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MHR Chalk Talk Special Edition - Locker Room Issues in Week 17 ('09)

There are many angles to look at for the Sunday game against the KC Chiefs.  We could breakdown the Xs and Os, we could compare the teams, we could look at the players, or we could even evaluate our playoff chances.  There are many ways to approach this.

But I'm going to take a different tack.  I'm going to look at the locker room issues that have come up lately, and see if I can make some sense of what is going on for this team, now and going into the off season.  Keep in mind I scrapped my entire rough draft I prepared for this game due to the news of Marshall and Scheffler's de-activation for Sunday's game.

I hope that I can lend some credible and reasoned opinions about what is happening (or may be happening), and that the discussion generated is healthy and cordial.  Remember folks, this doesn't need to be "McDaniels haters" versus "Marshall haters".  This is about the Broncos, and what the team needs to do moving forward.  Let's keep the discussion respectful, and let me start it off today with my own take.

TE Tony Scheffler

What does Tony Scheffler have in common with Brandon Marshall?  He is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after this season.  Think about that.  Also, think about this: Who is Tony's agent?  None other than Bus Cook, the man who brought us the Cutler versus McDaniels conflict in the last off-season.  Brilliant reporting by MHR's Jeremy Bolander revealed Bus Cook to be the likely instigator of the feud between Cutler and McDaniels.  At the time, there were concerns about what Scheffler would do.  Scheffler stayed with the team, but in a diminished role.  Denver's TEs are being used more in blocking roles than in receiving roles, and while Scheffler continues to be a top notch receiving TE, he has been less of a target than he might have been with Cutler and the former Shanahan scheme.  In fairness to Scheffler, I am unaware of previous attitude issues with him.

We don't know for sure (yet) what prompted the benching of Scheffler.  According to Klis of the Denver Post, it was attitude.  Assuming this to be the case, let's take a look at the two other players in this week's drama.

Head Coach Josh McDaniels

Josh McDaniels has made a decision as a coach that (as a former coach myself) I respect.  With the post season on the line, he has made the decision to place the people on the field that he feels are committed to the team, not necessarily the "best" players on the team.  We as fans can argue that we want to see the best players on the field, especially in a "must-win" game.  But from a coach's perspective, there are variables that go beyond just ability.  Team chemistry is crucial, as is character and motivation.  In the age of Madden games, we may look at players as having abilites on a scale of 1 to 100.  But in real, team sports the other variables are often more important for a team's success.  There is no true "1 to 100" scale, and player issues beyond raw physical talent or essential to winning games.

Was the decision to bench Scheffler correct?  Unlike players (who divide their goals between personal bests and team wins), a coach at the pro level is judged on his ability to win games to keep his job.  Scheffler may or may not place himself or his team higher in terms of priorities.  But it is reasonable to assume that a coach's only desire is to win games.  I won't question Scheffler's issues, because I don't know what is really happening.  But I don't see a plausible scenario for the coach to bench Scheffler for some sort of egoist's gain.

But what about Marshall?  This is the heart of the matter, and I think this is where I can shine the most light in a difficult situation.

WR Brandon Marshall

Who is Brandon Marshall?  First, he is one of the most talented receivers in the NFL.  Let's get that out of the way, because I don't think there is any credible argument against this point.  He is also very young, with a promising career ahead of him.  There is no doubt that Brandon Marshall increases a team's ability to win ball games if we judge him by his on field performances.  He is a beast at WR.

We also know that (unlike his coach or his fellow benched team mate Scheffler), Marshall has a history of behavioral problems.  He has had run ins with law enforcement on many occassions (and no, not just because of one woman).  He has also had run ins with everyone from ball boys and feloow players (witness his behavior when he was benched during the preseason), and has shown terrible judgement (including the "glove" incident during a game, as well as other game time decisions and horseplaying with a television set).  He has been suspended by the NFL, and by his own team.

Here is a little reported fact that stood out to me earlier this season.  While Marshall's fans where cheering him for hugging his coach and playing hard earlier this season, many folks may have missed a little quote from Marshall a few weeks ago.  Marshall made a statement about not knowing where he would be next year, and made no attempt to talk up his team's chances at keeping his services.  Talking about staying with a team is almost a common tradition in such statements, but Marshall steered clear.  In my mind, at that moment, I seriously doubted if Marshall would return.  Since that time, I've written in several comments at MHR that I wouldn't count on Marshall coming back, and his chances might be 50/50.

What about the injury issue?  Whom do we believe?

The Injury

Marshall received a hamstring injury during practice.  The only question is, "To what extent is the player injured?"

Marshall acknowledges the injury, and some reports had his status as being up in the air.  In a breach of polite protocol (in my opinion), the head coach came out and called the injury "mild" and claimed that other players were going to be playing through worse injuries.

What would prompt a coach to do this?  Let's look at reasonable ideas.

First, what the coach did was certainly impolite.  While I was a former coordinator (and only at the sub collegiate levels), I would have to be entirely beyond mending fences with a player to publicly call an injury an excuse (which is what McDaniel's is clearly implying).  But for the coach to make this implication, it is only logical for us to asume a key point - Marshall must have either "not wanted to play" or was not playing to his potential in practice.

In other words, had Marshall said, "Look, I'm hurt.  But my team needs me and I'll give it everything I have" we would have no problem.  In a similar vein, had Marshall said, "Coach, I can't play.  My injury is too much" he would simply be placed on "out" status and there would be no argument between player and coach (though the coach might growl to the press about the player's attitude).  But we don't have that here.  Only Marshall's lack of commitment to playing or not playing would force the coach to have to make the decision for him.

In this case, the player was benched, and then the player comes out expressing surprise.  Odd?  Not if we followed the possibilities.

The Other Players

When I am looking at behavioral issues and dynamics in a locker room, I look at other players for clues to the problems.  If there was an issue between a player and, let's say, a position coach (often not far removed from high school himself), I often watched the behavior of team leaders. 

So here's a telling point.  Since the preseason issues with Marshall and McDaniels went down, have there been any locker room grumbles about the coach?  At this late date, have we heard any derisive comments from Brian Dawkins?  Players who support a coach or player may or may not speak out, but when a player or coach is unpoplular with other players, someone is bound to speak up.

We've heard about Marshall needing to straighten up, or to be taken under someone's wing.  But we haven't heard about the Coach being a tyrant.

After four difficult losses, Brian Dawkins called a players only meeting, which led to 2 straight wins.  Since that time, the team has fallen again on hard times.  The meeting worked (albeit temporarily), but the key is what player meetings are about.

When a player calls a player's only meeting, the issue is almost always about accountability.  It is likely that some players weren't being accountable, and Dawkins addressed this.  Accountability isn't just about how well guys are playing, but attitudes.  For example, what if a player is playing very well, but makes the statement to fellow players that he isn't planning on sticking around with the team next year?  What if a player is grumbling to other players about his lack of being used in a current system?  We don't know what the issues are, or who has them, but the players do.  They haven't gone to the press, and (to our knowledge) haven't gone to the ownership.  This lends further credible evidence that the problem with our team is at the player level, not at the coach level.


Looking at this game against KC, I think we are the better team and are at home.  On the other hand, we may have to play without our two top receivers (Eddie Royal is also questionable with a neck injury).  KC has the advantage of "first loss" (onder the theory that a team that loses the first engagement has more to benefit from game film and has improved odds of winning the next game).

Even with a win, a couple of other games need to go our way.  Even if everything washes together well, I don't think we are a playoff contender for a deep run this year.  I could be wrong, but I don't like our chances.  However, I think we are positioned to improve our chances for next year.  I've been wiriting this over the last few weeks, even with the consideration (in my mind) that Marsahall may very well not stay in Denver.

Folks missed Cutler (some to the point of abandoning their team fandom), but it turned out that a mature, careful QB trumped a talented but immature QB.  I think Marshall will be missed by folks who look at him as a "98" or so in a "1 to 100" context.  But in my own opinion, Coach McDaniels is pushing for high character players.  We saw it when he brought in veteran leadership like Brian Dawkins.  We saw it when he drafted players that were (almost to a man) team captains at their university programs.

The Patriots have often had players who weren't big names, but played well together.  Like the Steelers (another good program over the years), very good players are often cut loose to the surprise of fans, only to be replaced with players who are less expensive and that "buy into the program".

I don't know what the future holds for Marshall.  I expect he will leave the Broncos, and that he has wanted to for some time. 

Coach McDaniels has (in my opinion) improved the Broncos from an 8-8 team that suffers blowouts to an 8 or 9 win team that beats very good teams and loses some close games.  That was my prediction before the season (Denver wins 8 games despite a rough schedule, but is improved).  I was proven right about the schedule; Denver played all of the top AFC teams this year.  On the other hand, while I doubt it will happen, Coach McDaniels was looking great at the start of the season only to (potentialy) come up short at the end - and this cost Coach Shanahan a job, so...

Here's my thought.  The team will continue to draft and obtain (through free agency and trades) players who buy into the "team first, ameoba flexiblity, Patriot way, character driven" style of football.  I expect more improvements next year.  As with the Patriots and Steelers, I expect the team to cut some players that we might have expected to be sure keepers.  In the case of Marshall, his cut won't be a surprise if and when it (likely) happens.  In my humble opinion, we're seeing the same thing from Marshall we've always seen, and shouldn't be surprised.  By being benched now, we are spared the off season drama that was coming anyway from a player that wasn't willing to commit to playing this Sunday, but acted surprised at being benched.  Now we know where Marshall stands, and it is where he stood when he held out this summer, and where he stood when fans thought things were going well and Marshall refused to endorse playing for the team next year.

Right now, I want the people on the field to be the people that have the interests of the team at heart.  I believe the coach is one of those people, and I believe that Marshall has demonstrated a lack of commitment to the team time and again, despite playing brilliantly on the field. 

Now the only question left for me is how fans will react.  Will they place Marshall higher than players that have bought in to the Bronco Way (like Dawkins, Buckhalter, Stokley, and Dumervil), the coach, and the team?  Or will they wish Marshall the best (sincerely), but continue to bleed orange and blue and hope for more improvement next year?  Bashing Marshall won't solve anything, and blaming McDaniels seems irrational.

For me, I'll take the positive high road.  I wish Marshall all the best (unless he goes to Oakland of course).  I also wish our head coach all the best, and most of all, I wish our team all the best.

Happy New Year!  And hold on tight.  We're in for another "interesting" off season, and I'll bet some interesting twists and turns are just around the corner for our favorite team.....