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Broncos Thoughts and Musings - The Art of Magical Thinking

I have always believed in magic.

From the promise of sunrise to the infinite painted beauty of sunset, our world is filled with magic. A child's smile, the scents in the air after a soft rain, a lover's touch, the mountains' beauty and an infinite number of other phenomena can be understandably labeled as 'magical'. Magic plays with us in our daily lives, often unseen, never far from the moment.

There's another kind of magical thinking, and it touches on our fandom. You see it on both sides of every aisle, coloring the thoughts and perceptions of many throughout our culture and our planet. It's the kind of magic thought and wand-waving that assures us all that if 'X' were just different, all ills would be over, all problems solved and all wrongs righted. It's the kind of thing that gets harder to support, as the Information Age moves forward, because we have access to the facts that show such thinking to often be superficial and frequently erroneous. Yet, the presence of such information is a far cry from its application in rational thinking. You must both find and then make use of such facts, or the discussion, arguments and debates will grow ever more bitter without any hope of resolution. And that bitterness can infect the happiest of spirits, if left unchecked.

I wanted to take a minute to touch on 'magical thinking' and how it might affect our views of the season and the team. Bear with me as we first encounter an area in which magical thinking can make it hard to talk about what really is, and what might be. The first issue is that of the trap that has been formed by the view backwards towards John Elway's career. I recall, several months back, talking to a member about Elway. He'd just looked over his career stats and was surprised by what he saw. This is what came up.

The Elway Trap

I loved watching John Elway. I was a fan during his entire career and it was a great and unique experience. I'd never disparage that and I won't discount it. But, I was there. I recall the cries of horror, the doubts, the insistence that Steve DeBerg was a better quarterback and all the rest of it. There were a few seasons, and stats, that we love to forget:

  • 4-6 ('83)
  • 8-7 ('88)
  • 5-11 ('90)
  • 9-7 ('93)
  • 7-7 ('94)
  • 8-8 ('95)

QB ratings:

  • 54.9
  • 65.7
  • 70.2
  • 71.4
  • 73.7
  • 75.4
  • 76.8

And so on...

John Elway could be incredible, but at other times, he was all too human. The rose-colored shades that tint our view in memory can also blur our perceptions. We seem adept at forgetting that within many other seasons (nearly all, in fact), Elway had games that were forgettable and some that stick out in outright infamy. In 1992, Elway had a 5.4% INT rate, which would have him drummed off the field in modern days. Despite what our memories want us to believe, even during his career, John Elway had slumps, weaknesses and problems. I was there, I was an Elway fan, and I cannot forget how gosh-awful he was at times. Weaknesses? Overthrowing. No touch. Forcing passes. Taking sacks. Inability to throw the ball away. Arguing with his coaches. Elway was anything but the kind of contiguous experience of perfection that we seem to have raised in his place, and that actually (IMHO) cheapens the obstacles that he overcame, the difficulty of his journey and the brilliant and storied way that he ended his career.

Sure, folks are going to jump up in arms and claim that those seasons weren't his fault, but again, that's the trap. Many times, they were. At the time, many fans wanted Elway benched in favor of Gary Kubiak, Bubby Brister or other, lesser names that we've forgotten. The blame for many losses was heaped on his head with a side order of burning coals. Elway was not universally loved, nor appreciated. He was like all QBs, a target, someone on whom others pin their hopes, and whose failures amounted to abject betrayal - at the time.

The idea that you DON'T keep jumping from one player to another because you'll never develop consistent play that way and because often the player who's starting is really the best at his position on the team is often comfortably ignored. That's the snare that many of our fans are in. But it isn't the only one. If you're careful, you'll find that magical thinking affects fans on both sides of every debate. Here are some that I've seen arise the most often.

The Pro

"Orton = Brady"

No, he doesn't and he almost certainly never will, but that's neither here nor there. There are lots of good QBs in the league besides Brady and sometimes, even Brady doesn't always equal Brady, since he's the subject of a lot of magical thinking too. Tom Brady has had a lot of really lousy games - I watched quite a few. He's had even more good one's and some great ones, but that's not the point either. There are lots of different ways to win, lots of ways to build a winning team quickly and the Broncos have been winning far more than they lose. Claiming that because Kyle Orton isn't Brady that he's a terrible QB (and I'm amazed that folks make that statement with a straight face) is ridiculous. Just as it's ridiculous to claim that he is another Brady - those come a couple of times a decade, if that. But Orton isn't Brady anyway, and won't be.

"Orton will continue to get better"

Well, so far, he has always has. It's continued this year, too. But will that continue? It's a fun thing to argue about, but the fact is that neither side knows one way or the other. It may be likely, but at some point, he will also level out. Frankly, all argument aside, it's unlikely that we won't get a chance to find out which it will be - short of a total meltdown, they're not going to bench him any time soon.

"It's not Orton's fault!"

Well, some of it is. As he and McDaniels will tell you, he's made errors and done things that he needs to fix. I'm not giving Orton a free pass. I just realize that there are other issues that are just as important and solving them is necessary for Orton to stay successful. All of the Broncos, even the defense, need to do some soul-searching. And I've not doubt whatsoever that they have done just that.

The Con

"The losses show how bad we are!"

True enough, in one sense. Plenty of good teams have had mid-season skids, though. By itself, it means nothing, even if the losses are substantial. The losses will always teach you more than the wins will. Orton is going through exactly what everyone on the team is going through - building a team, learning each other's tendencies, working through problems, celebrating successes.That's true of the whole team.

The View though Poop-colored glasses

When I was chatting with another member, he said to me "When I looked at those 9 categories in which Orton was in the top 5 in the league, all I saw was how mediocre he was." Well, thanks for sharing...What? When that kind of thing passes for reason - and it has in some quarters, lately - it demeans all of us. It's an absurd thing to say. Let's keep it to the realm of the possible, Ok? Not liking the QB is perfectly understandable. Claiming that the universe is wrong? Not so much.

This goes for both sides: Isn't it interesting how many folks won't even listen to anything that counters their opinion? The fact is that truth is what the opposites have in common. Instead of the messy reality that the world is never simple and is usually contradictory, there are deep desires on both sides of the aisle to try to force the messy, complex, remarkable and vast-ranging experience that is the Broncos and the QB position into a tiny little box. It will not fit, my friend. No point in trying.

"We need to bench Orton and bring in Simms!"

Wow. You've got an amazing help of faith in a QB who's blown hot and cold since he was in college. Simms has been on and off the bench more often than the Nuggets JR Smith. Actually, Simms doesn't have a rocket arm, as many are claiming. He has earned my undying respect because he is a class guy. He has also been the first to point out that Orton is starting because:

  • a. Orton understands the offense better than Simms and
  • b. Because he executes the offense better than Simms.

It's really simpler than a lot of folks want to admit. Simms isn't that great of a QB - he never has been. I like him as a man (quite a bit, and his father before him) and I wish him the best. He's a decent backup player, and that's what he plays. Someday, I hope that he is more, but I'd still as that we spare everyone the 'Well , in preseason' silliness. That was preseason, simplified and against 2nd and 3rd string players. If Simms doesn't even agree with you, what's your real argument?

"We need to bench Orton and bring in Tom Brandstater!"

Oh, my. Tom Brandstater needs a lot of training, coaching and seasoning. I've watched him play, I've studied his pre-draft workouts and scouting reports and he's not, repeat, not, ready to take over an NFL team, much less one that's so screwed up that they are benching a QB who has won 75% of his games. If you hate Brandstater and want him to fail, fine - call for him. But otherwise, no, that's really not a good idea.

"We never should have traded Cutler!"

Ok, can we finally put this one to bed? I haven't wanted to dwell on this because while it's my feeling that Cutler was the motivation behind the situation in Denver as it evolved, I don't consider it black and white. There are probably some things that we will never know and in the end, both teams entered into a trade that they thought was in their best interest. However - No matter what you thought at the time, new evidence has emerged. It has Jay in the same rut, professionally, as when 2008 ended. At that time, styg/Jeremy, HT/Steve, John, myself and lots of members were questioning his ability to learn and mature professionally. Someday he might - it isn't this week, though. Come whatever may, Mr. INT is not the solution to the Broncos situation. Watching him Thursday night, complaining and spreading blame after the 4th INT - and he threw it directly to the defender, in a way that defied any ability to stop this by the receiver - reminded me just how strange it is that folks really want his guy back. How did he become such a magnetic draw? He's a very troubled young player. But with just a little magical thinking, he's maturing into an elite QB. Hmm...Five INTs, 2 in the red zone, the last one to lose the game with a receiver open. I've got to admit - that just doesn't sound all that magical to me. But, more on that in a minute.

Are We Alone in This Tendency?

As the current saying goes, "Child, please..."

Of course not. This process is as old as mankind. During preseason, some of the Chiefs fans stopped by MHR to tell us that they were going to take over the division this year. Washington was going to contend for the division. San Diego was going to play well in September. It goes on all the time.

There's a bit of it going on right now in Chicago. I'm not a Cutler hater. I do see his weaknesses and strengths from my own perspective, though, as someone who has watched and broken down a lot of his games. I've watched the Bears' games this year - that's our draft pick their games are affecting. A couple of nice, classy Bears fans stopped by recently and mentioned that the Bears problems aren't with Cutler, but with the defense, O-line and receivers. I felt a frisson of magical thinking when that happened, too. Here's why:

It's flat out true that Chicago has issues with the O-line,and I would never ignore that. The Bears were counting on their center lasting, and he's breaking down. Omiyale came in from Carolina and he was a backup - he didn't do well there. The Bears believed that they could change that and it didn't work. They also believed that Pace had a couple of good years left (probably not) and that Chris Williams would step up. He's struggled.

That is a big problem, and here's the upshot: Do you recall from last season the argument that Cutler threw picks because the D was lousy and the Broncos didn't have a great running game? In one sense, that's true. Jay doesn't hold up well under emotional pressure. That's why his picks come in bunches - once he's made a mistake, he will often choke. As the pressure gets louder, he's more likely to make a mistake - he did the same thing in Denver. The poor line performance adds stress to the situation and Cutler responds in a pretty predictable way.

Keep in mind that I emphatically do not put all of the blame for the last Bears loss on Cutler. That's absurd - Chicago has several issues, and defense, O-line and receiving corps are certainly among them. So is the quiescent running game. But I cannot, in good conscience, get around the recognition that this is exactly what scared me about Cutler when he was in Denver - the clusters of INTs, the issues of not staying 'centered', the tendency to force passes and the turnover ratios are serious problems in a player who now has enough experience to know better. There is a consistent pattern with Cutler that is starting to emerge nationally. Most Broncos fans knew about it a while ago.

Since Cutler was brought in as something of a Big New Thing, that pressure is another factor. The O-line weakness is pressure. Being behind is pressure. Life in the NFL is stressful, however, and Jay will have to either adapt or have a tough time. I wish him, and the Bears, well - after this season. This year, that's my draft pick you're talking about, pardner... Dane and smudgers from Windy City Gridiron have been a class act, though, and I welcome their presence on MHR.


It isn't just Orton, much as the guy has been a lightning rod, or Cutler, or any other one thing. It's a long-held pattern that emerges in every fan base around the league. There is a tendency to want a simple answer to a complex question. Usually, that answer somehow becomes the QB, who always, it seems, needs to be replaced. How far does this extend?

I wonder how many Steelers fans, today, will admit that they were among the many who wanted to run Big Ben Roethisberger out of town last summer (2008). Before he won last year's Supper Bowl (nope, not a typo, just enjoying the language), fans in Pittsburgh wanted him on the next train. After all, they reasoned, he wasn't a true franchise QB and he wasn't going to be able to win them another SB. In retrospect, that's up there with wearing tin-foil hats to keep out the alien transmissions, but it was perfectly common just over a year ago. This kind of thing goes on in nearly every city.

What are most folks in Denver really saying? The undertone, usually left unsaid, is often this: I don't feel comfortable with this team. That's understandable, because there's been a lot of change over the past year. Change is unsettling. Before that, the Broncos were mired in mediocrity, but we were familiar with the team and felt comfortable with the belief that it would improve. The sudden, massive transition is hard to handle.

Fans don't always like complex arguments. Simple is certainly more fun for many, and there isn't a thing in this world wrong with that. However - this isn't a simple game. The complexities, nuance and interactions among the players and coaches lend themselves to a lot of strange theories and bizarre conclusions. McD is an idiot. Orton can't play the game. There's nothing wrong with the O line (oddly, I was told that the same day that they benched Ben Hamilton, a guy who I will always like and respect).

And that's what reality brings - uncertainty. Wins, even when achieved, don't seen overpowering enough. Things aren't black and white - they are uncertain, and that's always been a time when the sales of magical items improve. The number of folks who believe that somehow benching a QB with Orton's skills and record is sensible surprises me at times, but it shouldn't. Many of those folks have always disliked Orton. Some of them want Cutler back (which is mystifying, if you look at his numbers and problems). They want something different to happen, and they think that the new will automatically be better. That's the fallacy. They want to wave a magic wand and change the way things are. You can't blame them for that.

Here's something that isn't magic - winning. Winning takes time, effort, long term planning and hard work. You don't toss a system that worked to the tune of creating the best offensive performance in NFL history (one which Josh McDaniels brought in) just because it takes time to learn. You don't do it by jumping ship or by listening to the howling mobs. You do it by creating a plan, which McDaniels has done, and bringing in good folks to implement it. It takes time, and 99 time out of 100, you'll have to change it and tweak it, adapt and add or delete personnel in the offseason. Only one team wins the SB - the others go home in defeat.

One member said "I expect the Super Bowl every year and I won't be satisfied with anything else." That's fine with me, but you're going to get up close and personal with a ton of disappointment if that's your life. Even Josh McDaniels said this summer, "We're not a Super Bowl team this year." He was right. There's too much that needs fixing. He knew that then, and he knows it now. In fact, I've rarely known a young man with a more grounded perspective on that.

And the changes are happening. The early run got people's blood up and they started imagining things that weren't likely. That's pretty common. Now we know that there are still holes to fill and changes to make. We aren't as bad as many are saying, either. Changes are needed, to be sure, and that will, I believe, get done. However...

This is the first season of a team that has been through immense changes. It's undeniable that the team has already come farther than almost anyone would have expected. I suggest to you that watching McD bring on his coaches, the evolution of the roster and the players, the reorganizing this team, teaching and coaching it to the place it is today is a very impressive victory all by itself. When I read folks claiming that by now the Broncos 'should' be perfect with the new systems and playbook, I just shake my head. Before the season, we talked about the fact that McD's own former players have said that it will take 2 or more years to fully understand and implement the systems. Now we're seeing that for ourselves.

Let's get 5 more wins. Let's cement ourselves into a playoff berth, even if we're not quite ready yet. You become the best by playing the best. Achieving that, winning a title, is a goal that will require inspiration, perspiration and long-sustained effort. And in it's own way, that's magical too.

I also wanted to wish you all the magic of the upcoming holiday season. Don't miss a chance to reconnect with your heart and your loved ones - they are the real magic in life.

All the Best,