are trying to achieve something not easily attained. They want to rebuild back to another Super Bowl while achieving rapid competitiveness. They have no intention of being mired in year after year of changing scheme and overhauling personnel, as many clubs have done. Coach McDaniels has obviously decided that in order to lead the league, you have to have leaders on your team. It makes a great deal of sense.
One of the advantages of bringing together a group of leaders is that leaders tend, by their nature, to be self-starters and self-directed individuals. They usually understand what it takes to be a leader and they try to manifest that in their professional lives. That means extra time in the weight room and the film room. It means listening to the senior leaders on the team. It means a better team and tends to continue to get better - that's what a leader enjoys doing. Leaders tend to take pleasure in personal improvement and a team-supportive environment.
I have to give credit to everyone from Pat Bowlen on down on this one. It's obvious that collecting players who are leaders is a priority. Last season, no one seemed to be willing to take up that role, especially on defense. DJ was being moved yet again and when moved out of the Mike position he became less of a leader. Nate Webster was supposedly leading the charge on the defensive play-calling, and there was no evidence that he was good at it. Champ isn't usually a vocal leader - he has a different style, more centered on example than vocalization. That weakness - that lack of leadership - was only one in a laundry list of issues, but without it the team was missing an essential cog, without which they did not seem capable of driving themselves upward. It obviously started at the top, with Mike Shanahan too long ignoring the needs of the defense and the skill-sets of the special teams. That isn't meant as a dig at Shanahan - just a statement of fact. The players complained about not even knowing what the scheme was, what was required of them. The result was odious.
In any successful organization, the quality of the leadership will determine the quality of the outcome. Leadership means having specific roles, clearly defined, from which the players can take their direction. It means personal accountability, effort, striving and production. It's the glue that creates a cohesive whole. Without it, you only have a mass of individuals, like the fingers on a hand. With it, you have a fist, powerful and daunting.
Leadership is the prow of the ship, slicing through waves of opposition. It can turn a contender into a winner.