I had some family stuff that stopped me from watching all of the game. I caught the first Philly TD, and then I was called away for a while. Heard that we were down 10-7 and then I came back in the third quarter when we were down 27-10. Watching that second half, heartbreaking as it was, was a great experience for me. 4 seconds left when the Eagles kicked that field goal, but you already knew how it would end. It's not the end of the mathematical chances of a playoff slot, but it ended, for me, any thoughts of a last surge. I didn't have many such thoughts anyway. Too many problems are still out there. But, I knew that going in, and didn't give the Broncos much more than a puncher's chance. It was a slugfest in the second half, but we took too many body blows during the first half to matter.
Still - I had a great time watching the team play as they can play. I've waited for a long time to enjoy the offense like that. Yes, the D couldn't come through at the final drive - again. Yes, we needed a TD and came away with a FG for the umpteenth time this season. That says something that you really don't want to say, but it was a game in which they took a lot of body blows, and give up a couple of key plays that folks will say killed the game.
They did and they didn't. When I went back and watched the first half, a couple of things stood out like zits on prom night. The refereeing, yes, was absolutely terrible - inconsistent and at times bizarre. Did Josh McD say something about their mamas to earn this lately? I'm glad that the initial TD was overturned, but even so....But each team has games like that and good teams still win. It was the mistakes at the beginning, the ones that let Philly get out to that lead, that killed us. It was mistakes that stopped key drives in the 4th quarter. Giving up that final field goal was a heartbreak because Denver really did, all out, fight back this time. I loved it. And while I hated the outcome, I salute the team for that. That was a grand performance, and I thank them for it.
By the way, I wrote some of this column before or while watching the game. I've sort of detached from the firestorm that followed the Oakland game, but it was still worth a couple of comments because some of what I saw were patterns that have to be broken and those patterns continued on Sunday in the city of the brilliant Ben Franklin. But even while inspired by the comeback, even while I think that we've found a lot of the problems and showed that we can fix them, there have just been some things that were worth serious contemplation. I hope that you like, hate, expand on and disagree with the answers that I came up with. I also hope that your holidays have been as remarkably blessed as mine have. My seasonal best to you, and to the coming of the new swing around the sun and our solar system.
Let's talk some mistakes. The first went to Brian Dawkins, called for illegal contact downfield when the Broncos had Donovan McNabb wrapped up on 3rd and long. It was a no-question, don't-blame-the-ref penalty, and it kept a drive alive. Elvis Dumervil's sack and forced fumble which took advantage of Jason Peters (it was recovered by Darrell Reid) solved that, but it's been indicative of the problems Denver has had. Then Champ Bailey was called on 3rd and 6....heartbreak, indeed.
Let's talk first about Eddie, who had to miss the game, and use him as an example of what sometimes happens to good players. Yes, Eddie Royal is a very good player. I went into this season with the same high expectations of him that most fans held. During the first few games, I noticed that he wasn't getting off of the line against press coverage. I immediately hoped that the coaches would help him with this and perhaps create some schemes that made press coverage on him at least more difficult, but let's stop right there.
It wasn't Josh McDaniels' fault that Eddie has had problems with press coverage. Look back over his college career and pre-draft scouting reports. He had trouble with press throughout his college career (even though it's not used as much) and the film from last year showed that he had continuing problems. Guess what? He still does. He's a very talented young man, but he's struggling, as many do, with the level of competition in the NFL. He had less trouble last year because teams knew less about what to expect, but if you go back, his production wasn't the same later in the season. That was true of lots of players and it either fell through the cracks or was put down to coaching, (remember, Jeremy Bates was a disaster calling the plays). But it turns out that he's going to have to learn something new to get back to that high level of production.
Consider how much Brandon Marshall is targeted and used. Does someone want to argue that if Eddie is wide open, play after play, that they aren't going to get him the ball? Jabar Gaffney got open against Philly, and Orton certainly got the ball to him. No one on the team - Kyle Orton, Josh McD or anyone else - was going to toss Royal to the wolves by talking publicly about the problems he's encountering and that's a very good thing. But this issue is on Eddie Royal and no one can learn this for him. I have a lot of faith in him and I think that he'll overcome this - he's a very talented young man. I just won't claim that it's not on his head. Moving him to the slot won't solve this issue either - he has to get better before he'll really be the same weapon again.
I've read in the past week that he's having some problems with confidence as well. That's understandable. He struggled with some returns and with his routes. His production is down. I just want to clear the record on this - it isn't anyone's fault, other than being Eddie's responsibility. He's a great young player and I have no doubt that he will overcome this circumstance. I hope that he does it as a Bronco, but Eddie has to straighten this one out. The fans need to stop claiming that McDaniels doesn't use him right. He's being used as his level of the game permits. Gaffney is much better than the fans admit - he gets open more, too. That touchdown at the end of the third quarter against Philly should tell people a few things - in fact, his whole game's production should. They have about the same catches, with Eddie having a few more until this week, as they split the time on the field. If Eddie was playing lights out better than Gaff, he'd be getting the catches. But if you watch the film carefully, you'll see that Eddie is the source of his own current difficulties. Gaff, on the other hand, used this week to show people that he's a talent that hasn't been fully exploited yet. Stop complaining about Eddie, is my thought. He'll work his way through this but right now, is he the best option? After a 2-TD performance, I think that we should let Gaff show us what he can do. I was pretty happy with Brandon Lloyd's 4 catches too, even if they were for 22 yards. Orton is throwing short passes in part because he's getting pressured on 3-step drops, and that's very bad. It's also a line problem, and no surprise there.
I do think that there is a problem with the playcalling, but some of it isn't what you might think. I see an offense that just doesn't know itself yet. They have the talent. They have the scheme - but they don't know who to go to and when (Things like Marshall's drops don't help them make those decisions, either). I agree that McDaniels has to do better. The team itself has to do better. But if you look at the end of the third quarter against Philly, what you're seeing is a team that is still finding itself and which has some skills that they have to make a part of every game. If they do? They'll be good. The talent gap is there, no doubt, but smaller than it sometimes seems. They just need to know who they are and learn how to play as a team. If you recall the beginning of the season, that was what we hoped for.
Do you recall people saying that they didn't even care if the Broncos won a lot, as long as they were in the game? Two in a row have come down to the last two minutes. I want to win those, but we were in both games and were competitive. That was the original goal. A win versus Kansas City would prove that they have learned some lessons. A loss would leave us going into the offseason with the taste of ashes and the feeling of sackcloth.
I don't think that my credentials on being a Hillis supporter are second to anyone. I loved the guy's play in the second half of last season. This is a different year, a different set of standards and Peyton hasn't showed me why he is so important to our attack. I wish that he had. I wish that he would. If he isn't showing it to the coaches, then he isn't. There is no conspiracy against him. If you look at the first play of the first drive in the Philly game, he runs into someone at the line, blocking for Buckhalter, and bounces off and to his knees. That doesn't cut it.
I pretty much see this in the 'Play Simms' light. You don't like something that's happening so much that you are sure that doing 'X' will cure it. But when you get to see the reality of the situation, you often find out that the coaches, being close to the situation, made the right choice.
Peyton needs to block better. I'm convinced that he can, by the way, but he too often hasn't. He also hasn't shown good ball control. I love him as a receiver and I admit that I'd love to see more of that, but the offense is the current version of the offense and they aren't running that play very much. They are running others and with generally good players who are making too many mistakes. They are running behind a line with a weak interior. This isn't hidden, and it's not a surprise if you've watched a bit of film. Hillis isn't a savior for that situation. I wish to heck he was. He caught a nice pass on Sunday. I hope that he comes back and catches more.
The worst aspect of the rushing game is the poor and too-often-inconsistent play of the offensive line, particularly but not limited to the interior of the line. Peyton isn't going to make anyone a better blocker. The defenses are getting into our backfield too often. They'd get to Peyton, too. Stopping the negative plays is one of McD's keys and I agree with him there. I don't really see Peyton as fixing this - he's just the thing that we haven't tried, which makes him interesting to folks who want some kind of quick fix. There isn't one, guys.
Part of that is just because he's not a lineman, and that's who we seem to mostly need. The play of the offensive line won't be helped by adding Hillis, a player I love and support, but who hasn't showed me any reason other than his special teams work and a garbage-time performance against one of the weakest teams in the league why he should be on the field. When he earns it, he will. If he doesn't, he will get a chance somewhere else. I will root for him there, too - I just like this kid.
There's a story going around that McD holds a grudge of some kind against players who were with the team last year and that Hillis is one of them. I have to tell you - I don't see McD holding any grudges because a player came under Mike Shanahan's tenure. This is a guy whose entire being circles around the concept of winning. Isn't that in complete opposition to what he's done with lots of other players? Did he look for a new left tackle to replace Ryan Clady? Drop Brandon Marshall when Brandon was being a troublemaker? Toss out a practice squad guy who wanted to play DE, a guy like Ryan McBean, or get rid of a too small defensive end like Doom? C'mon. He wants to win. He puts out the guys who show him the best chance of doing so. The rest of this moderate obsession is mostly an emotional reaction to wanting an ANSWER, dang it! I sympathize - but it's very unlikely that this is a simple problem, and far less so that a conspiracy is going on.
D.J. Williams and Friends
I just don't know what the heck to say about D.J. Williams. I've always liked him since his rookie season and always felt that he was a heck of a player. I believe that he was misused badly. The one-move-per-year nonsense was stupid. He gives you 114 tackles (82 solo), two sacks (13 yds.), one interception (10 yds.), nine pass breakups and one forced fumble as a weakside linebacker, third in the defensive rookie-of-the-year voting and you force him to move strongside. His tackles promptly drop to 68. He's miserable and he's completely out of position. After you've tortured him long enough, he gets a chance to move to middle linebacker and he likes it. It is taking him a while to learn the position - as most folks would expect - but he gets better as the year goes on. He does a pretty darned good job, even though he was not an outspoken natural leader of men, as you prefer with that position ( I understand that he's a great one in the locker room. The Broncos just also needed that on the field, and that didn't work out well). But, he's getting better so you show your appreciation by moving him to weakside again into one of the most disordered excuses for a defense than I've ever personally watched. He hates it, he's miserable, his play suffers and he ends up complaining in the press, which always is, as they say, A Very Bad Thing.
The new management moved him to a position that he's finally happy in, and he does lead the team in tackles. He's also stepped up substantially on pass coverage. I can't take a darned thing away from D.J., but I can tell you this. He came out of school, listed by nfldraftscout.com as a LC/FB/H-back. Is that the listing of a very fast guy? A brief wander on the Web didn't show me his 40 (apparently, according to that side, he didn't run at Combine or his pro day; at least, the numbers weren't listed) and I didn't really care to look further because while he's playing like he's incredibly athletic, strong and dedicated, he's been just a little slow at the position. It pains me to say it because I still like the guy, but I've noticed it in at least four games now and it's starting to really bother me. Each time, he is a little too slow in changing direction, in pursuit (yes, Donovan McNabb is very fast, but you should watch for and adapt for that) and in getting a good angle on the tackle. You hate to complain about your top tackler, but it's a weakness that is costing us at very bad times, since it usually comes out in a big play. Put me down for a lot of contemplation about how to deal with that one.
It may be that the issues of run quickness are magnified with Andra Davis, who I love but again, am questioning from an age and speed viewpoint, being next to D.J. If so, Davis should certainly be the one to move on. I've loved his work with us, though. He might make the roster on STs and mentoring. He's also one of the great class acts of the NFL, and deserves every good thing that's ever happened to him.
Our total defense was ranked third going into the Philly game. Third! That's so much of an improvement from last season that it's hard to express. D.J. had 105 total tackles and was leading the team. He also had 3.5 sacks and a forced fumble. Overall, he's a team leader. But it seems that every danged game, just as he did with 3rd and 25 against Philly, D.J. is slightly out of position or a tick too slow to catch someone and it ends up being a big gain. In the end, it may have cost us this game. You have to look at that.
I have a similar problem with Andre' Goodman. He's a heck of a cornerback. He covers like a blanket and he gets a few INTs. He's smart as a whip and I love the guy, but the missed tackles drive me nearly out of my mind. The penalty against OAK was beyond bizarre - a top veteran like him shouldn't make a mistake like that. He's too good of a CB to let himself remember it for long, but it's been indicative of the things that mound up and let us lose games. If he doesn't blow that one, I believe that we would have won that game.
When we lose, the mistakes have always seems to mount up. Too often, when we won we were also fighting and overcoming mistakes. It's a lot easier to win if you make a lot fewer mistakes. You know what? With new everything, this doesn't really surprise me. What bothers me is the number of huge mistakes made by veteran leaders who have to know and act better.
The Defensive Line
I mentioned this recently, but we have a lot in the pipeline - Chris Baker, Carlton Powell, J'Vonne Parker. Lots of beef - but is there enough talent there? I would love a top-end D-Line player, but I like Ronnie Fields at NT unless we find someone truly great and Terrence Cody doesn't match that to me but I'll surprise you - I can see one bit of logic. Cody for two downs, Fields the other. But now you need to figure out if you're going to move Marcus Thomas from a position that he likes and has done well with to DE. And, you need to figure out where Chris Baker goes.
I haven't seen enough good from Le Kevin Smith and I was hoping to be favorably impressed. Is he really the guy we want?
I have a question of my own. Wesley Woodyard is getting exposed in coverage and has been all season. Is there a particular reason (or, to put it more sensibly, what is that reason?) that we don't use Josh Barrett for that? He's done well in the past.
Many people wanted Woodyard to move to safety, but there was a good reason that he didn't - the move to a short-passing set of offenses throughout the league requires you to use a faster, high-coverage safety and Wes isn't that. He may be a wonderful weakside linebacker in a league that has lots, but with the right coaching and opportunity, he could be a heck of a Will. I hope that if he's not with us that he gets that chance.
If you have the chance, please read this article. Frank Schwab is one of the good guys in sports journalism. His discussion of what the responsibilities are of the Broncos OLBs is absolutely key to understanding the team and not well-known among the fans or even members. This is a good chance to learn or review something that really matters for discussions of the team, their draft needs, etc. There are aspects of the Run-contain approach that the older Bates, Jim, DC, wanted to use in his last few gigs. It really does take the right personnel for that scheme.
How do You Fix the Problems?
I covered a lot of the team's problems and some thoughts about the future already this week. I won't hammer them into the ground, but there's more.
I thought that the Philly game also showed something that needs to be said -- the team is behind the coaches and they finally got behind each other, too. This was not a team that had laid down. They were getting embarrassed in the first half, they got mad and they found some very good adjustments. You know what I thought the best one was? Kyle Orton, on his feet, moving and throwing with a lot more habanero on the ball. I saw the offense get energized, and I loved it. Jabar Gaffney certainly had a time, silencing some critics. Why don't we play Eddie more? Perhaps it's because Gaffney has always been underestimated. I watched a lot of film of him at New England, and one of the things that I noticed was that his catches were so often 3rd and 8, 2nd and 15, hard yardage and often at key times. Folks judge him by his stats, but he was playing on a team that had Wes Welker and Randy Moss. Let's face it - Steve Largent would have been an afterthought. So was he, but don't underestimate him. He may just be better than Royal. There is some serious talent there that 'stats' don't cover. Are there other players who might be ready to step up? I hope so. Tony Carter is one. Kenny McKinley is another. David Bruton, Darcel McBath, Robert Ayers have all impressed me. Spencer Larsen has had a snake-bitten year, but he's obviously a great blocking fullback.
With the injury to Russ Hochstein (and I hope it turns out to be minimal), there's a chance that the team will see Seth Olsen. The have already announced Ben Hamilton as starting, but if he doesn't handles it and Olsen is active, we might get our wish. It's not likely, but I still would love to see it. A number of fans have wanted to see Olsen, given the poor play at left guard. This may be the time. We can't do enough on the O-line and the two articles in the Post quoting Josh McD as saying so really puts that into perspective. I think that's the first time I've heard him language the shortcomings that way - to me, it shows how dire he sees this as (and most fans agree with him).
I hope that Kenny McKinley is OK. I saw some flashes from him that lead me to believe that he can really help us. I happen to agree that it's best to sit most rookies if you can and let them learn the game before putting them on the field, but this is late in the season and many rookies are as ready as they ever will be to take the plunge. I hope that we don't go overboard - we need a win against KC for a lot of reasons - but I hope that some young guys get a few extra chances. David Bruton may be a stud much sooner than later. Alphonso Smith looked much more confident in the return game and I hope that's a new beginning for the man: he also had a nice ST tackle. I hope that he finds his ST niche and then expands it into CB play next year - there's no doubt that he's been as disappointed with his play as most of us have as the season went on. Tony Carter seems to be taking away his slot at CB, though, and he had a nice ST tackle of his own. Like most young guys, Smith's slowly building confidence. Better ST performance is a good step.
Quick needs? Starting faster is first, second and third. I have no specific idea why a team doesn't do that, but Josh McDaniels will have to figure that one out. Disciplined play comes with familiarity and continuity, things that were missing by dint of the changes that the team has endured. That won't be true next season, and it will have to show. A 33% third-down conversion rate won't cut it, either. Consistently missing on short yardage (I know that it's not a huge statistical problem, but we aren't getting a line push on 3rd and two). We need a better punter (sorry, Mitch, but it's true). By the way, we surely don't need a new placekicker. Congratulations on a solid sophomore season to Matt Prater - I had faith in you, guy. He's one of the great stories this year.
One thing that I agree with - all of the mistakes, all the shaky performances, the play-calling and clock management, all of this has to land on Josh McDaniels' shoulders. On the other hand, he and Brian Xanders, Mike Nolan and Mike McCoy are a heck of a group. We have made up a lot of ground this year and seen some crushing disappointments. So have they. I expect the same kind of step-up improvement that we saw this offseason. I also expect a hundred posts on what a fool McDaniels is when he makes those 'errors' and a lot of surprise when many of them work out. That's also been a pattern. And that's okay.
Head Coach Blues
No matter what Josh McDaniels does, lots of fans will blame him. It goes with the job. When he wins, they will at times overestimate how good the team (and/or the coach) is. That happened earlier this season. I suspect that it's one reason that so many are screaming that it's the coach's fault now that they're in more trouble, but I have a pretty good reason for not believing that McD is at the heart of the team's problems. He IS responsible - that's in his job description. I've been talking about some of the things that I think he needs to do better. But I also think that a little perspective would go a long way.
One big factor that stood out to me is that he's still playing with a lot of the players who tanked last year. Guess what? They still do. Expect several of them to be gone this offseason; we will know them by their absence. do you remember training camp, and feeling sad when a player that you were attached to was cut for someone better? You'll have that experience again come Summer 2010. Some guys just aren't goig to cut it - and that's a good thing, because we need players to improve and we need better players.
The weaknesses of the team have been exposed on film. No one is responsible for the players not holding their gaps but the players. Ditto the problems with backside pursuit. There is nothing wrong with the schemes - ask the New York Giants, who are themselves out of the playoffs. Some of the Denver players didn't do their jobs during too many games. Look at the number of plays (like McNabb's big run) that were the fault of a single player, not watching, out of position by just a couple of hairs, unable to do their job, not showing good form with tackles, etc.
For that and for an attitude that doesn't seem smart or tenacious, some of them won't be here next year and we'll know them by their absence. Time heals all wounds, but it wounds all heels, too. Those that can't get their game together will move on. The team can be good, but it needs players who can move just a little faster, play just a little bigger. It will be a combination of the guys who we have who can step up, and guys we bring in to make the team better.
When I watched the Philly game, I saw a lot of the same immaturity as a team that has plagued the Broncos for the past few years. Going into the second year with the team, as fans we have a reasonable right to expect both change and improvement. Given Josh McDaniels' history, it says her that we'll see it.
Facing Kansas City
What do we want or need out of this game? Going into the offseason, one of the worst fates is to lose your last one against a team that you can beat. Denver found that out against San Francisco, a couple of years back. They found it out against San Diego last year. Let's just say that they need a change of pace on that one.
Kansas City is potentially setting an NFL record for drops. Dwayne Bowe has 10, Bobby Wade has 9 and Matt Cassel has lots of pretty new grey hairs from trying to convince people to hold on to the ball. The Chiefs defensive line is showing improvement and may eventually return their investment. The offensive line isn't following suit and Doom, with 17 sacks, will have visions of sugar plums and prone QBs dancing in his head this week. You know what? He just might be able to catch Michael Strahan at 22.5. It isn't likely, but it's clearly possible. KC is 6th-worst in the league with 45 sacks. We can improve on their collection for them. Can he get 6 sacks in one game? I'm going to watch to see. By the way, KC doesn't have a player in the top-20 in the league in sacks. Perhaps the Broncos can keep Orton's jersey clean.
They have 18 TDs and 15 INTs. they're also at 2.9% INT rating, while Denver is at 2.0 (6th-best in the league). Orton's got 20 TDs, 9 INTs, 27 sacks. Not great numbers, but not bad. He's upped his completion rate to 62.7 and his QB rating to 89.3. Those are acceptable numbers for his first year in a new system. He can improve on them nicely against KC if he gets some protection and a few WRs get open (and hang on to the ball, Brandon!).
But let's not look past these guys. They kept it close to the last 2 minutes in Cincinnati, a fact that should give one pause. Since beating PITT, they've lost 5 in a row. They were within a TD in Buffalo and Cincinnati and dropped 34 points on Cleveland. If we take them lightly, we'll regret it for months.
I'm asking the Broncos to step up, show what could be, what can be, and to not give the fans a long offseason with a bitter taste in their mouths. It's not too much to ask. They should be asking it of themselves. The team with the most fire will win this game. It has to be Denver.
C'mon, Dawkins. Given them a speech that they will never forget. Make your first season in Denver a winning season. Don't ever let someone take that away from you. Set the stage for greater things to come.
And put a whipping on a team that shouldn't be able to stay on the same field with you. Some call it playing for pride. Is the Broncos' pride worth playing for?
It's time for them to show us that they really do want to take it.