The Toughest Loss, Playing Percentages and Looking Deeper

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Denver's loss to the Baltimore Ravens is going to sting for awhile. I look deeper at the decisions made in order to help me heal.

"Cold weather has an effect on any athlete, no matter what sport. In my opinion, Peyton played well enough for us to win." Denver Broncos Head Coach John Fox

This post is more about me than it is about you. The reasons for writing it, anyway. It is going to meander through the thoughts in my head and the hurt in my heart. I'm not looking to persuade or dissuade you from anything you are thinking or feeling. It's no one's business how you 'grieve'. This post will help me heal, and if it does anything for you, then all the better.

THE TOUGHEST LOSS

I am 39 years old. Old enough to remember humiliating Super Bowl losses, exhilarating Super Bowl wins, the lean years at the end of the Mike Shanahan-era, the McDaniels debacle and the resurgence under Elway. I also remember, clearly, the 1996 season. The Broncos were 13-3, the #1 seed in the AFC, and facing a huge underdog - at home - in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.

The Broncos lost that day, to the Jacksonville Jaguars - 30-27. To this day it is the worst loss I have suffered as a fan of the Broncos. Many have said the loss on Saturday to the Ravens hurts more - the game was practically won - but to me it's not close. It hurts - alot - but not as much as that day. Two Super Bowl trophies will take the sting away.

Those that remember those days will get where I am coming from. Start with the stadium. Sure, Denver has a good home field advantage now. They were unbeatable then. John Elway simply didn't get beat at Mile High Stadium. In fact, while the Drive may have been the first miracle, it was comeback after comeback at Mile High Stadium that built the legend. It's why old Mile High Stadium is STILL held in such high regard with Broncos fans. Losing that day, the way Denver lost, almost seemed impossible to Broncos fans. That, in and of itself, was hard enough to deal with.

Of course, there's more. Those too young to remember the pre-Super Bowl Broncos don't realize just how many questions surrounded John Elway before winning Super Bowl 32 and 33. He was the guy that couldn't win the BIG ONE. Denver had lost three Super Bowls - 39-20, 42-10 and 55-10 - by a combined score of 136-40. They didn't just lose Super Bowls, they were embarrassed. That followed Elway throughout his career.

After Mike Shanahan was brought in for the 1995 season, the Broncos went 8-7 - much like the 2011 Broncos. 1996 was the break-out year, and the Broncos finally looked the part. Terrell Davis was the running back Elway never had. Shanahan was the coaching genius that Dan Reeves and Wade Phillips were not. Denver had Rod Smith and Shannon Sharpe in their primes. Elway finally had the cast around him to get it done.

Except he didn't. They weren't ready. The Broncos overachieved a bit in 1996 - and as such expectations rose. The loss that day, however, only made the questions about Elway grow louder. He would never win the big one 'they' said. It was Elway that was the choke artist. It was my lowest time as a fan - not just because of the loss - but because of the doubt the loss brought with it. They were real. Elway was a larger-than-life figure to me growing up, but for the first time I doubted.

The Broncos rebounded, of course, winning the next two Super Bowls. Elway retired, rode off into the sunset the way every great player wants to - as a champion, on his terms - and his legacy was secured.

None of that exists today. The stadium is different, Peyton Manning has his ring, and his legacy is secured as well.

The expectations were the same. Maybe not to start. I always looked at 2012 - with Manning coming back to football after a year off AND switching teams - as a comeback year for Denver. The Broncos of 2011 were much like the Broncos team from 1995, and both teams(1996 and 2012) had plenty of holes still yet to fill.

Like 1996, however, expectations change. I got caught up in it. The stars seemed to be aligning - with Houston faltering down the stretch and the Broncos gaining the #1 seed. That makes Saturday hard to swallow - absolutely - but also has me pumped for the future. 1996 taught me just how tough a loss can be. What happened next has allowed me look forward to 2013 and beyond.

PLAYING PERCENTAGES

John Fox talked alot about playing percentages in his end of season press conference yesterday. Fan don't want to hear it. I don't blame you. Brian Burke went deep into those percentages yesterday on Deadspin -

For teams that need a touchdown to survive, time makes a big difference. With 1:09 to play, a team typically has a 13 percent chance of scoring a touchdown. With 1:49 to go, they have around a 26 percent chance. The choice, then, is between conceding Baltimore the 13 percent shot or gambling that you'll either win the game outright or give Baltimore a 26 percent chance to win. League-wide, third-and-7 situations are converted 42 percent of the time. That means if Denver drops back to pass, Baltimore's chance of winning is (1 - 0.42) * 0.26 = 0.15 = 15 percent. According to the math, then, Fox made the right call: Punting was, just barely, the right probabilistic call.

There's a lot there to swallow. While the 42% conversion rate is nice, it doesn't take into account the conditions that day. It was easy to see - on TV at least - that Peyton Manning was struggling to stay loose as the game went on. John Fox said as much - the quote is all the way at the top of this post. The question was referring to the Broncos lack of plays downfield. Manning threw the ball 15 yards or further just TWICE in 43 attempts, and non of those came after the 1st quarter.

Of course, the Baltimore defense had something to do with that as well - playing 2-high safeties for much of the game to protect their DBs. It became obvious, however, that the Broncos were not going to test them deep - and I don't think it was because of the game plan, or conservative coaching. The frigid temperatures made it so Peyton Manning couldn't do it - especially as the game went on.

Let's look at how the Broncos fared on 3rd and 4 or longer.

QUARTER DISTANCE RESULT
1st QUARTER

3rd and 6 INT - Pick 6(Failed)
3rd and 7 21-yard Comp.(Conversion)

3rd and 8 15-yard TD(Conversion)
2nd QUARTER
3rd and 10 Incomplete Pass(Failed)
3rd and 8 Incomplete Pass(Failed)
3rd QUARTER
3rd and 5 2 yard run(Failed)
3rd and 10 11 yard gain(Conversion)
3rd and 10 Sack/Fumble(Failed)
4th QUARTER
3rd and 4 Sack(Failed)

What do the numbers above tell us? On 3rd and 7 or longer, the Broncos were 3/9 for the game with a TD, a Pick-6 and a sack fumble. After the 1st quarter, the Broncos converted just 1/4(25%). On 3rd and 4 or longer, the Broncos were 1/7, or 14%.

Was it all the weather? I don't think so. A huge play in the game was the loss of Knowshon Moreno. With Willis McGahee out, Moreno is easily the best back the Broncos have in pass protection. With him gone, the Broncos have to get MUCH MORE conservative on offense. The chart above proves it. Ronnie Hillman did a nice job running the ball, but he wasn't prepared to protect and we all saw what happened when Lance Ball tried. Yikes!

The weather, combined with the flow of the game, dictated that John Fox AND Peyton Manning run the ball on 3rd and 7. Manning wasn't feeling great physically and the Ravens had snuffed out the short passing game.

On to the next point of contention - kneeling with :31 seconds to go. All the above factors play in to this as well. We also have to look at the probability that ANY coach would try and score in that situation.

Take away teams that are losing - like the Falcons on Sunday - and I can think of ONLY TWO current head coaches that may have tried to move the ball down the field - Bill Belichick and Sean Payton.

We know Belichik would because he did something very similar in Super Bowl 36 with a young, inexperienced Tom Brady. The Patriots had just blown a 17-3 lead when the St. Louis Rams tied the score with 1:30 to go. New England, with NO TIMEOUTS, got the ball at their own 15. Even John Madden suggested New England should play for OT since all the momentum was clearly with the Rams. Madden's statement just shows the way a coach may think in that situation(like him or not, Madden won 100 games in 10 seasons and a Super Bowl)

He didn't, of course. The Patriots went 59 yards on 9 plays and won the game on a 49-yard field goal as time expired. We've also seen Bill go for it on 4th down deep in his own territory - which the percentages say is the right move, too)

Why Sean Payton? While he may never have done something like we are talking about, he did call for an onside kick to open the 2nd Half of Super Bowl 44. The Saints were down 10-6, and the play completely changed the dynamics of the game. New Orleans went on to win 31-17.

Now that we can agree - or at least I do - that MOST coaches would have done the exact same thing the Broncos did AFTER the Ravens scored the TD, and we have some data from the game itself, let's go back to the 3rd and 7 play and bring back the calculations from above.:

For teams that need a touchdown to survive, time makes a big difference. With 1:09 to play, a team typically has a 13 percent chance of scoring a touchdown. With 1:49 to go, they have around a 26 percent chance. The choice, then, is between conceding Baltimore the 13 percent shot or gambling that you'll either win the game outright or give Baltimore a 26 percent chance to win

This part doesn't change. What does change is the 42% conversion rate used in part 2. The frigid temperatures - it was 4th coldest the Broncos have played, anywhere - affect that number, as did the flow of the game. The final three quarters, the Broncos were just 1/7 on 3rd and 4 or longer. They threw the ball on SIX of those, so we'll just count those. 1/6 = 16.6%. Let's plug that into the handy, dandy equation.

(1-.166) * .26 = .217 or 21.7%

That means the Broncos choice - just on the math involved - was to give the Ravens a 13% chance to win or a 21.7% chance to win. That doesn't even begin to take into account what Peyton was saying to Fox about how he felt. Add to that the loss of Moreno, and how the Ravens defense was playing the short passing game, and I think it was an easy decision. Oh yea, the Broncos also had the #2 defense in the NFL.

But Guru, the defense had struggled all day...

Is that a true statement? While I bemoan the fact that the Broncos didn't bring more pressure at times, and they did get burned for big plays, let's look at it for a second.

Baltimore went 94 yards on their first scoring drive(59-yard TD pass to Torrey Smith) and 77 yards on their final drive(70-yard TD to Jacoby Jones).

Other than that?

58 yards for a touchdown(after missed FG)

37 yards for a touchdown(after Manning fumble)

16 yards for game-winning field goal(after Manning INT)

The Broncos gave the Ravens plenty of short fields to work with based on their own blunders!

LOOKING DEEPER

As I said above, I'm not looking for you to change your mind, or not to be pissed about any of the plays above. What I want you to do it think deeper than some of the talking heads like Mark Kiszla, who chooses to insult the coaches and players instead of looking for the WHY's in it all. Sometimes the answers are hard to find and harder to listen to, but you have to look for them - unless making jokes(and making a mockery of the Broncos and us fans, getting everyone riled up to sell papers, or get listeners) is the goal.

Look. The Broncos played poorly. The Broncos coached poorly. The weather was historically cold. We haven't even begun to talk about the officiating. Like Foxy said, however, they played well enough to win. I won't say any of this should make it easier to deal with. I just hope it helps us move on - even a little bit.

Saturday was tough. 1996 was tougher. If we learned anything from one it's as low as we feel right now, thing can and do always get better! 2013 could just be a SUPER year!

GO BRONCOS!

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