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Plans for the Broncos' Break

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     There is a play in the San Francisco game which, for me, typifies the Broncos' 2010 season through the first eight games.  Late in the Fourth Quarter, the Forty-niners were driving. At the snap, Justin Bannan burst out of his stance and drove a blocker two or three yards into the San Francisco backfield in a seemingly unstoppable charge on Troy Smith. My exclamation of "OH YEAH!!!!!" was changed into a choked back "OH S---!!!!!" (choked down because my wife was sitting right beside me) as Frank Gore sped past Bannan on a delayed draw. One step to his right, and Bannan would have have been directly in Gore's path and the play would probably have been blown up in the backfield. As it was, the San Francisco drive continued. Bannan's explosion went for naught.

Take a jump and see where this leads

     I've come to a conclusion that may be diametrically opposed to the opinion of many -- if not most -- here at MHR. I keep hearing things like:

The team has quit
McDaniels is in over his head
The season is lost
The team has no fire
The play calling is too predictable
The team is playing without life
This team is not tough
etc., etc., etc.

     I believe the exact opposite to be true. McDaniels and his players are trying too hard. They are so concerned with making a big play, not giving up a big play, with trying to make things happen, that they are failing to effectively execute the fundamental skills of the game.

They are playing tight and thinking too much. Lloyd, on the interception that ended the game for the Broncos on Sunday, appeared to take his route too deep, instead of pulling up to give Orton a better target. Orton tried to make a play with his legs, but forgot to secure the ball against pursuit. The defense would stuff the run on one play, only to give up a four or five yard run on the next. An offensive lineman appeared to get locked in on one defender and would try to make a play on him, but failed to recognize the pressure coming from other spots. The running backs' dancing in the backfield looked like they were thinking "If I go straight, I can get one . . . but if I go right I can get three . . . but wait . . . if I go left maybe I could break a big one. . . "

Some more examples of this:

In the Oakland game, after a Denver kickoff and a touchback, Oakland had the ball first and ten at their own twenty. These are the plays that then followed:

A pass, short left. for nine yards.
A run off left tackle stuffed for no gain.
A run up the middle for two yards.
A second pass, short left, for five yards.
An incomplete pass.
A False Start penalty.
A quarterback scramble for fifteen yards.
A run behind the right guard for five yards.
A run to the left end for six yards.
A pass, deep left for forty-three yards and a touchdown.

     On the touchdown play, DJ Williams appeared to be so concerned about not allowing another short run or pass to his right that he barely bumped Zach Miller as Miller ran parallel to the line of scrimmage, moving to the defense's right side then broke into the secondary as the entire defensive backfield followed two receivers to the left side of the defense.

     In the San Francisco game, on two separate occasions I watched as a gunner on the punt team sprinted full out down the field and ran right past the Forty-niners' punt returner. They were so focused on getting down there fast, I would assume in anticipation of making a big play, that they ran themselves right out of the play.

     Also in the San Francisco game, late in the fourth quarter, Andre Goodman fell behind Michael Crabtree. The ball was thrown to Crabtree and caught. Then, instead of attempting to tackle Crabtree after the catch -- and perhaps giving the defense a chance to hold the Forty-niners to a field goal, Goodman went for the big play and tried to swat the ball out of Crabtree's hands. He missed and the result? A San Francisco touchdown.

     When I look at the coaching, I get the impression that McDaniels has been too quick to open up his playbook on both sides of the ball. He's been trying to get too fancy with his starting sets on offense and on defense. Now, admittedly, injuries have played their part in this, but these things must be recognized:

1)The New York Jets followed by the Oakland Raiders games represent the first time Denver has started the same five offensive linemen, in the same positions, two games in a row. The San Francisco game made it three games in a row.

2)Denver has started the same WR/RB/TE combo twice in eight games. We've played with 2 RB/2 WR/1TE sets, 1 RB/3 WR/1TE sets, 1 RB/2 WR/2TE sets, and even a 1RB/ 1WR/3TE set.

3)Weeks 1 & 2 are the only weeks that the same eleven defensive players have started in the same positions two games in a row. We've played with 3DL/4LB/4DB, 3DL/3LB/5DB, and a 4DL/3LB/4DB starting alignments.

4)We've seen the newest incarnation of the Wildcat with Tebow on the field with Orton. Even that has seen at least three different incarnations in terms of the personnel and look.

     These all come across as a group that is trying so hard to make the big plays that could turn the season around, that they are making mental and execution errors.

Boydy, in his article "A Coaches Perspective: Raising the floor and not the ceiling of an athletes (and TEAMS) performance" raises some interesting points:

in regards to coaching athletes:

". . .their worst should still be enough to give a strong performance . . . fundamentals, ingrain them in muscle memory and build dynamic skills from these fundamentals . . ."

 Boydy goes on to observe:

. . .without an improvement in FUNDAMENTAL football, and a raise in the floor of their performance, the team is doomed to inconsistent play, which also leads to a stifling in player development and implementation of a system.

     The more I've gone back over this season, the more I've become convinced that Boydy's take on this may be closer to the reality that is the 2010 Denver Broncos than any other speculation that has been advanced. Yes, injuries have had their impact. Yes, starting two rookies on the offensive line has had it's impact. Yes, Orton's improvements in some areas, and lack of improvement in other has had its effect. Yes, the defense has had its strong moments, and its poor ones. Yes, McDaniels has tried to get creative with the playbook with such things as the "Swamp package" to get Tebow into the game. Yes, even the death of Kenny McKinley has probably had an impact -- Denver is 0-4 since his passing.

     But where the team seems to be most lacking is in the fundamentals -- like blocking and tackling, like not missing the snap count, like keeping your fingers out of other players' facemasks . . . need I go on?

     I believe a large part of this has to do with McDaniels equating familiarity with mastery. I believe he has made the same mistake that any other first year teacher is apt to make: the belief that exposure and even familiarity is the same as mastery. I've spent the last twenty-two years as a teacher. Over and over I have seen a student demonstrate mastery of a skill within my classroom, with the particular group of students on my caseload, supported by my instructional assistants staff. That same student, however, will often not be able to demonstrate that same mastery in a different setting, surrounded by different students and without the support staff. We have assumed that because they knew it at one level, they had, in fact, mastered the skill. This was not true. And so, we have been faced with the need to modify our teaching so that the student can successfully demonstrate the requisite skill, regardless setting or people in proximity. I believe McDaniels has been making this same mistake with both sides of the ball. He has a roster of players, the majority of whom have been around his system for a season and a half. They have sat through his game preparation meetings, walked through the various practices. In McDaniels' previous setting, this may have been enough, the majority of the players on the Patriots' roster had been with the system long enough to master the skills needed for the game plan. Game preparation (i.e. exposure and familiarity) have not been the issue. Mario Haggan alluded to this when he said:

I'm not sugarcoating this. I'm going to be as honest as I can be and tell it to you straight. It's not Josh. I've never been more prepared as a player from a head coach. And I've been through five or six already. We knew when the screen play was coming. We just didn't stop it. We knew when it was a run-toss and they were going to hit the edge. We just didn't stop it . . .

     According to Haggan, the players knew what was coming, but failed to execute. That, IMHO, is a lack of coaching the fundamentals. It's one thing to recognize what is happening and what needs to be done. It is another to have the correct response so ingrained that you don't have to stop to think about what to do. It goes back to Boydy's comments about "raising the floor," which is another way of saying "mastering the fundamentals."

Some Thoughts for the Bye Week

1)Spend it on fundamentals.
      Drill and kill, as it were, the basic skills until they become instinctive.
2)Simplify the game plan on both sides of the ball.
     Go back to what was working in 2009, and what was working in the first four games of 2010.
3)Quit shuffling personnel around.
     Put the same 11 players in the same positions and let them master the skills of those positions.
4)Restart the process of building muscle memory.
     Through repeated reps on fundamental tasks.
5)Use screens and outlet passes to supplement  the running game.
     While teaching the running backs how to hit holes quickly.
6)Go back to the 5-2 that was being used early in 2009

Any other thoughts?