Fixing the Broncos passing game

Howdy, friends.  In case you hadn’t noticed, I decided to take a little unannounced break from writing about football.  (I figured if I announced it that people might think that I’m full of myself, or something.)  Today, I decided to return, because I think that we’re on the precipice of a very interesting offseason as Broncos fans, and that it’s time to start putting some words to it, and while I’m at it, even some sentences and paragraphs.

Today, I’m going to start where Broncos conversation always seems to start, and that’s with Tim Tebow.  I’m doing so, because I’m pretty sick of talking about him personally, and I consider this to be the act of getting something important out of the way, and then moving on from it until games start happening, and there’s something new and substantial to discuss. 

As I’ve been saying for years, I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.  After long consideration during my quiet break, I’m strengthening my resolve on that front.  I’m not going to be arguing with anybody about Tebow or anything else, because it’s just going to irritate me, and make me want to take a forever break from writing about football.  (I can think of some of you who’d like that, and you can feel free to start a blog about it or something, if you didn’t know deep down that nobody would ever read it.)  I say what I think, and that’s that, and I’ll be right or wrong based on the extent to which I know what I’m talking about, and how well my powers of educated guessing work.  You dig?

Now, to the topic du jour.  Can Tim Tebow be a good starting QB in the NFL?  I’ve been saying for 5 years that he can, and that he will.  It will take some improvements, but the extent to which he has to improve has been massively overstated.  Let’s start down that path, shall we?

If you are inclined to dislike Tebow because of something like his proselytization for the homie Jesus, you might say that he came into the NFL as a deficient player, hasn’t improved at all, and is what he always will be.  If you’re inclined to like Tebow because he’s so super-Christy, you might say that he’s fine exactly how he is, with no improvement needed, and that the Broncos and the NFL should simply adjust to him.  I hear and read a lot of both of these takes, and I’m here to tell you, if you’re from either of these camps, you’re wrong on the facts, and because of your underlying motivation, I don’t believe that your thoughts have any place in an intelligent football discussion anyway.

I’ve said this many times, but I don’t give a damn about Tebow’s religious beliefs or activities, because they aren’t at all germane to football.  I’m here because of football, and as much as I’ve sometimes veered into obliquely commenting on religion and politics in the past, I kind of feel like the Tebow phenomenon has convinced me to mostly leave that stuff alone.  This kid can’t get a fair shake from anybody, positive or negative, because of his religion, and I take that as the religion phenomenon unduly interfering with football.  Our football team suffers for it, and to me, that’s not okay.

Now, let’s define the problem, shall we?

PROBLEM –

Tim Tebow leads an offense that is highly inefficient in the passing game, and as such, the team underachieves on the scoreboard. 

AMPLIFYING THOUGHTS –

1.  The Broncos offense was extremely young in 2011, particularly at the WR positions, and along the offensive line.  Young players in both position groups tend to take several years to develop quality NFL skill sets.

2.  Tebow entered the league with unorthodox mechanics, and having rarely played from under center.  He was used to the timing and rhythm of a spread-out college running scheme, and of a short passing game that worked off of that scheme.

3.  Contrary to media portrayals, since most of those guys don’t know what they’re talking about anyway, the downfield passing game at Florida did incorporate a lot of NFL-style passing concepts.  They ran Flat-7, Four Verts, Smash, Switch, and lots of other stuff that you see every Sunday.

4.  The Broncos passing scheme was very haphazardly coordinated in 2011, and I’m not the only one who thinks so.  I’ve seen Chris Brown mention that he thought so several times on Twitter.  My issue with the scheme is that it was so downfield-intensive that it often didn’t even include a viable checkdown option.  Not only that, by not playing high-to-low, and keeping receivers short in the pattern, it allowed the whole zone to sink with the downfield receivers, and prevent players from coming open.  What do I mean?  Let me show you.

This first diagram is a standard NFL pass concept called Flat-7.  The Flat is because the HB and the TE (designated Y) are running routes to the Flat.  The 7 is because the X and the Y are running what’s called corner routes, which are numbered 7 in a standard passing tree.  The FB stays in to block, so this is a six-man protection.  This concept is most often used to attack Cover-2, which is the defense that you see here. 

It works because it forces the CB to stay shallow and play the Flat man, and it singles the 7 route up against a Safety who’s over the top.  There’s no underneath coverage on the outside receivers.  It’s a simple read – if the CB sinks too far, take the Flat; if the CB stays home, take the 7 route.

The Broncos worry (and rightly so) a lot about their ability to protect, so they often keep in a seventh blocker.  That’s fine and dandy, but you can still leave the Flat-7 concept in place to one side or the other, even with only three receivers in the pattern.  The Broncos, though, seem determined to either run the ball or go downfield, and to ignore the short area in the passing game.  So you get something like this, which I’d call 797 Max.

This is basically three verticals, which would work a lot better if it were four verticals, because it would stress the Safeties more.  Instead, what Tebow ends up seeing is something like this.

The whole zone sinks to the deep area, with only the MLB staying somewhat shallow to guard against a Tebow run.  It doesn’t matter what the receivers do, because this is an idiotic play design against Cover-2, and the Broncos inexplicably do stuff like this all the time.  Remember those times where Tebow had all kinds of time, and didn’t know where to throw it?  A lot of times, this is what it looked like on the back end.  His best option is to hold the ball, and think about running it, and even that isn’t a good option.

5.  One amplifying fact that I want to emphasize is that there’s a common thought pattern, particularly among the statistically inclined, that the success or failure of a passing game is functionally a matter of the quality of the QB play.  That’s because stats guys are used to assuming that all else is equal, even though in real life, nothing else is really equal.  Sam Bradford will tell you, when the guys around you can’t play, all the perfect throwing mechanics in the world won’t help you.  Passing games rise and fall on a lot more than QB play in real life.  It sure helps a guy be a good QB when the other players around him do well too.

6.  Finally, Tim Tebow flat out misses throws that he needs to make.  This reduces the effectiveness of the offense.  On the positive side, he’s always been good about not throwing it to the other team very much, going back to his four years at Florida.

SOLVING THE PROBLEM –

1.  Let’s start out by noting that 46.5% completion percentage isn’t good enough, but that 60% as a number that is good enough is arbitrary.  If it’s 57%, and the Broncos win 11 games, are you going to quibble about the 3%?  Tebow could complete 60% tomorrow if the offense turned into a Matt Leinart-style checkdown-mania system.  Nobody wants to see that, so let’s look for noticeable improvement without assigning an arbitrary requirement to a stat that’s of questionable value to begin with.

Tebow does need to work on his own game, and be really dedicated to improving over this offseason.  I have every reason to believe that he will improve.  What many people fail to realize is that there are two glaring weaknesses that Tebow has already improved upon, one which has become a competency, and the other an unquestionable strength. 

The competency is getting out from under center with proper ball-handling and footwork.  With reps and work, Tebow almost never has a problem with this anymore.  You might say that it’s a minimum job expectation, so who cares, but you’re missing the point.  It’s clear evidence of his ability to improve.

The strength is his ball-handling on play action.  It was okay from the shotgun when he entered the NFL, but not at all noteworthy.  From under center, it was non-existent.  Now, he’s faking at a level that’s just below the best guys in the NFL, who I’d name as Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Mark Sanchez (seriously).  By the end of the season, Tebow was really working the fake, and with the run-heavy way that the Broncos play, that is going to be really important to his future success.  (It’d be great if he could look up from the fake, see the expected open guy actually coming open, and throw it on rhythm, but he’d need some scheme help to do that.)

I believe that Tebow should work with a private QB tutor (take your pick) and work to clean up his footwork.  It’s going to help his accuracy a lot, and he’ll be able to leverage better footwork in games more consistently than he would a changed throwing motion.

He should also work with Mike McCoy and Adam Gase as much as possible this offseason, and also with Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, and Eddie Royal.  (I do believe Royal wants to be back, and that he will be.  He’s a different kind of dude, and he wouldn’t be rolling out t-shirts for sale in blue and orange a couple weeks ago if he thought he was going to be gone.)

More than anything, Tebow needs to stay out of the spotlight and just work to improve like any third-year QB would.  Let ESPN do their stupid specials, and just work, and earn the job all over again.

2.  Thomas and Decker need to work really hard too.  Like Tebow, they’re entering their third year, but at the risk of inciting a stupid semantic argument, they profile more like second-year guys, given the number of snaps they’ve played, and the fact that they all missed their first offseason program due to the lockout.

I cannot emphasize enough that WR is a learning-intensive position in the NFL, and that almost nobody comes in and tears it up right away.  Everybody has to learn to read coverages, make their vertical stem look the same regardless of the route, read body posture by CBs, run their routes to the correct depth, and use a variety of fakes to get themselves open.  Then they have to consistently catch the ball, and both Thomas and Decker struggled with that at times in 2011.  WR is a very difficult position, and the growing pains of young receivers are less noticeable, and less commented-upon, but absolutely no less pronounced than those experienced by young QBs.

In a year, I expect to be talking about how Thomas and Decker grew up to be excellent WRs during the 2012 season, but it will take a lot of work starting this offseason.

3.  The pass protection has to improve greatly.  Whether by development of current players or by the acquisition of new ones, this must get better ASAP.  The stupidest thing Phil Simms said all year long is that the Broncos have the best offensive line in the NFL.  No, they absolutely don’t.  The good news is that it’s a young line, and that all members of it can improve on their 2011 play.  I am especially anxious to see Zane Beadles and J.D. Walton improve their strength, and Orlando Franklin improve his footwork.  With an offseason program, big gains can be made in those areas.

4.  I’d like to see some real speed brought in at WR and RB.  Both position groups lack it significantly right now.

5.  Finally, the passing scheme has to improve.  As much as I was impressed by Mike McCoy’s work with the run game, I was disappointed with the passing scheme.  Looking back over a few games only makes me hate it more.  Using real NFL pass concepts, and trusting 5- and 6-man protections more often (hopefully because it’s warranted) will help this passing game succeed.  Now, leave me out of the McCoy holy war, where the Tebow fans hate McCoy, and the Tebow non-fans think he's wonderful - the true measure of McCoy's quality as a schemer is independent of Tebow's present or future performance.  Right now, the passing scheme needs improvement.  I say that as a dude who knows what I'm talking about - if you want to say something else, feel free.  I’m going to really focus on teaching the passing game this offseason, so there’ll be much more to follow on this point.

Let’s ditch the stupid construct that says that Tim Tebow alone needs to be fixed, and recognize that there are a lot of pivot points which will determine the success of this passing game in 2012.  The good news is that if you focus on items 2-5, and see real improvements there, and Tebow ends up not improving enough, you still get to keep the improvements on 2-5.  That’s a lot better deal than foolishly thinking that there’s only the one issue to solve, like the average Woody Paige would.

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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