They were, like the Rockies themselves, supposed to be the granite base upon which the Denver Broncos' rushing and passing games stood. As it turned out, the offensive line was instead the shifting sands that helped derail Josh McDaniels’ tenure in the Rocky Mountains. Over the past two seasons, the Broncos' offensive line was the franchise's weakest in many years, and their changes from 2008 to 2010 were among the most important sideshows in the process of watching a team mired in mediocrity turn into a bottom-dwelling anomaly, the likes of which Denver fans haven’t seen since around the merger of the AFL and NFL. It now appears possible, perhaps likely, that things will come around full circle.
Rick Dennison interviewed with Denver today, and he will be hoping for an encore of several different kinds. Firstly, Dennison was one of the few coaches retained when Josh McDaniels first came into Denver in 2009. With the retention of RBs coach Bobby Turner and the drafting of Knowshon Moreno shortly thereafter, Denver fans saw a glimmer of hope in the running game. While many fans were leery of the trade that involved Jay Cutler and Kyle Orton, they held high hopes that the Denver rushing attack would rebound to spark the Broncos' offense after an injury-plagued 2008. Sadly, that turned out to be as fleeting a dream as the morning mists...
In fairness, much of that problem wasn’t related to McDaniels, while some of it was. It turned out that Ben Hamilton had inexplicably lost something over the past few years - both he and the team have denied any link between the dropoff of his performance and his return from a problem with concussions that drove him to the bench, but the timeline was simply that he never seemed to be the same player afterwards. Meanwhile, McDaniels wanted an increase in gap and angle blocking, to develop more of a power system, and that really never manifested. Dennison was and is, with the sudden retirement of Alex Gibbs in September of 2010, the top zone-blocking coach in the NFL - or anywhere else, for that matter. With Denver’s struggles up front (although the zone blocking is exclusively used in run blocking and did not contribute to the debacle on pass blocking that began with the injuries to Hamilton and then right tackle Ryan Harris) in the running game, Dennison’s abilities may prove to be in high demand in Dove Valley once again.
It won’t hurt that sources around the league have noted that Dennison was the top interview in the 2009 selection process. While Josh McDaniels wowed them with his understanding of the theory of football, his modern PowerPoint presentation, and his ability to also talk extemporaneously on defense and offense for hours, Dennison simply gave the most direct, clear and effective interview of any candidate, at least according to sources within Dove Valley. Both had been offensive coordinators, but one of the knocks on Dennison is that he has yet to call the plays as an OC, and is an unknown factor in that area. Josh McDaniels had called the signals for the top offensive squad in the history of the NFL (the 2007 New England Patriots), and that fact weighted heavily in his favor. He received the job, and was summarily fired four games before the end of the 2010 season with a 3-9 record.
What might bring Rick Dennison back to the Broncos, besides being a killer interviewee? For starters, he brings a long and auspicious career with Denver, Colorado and the Rocky Mountain Region, being born in Kalispell, Montana and raised in Fort Collins, Colorado. According to the Houston Texans' website,
Dennison joined the Broncos as a college free agent in 1982 after a fine collegiate career at Colorado State, where he was a second-team Academic All-American as a senior and earned three varsity letters. In 1979, Dennison received a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from CSU followed by a master's degree in the same field from CSU in 1982." He played in 128 games with 52 starts as well as showing his unusual skill on special teams, something that the casual fan pays less attention to than those who delve deeper into the game.
Born in Kalispell, Mont., Dennison attended Rocky Mountain High School in Fort Collins, Colo., where he lettered in football, basketball and baseball. His father, George, is the president of the University of Montana. Rick and his wife, Shannon, have five children – sons Joseph, Steven and Trey and twin daughters Abrynn and Allie.
After spending the 2009 season coaching the offensive line under McDaniels, Dennison joined longtime Broncos backup QB and assistant coach Gary Kubiak with the Texans. Houston uses an application of similar offensive principles to those that Kubiak learned under former Denver coach Mike Shanahan. The Texans' zone-blocking scheme, headed by Dennison in 2010, turned Arian Foster from an undrafted college free agent to the NFL's top runner in 2010. That fact alone will give Dennison a degree of an edge in the interviewing process. Denver may or may not return to zone blocking, but they have to do something to revive the running game.
Long before spending 2010 in Houston, "Rico" was with the Broncos from 1982 to 1990 as a linebacker who stood out on special teams. He took a year of personal time in 1993, and then spent three years at Suffield Academy as an assistant, helping them to the New England football championship. Dennison then joined the Broncos in 1995 as an offensive assistant, later coaching Denver's special teams from 1997 to 2000.
He moved to coaching the offensive line in 2001 and held that position until 2006, when he took on the offensive coordinator position for the Broncos. That was always an odd situation for Dennison - originally, Mike Shanahan called the signals, but when young QBs Coach Jeremy Bates took them over in 2008, Denver ranked second in the league in overall yardage, but 16th in passing. The defense was a wreck, and Shanahan was invited onward in his career. Bates' sometimes inexplicable play calling in 2008 probably didn't help the situation - he seemed to believe that when the running game was working, which was far from constantly, one should respond with more passing. Dennison, as noted, interviewed for the open position and give a top-flight interview, but was beaten out by McDaniels.
During this time, what did Dennison do? Noted the Texans' site:
With Dennison at the helm, Denver's offense averaged 350.5 yards per game from 2006-08 and rushed for 124.4 yards per game, averaging 4.6 yards per carry. Despite starting a rookie at left tackle and a second-year player at right tackle in 2008, the Broncos offense gained 6,333 yards to rank second in the NFL and the offensive line allowed a franchise-record-low 12 sacks on the season.
In 2007, Denver was fourth in the NFL in yards per play (5.7) and was fifth in the league in yards per rush (4.6). In 2006, Dennison's first season at the helm of the offense, Denver ranked fifth in the NFL with an average of 360.4 yards per game.
With Dennison in charge of either the offensive line or the entire offense from 2001-09, the Broncos ranked second in the NFL with an average of 135.1 rushing yards per game, and Denver's 4.5-yard rushing average in that time period was the third-highest in the league. The Broncos line also excelled in pass blocking, surrendering just 226 sacks in nine years, which was the fourth-fewest in the league over that time span.
Even after being passed over for the head coaching position, Rick returned as the offensive line coach in 2009; but between the changes to a new system and the problems with first Hamilton, then Casey Wiegmann, and finally with the loss of Ryan Harris to multiple toe injuries, the once-solid line was in tatters. After Dennison had seen enough, he went to the Texans to reunite with Kubiak - taking the place of Kyle Shanahan, who had left for Washington to work with his father.
Dennison’s coaching background is exclusively in the area of the offense, but as a former linebacker, he’s familiar with the defensive side of the ball as well (Note: any coach who has had substantial success against defenses knows a lot about them. Former defensive players know it from a more personal side as well). Dennison’s defensive philosophy, simply stated is this:
My plans for defense are to be aggressive. From watching teams who are aggressive, they are hard to prepare for. I think it's a matter of finding the right coordinator who fits with who we have in personnel.
Like Dennison's usual communication style, his analysis of Denver's defensive needs, while necessarily brief, is also clear, succinct and to the point. Interestingly, Dennison is the first candidate who I’ve heard going into the process talking in the media about the kind of coordinators that he’d be looking to install, and I was pleased to hear it. Denver has been through 5 defensive coordinators in 5 years, and there has been a near-total lack of continuity in the defensive coaching, system and philosophy, as the cupboard turned out to be even more bare than the front office was aware. In early 2010, Mike Shanahan reiterated that he considered Denver to be 'just one or two players away' from being back in the playoffs. That kind of utter disconnect between a defense made of street veterans (players who would not and could not find work with other teams when Denver let them go) and Mike's view of the team had contributed to Shanahan's firing at the end of the 2008 season.
What it tells me is that Dennison recognizes that he has limitations, and that he'll have to depend upon and trust the coordinators that carry out his requirements. Mike Nolan was a good experienced coordinator, but he only lasted one year; Mike McCoy was more of an assistant than a true OC. Josh McDaniels didn't surround himself with the top coordinators out there, and in doing so, he missed a very helpful boat - one that might have helped save his job. Look at the change in KC in just one year with the help of Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis. Were they the only factors? Not at all - a series of high drafts, with some good recent picks also helped, there's no question. But would KC have made the playoffs without the two veteran coordinators? I tend to doubt it.
Can Dennison rise from an offensive coordinator who has never called plays to the position of head coach? The most likely answer is yes, certainly. Beyond the stellar rushing stats in Houston, Dennison provided QB Matt Schaub with a prolific passing offense that featured the brilliant Andre Johnson. That kind of powerful running game balanced with explosive passing (and a lot of QB rushing yards) is what John Elway and Brian Xanders want for their offense. Denver also has a stable of WRs that should make any coach drool, a running back in Knowshon Moreno who has had some trouble in the past with the ZB scheme (although Correll Buckhalter adores it, and Lance Ball might fit it well), and they have a top project in Tim Tebow. Dennison is smart, knows his stuff, isn't shy about recognizing the need for getting the best guys possible on his coordinators' staff (and coaches plus coaching assistants, one might extrapolate). Is this the best option?
It's still too early to say. There are advantages to putting in place a head coach who has had experience in turning around a defense that trails the league in most categories. Still - there is a perception that Denver wants to go with someone that they consider a proven commodity. A guy with 24 years experience with your team is about as proven as they come.
How would I feel about Dennison's return as a head coach? Each time he's been given more responsibility, he's stepped up. He led a prep school to a championship, was special teams coach with Denver for both of their Super Bowl wins, and has since become the league's top zone-blocking authority. He gave the Texans the league's top rusher, developed the Texans' offense to a higher level and is looking to make that next big leap in his career. It's hard to bet against him.
Now it's up to Denver to see if they can envision him at the helm of the Broncos as they try to rise to their former realms of playoffs and Super Bowls. So far, all that he's done is to become excellent in every role that he's been asked to handle. I can't think of more that I'd ask of the next head coach.