The other day, one of our readers made an excellent point: azdenfan wondered if the complexity of the playbook is working against the Broncos right now. I agreed with him that this could easily be one of the issues facing the Broncos - last year, the Broncos ran a high rate of short passes (although they also ranked well in successful longer passes, something that was often ignored), and they had good reason to. The team was new - the systems were complex, coaches and players all had to develop a chemistry with each other. That’s still a work in progress, no question. Adding the vertical game has increased yardage, but points and wins are still elusive. Is the issue of the playbook’s complexity still hurting the team?
Perhaps so. Take a look at this video clip from SI.com’s Damon Hack (scroll down). It actually talks about the Patriots, rather than Denver, but in listening to it, I was reminded of the importance of having (in Denver’s case, developing) a central core of players who are familiar with the complexities of such a system and who can bring the newer guys along. Teams like that tend to be more likely to win consistently, and when they have a period of difficulty, it usually isn’t that long before it’s fixed and the team goes back to its winning ways.
Denver’s situation doesn’t fit easily into any one single box. They’ve had some very good moves in FA and trades, and some stinkers, which surprises practically no one. Their OL issues came on unexpectedly last season, and they will take time to overcome. There’s a substantial irony to the constant jokes about Josh McDaniels’ collections of RBs, but as time has shown, Denver is still short a couple of better backs - just having healthy ones will be a nice change.
The Broncos also took on three free-agent DL players this offseason, but only one of them has really worked out (Justin Bannan), with Jarvis Green not making it through training camp and Jamal Williams showing why SD let him go (considering that he had just had a year off to heal up, it was worth trying, but failed to solve the longer term issue). Jamal was always a 1- or 2-year stopgap (no pun intended), and the plan at NT is murky at best. Like most of you, I take a lot from how the lines are staffed, coached and playing. Kevin Vickerson was a rare find, but he, too, has been out injured. Denver has also had the league’s top sack man from last season out (Elvis Dumervil), and replacing him with Jarvis Moss is like competing in the Indy 500 in a VW Beetle. Wesley Woodyard may not be the world’s best coverage LB, but he was the best Denver had until he, too, missed much of the 1st half of the season with injuries.
I note these factors not as excuses, because simply they make the issue of installing the complexity of the team’s systems that much more difficult. Continuity has always been a big factor in being a winning team in any sport, and Denver has lacked that. Some of that has been beyond their control - other parts they could have done better with, and will need to in the future. Every OL player will tell you that one of the top factors in how well a group plays is how well they communicate, and the same is true for the DL and LBs - in each position, really, varying only in degree. Most of becoming successful with that is just time - and time, as reading many of the fans’ comments around the web will tell you, is something that people are not feeling generous with. Understandably so, but the problems aren’t ones that usually respond to quick fixes.
Pat Kirwan noted much the same point as Damon Hack - here he deals with the fact that NE was able to rebuild ‘on the fly’. It’s true, and as Doug pointed out in the 11-3-10 Lard, a guy named Brady has a lot to do with that. So does the substantial core of players that NE has managed to keep, year to year. The core group does shift, with one player leaving and another who’s usually been there a year or three stepping up (RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis is one example - he was a player that they counted on only for injury replacement for a while, and he was ready when his turn came to step up). It’s not just one group over the years, but a continuity of veterans who are familiar with the systems - and, generally, with each other. That helps in the area of communication as well as general familiarity with the system.
Does that same complexity make it harder to turn a rebuilding team around? It’s a great question. On one side, it probably does - there’s no question that some of the players who haven’t done well, such as Richard Quinn, have struggled with the complexity of the playbook. While I would agree that McDaniels is learning on the job - every new HC does - and has made some substantial boneheaded calls, he’s also dedicated to installing the complexity of the system, believing, for better or worse, that this will give his team the most success over a longer time.
Other offensive players, it’s worth noting, haven’t struggled so much with complexity as with the depth of talent. The defensive system is also complex, but so is trying to fill out a roster when you have a substantial depth of injuries. That slows down the cohesion of the core that you’re developing and those two issues play off of each other in a negative way. On the other hand - the entire amoeba concept, the multiple fronts and approaches to the game is rapidly becoming universal in the NFL. The better defensive teams, such as Baltimore and Pittsburgh, have similarly complex defensive systems, for example (although different in specifics), but manage far better results. Depth of talent and team experience as a corps are two of the differences between their results and those in Denver.
It’s a classic dilemma. The amoeba concept, once installed, has shown excellent results. It’s extensive and difficult to master at first. The NFL is a copycat league, and many teams are installing at least certain aspects of it - many defenses nearly have to, in order to keep the offensively-minded league’s better squads under control. But the question that Denver faces is how to get from here to there, and that’s where it gets hairy.
Doubtless, the return of several players may help. The only other cures that I know of are increasing the overall talent level, (which isn’t a fast solution), constant coaching, experience and time. For fans who are increasingly weary of the team’s struggles, those aren’t soothing thoughts, but they are what they are.
It may even be the best option in the long term. Somehow, though, that’s of little comfort for this year. Even so….