How good are the 2011 Denver Broncos?

I think that predicting specific sports outcomes is a useless filler exercise, and I say that as a guy who does a good amount of forecasting in my day job.  As a controller, a revenue forecast helps you work back to figuring out the costs of the inputs needed to make the forecasted revenue, and it can/should illuminate opportunities to achieve cost savings.  It’s a value-adding exercise, and like painting a ship, it never really stops.

Predicting the outcomes of games, or the record of a football team in August really adds no operational value to anything.  Once the actual event happens, the prediction work that you did becomes entirely useless; nobody would ever refer back to it for any reason, so why would you have it in your archive?

There’s been a lot of talking lately about what the Broncos’ record will be this season, and I don’t really want to speculate on that specifically.  Having seen two preseason games, though, I am ready to say that I think this looks like the best Broncos team since at least 2005, and I’m ready to discuss the reasons why I think that.

1.  What happened last year is irrelevant.  For that matter, so is what happened last week.  In each game, the teams have to line up and hit and make the plays necessary to win.  Most of the sports media tends to take the previous year as a baseline and apply an unscientific system of pluses and minuses based upon coaching hires and personnel acquisitions.  This is generally how it’s played out for the Broncos in the media narrative.

Last Year – The Broncos were 4-12, and they lost by three TDs or more on three occasions.  They lost by 14-20 points on three other occasions.  The other six losses were by 7, 4, 8, 3, 4, and 5 points.

Coaching Change – The Broncos hired John Fox, who coached the worst team in the NFL last season.  What an unsexy pick.  He also kept half of the existing staff in place, and they have some Josh McDaniels on them!

Draft – The Broncos drafted Von Miller, who everybody knows is a 3-4 player, and they want to use him in a 4-3?  Nobody else is a very big name, or is going to get many fantasy points, so they don’t matter.

Free Agency/Trades – Willis McGahee?  David Anderson?  Daniel Fells?  Brodrick Bunkley?  Derrick Harvey?  Jeremy Jarmon?  Where are the impact players?  When you’re 4-12, you need to make a BIG SPLASH and get articles written about you!

Prediction – They got rid of McDaniels like we wanted them to, but they’ll still be like 5-11.

There is no baseline, there’s only football.  Look at San Diego last year; they were supposedly “the most talented team in the NFL” but they didn’t show up to play good football a lot of the time, and they didn’t make the playoffs. 

A team has to have the talent to win games, but among the 25 or so which do, what separates the winners from the losers is the quality of their planning, and the subsequent quality of their execution of that planning.  Last year is nothing, and there’s a blank slate for all 32 teams, even if the MSM doesn’t want to let there be one.

2.  The Broncos are almost certainly going to get competent QB play.  I don’t love Kyle Orton, but you can win with the guy if you can run the ball some and protect him.  I feel the same about Brady Quinn, who looks better than I’ve ever seen him look as a professional QB.  Everybody knows that I think Tim Tebow has (by far) the highest ceiling of the three.  The general point here is that the Broncos have options they can feel good about at this position if Orton doesn’t get it done on the field.  This is not 2009, where the team is going to miss the playoffs because Chris Simms has to play significant snaps in a couple of games.

Orton needs a strong running game more than most QBs, because he does his best work off of play action, and because he’s generally hapless in third-and-long situations, whether teams blitz him or play coverage.  The whole trick to making Orton successful is keeping the offense on schedule.  That’s helpful to any QB, but he’s an extreme case of it, and has been his entire career.  He actually executed a screen pretty well on Saturday, and if he could do that consistently, he’d help himself stay on schedule and also open up opportunities on longer third downs.

3.  The running game is going to be better.  I was very impressed with how well J.D. Walton held up against Kyle Williams on Saturday, and I’ve generally liked the run blocking of the entire first-team offensive line in this preseason, so far.  TJ noted this, but Orlando Franklin has been driving guys backward, and he’s only going to get better.

As for the running backs, I’m not at all surprised at how well Knowshon Moreno has been playing, and I’m smirking at all the people who said he was a bust.  If you realize what Moreno is, which is a nickel runner, you won’t be disappointed at what he isn’t, which is some between-the-tackles bruiser.

Moreno supposedly has been a disappointment, but he averaged 73 yards from scrimmage per game as a rookie, and improved to 89 per game last season.  The arrow is pointing in the right direction, and with a good player like Willis McGahee to pair with him, Moreno is going to be able to maximize his per-carry effectiveness.  Woody Paige will be mad, because it will be a case where he wasn’t able to run his nemesis out of town before the guy was able to prove the poobah wrong.

What is a nickel runner?  It’s a guy who does his best work when the pass is in order and the defense isn’t fully geared to stop the run.  Roger Craig is the classic example of a guy who had a lot of success both running and catching the ball in a pass-heavy offense.  I think that Moreno in his prime will look a lot like Craig did in his, if he’s used correctly.  To me, Moreno is a 15-18 carry, 5-catch guy in a typical game, and then you use McGahee for 10-12 carries, and a couple of catches too.

The personnel is there - from Running Backs, to Offensive Linemen, to Tight Ends - to make this running game effective, and to resultingly open up the passing game.  Orton was talking the other day about how defenses were dropping eight players on 3rd and 3, because they didn’t fear the Broncos' run game in 2010, and I think that that will change this year.

4.  The Broncos are going to be very difficult to pass on in 2011.  You can have all the secondary guys in the world, but if you can’t hit the QB, the coverage is eventually going to break down.  This Broncos team is going to heat up the QB, and the best thing is, they’re going to be able to do so with just four players a lot of the time.

The Broncos did a great job in the 2011 Draft staffing up for their defensive conversion, and with their first two picks, they landed the two key players to the new scheme.  This was basically a quick piece at the end of January, when I was busy with month-end close at work, but within it, I said that the Broncos needed a centerfielder-type of Free Safety, and I think I was just about the first writer to advocate for the selection of Von Miller to play in the Dennis Allen scheme.  (I did like Nick Fairley better, and I do generally prefer DTs to LBs, but Miller is winning me over quickly.)

I’m really fired up about Rahim Moore and his ability to get to the football quickly.  The Broncos haven’t had a Free Safety with elite range in my lifetime, and I think they finally have one.  The good news is that Moore will apparently still crush you, like less-rangy guys such as Steve Atwater, Dennis Smith, and John Lynch would.  Let me tell you, that play with the “questionable” hit on Saturday night was an elite football play.  Moore was in Cover-2, and he diagnosed where the ball was going quickly, ran to the spot, and broke the play up before the catch could be made.  I’m with John Fox and John Elway; I don’t blame the kid at all for making the play he made.  Maybe next time, he could make the hit look a little softer, so he doesn’t get the flag.

As for Mr. Miller, I can’t stop thinking of Derrick Thomas when I see him come off the edge.  He’s better than I thought he was, and as much as I still think Fairley is going to be a big-time player, I’m glad that Miller was the pick.  In this article from May, I speculated that Miller was likely to be used more as a blitzer than as a pass rusher, and so far that hasn’t really been the case.  (I suspect that the blitz packages will get a lot more exotic once the season starts.)

As I noted last week, the Broncos have been using Miller with his hand on the ground as a DE in sub packages, sometimes as a standup DE, and other times as a traditional Sam in base situations.  He’s been most impressive coming as a down DE, and I really don’t see how a single RT in the NFL can handle this guy one on one. 

With Elvis Dumervil coming from the other side, offenses can’t exactly slide the protection or roll the QB away from Miller, so they’re going to be forced to max protect more often, or at least to chip with the RBs.  The other option is to shorten the drops the QB takes and the routes the WRs run.  Either way, the Broncos have dictated to the offense and made it harder for them to have a successful passing game before a single ball is snapped. 

Combine that with Moore  and Brian Dawkins on the back end, and what looks to me like 3-4 high quality CBs, and I believe that teams are going to have a really difficult time throwing the football.  I’ve been very impressed with the look of Andre’ Goodman and Cassius Vaughn on the outside with Champ Bailey in the slot.  I also like Joe Mays’ ability to cover man to man; I think I’d actually leave him on the field in sub packages and consider sitting D.J. Williams sometimes, which is pretty much unheard of.  (So is subbing in a CB for a NT, but the Broncos do it.)

5.  The kicking game looks excellent, all the way around.  We should at least partially thank the McDaniels regime for this, because their focus on making the bottom half of the roster more athletic has paid huge dividends in the coverage units.  Matt Prater and Britton Colquitt are excellent too, and suddenly, the Broncos have a lot of effective return guys.  This is a reason to be excited.  Special teams plays a big part in winning or losing; it’s not 1/3 of the game, like Peter King would tell you, but even as 1/7 of it (my estimate), it’s still very important.

What does this all mean?  A team that can consistently gain yardage in the passing game and prevent its opponents from doing so is a team that wins big.  A massive amount of statistical analysis bears this out, and for all the talk about being a run-heavy team, the Panthers threw the ball more often than they ran it.  Running sets up the pass, and it helps keep an offense on schedule, but it’s no substitute for being able to get big chunks of yardage downfield.

Sure, I have a few reservations, and this isn't a perfect team by any means.  I’m a little bit wary of the Broncos’ consistent ability to stop the run against the best teams, but I think they’ll be no worse than average in that area, given a return by Marcus Thomas and average health on the defensive front.  I'm not 100% convinced that the Broncos can run the ball effectively, but I'm 95% confident that they can.  (They were 8th in the NFL over the last half of 2010, and Franklin is an upgrade in the running game over Ryan Harris.)

I don’t want to put a number on it, and I don’t think that this team is quite ready to be placed in the elite echelon (which I would define as the Patriots, Packers, Saints, and Steelers), but I think they can definitely compete with any team on Sunday.  They can definitely win the AFC West, which I’d also say of the Chargers and Chiefs.  This is a building year for the Broncos, and while I’m not saying we should expect big postseason success yet, don’t be surprised to see this team win some games against good teams this year.  The plan is good, the personnel acquisition strategy is good, and we just need some execution at this point.  I have a good feeling that the John Fox regime will deliver that execution, finally.

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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Ted's Analysis