Familiarity and the year 2010: the state of the herd report

The Denver Broncos came into 2009 on the heels of a shocking dismissal of long-time head coach Mike Shanahan. The next few months would be filled with the hiring of Josh McDaniels and his entire coaching staff, the dismissal/firing of both Jim and Jeff Goodman, the architects of the 2008 draft class, a tiff with QB Jay Cutler that resulted in his trade to Chicago, rumors of trades of Tony Scheffler (who ended 2009 in the doghouse of the new coaching regime), a very active role in free agency and a hotly debated role in the 2009 draft. Other than that, it was unusually calm in Dove Valley, unless you include redecorating and even removing some pictures, resulting in some (even more) irritated fans. Comparatively, 2010 has been very quiet. The two worst problems are trying to know if we have an interior line guy on either side of the ball and trying to understand who folks are talking about when they just say, 'Quinn'. Brady or Richard? Richard is the taller one....

The former issue brings up a fair question, especially as the team looks to the 2010 draft. What can a fan reasonably know about this team? Mike Nolan resurrected the defense in the first half of the 2009 season but nothing he did was able to stop the run over the second half of the season. Nolan was replaced by former LB coach Don 'Wink' Martindale, who has promised a more aggressive approach to defense. The offensive line is a cipher, Brandon Marshall either is or isn't leaving town, depending on who you ask, and the same is true of Tony Scheffler (again). Just another fun-filled offseason in Dove Valley.

One of the things that has rightfully been debated over the past few months has been the statement that was (to the best of my knowledge) made by Tom Brady that it takes two-three years (Not 4. Let's be clear :D) to become fully comfortable in this offense. Some have seen many of the errors that the team's offense made to fall into that slot, while others complain that Brady's statement is overdone and that the fans who are quoting that statement are just making excuses. As there usually is, there's a middle road here that makes a great deal of sense.

When a team experiences a change in head coach, GM, coordinators, systems and players in a single offseason, it's only reasonable to expect that there will be problems over the course of the season that are nothing more than a lack of familiarity. The familiarity may be between the coaches and the players - people throughout the organization are trying to learn what to expect from each other, and that will be true of the QB and his WRs as well as the scouts, GM and coaches. It's normal, and it creates problems. WRs break in one direction when the QB expects them to break in the other. QBs thread a needle with a pass - and find that it's the wrong needle. Timing routes aren't as smooth as they need to be, because learning that timing takes repetition and mutual experience. RBs have trouble knowing what to expect from the OL in front of them. Errors often snowball, rather than being smoothed out. It's the nature of change. There is a lot of change that occurs in the fans' domain, trying to begin understanding changes in strategy and systems, learning new things about the game and about the coaches as well as the players. It's challenging.

This doesn't mean that, by the end of the first season, the players shouldn't be familiar with the playbook and it shouldn't be taken that way. Of course they should know the playbook - it's their job. Sometimes, Brady's statement was taken too far. Even so - most successful teams have a nucleus of players, coaches and scheme that dates back some years. It is usually easier to build on the successes from previous seasons (and to correct the mistakes from them) than it is to start from scratch and expect instant results. That rarely happens. This lack of background and lack of familiarity led to a lot of missed opportunities in 2009. Let's start exploring where we are in 2010, predraft, and how familiarity may help performance by looking at the Offense.

Consider this quote from Brandon Stokley:

A: I felt like, yeah, I had it (the playbook) down. I think we all understood it (the system) and had it down. But, the more you play in an offense, the more little details that, you know, you kind of learn, the little things that you can add instead of just run a route a certain way, the more you've been in an offense the more that you can, the parameters that you can mess with a route, that you kind of learn, just, little things that you can do with certain routes to get open, it becomes easier to do that the longer you've been in an offense.

Q: What do you think it's like for a QB like Orton going into the second year?

A: Oh, it's huge...I think it's even more so for a QB, it kind of becomes more of their offense. To be able to have the whole offseason to work and to learn, I think it only benefits the whole offense and especially Kyle.

One of the reporters actually asked Renaldo Hill, "Is it easier to not have to come in for the first time?" Shockingly, he said that yes, it is. Stop the presses...well, sure it is. The more the team has a nucleus of players and coaches who have a good understanding of what it takes to be successful together, the sooner that is likely to become a reality. It's about such times as listening to that question that I get a clear feeling that the Web 2.0 is getting closer than some think. Access (to the players, in this case) is a huge issue. Wasting that access with silly questions suggests to me that this access will eventually be revisited, but that's a column for another day.

Today, I want to consider where the Broncos are and see what they may be looking at doing. So saying, let's briefly go over the State of the Herd, looking mainly at the offense and defense, and seeing if there are any patterns that might give us, as fans, any clues as to what to expect in the draft and in the season yet to come.First is the offense, next the defense: both of them are about the team pre-draft only.

Offense

QB Description - Expect the Broncos to continue to prefer a pocket QB, with mobility less important than footwork in the pocket, accuracy more important than power, and greater levels of intellect more important than greater levels of raw physical talent. The Broncos have three QBs right now - Kyle Orton, Tom Brandstater and Brady Quinn. Orton is the current starter, and fans know little about Brandstater, although most have seen enough to have an opinion - good or bad - about Quinn. I doubt that Denver takes a QB this year in the draft but if they do, expect them to continue to look for the same general mold that Brady, Cassel, Orton and Brandstater (and now Brady Quinn) have fit into. I wrote this a while back:

6'4+ if possible, must show the ability to read coverages and blitzes pre-snap, must show the ability to routinely check down through his receiving progressions post snap, must show above-average accuracy and, more importantly, timing on short and intermediate routes - the routes his offense is based around. Arm strength is a must but more so regarding velocity on the short and intermediate throws - not so much with the deep ball. Athleticism in terms of speed and quickness are unnecessary . . . you can teach a guy through improved mechanics and in the weight room how to drive the deep ball better. Through drills and practice you can get a guy who runs the 40 in 5+ seconds (yes, that's an exaggeration) to feel pressure well and maneuver in the pocket . . . What you can't do (or at least what's harder to do) is change how a guy thinks and processes information. Guys who can run around and make plays, throw the ball 70 yards like it's nothing - they get drafted early because coaches think they can teach them the mental aspects of the game. Let's face it - many times, it's worked. From what we have seen so far, it looks like McDaniels prefers to grab the smarter, less athletic guys in the later rounds and builds an offense around the ability to be accurate and make good reads within the system that he has put together. Will it work? Your guess is as good as mine.

Here's a fact that may impact how you feel about this approach - the failure rate for QBs taken in the first round is about 70%. One of the MHR stat guys pulled out that article recently (credit goes to TJ on this one), and it gives you an understanding of the stakes in the draft game. If 15% of later round QBs were successful, you're only looking at a difference of 1 in 8, roughly, and most of those later round QBs are not taken to start, so we really don't have enough data to be able to understand how, or if, this approach is working. Such players as most of the late round QBs are usually taken on as backups who might get a starting shot if everything in their careers goes right, but who probably won't. Let's be fair - would JM Russell have started much in 2009 if he'd been taken in the 6th round? Walterfootball.com did an interesting article on the exact numbers - please blame them for any problems with categorizations of bust, failure, etc. Even if you don't buy the exact logic of the article, the point remains - judging QBs has been hit and miss. Denver has an approach that is fairly new but worked for Brady and Cassel, as well as improving Orton's numbers quite a bit. From my point of view, something new and essentially rational, such as the idea that with certain basic, essential physical skills, QBs can be trained to be effective in their role is worth trying. The old approach was up there with a dart board with player names scattered on it.

Most teams will give more chances to players taken early, yet with the QB slot, there's only a 1 in 8ish difference between the success rates in the two approaches, and that doesn't even take into account the fact that with the McDaniels/Belichick approach, they are specifically looking for QBs with certain characteristics and planning on developing them into starters over time, which is a very different circumstance from what most late round QBs experience. This is also a very new way of dealing with the issues of contracts, costs and salary cap since early round QBs can be outrageously expensive for a player with the kinds of question marks that every young QB has and there isn't enough information yet to know if it's an improvement or not. However - in 2010, Kyle Orton will get the chance that he's waited for since the day he was drafted, and he will either shine or lose the opportunity. At the least, this year is likely to alter his career, one way or the other.

This is what Orton had to say last week about familiarity and the system, including players:

"I feel like I had a good year last year and I'm going to have an even better year this year," Orton said. "The more you can be around guys and the more you can be that guy and have everybody looking to you, the easier it is."

Orton said he especially wants to improve his rapport with third-year receiver Eddie Royal, who followed up his spectacular rookie season (91 catches, 980 yards, five TDs) with just 37 receptions and no touchdowns in one of the more stupefying story lines in Denver last season.

"I just think a lot of it was I was new to him, he was new to me and we just kind of ... we missed some plays," said Orton, who predicted Royal was "going to have a great year this year."

That could solve another problem for the Broncos, whose offense was confined mostly to underneath routes last season.

"It would be great to be able to hit some plays 25, 30 yards down the field," Orton said.

Familiarity may breed contempt in certain relationships, but it breeds completions in football. Orton also had this to say:

"I need to take my leadership to a whole new level. I have to demand perfection - that's my main goal." It's a good goal to have."

RB description - One of the realities of 2009 was that the fans, myself included, were excited about seeing some of the New England offensive approaches being combined with the zone-blocking scheme and running attack that many believed that Bobby Turner and Rick Dennison were theoretically retained to maximize. That wasn't the case, most of us were disappointed and more than anything else we saw the inadequacies of the players that were on the line for the new system. Both Wiegmann and Hamilton seemed to have had time catch up to them, Harris was sidelined with another injury and the backup players weren't really up to the task. Since Knowshon Moreno was hit behind the line of scrimmage around 40% of the time, it's difficult to blame him for everything. Consider KC Joyner's comment on Football Outsiders:

"The key to gauging a running back's production is to see how he does on plays where he receives good blocking. The study showed that top-tier running backs will post a good blocking YPA of 6 or more yards, average running backs will tally between 5-6 yards and subpar backs will fall below the five-yard mark."

Moreno didn't receive good blocking and he did hit the rookie wall later in the season. He'll be in better shape, understand the situation better and hopefully produce more in 2010. A better OL wouldn't hurt. I'm more hopeful of KM's ability in the Denver offense than some.

Denver has the unusual situation of Buckhalter, the oldest RB on the team, also being the fastest RB, or at least he was in 2009. Perhaps JJ Arrington will displace him in terms of speed. Arrington ran an average of a 4.40 40 yard dash back in 2005, before his knee surgery (which I don't expect to be a problem). Denver let Peyton Hillis go in the Cleveland trade that brought Brady Quinn to Denver, and exchanging a backup QB for a backup FB isn't a bad trade at all. This does mean that Denver needs to either bring in a player other than Hochstein who can play fullback or let Spencer Larsen's talents stay on as a blocker for the running game and as a stand-out special teams man.

There is one problem with that approach that deals with the idea of versatility and the 'amoeba' offensive strategy. Because Larsen is solely a blocker, the defense can key on the run more if he's on the field. Larsen, so far at least, isn't going to haul the rock or catch passes out of the backfield. He was the best FB on the team as a blocker but right now, that also works against the Broncos since if Larsen is on the field, you only need to account for him in one role, whether the team is running or passing. Lance Ball and Bruce Hall are on futures contracts, and no one really has much to say about them. Whatever their fate turns out to be, it will be decided in training camp. Will the Broncos bring in a scatback type in the draft who can take some (or better still, all) of the weight off of Eddie Royal? Perhaps they already did with Arrington, who garnered 923 yards returning in 2008, but there's room for one more at least (Kenny McKinley showed some skill at returner as well). It will be interesting to find out.

WR Description - The elephant in the lining room is the Brandon Marshall situation, and I have no insight nor any predictions. Beyond him, however, there is a plethora of talented players, whether they are legitimate #1's or not. There is Eddie Royal, whom Josh McD and Kyle Orton both want to see more involved in the offense (See Orton's comments above), Brandon Stokley, who is another concussion away from ending a laudable career, Brandon Lloyd, of whom several coaches have tried without success to get daily, 100% effort so far, 2nd year player Kenny McKinley, who has to learn to beat press coverage and stay healthy in the NFL and Jabar Gaffney, a player who gets mixed fan reviews but whom I have a lot of respect for.

I've liked Gaffney since watching a lot of film on him 1 year ago for some articles - he's not a #1 receiver, but he's a very talented guy who can play several ways in the receiving game. Finally, there is third year player and constant afterthought Matthew Willis, out of UCLA who spent a short time on the Baltimore Ravens practice squad before moving to the Broncos PS. Willis' time on the PS is less an indication of his skill than of his level of experience - he joined the UCLA football team after two years on its track team. He then played two seasons of football and finished his Bruins career with 24 receptions for 248 yards (10.3 avg.) with three touchdowns in 21 games (3 starts). While I'd love to see a high quality new player come on, whether Marshall stays or goes, there are good players here. The problem is that several of them have question marks. This group could be very tough to play against or very tough to even watch. On this one, my crystal ball is at the shop. I'm just reporting. It's not hard to see how some familiarity would go a long way toward getting the WRs the ball from the QB on time and on target.

TE description - This group continues to be led by Daniel Graham, an all-around TE who has been a stalwart player for Denver over the past years. At 31, he's still playing like he's in his mid 20's. He's currently backed up by receiving TE Tony Scheffler, a player who hasn't committed to the Broncos yet. Scheffler may yet be trade bait - he's a talented TE who might be better off in a WCO or a Gillman-esque system. Gillman felt that with two good TEs, you could control the entire center of the field - however, the system that McD ran in 2009 used two or even three TEs almost exclusively as an aid to power running. How much of that was intentional and how much was necessary due to OL play is debatable.

The third TE - or second, I suppose, given Tony Scheff's rocky status)  currently is blocking back Richard Quinn, who struggled to pick up the system last season but who played well as a blocker on special teams. Outside, looking in, is Marquez Branson, the 6'2, 241 (I've seen him listed up to 252) lb receiving TE who may end up simply making sure that if the Broncos trade Scheffler, they won't miss him. While the competition at the University of Central Arkansas wasn't as tough as it is in the SEC, for example, Branson totaled 82 career receptions for 1,236 yards (15.1 avg.) with 18 touchdowns at Central Arkansas in only two seasons, after transferring from East Mississippi Community College. Following a year on the Broncos PS, he could become a viable option in the receiving game.

OL Description - Here is the toughest part of the Broncos offense to have any real opinions on, since Casey Wiegmann is gone to KC, Ben Hamilton wasn't retained, Ryan Harris is said to be doing well but has an injury that frequently tends toward flare-ups for a year or two, all of which goes toward leaving Chris Kuper at RG and Ryan Clady playing LT. Hochstein has enough versatility that his bad side was ignored and he was retained. There is no word on Tyler Polumbus, but he didn't look good in covering for Harris. What the Broncos do have, in large numbers, are question marks.

Ryan Clady's only question mark is whether he will stay healthy and continue to play at an All-Pro level. Start the real questions with 2009 4th round pick Seth Olsen, out of OL powerhouse Iowa. Olsen took snaps on the scout team in 2009, apparently did so at center and was verbally tagged as a potential center as soon as he was drafted by the McX team last year. Even though the majority of his time in college was spent at guard, inn 2006 he started five contests at right tackle, four games at right guard and one contest at left guard. Olsen received Iowa's Next Man In Award (offense) for that season. Versatility is something that he has lots of. But, center?

Russ Hochstein has played 7 games as center for the New England Patriots and Dustin Fry, picked in the 5th round of the 2007 draft, spent his 2009 time on the Broncos PS. If you have a firmly held theory on what will happen here, I'm pretty open to hearing it. I expect a OT/G and a G/C to be drafted, but even there, I wouldn't be shocked to be wrong. I, like most of the fans, nearly forgot Matt McChesney, the 333 lb 3rd season guard from Colorado who languished on the PS last season (if you're into numerology, he's pretty interesting with all those threes - it MUST be his year. I'm not into numerology, so I'll await his on-field performance). The PS was a good place for him - did you realize that McChesney was picked up undrafted by the St Louis Cards as a DT before being moved to guard by the Jets? It should be interesting to see if he can handle the new position - while I still am sorry that the WFL didn't make it and believe that the NFL needs a developmental league besides the colleges, McChesney started seven games at right guard for the Frankfurt Galaxy in 2007, receiving All-NFL Europa honors and helping the club to a World Bowl XV appearance, so he's developing...interesting background, especially that quickly on the award. While he will take some time to really know and play the position, he's a big, fairly quick man, especially for his bulk, understands pad levels and sees the game from both the OL and DL viewpoints and he's been a standout on the now defunct NFL developmental program. Down the road, and not that far, he could be very effective. McChesney excites me - he's from Colorado, he's huge, he's been able to learn a lot about a new position fast and he's very strong. I haven't run into a list of his blocking defects, but if someone has, please share.

There is also D' Anthony Baptiste, and I have nothing substantial to base any opinion on with him. He joined Denver on December 23 of 2009, so you could see him as a Christmas present, I suppose, but mostly what that tells me is the McX likes him well enough to want a closer look. He'll get a chance to prove his skill in training camp and with the likelihood of Tyler Polumbus moving on to other things, there may be a place for D'Anthony.

Familiarity of scheme is perhaps most obvious for the offensive line - all of the players need to be on the same page, to move at the same instant and to accomplish their jobs quickly and efficiently, often in unison (traps, pulls). The more the players have worked in a scheme, as Brandon Stokley noted above,

"...the more you play in an offense, the more little details that, you know, you kind of learn, the little things that you can add instead of just run a route a certain way, the more you've been in an offense the more that you can, the parameters that you can mess with a route, that you kind of learn, just, little things that you can do with certain routes to get open, it becomes easier to do that the longer you've been in an offense.

The same is true with a defense and with special teams. Players who have the time to get to know each others tendencies can often be there before a mistake is made or a hole opens. Familiarity permits one DL player to notice the double or triple team on another, and to scoot through that hole before the offense can regroup. Familiar QB and WR pairings tend to produce more yards, more 1st downs, more touchdowns and more wins.

The next article will take over where this one lets off - I'll be covering the various defensive positions, and trying to discern ways to get better at each and to continue to talk about familiarity. See you then.

Originally posted at MHR

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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