Are there problems with the Broncos? As Willie the Shake said, let me count the ways....they have troubles like the Louvre has art, like a lodgepole pine has needles or a hound has fleas. But all is far from dim -- they have a lot more good pieces than they did last year. They need a few more, so I thought that I'd put a little thought into just what the problems are. It makes it easier to decide what to do about them.
Is there a simple solution for a complicated problem? Rarely, at best. You know, when a problem is termed complicated, a lot of folks bring out Occam's Razor, the principle that states that the simplest solution that meets all the variables is most likely to be right. Two points on that - first, the answer has to fit ALL the variables. If you're dealing with a complex situation, that doesn't mean that a simple answer is most likely to be right. It means that the simpler one that fits all the variables present most likely will be. But even then - not always. Sometimes you need to do complex things. Complex answers are often correct - and often take far longer to properly implement. I consider this to be that kind of circumstance. It isn't simple and it won't be quick. But that doesn't mean that the Broncos aren't on the right track.
The late season bring problems of its own to team that are trying to turn things around. Come the late season, everyone you play knows what you can do and where you're weak (and nearly everyone has a weakness). If there's a weakness that you can't overcome, everyone hits on it. You can't do much about it, either - you're playing the guys you have, doing everything that you can to maximize their production and realizing that you'll be working hard on certain things in the offseason. Fans are angry, but it's more about the fact that we won 6 than we haven't played well. They feel betrayed.
They haven't been. But, let's be real - this is a team with serious problems. Let's talk about what they are.
Problem 1 - Offensive Line
This is problem 1 for a number of reasons - the passing game and the running game being among them. We haven't had the performance from our depth that we expected and, frankly, needed. You know what? That's got a good side to it. We thought that we had more depth than we do, and that's a theme that seems to permeate too many game reports at too many positions for the Denver Broncos. We need to do two things at once with the offensive line - start a couple of very good young guys into training and find and play a couple of bigger vets. If we just do one, we could have the same issue next season. This will be a very interesting test to observe, to see how the Xanders/McD solves a particularly vexing and central problem. No O-line, no game. The lose of Ryan Harris was a disaster.
Like most fans, I'd rather see Seth Olsen at guard than Ben Hamilton this weekend, but Ben is a probably a safer choice. He knows the schemes much better, has worked with the line before and has the timing down. He's also got a reason to prove that he's back on track - there will be a center job open soon.
Read Colinski's commentaries on the issues of Center vs guard vs tackle and his points on the problem of drafting a center (or a guard). It's pretty helpful stuff if you're working this one out. I received no compensation for this prop...
Problem 2 - Learning the Scheme
One reason that was often given for why the Broncos would not be decent this season was a realistic concern for how quickly people would pick up the new schemes on offense, defense and special teams. The answer has been pretty variable, which is about what you'd expect. It's gone back and forth, like both a Swiss Watch and a Middle Eastern peace conference at different times. You know what? There was good reason. When the team plays together - which isn't frequent enough, even when we win - this is a very good team. Not a conference champ team, but a good playoff or wild card contender. But when they don't, which has become common, we tend to lose.
I understand the frustration. You'd expect more of that at the beginning of the season than at the end. But the fact is, the Broncos execution still isn't using perfection for a standard. They have had a common habit of having and making mistakes and that's always a bad sign. Such teams don't play well in tougher competition. They don't take advantage of the situations that favor them and they don't have a killer instinct. That was the issue with the raiders.
Two drives, early in the OAK game, we couldn't get a short TD, only came away with 6 points and soon had a bad mistake or three that cost a TD. A good team scores 14 and hold on to the ball. They stop the run. They work in all three phases of the game. Actually, 'all three phases of the game' is not a good phrase. There are dozens of phases of the game, and each needs to get it's danged act together for the team to be successful. Disciplined teams win. We haven't reached that standard yet, so we're struggling.
Problem 3 - Improving the Roster
We have a lot of depth, we thought earlier this year. It turns out that it just isn't quite big, strong, fast and talented enough at this point for the Broncos to make it to the next level. Well, that's not a shock. It takes time. We had an O-line that was shallow enough to break down this year, a year following a great performance, but from a line which was incredibly lucky with injuries in 2008. Denver also had a good but not deep receiving corps with a QB who was already showing a talent for problems. No defense, not much in the way of running backs, bottom-dwelling special teams. It wasn't much to build on. We need at least another year of hard personnel work, and it's going to be uncharted territory. No one really seems to know how it will all play out, and if they will even play in 2012? (ask if that's the right year - ask Kirk. What will happen with player contracts and team signings? It's going to be a minefield. I have a lot of faith in Brian Xanders, though. He's got to go over the roster with McDaniels and the other coaches and make a lot of hard decisions. I don't envy him the job, but I like what's he's shown so far.
Problem 4 - We Need More Beef on the Hoof
We all know that Josh McD likes much bigger players. He likes them nimble,smart, tough and versatile and since we've already talked about the offensive line, the defensive line is a nice place to start for that. My impression is that he's used to and/or fond of certain kinds of players; when possible, he looks to larger guys who still have some quicks as well as some smarts. The Broncos could improve here quickly. The draft is deep and we could find anything from an earlier rounder who might contribute more quickly (but not right away) to a late rounder to train on the PS, but there are other options.
Chris Baker intrigues me, much as Ryan McBean did last season. Baker is quite a big guy, but surprisingly fast and very nimble. Wayne Nunnely is training him and personal instruction from Nunnely for a year is a very good thing. Will he stay on the PS? Will we promote him and/or groom a draft guy, perhaps grab a player in free agency or just build off the PS? Side note - Being deep enough to build off the PS is a huge advantage...Look at what Pitt has done there in the past. Yet, even they still became weak there during this season, so it's never perfect.
Losing Arron Smith is a major problem for them, but Pitt has usually been deep enough to handle a lot of problems, even so. That kind of depth take time and consistency in scheme. One reason that the Broncos weren't successful over the past three years is that they had 3 or 4 different schemes in that time. Each needed different players and none of the schemes matched where the Broncos are now. That's pitiful, and McD and Nolan have to turn that around with Xanders help.
How do we use the one's that we have? That could get interesting. There is Chris Baker, on the 53 man team. He has the explosion to be a DE or the size to be a NT with the speed to be a penetrating nightmare. We have two good NTs in Fields and Marcus Thomas, and Thomas loves being a NT. You can't go wrong, really. We also have a very large man named J'vonne Parker on the PS right now. He's at a hefty 338 - that's a lot of beef. Now, does he have the skills for NT and if so, what position would we have him play? Carlton Powell (6'2, 312) is also still on the PS. After a year on the IR and a year learning from Nunnely, he might be ready to move up a step to DE. We could be beginning to be building from within - that would be an early coup, if it works. Freeing up the D line again and not needing to draft for it would drive the media out of its collective gourd.
Problem 5 - Training a new secondary
One of the options that we have this year is a cornerback in the first round. It's a tempting scenario. Other than offensive line, cornerback may be the position of greatest vulnerability. Ty Law is older, Champ Bailey and Andre Goodman are getting there and Goodman has to tackle better (which may not happen). All three will tend to have injuries, all three are still very good, and any of them might start to look older sooner than later.
Smith showed some good things in Philly. So did Tony Carter - again. I'm sure that McDaniels would love to have another younger, up and coming CB. Free agency is as good a bet as the draft. It will be interesting. We need at least one more good guy.
Problem 6 - It's time to get rid of the bad apples
We hear about them, but rarely hear their names. They aren' the one's we hope to have back next year. They are those who lost faith, didn't play well during losses and/or weren't serious about fixing errors and winning games are now pretty obvious to all. Some, perhaps (and perhaps not all), came from the Shanahan tenure -- as I'll continue to point out, I've no line into the locker room and I don't know which ones. IF you think back, to last year, though, this problem looks familiar. the new management hasn't overcome that problem yet. It's year 1, so to me that's forgivable.
After next season, if this is happening again, I won't be easy-minded about fixing this. I absolutely hate seeing this in a team. But I try to be a realist, and this rush to judgment of McD doesn't ring true to me (it may to you, and that's fine) for one simple reason: This wasn't a one year problem. There was too much deadwood that needed to be cut away, too many placed that needed to be patched, new systems to put in place and you still have to field a team each season. It was and it is a multi-year problem. I'm not letting anyone off the hook - but I will give them enough time to continue to show results. And this is, as my friend Steve Nichols has been pointing out, an improvement over last season. I have to give them that.
Did We Get Kevered by Oakland?
From the San Diego Union-Tribune following San Diego's dismantling of Tennessee, who in theory matched up with them pretty well:
"Kevered," was the word Tennessee tackle Tony Brown used to describe the Chargers' 42-17 trampling of the Titans last night at LP Field. And though that term can be traced at least as far back as Geoffrey Chaucer, its meaning may be a little obscure for modern audiences.
"The word ‘kevered' means we got run amok, outplayed, anything you want it to be," Brown explained.
That's what happened to the Broncos against Oakland. Philly? They're a better team but Denver outplayed them in much of the second half. It's unfair of them to get our hopes up and keep dashing them. I may file a protest.
Baltimore and Pittsburgh had great games against us, but while better than us (regrettably) as far as talent, they were beatable on other weeks.We didn't match their emotion or win the point of attack. As far as San Diego goes, the current Chargers are playing their best ball of the past three years going into the playoffs and may get their wish this year. I don't worry over losing to better teams, not given where we were a year ago.
The Broncos did exactly what I expected this season - they won about 1/2 of their games, they struggled with new systems and I think that they've identified players that aren't going to meet their standards. But they also found out that they can play well and can learn to beat good teams on the road. It's all about getting a faster start in the first half, and if we don't do that, we will lose more games than we win.
But two games will always stand out, because they are the reason that the Broncos are only mathematically in the playoffs. Against Washington and against Oakland, they got kevered. they lost to team that they are better than. They gave up foolish points and left their own out on the field. Those two game were the difference between a playoff slot and a vague hope that the right teams lose so that the Broncos can crawl into the playoffs through the back door.
Would, or even will, the Broncos make/have made noise in the playoffs? As every Denver (or Arizona) fan knows, you can get suddenly hot, find a thread of courage and confidence and beat teams on the road that you aren't supposed to have a chance against and push to the big show. Would it have been likely? No, but that doesn't man that you don't strive for it and trust in it, if you get so fortunate. But, far more likely, it would have been a one game post-season for Denver. The talent gap is still too big. they have outplayed expectations in most games (even some of the losses) but against better teams they just don't match up yet. They are closer than many thing, but there's something about learning how to win that they haven't managed yet.
There's no question that it starts at the top. That's not a knock on Josh McDaniels, it's just a statement of fact. Every 1st year head coach makes mistakes, and he has made his share. Few first year head coaches face the challenges that he has and produce a winning record. That's the goal for this coming weekend. These guys are coming close. They need to find the right group of additional players to get over the hump.
But as to Josh McDaniels - yes, it is bothersome to win 6 and then lose 7 of 9. If the numbers were reversed, folks would be talking playoffs and the SB next year. At the same time, I think that the answer here is not a locker room conspiracy. No player under McD will quietly tank for one simple reason - they won't have a job next year. That is what keeps many players in the game. But it's not the only thing that is wrong with the team. I feel pretty confident when I say that the entire program is going to get reviewed, criticized and evaluated. That's a trait that has followed McDaniels from his father to Nick Saban at Michigan State and then to Bill Belichick. Each of those programs did it in some degree, and Belichick was merciless in his postseason analysis. So it will be with McDaniels and the Broncos. Don't doubt it - you'd be fighting history (and underestimating the Coach).
I'd give a lot to be a fly on that wall.