DENVER, CO - SEPTEMBER 18: John Elway, Executive Vice President of Football Operations for the Denver Broncos, looks on from the bench as the Broncos warm up prior to facing the Cincinnati Bengals at Invesco Field at Mile High on September 18, 2011 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
This is just a series of random thoughts spurred on by the many debates surrounding the Broncos which I have read during the first three weeks of the 2011 season. Somewhere along the line, the language has become confused, the descriptions blurred, the intent overshadowed by the expectations. John Fox's repeated statements about playing the players who give the team the best chance to win has come to be equated with the notion that this is some form of guarantee that the starting quarterback WILL win.
Needless to say fans are ranging from discouragement to outrage. There are lots of voices crying out that they know the answer that the team needs in order to return to prominence. Undoubtedly, there is merit in many of the views put forward. There are many who are tired of watching a vanilla offense led by a quarterback who is commonly portrayed as a glorified backup.
How did we get to this point? How did we reach a place where fans who have sold out and filled a stadium every year since the early 1970s are suddenly talking about not attending the games, of selling off their precious season tickets (by the way, I'd be more than happy to take them off your hands if you'd like. LOL). John Fox was expected to revamp the team and bring us some wins. As many voices have demanded, "Where are those wins?"
Take a jump with me and let's talk.
In some ways, I feel like I'm reliving my first twelve years as a Broncos fan. My parents moved to Denver in the summer of 1969. We watched Neil Armstrong land on the moon as we settled into a new home and began the process of making friends with our neighbors. Fall brought not only the start of my fifth grade year but also something I'd never had before -- having grown up in Iowa -- a hometown, professional football team for which to cheer.
To say it was a disappointment would be a vast understatement. Gerald Phipps was the owner, Lou Saban was the head coach and the starting quarterback was Steve Tensi. Floyd Little was about the only bright spot. As a fledgling fan, I listened to impassioned cries from longer-term fans asking the team to ditch Tensi and bring in the quarterback who would save the franchise. Needless to say, this didn't happen overnight.
Phipps held control of the team from the start of my fandom in 1969 to the offseason between 1980 and 1981. During that time, Saban was replaced by Jerry Smith, Smith by John Ralston and Ralston by Red Miller. Saban went through Tensi, Pete Liske and Steve Ramsey as starting quarterbacks. It wasn't until Denver's second season under Ralston and quarterback Charlie Johnson that I got to see Denver finish a season with a winning record -- it was a whopping 7-5-2. However, just three seasons later, Ralston resigned after receiving a vote of no confidence from his players.
Miller brought in Dallas quarterback Craig Morton and immediately took the Broncos to a 12-2-0 record and an appearance in the Super Bowl. After two 10-6-0 seasons were followed by an 8-8-0 season, and the Broncos were sold to Edgar Kaiser, Miller was fired. So my first twelve years saw one owner, four coaches, five starting quarterbacks, five losing seasons, one .500 season, six winning seasons, three playoff appearances and one Super Bowl appearance. The Super Bowl appearance, by the way, was the result of Denver's "Orange Crush" defense -- which ranked 3rd in points and 9th in yards -- more than anything else.
Why did I pick a period of twelve seasons? I did this because twelve full seasons have passed since John Elway triumphantly held up his second Lombardi Trophy after leading Denver to a 34-19 victory over the Atlanta Falcons. In those twelve years since Elway has retired, we've seen one owner, three coaches (we've just added our fourth coach since Elway left), we've had four starting quarterbacks (five if you count Tebow's three starts in 2010), we've had two losing seasons, three .500 seasons, and made the playoffs four times. Since our last trip to the playoffs, we've had two losing seasons, two .500 seasons, one winning season and no playoff appearances. I'm seeing a lot of the same anger and angst that I remember from my early years as a fan.
So where does that leave us today and what does that have to do with Fox's claim that he's going to play the players who give us the best chance to win. Notice he never claimed that they WOULD win, only that he was going to play those players that he thought gave us the best chance -- which if you think about it, is a somewhat sad commentary on the team, given how 2011 has started.
Now there is a tendency to point the finger at Kyle Orton as being the primary reason that the team is not winning. I'd like to go on record as saying that I'm not particularly confident that Kyle Orton is the answer we need at quarterback. Perhaps, if he had a top-5 defense, he would be up to the task. As it is, our defense was nowhere near that level in 2010. If you will recall, Denver's defense was either in last place, or very near it in virtually every category officially measured and recorded by the NFL. Even the best quarterbacks in the league have struggled when their defenses are poor -- Elway '94 (12th season), defense ranked 25th in points, 28th in yards, finished 7-9-0; Manning '01 (4th season), defense ranked 31st in points, 29th in yards, finished 6-10-0; Brees '07 (7th season), defense ranked 25th in points, 27th in yards, finished 7-9-0.
If quarterbacks like those struggled, was it realistic for Denver fans to expect lots of wins from Orton when the defense was abominable? I'm not saying that we should hold Orton accountable for his mistakes -- things like interceptions thrown, fumbles committed, avoidable sacks taken, etc. Especially since we have seen an improvement in the defense. After three games, Denver is 13th in points allowed, 15th in yards per game, 12th in third down percentage, but only 23rd in sacks. What I would suggest is that our team as a whole is not particularly good. However, even that doesn't tell the whole story. There are other factors that have exacerbated the situation and magnified Orton's weaknesses.
Let's start with injuries that have landed projected starters on the inactives list. LB D. J. Williams was inactive for two games and did not start the third. DT Marcus Thomas has yet to be activated for a game. DT Ty Warren ended up on IR without ever playing a game. WR Demaryius Thomas has yet to make the active roster. DE Elvis Dumervil and CB Champ Bailey have both missed two games. DE Derrick Harvey, RB Knowshon Moreno, WR Brandon Lloyd, WR Eddie Royal, and TE Julius Thomas have also all missed game time. I would speculate that missing Lloyd, Royal and Julius Thomas has made Orton's already difficult job even harder.
Then there's the whole list of "if only's" that could have changed the outcome of the losses -- the most popular one of course, is "If only Orton hadn't simply dropped the ball on that one play, we might have tied, or -- gasp -- even won the game. Here are a few more "if onlys" from games 1 and 3 (I'm not including game 2 since it was a win).
Game 1 - Oakland
If only Moreno didn't lose six yards on 2-9-DEN48 (the next pass was for 12 yards and Denver punted).
If only Orton didn't throw an incomplete on 3-5-OAK10 (the Broncos had to settle for a field goal instead of a touchdown).
If only Colquitt's punt on 4-3-DEN38 wasn't tipped and downed at the DEN42 (Oakland scored a touchdown on the following drive).
If only Moreno didn't fumble on 1-10-DEN20 (Oakland got a field goal on the following drive).
If only Orton didn't throw three consecutive incompletes starting with 1-10-DEN38.
If only Prater didn't miss a 56-yard field goal with 4:22 left in the second quarter.
If only the defense didn't allow the Raiders to march down the field to kick a 21-yard field goal after Prater's miss.
If only Orton didn't throw an interception on 2-10-DEN47 with thirty-two seconds left in the half.
If only the defense didn't give up thirty-six yards, allowing Oakland to kick a field goal following the interception.
If only Orton didn't get sacked on 3-5-OAK5 with 2:31 left in the third quarter (Denver had to settle for a field goal instead of a touchdown).
If only Orton didn't fumble on 1-10-OAK24 with 14:13 left in the fourth quarter.
If only the defense didn't allow the Raiders to go sixty-five yards in three plays for a touchdown following the fumble.
If only Orton didn't get sacked on 1-10-OAK41, then threw two incomplete passes.
If only the defense didn't allow Oakland to run 3:43 off the clock to end the game after the Broncos had cut the deficit to three points.
Game 3 - @ TEN
If only the offense didn't go three and out, leading 7-0 and after the defense had forced Tennessee to go three and out (the Titans tied the score on their next drive).
If only Orton didn't throw an interception on 2-6-TEN47 in the second quarter (though this ultimately didn't cost the Broncos anything since the defense forced a Titans fumble on Tennessee's next drive).
If only McGahee didn't lose four yards on 3-4-DEN26 (the Broncos had to punt).
If only Orton didn't throw an incomplete on 1-2-TEN2.
If only McGahee had gained more than one yard on three runs starting with 2-2-TEN2 (the Broncos turned the ball over on downs).
If only the defense didn't allow the Titans to go 95 yards in seven plays, and burn 10:36 off the clock, in the fourth quarter to score the winning touchdown.
If only Orton didn't throw an interception on 3-11-TEN39 with 1:46 left in the game.
Yes, Orton has struggled. Yes, he should be held accountable for his mistakes. Yet, wouldn't it also be appropriate to hold the other members on the team who have made mistakes accountable for those mistakes as well? For example, what about Spencer Larsen who released through a gigantic hole in the offensive line to run a short pass route -- totally ignoring a blitzing linebacker coming through the same hole, an untouched linebacker who then proceeded to drop Orton to the turf. Or, McGahee who was unable to gain two yards on three runs inside the Tennessee two yard line. So again, yes, Orton has struggled and failed to build fan confidence that he deserves the starting role, yet he's not the only problem on the team.
Something else that often gets lost in the whole debate over the quarterback situation is that John Fox and John Elway may have set very different priorities from what fans expected on what they wanted to accomplish this year. Fox may have graded the defense as the bigger priority for attention, may have believed that an offense that was 19th in points and 13th in yards last season may have only needed a few tweaks here and there (adding Franklin on o-line, adding McGahee to the backfield) to maintain its position and that improving the defense would result in a better win/loss ratio.
In essence, he may well have believed that if Orton could play mistake free ball while he worked on improving the defense, then the team would do just fine. If you think about it, Fox kept four of the six main offensive assistants while keeping only one out of the four main defensive assistants. Clearly, he saw improving the defense as the main focus for this year. Improving the offense (and starting Tebow) may have been seen as the Year 2 priority.
So far as Tebow himself goes, I'm fairly convinced at this point that he is either: (a)doing something the coaches want him to stop, or (b)not doing something they want him to, and that when that particular situation is corrected, we will see Tim Tebow named the starting quarterback.
A Final Thought
I suffered through four five-win or less seasons before I got to see the Broncos finish a season with a winning record. It was four more seasons before I saw them play in the post-season. Despite all the angst to the contrary, the Broncos are only five seasons removed from playing in the AFC Championship game. Out of those five seasons, they've only had two losing seasons. So, IMHO, the Broncos are already well ahead of where they were during my first years of fandom. Is it still disappointing, given the success of the late 1990s? Of course it is. Yet, again, I would remind us all: we are only five seasons away from the AFC Championship game. Five seasons that have seen two coaches fired, massive turnover in the roster, significant injuries to key players, and a unified fan base that was fractured by the controversial hiring of one coach, then blown apart by the drafting of an immensely popular college quarterback who was not immediately named the starter.
Is there a lot of work to be done? Certainly. Are all the pieces in place? Not hardly. Yet, there is work going on at Dove Valley to break out of the downward spiral -- unless you truly believe that John Fox and John Elway are determined to see the Broncos fail, for whatever reason you choose to assert. We've seen, so far in the first three games, glimpses of improvements on the defensive side of the ball. Not tremendous improvements, but small steps. Steps that suggest that it won't be a tremendously long time before we see Denver return to the post season.