Wow, simply wow. What a ride the Denver Broncos' 2011 season gave to us fans. From the pits to the top and back down into the gulch, then up again, then down. From a 1-4-0 start to a 6-0-0 run. From an 0-3-0 finish to the first playoff win since 2005. From dramatic 4th quarter comebacks to overwhelming blow outs. This has been a season of despair, frustration, joy and excitement. It cannot be said that the 2011 season was in any way dull or boring. Each time the Broncos stepped onto the field, we did not know what to expect. Would we see 167 rushing yards in the first quarter or only 2 completions in the entire game? Would we see the defense dominate and shut down the opposing team or see the opponents torch the defense for huge gains? To steal a statement from astronaut Sally Ride (after her first flight into space):
"Ever been to Disneyland? . . . That was definitely an E ticket!"
The Denver Broncos' 2011 season, in my humble opinion, was an E ticket ride.Now, you may be too young to remember, but early on in Disneyland, there were rides that were "E Ticket rides." When Disneyland first opened, visitors paid an admission price, then paid a separate price to ride each attraction. This evolved into DIsneyland's use of coupon books with coupons labeled A, B and C. These coupons, usually called "tickets" by park patrons, were used to gain admission to the various rides. "A" rides were the smallest and/or least popular. "B" rides were more popular and more advanced. "C's" were the most popular and advanced rides in the park. Eventually, "D" and "E" coupons were added to the mix with the E ticket rides being the newest, most advanced and most popular. The expression, "E ticket ride," survived the discontinuation of the use of coupon books at Disneyland. It has since become a part of American slang, being used as a metaphor for anything which gives us an extraordinary experience. How else can we describe this season?
Think back over the last couple of years. In 2009, we had the unexpected firing of a long-time, much beloved, much criticized head coach. The new head coach drew much fire for his decisions and approach to our beloved Broncos. This ushered in a season that saw a quarterback controversy, a questionable draft, an unbelievable 6-0-0 start followed by a painful 2-8-0 finish. Then came 2010 with more draft questions, the "Tim Tebow reach," a videotaping scandal, a 3-10-0 start, the firing of the head coach and the change to a rookie quarterback. 2011 was equally tumultuous with another new head coach, a lock-out which killed the off season, another quarterback controversy in the minds of the fans, a horrible 1-4-0 start. Most of the talking heads in the media and even many fans did not see Denver winning more than four to six games. There was a great deal of talk about Denver's chances of landing Andrew Luck in the 2012 draft.
Then something magical happened. On an October afternoon, the Broncos faced the San Diego Chargers. After falling behind 23-10 at the half, Denver made a change at quarterback and outscored the Chargers 14-3 to narrow the score to 26-24 before falling just short in their comeback attempt. Two weeks later, after the bye week, the Broncos, behind their new quarterback, overcame a 15-point deficit in the fourth quarter to force an overtime period where they won the game. A blow out loss the following week was followed by a string of six straight wins, including a record-setting five consecutive road wins. Then, despite a three game losing streak, Denver was able to win the division and enter post season play for the first time in six seasons. Despite being underdogs on their home field, the Broncos outplayed the defending AFC Champion Pittsburgh Steelers to secure their first playoff win since 2005. The season ending blow out loss to the New England Patriots demonstrated that while the Broncos had accomplished the unbelievable with their win over the Steelers, they still have a long way to go to be consistently competitive.
E ticket rides at Disneyland, rarely started up and worked consistently without a few bumps, breakdowns and technical tweaking. Likewise, Denver's 2011 E ticket ride had its share of breakdowns and showed a need for some improvements. The encouraging thing to me is that we have a number of things that the Broncos can build on, some things they need to improve and something which -- if it can be build correctly -- could be very, very scary to the rest of the NFL. Let's first look at the areas the Broncos can build on.
In 2010, the Denver Broncos rushing attack was ranked 26th in the NFL. Please remember the NFL ranks offenses and defenses by the yards per game the unit amasses (offense) or gives up (defense). In 2011, the Broncos laid claim to the #1 rushing attack in the NFL. The Denver defense rose from the #32 overall spot in 2010 to the #20 spot in 2011. The rushing defense rose from #31 to #22 and the passing defense rose from #25 to #18. It seems to me that the rushing offense is doing things right and the defense is on the right path to improvement. This is not to say that there are things that need to be improved, only that we have some basic building blocks in place.
There are definitely things that need to be improved this off season. The Broncos' overall offensive ranking fell from #13 to #23. This was largely due to their passing attack dropping from #7 to #31. Tebow was #31 in total yards, #27 in passing touchdowns, though he was tied for #2 in fewest interceptions thrown. Something to consider, however, is that those rankings come from just eleven starts. If he had been able to maintain his average over the whole sixteen game season, he would have ended up #23 in yards, #17 in passing touchdowns. That said, we still need to see significant improvement in Tebow's passing skills. It would seem to me that he has two basic areas that need to see improvement before the start of the 2012 season: (1)Accuracy on the short and intermediate routes, (2)Accuracy when he is forced to move to his right. I'm sure there are other components of his passing game that need to be improved, but those stood out to me as being the two most glaring things. As an aside, I'd also like to see him improve his ability to "sell" the option run. It appeared too often, that after a hand off, he would slow down & watch the ball carrier, instead of continuing on as he would had he kept the ball. This would seem to me to be a "tell" that could be used by opposing defenses for quicker reactions to the play. The thing is, in my opinion, if Tebow and the defense can force opposing defenses to respect the pass, our offense could become a nightmare for opponents.
Think about it. Tebow brings the offense to the line. He lines up under center and either stays there or backs out into the shotgun. Denver proved in 2011 that it could run the ball effectively from either formation. So now the defense has to doubly ask, "Is it a run or a pass?" At the snap, then, Tebow has multiple choices:
|A. Hand the ball to the running back|
|B. Hand the ball to a wide receiver or tight end on a reverse|
|C. Keep the ball and:|
|1. Run it himself|
|2. Pitch the ball to a trailing player|
|3. Pull up and pass the ball|
If Tebow can improve as a passer and become an expert at selling his fake hand-offs and pitches, he could force opposing defenses to hesitate and become restricted to reacting instead of aggressively trying to control the game -- is he going to hand it off, keep it and run, keep and pitch it, or keep it and pass? Could be a very scary offense.
The other component that needs to see some improvement is Denver's defense. They made great strides this year. Similar strides need to be made in 2012 if the Broncos want to repeat as division champions. Two areas stood out to me as I watched the Broncos this year: (a)The need to find a playmaker who can not only stand up to the run in the middle of the line but who can also generate pressure up the middle on the pass rush. If we can see that happen, we should see the edge rushers like Dumervil and Miller have greater success. (b)The Broncos need to find a way to build experience and confidence among their very young defensive backs. It is helpful to remember that during the last three regular season games and the two post season games, Denver had rookies playing significant minutes: Carter (R), Moore (R), Harris (R) were all called upon. Add Bruton with three years experience and we saw a very young defensive backfield for Denver. Further, remember that the three who drew the most duty (Carter, Moore and Harris) in 2011 were not taken in the first round of the draft. Moore was taken in the 2nd round, Carter in the 4th and Harris was an drafted rookie. I know that there are also a lot of voices calling for a stud player to fill the middle linebacker role as 4th year player Joe Mays was not particularly popular with a lot of fans. Something to consider in regards to Mays -- and I'm not saying he's good or bad -- while being in his fourth year, he was in only his second with the Broncos, and a year in which the defense was given an overhaul in coaching staff and scheme. The 6th-round draft pick middle linebacker had exactly six starts prior to 2011. Despite that, he ranked third on the team in total tackles during the 2011 season. Perhaps with a full off season, he'll improve. Perhaps the team needs to look elsewhere.
All in all, the 2011 Denver Broncos exceeded expectations and showed that some of the building blocks are in place for a consistently competitive team. It will be interesting to see what tweaks, upgrades and additions are made to this E ticket ride before the start of the 2012 season.