Groping in the dark

I spent part of yesterday morning going through the tweets that have come out of Dove Valley this week, and it left me with a single, concise conclusion: It may well be worse than even the most devoted of the fans thought. After listening to as much of the Ellis presser as my digestion could stand, I was starting to disbelieve what I was hearing.

I’d sent an email to Ted Bartlett regarding his (very good) column yesterday on OneManFootball.com, and I talked a bit about the history that’s led up to this week’s events. Ted had noted that Mike Shanahan started burning through defensive coordinators in 2006, which is undeniable. In my own eyes, the problem began back when Shanahan promptly made sure that Greg Robinson, the defensive coordinator of his two Super Bowl champion teams, had to go following the team's playoff loss in the 2000 season.

At the time, I was stunned. You just don’t fire the guy who ran your defense during a three-season stretch in which the team went 39-9 and won consecutive Super Bowls. In the 1998 playoffs, Robinson's defense held Miami to just a field goal in the divisional round and allowed only a single offensive touchdown each to first the Jets in the AFC title game and then the Falcons in the SB - the former after a blocked punt and the latter coming long after the outcome was decided. Getting rid of Robinson smelled of scapegoating, whether that was in intention or not. This, after it was the offense that could manage only 3 points against the eventual-champion Ravens, not to mention that Robinson was given a starting secondary of Ray Crockett, Terrell Buckley, Eric Brown and Billy Jenkins to work with.

Whatever their personal issues, when a coordinator gets you through not one but two winning Super Bowls, it seems sensible to accept them and work them out. You don’t have to love each other to work well together. It would have made a lot more sense to work out a solution rather than dump a coordinator who can contribute to that kind of success. Over time, as the years progressed, it often seemed that bringing in a successful coordinator might have been threatening to Shanahan. When one arrived and didn’t work miracles with existing personnel, they didn’t survive. None, in fairness, ever had a chance, due to a lack of scheme-specific personnel. Mike liked smaller, lighter, faster players. That was as deep as his attention to the defense seemed to get. That might be unfair - I wasn’t in Dove Valley. But the last decade has left me with that impression. 

Mike went on to convince Pat Bowlen to make him General Manager, Coach for Life and Lord of the Valley of the Dove. It did little but spread him too thin, forced him to do things that he wasn’t good at instead of those at which he doubtlessly excelled and made it nearly impossible to control the things that he wasn’t qualified to do. Things such as personnel matters and the choices of defensive coordinators which, as Ted pointed out, would begin to be discarded like poker hands without any semblance of a recognition that different defenses require different and very specific personnel. From Maurice Clarett and Simeon Rice, to Dale Carter and Daryl Gardener, to Larry Coyer and Jim Bates, Shanahan’s personnel decision-making showed a tendency toward the erratic, but his decisions on defensive coordinators often seemed to make no sense whatsoever. 

The latter of those began to change in 2006, ironically, when the elder Goodman (Jim) began to increasingly influence the draft decisions and Mike began to throw all defensive coordinators out at a breathless pace. But during the later part of that same time period (starting in 2008), while Goodman was starting to improve the drafting of players, Bob Slowik was brought in to put the coup de grace to the defense: He actually started the season not knowing what defense he was going to run, or how he’d run it. I don’t know when Pat Bowlen really decided to fire Mike, but in my own heart, it was the day that he announced that he was bringing Bob Slowik back. Perhaps it was even when they took the field during the regular season and then tried to figure out what defense to use, personnel be damned. 

All of which made it even stranger to me that the first major staff incident after Josh McDaniels’ hiring involved an argument that apparently started among McDaniels, Xanders and Jeff Goodman regarding personnel, a tiff that drew in Jim Goodman, who predictably backed up (and packed up) his son. Rather than setting rational boundaries and pointing to the Goodmans' established record of (finally) changing Denver’s drafts for the better, Jeff was sent down the road and Jim, along with much of the Broncos' credibility, left along with him. 

We’ll never know the details, but it set the stage for the events to follow. People with a solid track record for the Broncos were let go: two young men, talented but without any experience in the jobs they were to be counted on for, with little supervision, were handed the reins to the Broncos. Simply, among Pat Bowlen, Joe Ellis, Brian Xanders and Josh McDaniels, there was no hand of extensive managerial football experience, someone who had done it before and could provide perspective and credibility. It was a victory of the impetus of youth over qualified experience, of hope over fact, and it negated the entire system that Jim Goodman had created and shown success with. Not surprisingly, it also created unnecessary tension and problems with information gathering in the weeks before the 2009 Draft and free agency period, problems that may have contributed to some of the stranger of the draft day decisions. 

If that surprised me (and it did), the tweets that I read yesterday cleared up all of the mists of why this happened. I read them on Andrew Mason’s article from Tuesday. The tweets and quotes from Joe Ellis are information in the public domain; the comments my own:  Any inaccuracy is on my own head. To move on:

How will they move on from here?

“We’re going to consider everything. I don’t have an outline for you today.”

Well, that tells us exactly nothing.

When asked about the new organizational structure, Ellis admitted that it is “fair to say” that they don’t have a clue who will pick the next coach. They’re flying by the seat of Ellis’ pants, which is somehow unpleasantly fitting. 

Ellis doesn’t know how org. will be structured or how many people will be hired in formulating this ‘new direction’

Things often manifest in the way that they are originally begun: many people are much the same at 60 as they were at 21. The same is true in organizations. Denver has somehow fired its head coach without actually sitting down and figuring out what went wrong, identifying the issues, or establishing how to find a new one without repeating the same errors. From a business standpoint, that’s beyond strange:  it’s incredibly foolish. So, Ellis and Bowlen don’t have even an outline for the process, don’t know how another coach will be hired and don’t have any real concept for recognizing not just what they did wrong, but how to refrain from making the same mistakes that they made with Mike Shanahan and Josh McDaniels all over again. Somehow, that’s not encouraging.

It actually got worse:

“We’ve got some time here to look at this,” Ellis said.

Actually, they probably don’t. Ellis and Bowlen are recreating the events of January 2009, with an additional 30 days added during which they need to come up with a useful concept of a process and an outcome that they have botched twice in the last decade. Worse still, Ellis also said, “I think it’s going to take some time.” You think? If you don’t know at least that much, this charade is likely to get stranger still. 

And it did: According to the Denver Post, Ellis said, "He's at a point in his life where he's humble and modest about who he is, and he wants to just take a step back and let somebody else run the day-to-day operations."

That means that in the short run, Ellis, and at least Brian Xanders and Mark Thewes, will be trying to put this together on the fly. Right now, Ellis holds the reins and the power. He only lacks any real football experience, knowledge or understanding. If that hasn’t proven to be useless, I really don’t know what is. 

The new coaching and management team - at least the team recognized that you have to have both - will be at the mercy of the scouting department that Josh McDaniels put in place. That’s not all bad - one of the New England strengths was its understanding of the importance and systematization of the scouting functions of the team. Both Keith Kidd, the Director of Pro Personnel and Matt Russell, the Director of College Scouting for Denver, have excellent reputations. However - most GMs and head coaches want to have people that they know and trust in place. There won’t be time this year. The decisions on systems and personnel that will be made between now and the draft (and any free agent period that may or may not occur in 2011) will impact the team for years to come. That was among the first places that the McDaniels/Xanders team started to come off the rails before ever really getting started. The Broncos seem, right now, to be doing it again. 

There are two probable possibilities here. The first is that Bowlen knows that the owners aren’t interested in having NFL football in 2011, which would diminish his sense of urgency regarding this. That would still be a mistake for the reasons I just gave. The second is that Bowlen and Ellis really don’t understand the problems that this creates for a new management and coaching team. Evidence?

“It’s our problem to solve that. If we have to pay eight coaches, that’s too bad for us. We’d better do something about getting it right.”

When you rework the structure of an organization, even mentioning the idea that you could be going through still more coaches in order to ‘get it right’ doesn’t give the impression that you’re diminishing the chances that it will happen. “We’d better do it right” isn’t the same as “We’re going to get it right, and this is how”. You have to have a plan in place before you move on something like this. That quote was not something that I, or any other fan, wants to hear or should hear or read. It’s the muttering of a man groping around in the dark, who thinks that there must be a light switch out there somewhere, but has no idea where. 

Ellis does get some admittedly begrudging credit for his frequent admissions that it was the upper management that really botched the job that Josh McDaniels tried very hard to do. He’s right about that. McDaniels worked extremely hard to try and right this ship. Hard work isn’t enough - neither is a lifetime spent in the game and a deep understanding of its nuances. You need organizational skills that McDaniels lacked - he didn’t know how to delegate and to trust his people. It’s a common problem with inexperienced men at that level of leadership.

Doing is very different from knowing. When a student of mine became arrogant, I’d have them try to teach a basic subject. They quickly found out how little they really knew. Ellis admits that they are clueless. That may be a start, but without execution of establishing what you want your organization to look like, it’s not that helpful. Only an experienced football guy can really both understand, and show, what needs to be done. 

Bringing in John Elway, which appears inevitable, will add a note of confidence in the final outcome, even if he is pushing against the tide. Thankfully, I expect that Bowlen will defer to John on much what’s missing. Without his credibility and the business sense that he’s demonstrated over and again in his personal life, this would be too painful to even watch.

It’s ironic, isn’t it? Twelve years after his second Super Bowl victory, it’s John Elway that Denver must count on to bring a level of experience, understanding, planning and execution to pull the team’s ashes from the fire. This time, as was true then, putting the right people around John will be the key to changing the fortunes of the Denver Broncos. 

Elway to the rescue again, a dozen years later. Who’d have thought it? This time, like so many others, he’s being asked to step in during the 4th quarter and to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. 

Some things never seem to change.

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

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