There’s nothing quite like getting your hat handed to you, is there? When you get an old-fashioned whipping, you take it and move onward. There’s a good point in working out what went wrong - there’s no point in taking it too far. This was one of the top teams in the league, fresh off whipping the Steelers in Pittsburgh. They look and play like one of the best, and right now, they are. Denver? Not yet. Surprised? You shouldn’t be.
I mentioned this week that of the 53 players on the active roster of Denver in 2008, 32 of them couldn’t even get jobs in the league, playing ball. That means that you’re realistically looking at between 40 and 50 new players, and not all of them are going to be with the team in three more years, either. Some of them are band-aids - I see Jamal Williams that way, and it bothers me that we didn’t fill in a young NT, but that’s the way the draft goes. Or, is it?
Who’s in Charge Here, Anyway?
I wanted to put up a brief blurb of thanks to Titans DC Chuck Cecil for sharing the digitus impudecus with the refs and the crowd - including the kids both there at the game and on TV. Note to Coach Cecil - All the families with children want to thank you for sharing that teaching moment. I understand that it’s a loss of control during a very high stress situation, but you know where you play and about those big things called cameras. I think that the $40,000 was just about right. You earned every penny of that fine. It’s pretty hard to come down on players for acting out on the field when your coordinators are making obscene gestures on the sidelines. When you show that you don’t have any control, you do a pretty good job of suggesting that your players take the cheap shots when they do, just as they were accused of. Things like that start - and can stop - at the top.
In 2009, the Baltimore Ravens welcomed Denver to their fair city and beat the living bejabbers out of them. Denver was coming off their bye week, and they had taken the time to rest. Some fans thought that this showed a lack of discipline on the part of the coaches and players. What those fans didn’t know was that it really indicated a lack of depth on the team - the starters were simply worn out, and this wasn’t a team that had enough talent to let the rotational players spend too much time on the field. The final outcome - losing 8 of their last 10 games - started that fine autumn afternoon, and it rarely got any better. But, what’s changed since then?
Never mind the cheap shots, the wasting of their own efforts and how well the Broncos handled them. Forget the Titans. What do you say about Kyle Orton?
You’d probably have to start with the fact that very little fazes him. Not the 6 sacks that the Titans laid on him. Not the late hit below the waist. Not the outright hatred that a lot of misguided fans laid on him in the past year. Probably not even the number of late arrivals that are looking for a bandwagon to jump on. Mostly, Kyle Orton doesn’t care. He just does his job, drives his Prius and works with conservation groups. This is NOT normal star QB behavior. But then again, Orton has never been the big star QB.
It’s happened to all of us. It looks like your team is playing like processed dung. You pop into the kitchen for a brewski and find the remains of last night’s chicken sitting next to it. The BBQ sauce you made for the last set of ribs still looks kind of good, smells fine, and pretty soon, you’re well into food prep. You walk back to the living room and suddenly the Hottentot Hasbeens have gained 10 points on the scoreboard. Ah, well, they’re still down 10 more. You’ll catch the highlights on whatever sports show is in your area.
The game drags on - looks like both teams fought out their energy in the first half, but the Hasbeens are at least trying. Suddenly, it looks like the Davenport Dilberts have been caught in press when their safeties are in Cover 2 - you just don’t do that. Your QB audibles, drops into the shotgun, drops back, loads up - and through the window comes a piercing scream from the area of the swing set. This isn’t your first game - it’s not your first kid, either, that that was the “I fell and sprained something scream (Note - it’s not your first kid-scream, either)”. You fly out the back door, with the ball still in the air. Worse still, it turns out that it’s probably just a minor sprain, but it’s a a full-bore bickering argument between the kids. By the time you straighten that out and clarify that pulling on people’s pants when they are hanging from the monkey bars really is unacceptable behavior, regardless of what a visiting male child he thinks that his uncle told him (make a note to talk to that perverted idiot) and get an ice bag on the knee, you suddenly recall that there’s a game on. Or was. Could be?
This year, the Broncos found themselves in an odd and difficult situation: they were unable to retain Brandon Stokley’s services. They found themselves with that most rare of cases by having not merely a sufficiency of talent at the wide receiver position, but an excess of riches. While cocaine may be God’s way of telling you that you’re making too much money, having to let go a player who was your best bet on third downs the year before - an area where Denver only managed to convert about 1/3 of their opportunities - is a far more mundane way of telling you two facts. The first is this - sooner or later, every player will fight the opponent who has yet to lose - Time. There was, of course, a second reason.
Denver has been struggling with a single problem for over a year now. We’ve moved to the 3-4 defense, and often run the 5-2 version of it, while increasingly getting the personnel out there to run a 4-3 when the Winkster finds it appropriate. There’s not much question that the team has developed a substantial change in almost every area. We’ve increased the size of the DL (and now they have to get enough time to work as a unit, a factor that is too often ignored by the less informed fan), and we’ve got larger LBs. And although he’s currently injured for this season, we also have last year’s NFL sack leader in Elvis Dumervil, along with 2nd-year player Robert Ayers, who may give Doom a run for his money when the former returns.
It’s no small thing, remaking a team. Every position needs to be recalibrated, thought through carefully, and the best player that we can put into that slot, the one that gives the team the best chance to win, has to be right where he belongs. And that’s where Denver is struggling right now - because when you look over the team, here’s what I see:
With the return of Pete Carroll to the NFL coaching ranks, much was made over the summer debating whether or not he can make the leap back after coaching the USC Trojans. If you asked the members of the San Francisco 49ers this week, they might suggest that so far, it hasn’t been a problem for him. After destroying SF 31-6, Seattle is off to a good start. Considering that the first play of the game was a sack of Matt Hasselbeck, Seattle quickly settled in and made the plays when they needed to on both offense and defense. Denver fans will note the pattern that was fast to show itself - SF moved the ball well down the field, but couldn’t punch it into the end zone. San Fran played a mistake-ridden game, and Seattle had less, but managed to rack up a few of their own, starting with the first play of the game. Matt Hasselbeck threw an INT when Nate Clement, SF CB, jumped a route and brought in the ball.
It’s said that an NFL game frequently comes down to just a few plays that direct the outcome of the game. In this case, the culprits weren’t all that hard to find. Coaches often follow up quickly by pointing out that on any given play, it’s possible for someone to step up and make one of those plays - you can blame the victims of the plays for the outcome of the game. That’s true too - you can’t expect that only those few plays that stand out are going to be the only things that could have happened. But all too often, they seem to the fans to be the hooks that the game was hung on, the standards that led to the win or the loss. In this case, it’s easy to see which ones stood out.
The Jags, once the team that broke the Broncos’ hearts in the playoffs (and stiffened their resolve, leading to two Super Bowl wins in a row) with an unexpected post-season victory, have tended to be mired in mediocrity, trying many ways to get better, but rarely succeeding. However, this is a road game for the Broncos, its opening week, and the Broncos are changing a couple of time zones. Why that’s as much of a factor as it has proven to be remains a bit of a mystery to me, but those who research that kind of thing have made the point on several occasions. The Broncos have to charge out of the gate. Yes, it’s early, but they need to put a couple of wins on the board if they are going to have a successful season.