Here's what I've learned so far this year (pre-preseason edition).
The single biggest difference between what the Denver Broncos were last year and are this year is confidence.John Fox is different than Josh McDaniels. That’s an understatement. But the locker room is different now. And the players practice differently. And the coaches are handling themselves like seasoned professionals.
McDaniels kept the players and staff on pins and needles. He liked to make sure that the players knew that he was the boss. The players were often confused by his scheme and overarching strategy. Much of it was read and react based. It was tough to learn and even tougher to apply when the things are blowing up on the field. His schemes were like a college course for post-grads. He changed everything when he came to Denver. The way the practices are run, the terminology, the coaching staff, the players, the playbook, the way players were evaluated, and more. And McDaniels kept players and fans in constant sense of “well, the coaches must know something that we don’t know” because much of what happened either didn’t make sense or was such a departure from what Denver has become accustomed to. The players second guessed everything they and everything McDaniels did on and off of the field. When things started to go badly in games in the past few years, things would snowball to a point where Denver looked like joke. Although it wasn’t 100% his fault, McDaniels was given too much responsibility and the keys to an organization before he was ever ready and that’s assuming that he’ll ever be ready, which I’m not sure he will.
Now that the McDaniels era, and what already seems like a distant 23 month eye-roll, has come to an end and we are squarely into the John Fox era, it seems as though the swerve has been corrected already.
Fox has the air of a man who’s done this before (he has). He is confident, but straightforward. There’s no politicking him. And he wants to win now. Right now. He desires to have a team that can simply control both lines of scrimmage. Receivers run routes that are drawn up on the playsheet unless otherwise adjusted. Unlike last year when Eddie Royal had to learn an open ‘route-tree’ and most plays, had to line up, read the defensive alignment, and hope that Orton or Tebow read things the exact same way that he did.
Things are simpler now. As is Fox’s relationship with the organization. They drafted who they thought were the biggest impact talents in the draft. They didn’t just draft for need and they certainly didn’t draft players just so an in-division rival wouldn’t and they didn’t even think about trading their 2012 first rounder for an additional 2nd rounder. It may not be technically true, but its seems like everybody knows their place now, ie: Xanders is the GM. Fox is the coach. Elway is their boss. Bowlen is his boss. They are all on the exact same page. They want the same things. There is an open dialogue. Everybody has a voice.
The real result is that the players are practicing with confidence. There is even a bit of a swagger on the practice field. That’s refreshing. And necessary for a rebuilding team.
In regard to strategy, we have to remember that this isn’t Madden franchise mode. The fans don’t run the team. If it was Madden franchise mode or the fans did run the team, Denver would be chock full of big name free agents and would have Tebow listed as the #1 QB. There’s even lines of reasoning for doing both: (1) Big name guys are more fun to watch and may produce more. And (2) starting Tebow means that he gets the necessary reps that he needs in order to play at an optimal level for a 2nd year QB and for Denver to ascertain what he is or may be going forward. If he’s getting better and better, then he’s the QB of the future, if he’s not then we probably won’t win many games and we can just draft Luck or Barkley. Wish it was that simple.)
But Fox didn’t do things the way many fans would have. Why? Long term vision. Denver is rebuilding. They probably aren’t a year or two from a deep playoff run. Furthermore, there’s a new economy in the NFL and Denver didn’t want to spend a ton of guaranteed money to guys who aren’t going to be here in 3 years. Denver had a lot of ‘dead money’ and they don’t want to continue down that path. It obviously hasn’t worked in the past 10-plus years. And regarding Tebow, Fox wants to win as many games as he can now. Not sandbag for a year and get a better QB. If there is a need at QB next February, then Denver will assess the available options and conclude how much compensation (picks and/or players) that they are willing to part with in order to attain that player. That’s why Tebow will only start if he gives Denver a better chance of winning the next game. He may very well beat Kyle Orton (who was being shopped, but Denver would not panic and eventually called Miami's bluff) out at some point this season, but the likelihood that he wins the #1 job out of camp is not good, even though the door's open for him if he can get over the learning curve and play mentally faster in the next few weeks. It's on him, now. Fox didn't draft him and Fox didn't get Orton as part of the Cutler deal. But it's his call. And he'll pick the best guy who can help his team win now.
Thinking like this allows John Fox’s players to be confident in his abilities as a coach and a manager. The players are confident that the best guy plays. Not just the guy who speaks the language the best or who shows the most versatility or guys that he brought over form his old team ("his guys"). The best player at every position will start every Sunday.
Simple strategy. Simple man, that Fox.
I can't just credit Fox. Elway, Xanders, and Bowlen have done an incredible job of correcting a franchise slide of catastrophic proportions. They've revitalized the organization and improved its standing within the ranks of players, alimni, and fans.
And I appreciate that. They feel like our Broncos again. Not like a version of another team.