What's happened in the last Six Years?
After the 2005 season in which Broncos Country experienced excitement and hope of better days ahead, reminding us of how great it really was to be on top of the football world only seven years earlier, the franchise began to lose some of its valuable coaches and jettison its talent. Everything that kept the floor high in the Mile High City began to crumble, piece by piece, bringing a gradual decline to the organization, the team, and ultimately, the fanbase.
During this recent time period, two different technocrats, Mike Shanahan and Josh McDaniels, contributed as head coaches in the only way that they knew how: they both believed that their superior offensive scheming would compensate for a lack of talent and depth elsewhere.
While I loved watching Shanahan's offenses run, pass, and score their way into early leads in most games, his defenses began to allow opponents to come back and win. His scripted offenses were eventually exposed, and without a talented enough staff around him, without enough talent and depth on special teams and defense, the more the season went on, the more beatable his teams became - hence the late season collapses that we're still trying to forget to this day.
Tim Tebow may be the most polarizing figure across the NFL landscape, but in Denver, that title is held firmly by Shanahan's successor, Josh McDaniels. Whether you love him or hate him, he showed he had some of the same tendencies as his predecessor: he focused on the offensive side of the ball more than on defense, made as many bad personnel decisions as good decisions in the draft and free agency, and according to John Elway, the Broncos became "a one man show" - again.
Their stubborn ways rubbed coaches and players the wrong way at times and largely contributed to the attrition that's shaken the foundation of the Broncos. We as fans tried to rationalize these constant changes and exercise patience in seeing transitions to their completion, but no matter how well we thought we understood the real problem, the truth was there all along, hidden from the public: the Denver Broncos needed a Front Office makeover. With an aging owner in Pat Bowlen and an unqualified executive in Joe Ellis, the upstairs offices at Dove Valley needed new leadership, more football knowledge, wisdom in running a team, and experience.
Are the Broncos in Good Hands?
With the hiring of John Elway as the VP of Football Operations, the Broncos now have a living legend to oversee the coaching staff as well as the scouting department. He's armed with Super Bowl titles, a strong history with the Denver Broncos, a great relationship with the fans, and as a benefit, he brings a solid business resume to his position, even in football. He recognizes in an instant what it takes to make an organization work: a balanced structure, filled with qualified professionals who know and do their jobs well.
As much as there may be some questions surrounding the value added by GM Brian Xanders, one cannot deny at least a few of the solid acquisitions from free agency and the draft in the last three years alone. There is no doubt that Xanders is responsible for clearing up the $29.6M dead money problem that faced this team back in 2009. He also deserves at least partial credit for drafting young talented players with a lot of potential, such as Eric Decker, Perrish Cox, Zane Beadles, JD Walton, Syd'Quan Thompson, Quinton Carter, Nate Irving, and of course, Von Miller.
I think he needs to be commended for restructuring Brian Dawkins' contract, giving Elvis Dumervil and Champ Bailey their well deserved new deals, and for resigning players that Denver needs and will use going forward: Marcus Thomas, Matt Prater, and Wesley Woodyard.
What should we expect from John Fox?
With anxiety at an all time high among fans, what can Broncos Country expect from him?
When reading about the accomplishments of his teams, one word that comes to mind is resiliency:
After an 8-2 start in 2003, the Panthers slipped into a three-game losing streak. However, Fox again steadied the ship, and Carolina regrouped to win its final three games and the NFC South division.
The Panthers began the 2004 season 1-7 and lost their three top running backs but recovered to win six of the last eight games and narrowly miss the playoffs.
With Carolina's playoff hopes in jeopardy in 2005, Fox rallied the team for a season-ending win at Atlanta and guided the Panthers to the NFC Championship game.
In 2007, Carolina became the first team in a decade to win at least one game with four different starting quarterbacks, carving out seven victories with starter Jake Delhomme sidelined for all but three games with an elbow injury.
In 2008, the Panthers equaled a team record with 12 victories and won the NFC South for the second time under Fox.
This never say die, will do attitude is just what the Broncos need right now.
Despite having a reputation for being conservative on offense, Fox has shown an ability to win in a variety of ways. The dramatic improvement in his first year at Carolina was the result of a defense that jumped from 31st to 2nd in the NFL. The 2003 NFC Championship team rode to the Super Bowl thanks to a solid running game and a strong defense. The 2005 playoff team featured more of an aerial attack thanks to the great performances of Jake Delhomme and Steve Smith.
Averaging nearly ten wins per year (with the exception of 2010) he developed the Panthers into one of the most consistent teams in the NFL, thanks to Fox and his experienced staff. During those eight seasons with the Panthers, only four teams did not experience a season with double-digit losses during that time: Carolina, Denver, New England and Indianapolis.
Panthers GM Marty Hurney is not surprised at Fox's success in the NFL. "He has it," Hurney said. "He has great people skills. He listens to everybody and he has defensive expertise. And he has a tremendous presence. When he walks down the hall, he affects everybody."
Imagine that - a head coach who listens. I didn't think there were any out there.
We have heard a great deal about Tebow's intangibles, but John Fox has them in abundance as well. When you combine them with a thorough knowledge of the game, it is not surprising that he's had such a positive impact on people in the league.
When it comes to his former players, he's helped six from the defensive side and seven offensive players from the offensive side of the ball go to the Pro Bowl in Carolina: defensive end Julius Peppers, linebacker Jon Beason, defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, linebacker Mark Fields, linebacker Dan Morgan, defensive end Mike Rucker, wide receiver Steve Smith, running back Stephen Davis, quarterback Jake Delhomme, tackle Jordan Gross, center Ryan Kalil, guard Mike Wahle, and running back DeAngelo Williams.
I suspect that while the jury is out on current Broncos Knowshon Moreno, Robert Ayers, Darcel McBath, and DJ Williams, these players stand a good chance of improving under Fox's tutelage. He's done it before by changing his past teams' mindset, not just relying on adding new talent.
Let's not forget, that in his first year with the Panthers, his defense became the first unit since the NFL merger in 1970 to improve to second in the league in overall defense after coming in next to last the previous season. Even if this is unlikely to occur in his first year in Denver, could this happen within his first two seasons? That's not out of the realm of possibilities with players such as Von Miller, Elvis Dumervil, Kevin Vickerson, Brodrick Bunkley, Ty Warren, and Champ Bailey on the roster.
He is after all, regarded as one of the top defensive coaches in the NFL, which makes him probably the right choice at the right time for the Broncos. Production, work ethic, enthusiasm and high energy are ingredients that he'll instill into this team.
Now for all of the positives, Fox has managed to draw his share of criticism over the years as well. When others talk about him being conservative, they're not just talking about running the ball and playing solid defense. One of his general philosophies is minimizing mistakes and has been quoted for saying "A punt is not a bad play." Well, it can be if 3 points is all you have to show for yourself at halftime. This has driven Panthers fans crazy and I suspect that in 2011, we'll have some moments like that as well. Let's face it - with a truncated offseason, little time for the newcomers to study the playbooks before the season, virtually no time in the film room with the new coaching staff, and plenty of fresh faces from top to bottom, I do not expect things to start smoothly for my beloved Denver Broncos.
For all of the energy, pragmatism, and excitement that this qualified staff brings and all of the potential that this new team has in the passing game and in the linebacker corps, I said it two years ago and I'll say it again - the turnaround will take time. Maybe the defense will play lights out by October and the offense will also be balanced, but at this point, I wouldn't count on both of those happening.
What to expect from the Offense
With the existing playbook about 70% intact, I believe we understand well what to expect out of the aerial attack. Having retained all receivers but Jabar Gaffney, I expect Lloyd, Decker, Royal, Willis, and whoever wins the fifth slot on the depth chart to continue to run complex route trees, stressing defenses horizontally and vertically, leaving one receiver open at all times. There is one concern with the passing game, however.
We've recently allowed our starting right tackle Ryan Harris to exit and in his place, is a rookie 330 lbs. behemoth of a young man named Orlando Franklin. I suspect his physical play will show up in an instant, but his NFL knowledge - or lack of it - will show up as well, resulting in some blown plays and even a few yellow flags. Particularly on pass plays.
From this past weekend's scrimmage at the Big IF, here's what was observed regarding the offensive line play:
The No. 1 offense doesn't have a leak so much as a swinging gate on its right side. Tackle Orlando Franklin is a 6-foot-7, 330-pound mauler as a run blocker, but his baptism as a pass protector has been difficult. Like the time in practice Monday when rookie Von Miller blew in to sack Orton as if Franklin wasn't there.
"He's a young guy who didn't have OTAs (organized team activities)," Orton said of Franklin. "It's not a problem until you play the games. Practice is where you want the young kids to make mistakes so they'll learn from them. If you see him get beat two or three times, that means he's doing it right on 20 to 25 plays."
The Broncos' second and third offensive lines have struggled to come together. The backups are talented blockers individually. But offensive line play is about five guys coming together as one.
Despite early hiccups, some veteran linemen are excited about the change in philosophy:
"Even when Mike [Shanahan] was here and Jay [Cutler] started playing we threw the heck out of the ball," guard Chris Kuper told Mike Klis of the Denver Post. "Running the ball will be great."
In the offseason, the O-linemen worked out together regularly.
"We O-linemen tend to stick together, anyway," Chris Kuper said. "Most of us live around here. The climate here is great. We like to train in altitude.
"We're excited. I've met with Coach Fox, and obviously he knows what he's doing. He's been doing this a long time. I've talked to a lot of players from Carolina and they all say he's a great coach."
If Franklin holds up his end of the bargain on the right side of the line, the running game should improve as the season goes on. I'm counting on O-line coach Dave Magazu to see to it that this Harris-less unit will gel and bring back the ground game at Mile High.
Other good news is that Ryan Clady says he is now 100 percent healthy and eager to prove he can play as well as he did in 2009, when he made the all-pro first team.
"I definitely feel a lot better," Clady said. "It's been a nice offseason for me to get that knee back to where it needs to be so I can play at the level I want to play at."
When their first-team offense took the field at the Big IF this past Saturday, the Broncos called three running plays and eight passing plays. Expect that ratio to eventually change.
"We'll blend in the run," Fox said.
And coach Magazu will see to it that this happens.
It's also been reported that Knowshon Moreno is the healthiest, fittest, and fastest he has been in his NFL career. But he has yet to have success breaking tackles. Which may very well result in relegating him to a 3rd down back, often catching screen passes when he's already open. If used properly, he may shine in more of a Reggie Bush type of role.
At scrimmage this past Saturday, the biggest play for the offense came when he caught a screen pass from Kyle Orton and gained 44 yards, including an open-field move to spin away from safety Darcel McBath. I believe that may be his calling and to expect 1,000 yard rushing seasons out of the backfield are probably not realistic.
What to expect from the Defense
I must admit that after the initial excitement of the John Fox hiring, I've questioned the switch back to the 4-3 base this year. We didn't quite have all of the personnel in place to run the 3-4 last year, especially among the slowest linebackers I have ever seen, but one good defensive draft (such as 2011) and that front-7 could've been set for years. And switching schemes meant new terminology again.
I realize though, that it's just a front and good coordinators can mix and match the players available and show some exotic over / under fronts to cause confusion among their opponents. They can come out with the 5-2, the 3-4, or the 4-4 look only to change the configuration pre-snap. The staple of his past defenses has been the one-gap 40-front schemes, which aimed to rush with four men, and drop seven men back into typically zone coverage. It's not an exotic way to run defenses by any means, but it's the soundest way to play defensive football. As long as his four down linemen can beat five blockers, that should allow seven coverage players guarding five eligible receivers. Fox just needs to have the right four guys for the job and for now, he appears to.
To keep things simple, this is about what I expect to see form the defense to start the season. They'll have time to add wrinkles later in the season.
I think with sound scheming, an average defense can mask its weaknesses. Whether Dennis Allen will live up to Gregg Williams' standard for disrupting offenses and causing turnovers remains to be seen, but he does appear to have the right pedigree for the job. The wait and see approach applies to him just as it did his five predecessors, but given Fox's leadership and people skills, there's a good chance Allen will stick around a while.
Speaking of systems and schemes, John Fox isn't a system guy. Most of us already understand that, but first and foremost, he's a football guy who knows how to manage the whole team, and leaves the playcalling to his coordinators. His style is a balance between physical and intelligent play. The Broncos got a decent start on becoming tougher and more physical under the McDaniels regime, but the job is unfinished and Fox will always push for getting more physical on both sides of the ball.
The Broncos' current defensive linemen do appear to be a good fit for the 4-3. I believe that the new Elvis Dumervil and Robert Ayers are natural 4-3 ends, and that they may complement each other well, barring any more injuries. Ayers is the left defensive end expected to play the run well, battling with either tight ends or right tackles on the strongside. Doom is the right defensive end, who will hopefully rush the passer much the way he was able to over the weekend.
"It didn't take long, did it?" Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said. "You can see what it can mean. That's how you want to look on defense."
Defensive end Elvis Dumervil stole the show during the practice session that included a scrimmage.
In his first action at the Broncos' stadium since the 2009 season finale, Dumervil had two sacks in his first seven plays against the second-team offense and helped create another - by rookie outside linebacker Von Miller - before the starters had finished their work for the day.
For depth, the Broncos have what appear to be quality run-stuffers in Brodrick Bunkley and Ty Warren - again, barring injury. We also have quality players like the newly resigned Marcus Thomas and Kevin Vickerson. After a nail-biter of a free agency period immediately after the lockout was lifted, Denver appears to have a capable crew in place to hopefully, finally stop the run.
The linebacking corps appears to be an exciting bunch. Joe Mays appears to be holding off Nate Irving for the Mike position thus far, and I think he'll do well as long as he's not asked to drop into coverage more than ten plays per game. D.J. Williams and Wesley Woodyard can both handle the weak side, and I am excited beyond my ability to express to finally find out what Von Miller can do in this scheme.
Who are the steals of the offseason?
When all is said and done this upcoming season, the biggest steal could turn out to be Bunkley. At 27 years old, he's just entering his prime and is a heck of a run stuffer. After watching running backs gash our defense for the past few years, I can't wait to see him in action.
Another new young guy to watch is Rahiim Moore. Both Dawkins and Bailey have his ear and he's been soaking up all the knowledge that he can. With the departure of the cerebral Ronaldo Hill, Moore will need to learn fast to stay with the #1s this year. Luckily for him, he has a potential explosive pass rush to help him live up to the reputation of being a ball-hawk. If the Von Doom combo become as successful as advertised, Moore is gonna have a field day with opposing quarterbacks.
Last but not least, the one player to watch who could turn out to be a difference maker, is none other than Julius "Red Zone" Thomas.
Though his name was buried on the first official depth chart released by the team Monday, Thomas is making an impression, consistently working with the first-team offense. He has made several highlight-reel catches against the Broncos' top defenders. He's picking up the NFL game a lot more quickly than just about anyone expected.
He has developed a rapport with quarterback Brady Quinn after joining Quinn in Denver for summer throwing sessions, and he has been a favorite target of both Tim Tebow and Kyle Orton.
The Broncos will return to the basics of football this year. They'll relearn what it's like to run the football effectively on offense and stop it on defense. This is something the best of Fox's teams have done well. The 2-14 finish last year is an aberration. His season was an unfortunate result of roster cuts (Chris Harris, Na'il Diggs, Damione Lewis, and Mushin Muhammad) and injuries, where the team set a franchise record for players on injured reserve.
John Fox is a high floor kind of coach and how high the team's ceiling is up to the rest of the organization. We've heard him state time and time again in the offseason that if "you show me a good coach, I'll show you good players" and that is where he says that teams are limited by the talent on the roster. Luckily for him, he appears to have gathered a qualified staff as well, one that is better than Denver has seen in at least six years.
I've also mentioned his good people skills, which will serve him well in Denver, but here's why it so important. After so many tumultuous seasons and offseasons, the organization needs peace and comradery for a change. It also needs stability and consistency, from the top down. No team can expect to achieve greatness with a staff in a constant state of flux. After reading many quotes and watching enough interviews of Fox since he's been hired, he comes across much like Elway: he's just one of the guys. And I can see why everyone rallies to him.
Before closing, I would like to make a prediction. Having already endured so much turnover, I don't think Denver can overcome them in one offseason, which normally consists of mini-camps, OTAs, and Training Camp. There is no doubt in my mind that this lockout has hurt this team and while other more accomplished teams will have little trouble finding success on the football field this year, it'll take the new Broncos several games to get into a groove.
For this reason and this reason alone, I believe that 2011 will be a learning season for the players and coaches alike. I put the Broncos' ceiling at 0.500 this year because although I am optimistic about the long term future, I have to look past this next season to do it.