Out with the Old News
Many congratulations to the Broncos on a come-from-behind-win over the New England Patriots! Following the game, Josh McDaniels issued as close to a retraction as he could get, admitting that when he claimed that it was just another game, "I lied." His understatement was closely followed by Kyle Orton's post-game comment, "I feel like I played well." Don't get all worked up for us, now, Kyle. I love these guys.
I covered a lot of subjects on Sunday night's post and I'm not gong to get redundant. There were a few little things that seemed to matter, though. Points in the 2nd half for NE - 0. Third down conversions in the 2nd half for NE - 0. Chances of winning if you don't score - 0. That's the kind of numbers that leave me SunnySiding. So, let's get started by breaking down some of last week's game and then preparing for San Diego.
Taking the Gloves Off
One of the keys to the New England game was the skill and leadership of Kyle Orton. Kyle has been a heck of a QB for Denver. I had believed all season that the glove (and, in its days, the splint) was more of a problem than he ever let on. At first, unwilling to accept excuses, he claimed that it wasn't. After Week 3 he admitted that it was "sometimes". Without it, in Week 5, he became the kind of QB that you want to have leading your team. His intellect and calm have been inspirational, but his performance over the past week has shown just how much of a hindrance it was. His accuracy went up a notch.
Said Eddie Royal after Sunday's win, "He was the leader that we needed today."
Josh McDaniels, who is usually effusive with criticisms said, "I don’t know if he missed a read all day." Now, tell me again how the QB's arm strength is the only thing that matters. Take your time. I'll be here. Orton's intellect is as strong a weapon as any long pass.
The most astounding stat I could find says that Orton has a 4th-quarter QB rating of 138.7. That's 138.7 for those who weren't counting. Anything I could add would be a waste of words. That says it all. Welcome to Denver, Kyle. I hope that it's a long and healthy stay. Congratulations to him on being the AFC Player of the Week, too. By the way, if you look at Orton's QB rating from the 2nd half of all games, it's 114.2 - which is still pretty stellar (Peyton Manning's from the 2nd half of games is 110.3). And, this was his first game sans impediment (glove or splint) and he completed 72.9% of his passes. He has now completed just over 63% of his passes for the season and it's climbing quickly. His percentage of passes intercepted is 0.6%, tied for first in the league. These are 'franchise QB' kinds of numbers. It's still a strange term, since it has no clear definition, but if the meaning is a player that you're in trouble without, Orton is one.
John Elway has had some things to say about Orton. Recently he had gone on record as believing that as Orton gets comfortable in the system, he's just going to get better. This is what Elway had to say after Sunday's game, from cbs4denver.com:
"He just keeps going to the right guys, putting the ball on the money, and doing the right things, which wins football games," Elways said. "He outplayed Brady yesterday in (Brady's) system and was just doing some great, great things."
Every time I read a so-called analysis of quarterbacks, I read about arm strength, accuracy, mobility and physical strength. Just to be clear -- I consider all of those to be important in degree. But somehow I never read about the things that Josh McDaniels likes to talk about. Coach McD has forgotten more about quarterbacking then most of the 'analysts' ever learned. He talks about these: running the huddle, reading the defense, changing the plays, outwitting the defense, not making mistakes, staying calm, never giving up and showing leadership.
Those are the things that Kyle Orton does very, very well. That's why the folks who try to spreadsheet quarterbacks, those who are fascinated by stats and those who just look at a TV view of the plays, no matter how often or for how long, sometimes don't like Orton despite his incredible, steady and measurable improvement. The things that he does, the things that Josh McDaniels chose him for specifically, don't always show up in the stat sheets. You can't see all of them on TV. but the guys who do them and do them well tend to be winners. And that's something about Orton that no one can really argue against. When he plays, teams usually win. That's what you hire your quarterback to do. Heck, that's all you hire him to do.
According to denverbroncos.com, his 26-12 (.684) record as a starter ranks third in the NFL among active quarterbacks. All of the other arguments are vaporware.
Perhaps the thing that is most worth talking about is this: Josh McDaniels is turning Kyle Orton into the quarterback that he always could have been but never truly was. The folks who don't think that a great offensive coach with a lot of talent and knowledge at training quarterbacks can make a huge difference haven't studied history, which is rife with examples from Joe Montana to Steve Young to Kurt Warner. I honestly don't believe that we are close to finding out how good Orton is. It will take at least a year or so to completely be able to manifest the full playbook and even then he will continue to make improvements for quite a while to come. The continued improvement that Kyle has shown and is showing is simply a continuation of a pattern that has held true throughout his college and professional career. He's so surprisingly young, at only 26, that expecting that he will not continue to get better is a hypothesis without evidence, support or or logic. How far he will rise is the only question I still have. If this is only the start, the future is bright indeed.
So, go ahead. Marinate in that one for a while. Let it soak in. You'll be happier when you have.
The Coaches Corner (Courtesy of the Broncos PR Staff)
Please take a moment to read through this quote from Josh McDaniels. It explains something that we all need to be clear on moving forward.
On what allowed WR Eddie Royal and TE Tony Scheffler to have better numbers vs. New England than in previous games (my bold and italics for emphasis)...
"I don't think we have changed really anything that we do. That is the nice thing about what we try to do offensively is we haven't moved our players around and put them in one spot to get ‘that guy' the ball. We have great trust in-if (WR Jabar) Gaffney is playing the X (receiver) - they played a coverage that told us to throw to the X yesterday, and we threw it to him on third-and-three and he converts for a first down. Eddie is the X late in the game, (and) he gets a slant for a first down. (WR) Brandon (Marshall) is the X down there in the red zone, (and) they tell us to throw to Brandon. He is open. He scores. They let Tony have some space yesterday, and Kyle read the play out the right way and went the right place with the ball. When our offense is running really well, you will see a lot of different people touch the ball. It won't just be one guy here, one guy there. Yesterday, obviously, we threw it more so there were more opportunities. I think the guys kind of felt good because the ball kept going somewhere new, but it wasn't because we were calling plays to try to stuff it in there to Tony or stuff it in there to Brandon or Eddie or Jabar. They told us to go there with the defense. Kyle read the play the right way and threw it to the open guy. The good thing is we have people that can get open. When they cover four of us and the other guy is open because he did a nice job against single-coverage and we read the defense the right way, that is how a productive pass offense works. I think our guys really understand that now and are really into it. It was fun to see."
Now think about the italics. Whatever the defense tells him to do, that's what he does. If they take away one thing, he sees that as a chance to do something else. He doesn't go into with only a single, set strategy. His coaching approach is fluid and much like water; you can't really contain it. Grasp it and it disappears; strike at it and it envelopes you. That's the essence of the more modern version of 'Hit them where they ain't'. It's also how the great general Sun Tzu became famous, centuries ago.
By the way - Sun Tzu (author of The Art of War) also pointed out that in any protracted war, the side that held the moral high ground would inevitably win. This year, that's been the Broncos, where character truly matters. That's how you keep your poise, hold the line defensively, and score on offense.
Consider this also - QB Kyle Orton said the use of the Wildcat formation was designed to get a better read on the NE defense: "It was to get them into some looks where we could tell what was going on, and it worked for the most part."
In the same vein, consider this one from NFL Fanhouse:
McDaniels said of Royal's effort against the Patriots: "It was just some of the scheme they were using. A lot of reads took us to Eddie on the weak side. That is kind of the way this offense goes. We don't force it to anybody, and they told us to throw it to Eddie Royal and he did a great job."
McDaniels specifically defines roles -- some of the Broncos are still swallowing that approach. Eddie Royal, for now, is a possession receiver. And the Broncos are unbeaten heading to San Diego next week.
This is part of the constant cat and mouse game that Josh McDaniels loves to play. I was watching this while researching the 'Divining Josh McDaniels' series that nycbroncosfan and I wrote last February. McDaniels is constantly learning your tendencies, examining your responses, establishing patterns, weaknesses and matchups in order to confound you. Mike Nolan does the same on the defensive half. Competing against both of them intellectually is a tall, tall order. The players must carry out the responsibilities they are given, it's true; but they are being gifted with all of the requirements to succeed and they know and believe it. That belief carries with it an awesome level of confidence. Small wonder that they seem so good at coming from behind. To them, the battle is never out of reach.
It's no wonder that they win late - the more examples they have to chart, understand and create options for, the stronger they will get -- every game. That should give pause to every opposing coach on the schedule. Think about it.
The Golden Squash Award
The Bronco have another winner of the Golden Squash Award for the man who has the most (or best) tackles; he looks a lot like the last one. It's D.J. Williams again, leading the team this week as he did last week and notching 8 tackles plus an assist. Congratulations, D.J.! He now has 32 tackles and 8 assists, a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, 4 passes defensed. His best performance came in 2007 when he had 106 tackles plus 35 assists, 1.0 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 2 recovered, and INT and 5 passes defensed. He may well eclipse that record this season.
Right behind him was a surprise player who has been stepping up as he's needed. It's Jack Williams, with 8 solo tackles. Congratulation to the young man who is moving up in the game. Third was Brian Dawkins, with another 7. Andra Davis dropped to only 3 tackles, the same as Kenny Peterson, Vonnie Holliday, Darcel McBath and Robert Ayers. Ayers had a good game, by the way, but all of them did. After the first quarter, they were a wall. Nice going, guys.
Marshalling the Troops
A great stat unearthed by Lindsay Jones at the Denver Post:
Brandon Marshall — 2008: 104 catches, 1,265 yards, 6 touchdowns; Sunday: 8 catches, 64 yards, 2 touchdowns; 2009 Season: 24 catches, 283 yards, 4 touchdowns.
This really is the year in brief. Last season, the Broncos piled up the yards and didn't score. Brandon's numbers were indicative of that. This year he only has 24 catches for 283 yards but he's already scored 4 TDs as opposed to 6 for all of last season. He's probably not going to get the same numbers with yards and catches, but he'll probably score a lot more points. Seriously -- which would you rather have?
Brandon Stokley didn't have a catch this past week, but the same principle showed up -- if you cover him tightly, you're going to leave someone else open. Since each of our RBs can catch as well as block and carry the squash, covering the Broncos offense on passing downs becomes more than a bit problematic.
Taking Care of Business and Reworking Overtime
Count me as one of those who believes that overtime is just fine the way it is. One of the keys to winning in the NFL is having good play by all three phases of the game - offense, defense and special teams. If you lost the coin toss, your defense needs to step it up. If you win, your offense needs to punch it in and/or your ST needs to make a play to score some points. In any case - just be willing to accept that your whole team is on the line in overtime. Like anyone else, I'll revisit this if it costs the Broncos a game, but in general, I'm not into making huge changes in the way games are played -- and this would be a huge change - unless there's some reason that involves player safety.
This is the first year in a long time when 'parity' meant that so many teams aren't good. I know that wasn't the intent, but that's been the outcome. This year, the concept has grown closer to 'despair-ity'.
Interesting thing -- we're seeing teams like Detroit, the Rams and the Chiefs stuck on the draft-day treadmill, running in circles like hamsters in their wheels and getting just as far. I used to think that a lot of that was the draft setup - the cost of those high picks, after more than two years, is exorbitant and seems to actually have the opposite effect of what was intended. I still believe that we need a rookie cap and a better draft salary structure.
But, one of the outcomes of Josh McDaniels/Brian Xanders work this past offseason has been to remind me that I'm occasionally very stupid. No one has forced these teams to refuse to trade down for more picks in better slots. There's always someone who desperately wants a high pick, usually for a 'franchise' QB. You don't have to overpay for players who aren't exactly what your team needs. If you've got a serviceable QB (and just for fun, try getting him excellent coaching and tailoring your offense to his strengths) and a pretty good left tackle, mostly you're better off using the leverage to fulfill your list of roster needs rather than adding one or two high-cost players.
Even more so - I think that the McD/Xanders experience reminded me of how well you can rebuild a roster in a short period of time. Yes, I would agree that having an O-line like ours was a huge advantage. We had some good WRs, too, and a few good players here and there. But over and over, the Broncos showed us how to pick your free agents, how to design the offense and defense to work with the players that you have and how much coaching really wins games. The players have to execute, but the coaches have to give them something to execute and get them excited about the program. If - or, I really should say, when - the Broncos continue in their winning ways, Josh McDaniels should be a lock for Coach of the Year, preferably awarded with a gold-plated scroll listing all the folks who cursed his name and laughed in his face about what a crap job he was doing, signed by the offenders underneath a blanket engraved apology. I'm gratified by the number of folks who have apologized.
But far more than that - it's all about winning. A truly bright coach with a talent for winning can turn a franchise around in 1or 2 seasons. Parcells did it (again) in Miami and McDaniels has done it in Denver, to mention a couple of obvious and recent examples. The real problem that bad franchises tend to have is that they seem to believe that just a couple of players and a new head coach will magically solve their problems, a failing that is also fatal to a lot of franchises who are several players away from a good playoff run but think that they only need 1 or 2. We, as Broncos fans, have been there.
Winning also involves being willing to look at the bigger picture. Are you getting the right players and structuring the contracts to keep a strong squad, even if you've been successful the year before? That was what Bill Belichick did in New England that was the most impressive. It wasn't just winning, it was keeping on winning, being a franchise that has a shot at the Lombardi, year after year. And let's face it - Josh McDaniels won't be satisfied until he's accomplished that. He'll do whatever that takes, adding a few players or a lot, just as the situation demands. In that, it's not dis-similar to the situational football approach - you just keep adapting to the situation and working out solutions. It sounds easy, but it's not.
That leads us to the final point: Accepting that you need a lot of players isn't fatal - it's often the solution much more than it is the problem. But figuring out who out there in free agency will make your team better is a tough thing to do over and over. That makes what the Broncos did this spring and summer even more impressive. Congratulations to Pat Bowlen, Coaches McDaniels, McCoy and Nolan, and to all the rest of the staff as well as the players who took what they were being taught and manifested it on th field. This is truly one for the ages.