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The Fox Paradigm Through the First Quarter: Is History Being Repeated?

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     To say that the first four games of 2011 have been disappointing and frustrating would an understatement of unbelievable proportions. Never before in all the years I have been following the Broncos have I seen the kind of fan outrage that is circulating around sports blogs and news agencies. The is a great deal of understandable anguish and anger going around. When a 6-0 start turned into an 8-8 finish, followed by a 3-10 start with a 4-12 finish, followed by a 1-3 start, the situation turned truly ugly.

     Yet, it seems far too simplistic to me to boil the situation down to single elements like, "Orton sucks," "Fox is stubborn," or "If Tebow had started, we'd be 3-0." Let's not forget that the Broncos have had a middle of the road offense for the better part of the last five years (NFL Ranking in Points/Yards: 17/21, 21/11, 16/2, 20/15, 19/13), and that offense was "supported" by a defense that ranked at or near the bottom of the league during the same period (NFL Ranking in Points/Yards, 8/14, 28/19, 30/29, 12/7, 32/32).

     John Fox was brought in -- at least as I understand it, to take the Broncos in a different direction. Now that the first quarter is in the books, it might be worth taking a look at some of the elements that I have seen in the first four games.

Take a jump with me.

     Let''s take a moment and think about the history of our coaches. Dan Reeves became the Broncos head coach after serving a stint as the Offensive Coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys -- under the tutelage of Tom Landry. Reeves served as Denver's head coach from 1981 to 1992. He compiled a 110-73-1 regular season record, a 7-6 postseason record and three AFC Championships. In his last five years, his teams became very inconsistent on both sides of the ball, with the greater swings on the defensive side.
Year Off Pts Off Yds Def Pts Def Yds Notes
1988 15 8 20 22
1989 8 15 1 3 Super Bowl Loss
1990 16 8 23 20
1991 12 12 3 5 AFC Championship Game Loss
1992 22 21 19 22

     It was decided that the defense needed to be fixed so Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips was promoted to Head Coach. To his advantage, Phillips had served as the Interim Head Coach for the New Orleans Saints' last four games in 1985. He compiled a 1-3 record. He then served as the Defensive Coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles before becoming Denver's Defensive Coordinator. Phillips served as the Broncos Head Coach in 1993 and 1994, compiling a 16-16 regular season record and a 0-1 postseason record before being fired.

Year Off Pts Off Yds Def Pts Def Yds Notes
1993 3 5 10 19 Wildcard Loss
1994 10 6 25 26

     Phillips was replaced by Mike Shanahan and later Josh McDaniels, both of whom were seen as offensive-minded coaches. Both struggled with establishing a consistently strong defense. This led to the hiring of John Fox -- a coach with a strong background on the defensive side of the ball.
     There are definitely a similarity between the Reeves to Phillips switch and the Shanahan/McDaneils to Fox switch. In both cases, an offensive-minded coach who struggled with the defensive side was replaced by a coach whose primary coaching experience was as a defensive coach. There is, however, a very large difference between the two situations: Phillips came from within the Broncos system, and as such played a role in the defensive inconsistencies of Reeves final seasons. Fox has been brought in from outside the system and brought with him a reputation for being able to turn the defensive side of a team around.

     In the five years prior to Fox's arriving, the Panthers had been in cycle of decline. Under Dom Capers, Carolina dropped from 7-9 in 1997 to 4-12 in 1998. Under George Seifert, the Panthers rose to 8-8 in 1999 before dropping to 7-9 then 1-15 over the next two seasons. In Fox's first two years, Carolina rose to 7-9 then improved to 11-5 with an NFC Championship. There are some interesting parallels between the situation Fox found himself in Carolina and the one he now finds himself in Denver.

Year Team Record Off Pts Off Yds Def Pts Def Yds Notes
2001 CAR 1-15-0 29 30 28 31 Seifert's last season
2002 CAR 7-9-0 30 31 5 2 Fox's 1st season
2003 CAR 11-5-0 15 16 10 8 NFC Championship
2010 DEN 4-12-0 19 13 32 32 McDaniels' last season
2011 DEN 1-3-0 21 24 28 23 Fox's 1st season
2012 DEN ??? ??? ??? ??? ???

     What I found interesting in this look was that in Fox's 1st season, Carolina's offense appears to have regressed a bit while the defensive improved markedly. Thus far in Denver, we are seeing a similar pattern. The offense has regressed while the defense has improved. Whether or not we will continue to see the defense improve as the season progresses remains to be seen. I just found it interesting that with both teams, the offense took a step backwards in Fox's first year while the defense took a step forward. Let's take a look at the parts of the team so far in 2011.

     Something that supports the idea that the Carolina pattern is being repeated in Denver can be seen in how Fox has handled his assistant coaches. He has retained four of the six primary offensive assistant coaches, including Mike McCoy as offensive coordinator. While on the defensive side of the ball, Fox has retained only defensive line coach Wayne Nunnely. This points to Fox focusing on the defense while leaving the offense largely intact.

Coach 2010 2011
HC McDaniels Fox
OC McCoy McCoy
OL Barone Magazu
QB McDaniels Gase
RB Studesville Studesville
WR Gase Tolbert
TE Ligashesky Barone
DC Martindale Allen
DL Nunnely Nunnely
LB Phifer Smith
DB Donatell Milus
ST Priefer Rodgers

Offensive Line
     Something that I think often gets lost in the various discussions of the fortunes of the team is how young our offensive line. Consider our five starters: Ryan Clady - entering his 4th season, Zane Beadles - entering his 2nd season, J. D. Walton - entering his 2nd season, Chris Kuper - entering his 6th season, and Orlando Franklin - entering his 1st season.

     Three of our starting offensive linemen have one or less seasons of NFL experience. Add into that the fact that they are being asked to transition from a predominantly power blocking scheme on runs to a more zone blocking oriented one. That being said, they are tied for 20th in fewest sacks allowed with 9, and tied for 10th fewest in Quarterback hits allowed. They have helped the Broncos rushing attack tie for 25th in Yards (347) and tie for 22nd in Average per Attempt (3.7).

     Like any young unit, they look great on one play and seem to whiff on the next. The upside to them is that they have some good veteran leadership in Clady and Kuper and four of them have now had a number of games of working together to begin to build the kind of automatic unity that they will need to be successful.

Running Backs

     Given Denver's history as a "running back factory," with the reputation of being able to take any running back, plug him in and have him hit 1000 yards in a season (Davis 4 consecutive seasons with 1000+, one with 2000+, Gary, Anderson and Portis twice, Droughns and Bell).

     After Tatum Bell, the Broncos running attack seemed to self-destruct. 2008 was a disastrous year beset by injuries. The only bright spot was fan favorite Peyton Hillis -- though even Hillis only mustered 343 yards in 12 games. For a moment, Knowshon Moreno looked like the running game might be on an upswing -- running for over 900 yards as a rookie. But that quickly declined in his sophomore season. So far this season, the running game has been wildly inconsistent -- though McGahee seems to have found new life, rushing for over 100 yards in two of his last three starts.

This is still an area that needs to seem some strong improvement.

     This has been a frustrating group in 2011. What should have been our strongest unit with Lloyd, Royal, the supposed return of Demaryius Thomas, Decker, Willis, and newcoming Julius Thomas. Demaryius Thomas has yet to see the field, Royal and Julius Thomas have both missed half of the first four games, and Brandon Lloyd missed a game.

     It was distressing to see the team line Tim Tebow up as a wide receiver due to the injury bug biting so many of our receivers. The lone bright spot has been the emergence of Eric Decker as a "go-to" receiver and big play threat.

     I would hope that with a return to health by Royal, and later by Demaryius and Julius Thomas that we would see our receiving corp return to top form.

Defensive Line & Linebackers
     This is another group that I'm not sure what to think of. They look impressive one play, then let a runner slip past for a big gain on another. Though, over all, the appear to be improved. Through four games, the defensive line has helped against the run: 13th ypg, 10th ypa, 13th in 1st downs, 14th in rushing TDs allowed, 27th in 20+ runs, 20th (1) 40+

Defensive Backs
     This unit is showing it's age among the starters and the lack of talented depth among the younger ones. The Broncos are 32nd in completion percentage allowed, 23rd in passing yards per game allowed, 28th in passing yards per attempt, 28th in passing touchdowns allowed, 9th fewest in 20+ yard passing plays allowed and 29th fewest in 40+ yard passing playst allowed.

THE Question - Starting Quarterbacks
     I left this issue to the last since I know it will generate the greatest debate. Obviously Kyle Orton is not getting the job done effectively. Though he does not deserve all of the blame for the 1-3 start, he has certainly played a large part in it. There is very little reason to believe that he should continue as the Broncos starter. Especially not when there is a first round quarterback waiting in the wings.

     It is largely an accepted adage that you do not simply sit a 1st round quarterback for an extended time. He is expected to play early, play often and make an immediate contribution. This is the conundrum faced by the Denver Broncos with Tim Tebow. Why is Tebow not playing? After all, he is a 1st round quarterback. However, that may be a large part of the problem.

     Consider: Tim Tebow was the first round pick of Josh McDaniels and Joe Ellis. The question then becomes, have John Fox and John Elway graded Tebow as a first round talent? If the answer to that question is yes, then it makes no sense to not have him playing. This may be be where the Tebow conundrum is centered.

     It might be helpful to recall that many so-called experts did not see Tebow as a 1st round draft choice. McDaniels/Ellis were criticized in many circles for having "reached" to get Tebow in the 1st round. Several of these pundits projected Tebow as a 2nd round pick. A few even had him falling to the third round. If Elway/Fox see him as a 2nd round talent rather than a 1st round, their handling of him may not be quite so unreasonable as it might first appear. Consider the eleven quarterbacks who have been drafted in the 2nd round over the last ten years and how they were installed in their teams:

Year Quarterback Yr 1 Starts Yr 2 Starts Notes
2011 Dalton 4 N/A replaced Carson Palmer after a dispute with team management
2011 Kaepernick 0 N/A
2010 Clausen 10 0 replaced injured starter Matt Moore
2009 White 0 0
2008 Brohm 1 1
2008 Henne 0 13 replaced injured starter Chad Pennington
2007 Kolb 0 0
2007 Beck 4 0
2007 Stanton 0 1
2006 Clemens 0 8 only 1 start since 2nd season
2006 Jackson 2 12 # of starts has declined each season since 2nd

     Only Dalton, Clausen and Henne have seen significant playing time during their first two years. One was replacing a quarterback who got into a dispute with team management, the other two were replacing injured starters. If it's a case of Elway and Fox grading Tebow as a 2nd round talent, their approach to him makes more sense.

Some Final Thoughts

     Am I suggesting that a case should be made for not starting Tebow? Absolutely not. I'm simply trying to understand why the Broncos might have made the decision to not name him the starter. I'm of the opinion that Tebow is not currently Denver's starter for one or more of the following three reasons:

(1) Fox wanted to follow the pattern he used in Carolina - leave the offense more or less alone and focus on the defense. In which case, Orton is named the starter. We can easily see that the Carolina offense regressed somewhat in Fox's first season while the defense improved. We are seeing a similar regression/improvement in Denver.

(2) I have to wonder how much of Fox's approach to the starting quarterback situation is based in large part on the evaluations provided to Fox by McCoy and Gase. Both of these assistants were working with the offense in 2010. Without a full offseason to use in meeting/working with each of the three quarterbacks, Fox would be largely reliant upon game film and the assessments provided by the staff members Fox retained. I've not seen anything from either McCoy or Gase that would suggest they they were enthusiastically endorsing Tebow as the Denver starter -- in last season nor in this one.

(3) As I mentioned above, I have some serious questions about whether or not Fox and Elway see Tebow as a 1st round talent. If he has not been graded as a 1st round talent -- think about Elway's early comments on Tebow about how Tim is a great football player and how the Broncos needed to turn him into a great quarterback, which would seem to lend credence to this view -- then it is not that surprising that they do not want to name him the starter while Fox retools the defense.

     Is this apparent repetition of history what's best for Denver? In short, yes and no. Yes, in the sense that revamping the defense needed to be accorded significant priority. No, in the sense that the offense has regressed too much for the slow improvement in the defense to compensate.

     I'm convinced that if the Broncos offense continues to struggle, Fox will be pushed into making a change at quarterback. I have a feeling, however, that that change could just as easily be replacing Orton with Brady Quinn as with Tim Tebow. It could well be that Fox and Elway will give in to fan sentiment and make a switch to Tebow, but that really isn't Fox's historical pattern. I'm further convinced that we will see Tim Tebow starting at such time when the coaching staff deems him ready to take over the reins.