Good morning, Broncos Country!
As we head into the NFL Draft later this week, it's easy to get lost in a lot of numbers and stats to evaluate players.
And in the offseason, stats are one of the few things we really have to go on as we look ahead to the upcoming season.
Stats are good. Stats are helpful. I like stats. In fact, I love them as benchmarks, as trend identifiers and as a way to make us blatantly aware of what works - and what doesn't.
But stats are completely unreliable as the sole measurement in predicting great players as well as championships because they fail to account for beating the odds. And if being a Broncos fan has taught me anything, it's that you actually can beat the odds (and can be beaten by them, too).
Basing predictions on how good we won't be because of stats is as useful as predicting how good we will be based on them (i.e., most of us last season).
As we all know, games aren't won on paper.
Will we go 19-0? Unlikely, given all the variables plus talent on other teams. But I like beating the odds - and it's April - so why not?
Let's define exactly what is going to take this talented team to a championship team. (Is that my phone is ringing? I'm pretty sure it's Gary Kubiak calling to get this, so pay attention, you're in the inner-circle now).
Here ya' go - 4 championship-caliber absolutes (with some alliteration to boot!):
In today's NFL, this is one of the toughest things to maintain as free agency and coaching changes threaten a team's cohesion every single year.
But it's not impossible and is an absolute must to work toward. The key to this begins with consistent coaching - whether that's people or scheme or both - and ends with the position group working together every day to be on the same page come game time.
Not having this spells disaster, and I can sum that up in two words - offensive line.
The Band-Aid for our O-Line woes last year to shift guys out of their skilled positions was a supremely bad idea for many reasons, including that guys were suddenly playing an unfamiliar spot with unfamiliar communication expectations to unfamiliar teammates.
On top of that, it was done mid-season when there was very little time to figure out the new position and its required communication.
Just ask Louis Vasquez, a Pro Bowl left guard who suddenly was shifted outside to tackle.
"It strained us as a unit up front," Vasquez said, noting that keeping everyone in the same place helps the line gel, and that is key for an effective front. "That just helps everybody else's chemistry. Everybody feeds off of our energy and our chemistry, and it just gets to a point later in the season to where we don't even have to talk. We just know what each other [is] going to do and what each other [is] thinking."
Pro Bowl safety T.J. Ward pointed out the same chemistry benefit on defense. Although the Broncos had a talented roster at secondary, both Ward and Aqib Talib were new to the team along with defensive end DeMarcus Ware.
Ward believes wholeheartedly that a second year together is going to make a big difference.
"We had a talented secondary, but it's all about gelling together," he said. "That cohesion is only going to come with time. I think the more that we play together, especially in the secondary - me, Talib, Chris Harris and whoever steps into that safety role, we're going to need that type of gelling. We're going to get better with time."
And that time is best utilized by getting guys plugged in as early as possible, so they are playing as a unit and not individual defenders.
"It starts now in the meeting room and workouts," Ward said. "Everyone knows it doesn't mean anything until we get out there on the field."
I've preached the importance of this more than once here (like maybe a billion times even), but coaching is such a big part of a team's character, and it makes the biggest difference and shows its greatest benefit or largest detriment when games and seasons are on the line.
Just one word this time - Indianapolis.
The importance of Kubiak and Rick Dennison and Wade Phillips and all the position coaches cannot be underestimated. From these early days of teaching to mid-season strategy all the way to end-of-season motivation ... coaching is key.
The buy-in from players at this point is promising.
"If we have any questions, Coach is more than willing," Vasquez said of the team getting a handle on the new playbook and zone blocking scheme. "He's got an open door policy, so we can go in there and ask questions, or if we have suggestions, he's always open to them. It doesn't mean it's going to get taken to the field, but that's what I feel like the coaches are real good at. It's not, ‘My way or the highway.' We get the sense that he's open to any suggestions we might have."
Ward also highlighted that mutual respect between the coaches and players.
"It's going very well right now," he said. "I think the installs, the direction that they want to go with the team and how they're going about it right now is great for us. I think Coach Kubiak has a good philosophy. ...They're doing a lot of teaching right now."
Competing is an obvious trait for a successful team, but it's a lot more than just "being a competitive team."
On paper, the Broncos have been that for many seasons. But how often has that "competitive team" translated into a championship?
And though many factors can explain this, at least some of the explanation is having a competitive team but not competitive enough players. Or maybe it just wasn't enough competitive players to fire up the whole team and get their teammates angry about losing.
Being a contender starts with a competitive philosophy from every player on every down ... and in every practice.
This time of year, competition for starting spots is the norm, but I like the mentality out of Dove Valley right now that new free agents, draft picks, and second- or third-year guys who have developed are all in play for filling the best-man-on-the-field requirement.
The offensive line is an obvious place for competition as several young guys have been tapped to step up and fight for a place next to Vasquez and fellow Pro Bowler Ryan Clady.
With high expectations from second-year tackle Michael Schofield and potential starter Ben Garland, plus the free agency signings of Gino Gradkowski and Shelley Smith, and the likelihood of an offensive tackle picked in the early rounds of the draft, Vasquez noted the atmosphere will be very competitive - and very good for the offense.
"It's a big part of guys competing for the spots that are available," Vasquez said. "Having guys competing, it's going to make us work even harder and make us even better."
There will be plenty of competition on the other side of the ball too as coaches seek to fill Rahim Moore's spot in the secondary and look for depth at linebacker, particularly as Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall return from injuries.
"I know the coaches haven't and I haven't penciled in anyone next to me," Ward said, adding that he "guarantees" himself a spot. "I've got a chip on my shoulder at all times. I know guys are coming for my spot and I'm working as hard as I can to be the best player I can. We've got a bunch of guys that can fill that spot, and that's a great thing about it. It's going to be a good competitive offseason."
Confidence - ala the Orange Crush
Obviously this is a must. But for all the success the Broncos have had in the last three decades and for all the associations to a "championship culture" at Dove Valley, I would suggest the Broncos have a confidence hurdle to get over after the way the last two seasons have ended.
Losing big - as the Broncos have done in their last two season finales - is a tough mental hurdle. So here is where current players should take some history lessons.
Since 1977 - and especially since 1987 - the Broncos have been an NFL contender. Prior to that though, they were among the worst teams in the league, sometimes even considered a joke. How much confidence did it take that 1977-78 team to not just win its games and and get to the playoffs and the Super Bowl, but to also convince itself it could show the country it was as good as the best?
Answer: A lot.
Finishing 12-2 that season, the Broncos won the AFC Championship by beating Hall-of-Fame quarterback Kenny Stabler and his Raiders 20-17, a win that was mostly achieved through huge and timely interceptions that led to touchdowns late in the game.
But Pro-Bowl linebacker Tom Jackson noted that that win really started back in 1975 when the Broncos competed well against the behemoth Raiders. Losing 17-10, the Broncos held Stabler to just 178 yards and forced the Raiders to kick a field goal late in the fourth quarter after a goal-line stand - rather than put the game away with another touchdown. The Broncos lost the game but won a whole new outlook, which made all the difference.
"We lost the game, but during the course of the game, we really did battle them head-to-head," Jackson said. "I thought at that moment we kind of all realized that we might be pretty good. From that moment on, I think we had the confidence that let us know we were all young and we were going to be together for a while."
Check out this confidence...19-0, baby!
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