Much has been said in the days following the Broncos first preseason game. Some I agreed with, others not so much. John Bena's recent article(which appears to have disappeared) and a FanPost by Nick Cast resonated the most in my mind. Their poignant and thoughtful observations seemed spot on.
So I will not rehash what has already been said, instead, I will focus on the one thing I have not heard much talk of. Where is the identity of our defense? Obviously, with Brian Dawkins and other leaders out last week the lack of an identity was as glaring as it could be. However, the identity I speak of is one which the Broncos have lacked for nearly four years now.
The thing about unit identities is that they typically have to be centered upon and projected by a single player. A player that is born and bred by its team. More often than not, the player is a star linebacker. For no matter how hard a coach may try to mold a defensive unit, they rarely are able to mold the units identity. The few who have had success in this regard are quite rare and equally unique - Buddy Ryan, Dick LeBeau, and Jim Johnson to name a few. If you disagree, watch the Eagles defensive unit this year. They played for their coach last season, but I expect to see the units identity slowly wither away without its heart and soul, the great Jim Johnson.
Where does that leave the Broncos? Unfortunately, though we have a couple of great coaches on the defensive side of the ball, the identity and the "Nobody runs on the Denver Broncos" mantra must be enforced by a player. The Al Wilson's of the world, if you will.
As you may recall, our team once had an identity and it was Big Al's talent and demand for excellence that molded the defensive unit into Championship form in the middle part of the last decade. Mike Shanahan, however, was not interested in dominant personalities during the final years of his reign. He spent most of his time gutting the defense in pursuit of, what, I am not longer certain. Hindsight is always 20-20, and looking back I am not sure where or what purpose Shanahan had for this franchise. I digress.
Last season, Brian Dawkins helped create an identity for this unit. It was quite effective for a time, but when their backs were up against the wall and one had to dig deep to find the resolve to achieve victory, they faltered. This is not an attack upon any one player or their ability to lead, it is simply a statement of fact that there is not true identity for this defense. The reason Dawkins can only provide a spark is because, historically, safeties are usually leaders in a support role in regards to identity creation and growth within a unit. Being Bronco-centric, think John Lynch to Al Wilson, Steve Atwater to John Mobley, or Billy Thompson to Randy Gradishar.
I was certain that Elvis Dumervil had taken control of the teams identity, however, a player cannot do much sitting on the sidelines - not matter how respected he may be by his teammates. The void he has left is likely much larger than his mere absence on the football field will cause. Another linebacker must step into Dumervil's role.
Before you start shouting, Mario Haggan, Mario Haggan, know this; Players respond to great leaders with great ability. Haggan is an excellent leader on this team and a fine linebacker, but would you consider him a great linebacker? John understood this when he put Elvis Dumervil on the cover of the Broncos Annual. If Elvis is gone for th year, where does that leave the identity of the defense?
Josh McDaniels has struggled mightily to repair the damage wrought by a short-sighted Mike Shanahan and I am convinced he is on the right track. Sure he has made mistakes along the way, but he has made the correct steps in assuring he will coach a hard-nosed football team with true identities. Losing Elvis was a massive setback to this ultimate goal, but I think we may have an ace in the hole. The question I pose is one of timing. Is it to soon?
The guy I am targeting to make the transition to leader, in the Al Wilson/Elvis Dumervil mold is Robert Ayers. That is a lot to ask a young guy and I am not sure he is quite ready for that kind of demand. However, if he continues to produce on the field and continues to be vocal and hard-nosed, he will earn the kind of respect necessary from his teammates to help solidify an identity for this unit. We have many leaders on this team, but the biggest names are of the quiet leader variety, like D.J. Williams or Champ Bailey. They lead by example and through big plays, but those kinds of leaders need the Al Wilson-like personality to demand everyone dig a little deeper to get the job done when it matters most. Whether it be a sack on third down or an interception in the end zone returned 99 yards, it takes an identity to produce that kind of success.
Is Robert Ayers ready? Is he even able of such a demand? I do not know, but my hope is that he is ready. The 2010 Broncos need that to be the case. If it is not to be, then all will not be lost for this season. As Mario Haggan or whoever leads this team on the field of play will still be a huge upgrade over Nate Webster of 2008. We should all remember where this defensive unit was just two short seasons ago.