‘Rams’ it down their throats

OK, I’m not really feeling that hostile, not even after the MNF debacle. Part of that is a post-Thanksgiving somnambulance - I shopped and cooked for three days to put together a meal that was fit for the holiday, and it turned out to be worth it. I ate with as much gusto as I prepared the meal, and it’s hard to get worked up with that kind of well-sated sensation. 

I was reading, this week, about some ancient Greek roots of words that we use in our own culture, and something came up that might bear on the Rams/Broncos game. There’s a couple of Greek roots to words that matter in how the Broncos are playing right now, and how the team will have to change. The task they face is not unlike breaking a code, or assembling a puzzle. 

The analogy of code-breaking to modern team rebuilding, for example, dates back to the early Greek culture. If the Greeks had a secret that they needed to keep safely, they had a simple approach - they would carve it onto a clay tablet and then break the tablet into pieces. Each piece would be kept in a separate location until such a time that they needed to access that information: at that point, the tablet would be reassembled for reading. They called these tablets ‘symbolom’, the root of our work ‘symbol’. Since I also think in football terms, it reminded me of of the difficult and unique challenges that occur when you’re rebuilding a team. As I said - it’s not unlike breaking a code. You have to accumulate all of the pieces you’ll need, and they have to be assembled in the right pattern and order. 

Most of us will tend to retain negatives more easily than positives. It’s not personal - the human mind is simply set up that way. That matters when you’re rebuilding, because by definition you start with lots and lots of junk and a tendency to lose games. No one in their right mind wants to rebuild if it can be avoided - the fans hate it, the players and coaches hate it and no one wants to lose. You toss as much of it as you can and still put warm bodies on the field (some have been sort of lukewarm, but that really just supports the basic theory). You put in better players over time, try to have successful drafts and free agency periods, and you recognize that whether it’s a win-now league or not, you can’t change the way the league is set up. Add a missing CBA that greatly reduces the availability to free agents as we had in 2010 and you greatly limit a free agency period that Denver badly needed. It was just one more piece missing in the puzzle. 

Losing is hard on everyone. Yet hard as it is, losing is just one more sign that the team is rebuilding. We know that, but in the heat of the season, we often forget. 

Which is why it helps to also recognize that good players have been acquired and that they are pieces the Broncos are developing in order to retake their place among the winning teams of the league. It isn’t going to be quick, and it probably isn’t going to be easy. If you expect either, disappointment will be your best friend. In one way, not having football in 2011 would work in Denver’s favor - they’d have two drafts and one free agency period to work with before returning to the field. By all accounts, right now it’s the intention of the league (particularly the players, if their offers are held to be serious) that the NFL draft will be held both in 2011 and 2012. That could help Denver, but it would also be a two-edged sword. More rookies means more rookie mistakes, and Denver already has the most player transactions in the league over the past two seasons. A real FA period would be welcome, however. 

That’s all background, but it’s worth keeping in mind. When you’re rebuilding, you’re not playing winning football, nor were you before - you’re moving towards doing so. That’s hard for a lot of people to handle; sometimes they’ll talk about not caring about anything but wins. They should care, though - there are reasons why you win, and reasons why you don’t and knowing them makes the contests more interesting as the symbolom is reassembled. Difficult as this time has been and will be, for a while yet, there are a few things that have come out that might soften the blow. Whether they do or not, they are worth considering. 

Most of the discussions I’ve read about the Broncos' drafts, FA and trade patterns have focused on the issues that different people feel are poor decision-making, and some of it clearly was. Some of it is simply that the draft, in particular, is, was and always will be a crapshoot, and anyone who’s gambled has learned that you’re going to lose some when you do. If you play your rookies, you’re also going to get rookie errors. It’s part of the game. 

So, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that of the 11 turnovers that Denver has forced this year, 5 of them have come with help from three rookie cornerbacks - Perrish Cox has an INT and a forced fumble, Syd’Quan Thompson has an INT and Cassius Vaughn, who Denver hopes will mature into a solid contributor has 2 fumble recoveries. Considering that we’re talking about a 5th-round draft choice, a 7th-rounder that we traded a 5th next year to reach and a CFA who was listed as high as a 5th-rounder on some draft sites, that’s pretty good.  Cox is also tied for 1st among NFL rookies with 10 passes defensed this year. Like I said - the draft and the CFA market are gambles at best, but these appear to be working out. Since all three are at a position of considerable need - CB - that’s potentially good news for future seasons.

I’ve covered the situations of Kyle Orton and Brandon Lloyd before, but a small update is in order for both men. Orton broke the 3,000-yard mark for the second season in a row last week, and he’s on track for over 4,800, which is a lot of yards by anyone’s measure. Lloyd still leads the league with over 1,000 receiving yards - congratulations to him for breaking that mark in only 10 games, proving that Brandon Marshall benefited from Cutler and Orton as much as he contributed himself. That’s not a knock on Marshall - those would be far more direct, but he’s not on the Broncos, so I won’t bother. Lloyd has 1,046 yards receiving on 54 receptions, giving him a 19.4-yard average. That’s more than not bad - he’s just the 1st player since 1992 (Michael Irvin) to record over 1,000 yards in only 10 games and to maintain over a 19-yard-per-reception average while doing so. He’s also just the 16th player in NFL history to post his first 1,000-yard season in his 8th year or later.

Since we’re nearing the 90-year mark since a group of men met at a Hupmobile dealership in Ohio in 1922, (with Jim Thorpe chairing the meeting as president of the league) and changed the name to the National Football League, that’s quite an accomplishment. Lloyd is only 29 - he’s got a few years left to do it again. If they manage to put the CBA back together this offseason (no bets either way) he may be doing it with Orton again, and that would help both players as well as the team. 

Jabar Gaffney is a player who has long been among the Rodney Dangerfield of the league’s wide receivers. When Denver acquired him, the blogs and comment threads were filled with people panning the choice, or explaining it simply by the familiarity that he had with the system that was going in. He did help other players to understand and to learn it, too, but those who thought that was his main role moving forward hadn’t watched much film on him. Doug and I did a four-part series on Josh McDaniels’ former tendencies with his former team, and in preparation for my part of it, I watched a lot of film of the 2008 Patriots. It didn’t take long to notice that when the team needed a third-and-long, a way to dig out of a hole or just a reception to get things back on track, Gaffney was often the go-to guy, which is surprising with Randy Moss and Wes Welker as your options. He didn’t have the same numbers of receptions that he has this year, but given the players around him, that was to be expected. It was when they came in the games that made the difference.

So, how good is he really? He’s second on the Broncos with 51 catches to Lloyd’s 54, for one thing. And, that’s good, but far more interesting is that at 65 receptions since Week 17 of last season, he has the fourth-most catches in the NFL. Yes, he had a big game in a losing effort against Kansas City that last game of 2009, but 4th in the league is 4th in the league. If most of the Broncos played as well as he has and showed the kind of professionalism that he maintains, Denver would have a few more wins this year. He’s going to turn 30 on December 1st, but shows no signs of slowing so far, and is rarely troubled with injuries.

Knowshon Moreno is becoming the kind of primary back that McDaniels likes to have out there - he’s broken the 100-yard barrier, he’s catching the ball out of the backfield, and for the first time, his pass blocking has improved visibly. He’s also healthy, and the offensive line in front of him has its first chance to gel. It won’t help if Denver gets down by three TDs, but otherwise, it’s good to see him maturing into his role.

Another player who’s earned a mention is our kicker, Matt Prater. Prater had a rocky first season with Denver but as it turned out, it was hardly his fault. Despite fan comments about how kickers aren’t really football players, and how easy their job is compared to other positions, the kicking motion is entirely unnatural and puts a huge strain on the entire lower body, from the low back and pelvic girdle on down to the toes, a strain that can easily turn to repetitive motion injuries. Jason Elam lasted so long and kicked so well (other than kickoffs, which Denver usually had to use another active player slot for) in great part because he didn’t kick very much during practice and training camp. I’m not talking about games, in which the kicker performs as often as asked - I’m talking about practice. Kickers have to be very limited in their practice and training camp kicks, because each player has X number of kicks per season and after that, distance and accuracy are going to suffer greatly.

Denver’s kicking coach under Shanahan had Prater in a competition in training camp, kicking frequently, and then, when Prater’s body was giving out, that same coach decided that the answer was to have him kick more until he ‘got it back’. The outcome was the later in the 2008 season, fans were calling for a new kicker, and for Prater’s head. The overwhelming fan conclusion was that Prater had lost his confidence and his focus. The reality was that he’d simply over-kicked and needed rest, not additional reps. When McDaniels came on, he made sure that Prater was properly coached and rested as needed. The outcome?

Right now, Prater has the top FG percentage in Broncos history (for players with at least 50 attempts. He’s made 30 of his last 33 field goals and since November of 2009 - one year ago - he owns a 90.9 percentage that is tied for 4th in the league. He’s another young player, and he could be a mainstay for Denver for a long time to come. 

Money Matters

What Denver will need to have to move from rebuilding to playoff competition is a talisman. The definition of the modern term tends to run to things like rabbit’s feet for luck, lucky jerseys or hats or objects used in various religious rituals and practices. The older root word was ‘telesma’, though, which means ‘complete’ or ‘to complete’. As the term talisman evolved, it was used to refer to an object or process that completed a process or building (the capstone on a pyramid is a commonly used example) before the moder definition came into vogue. The Broncos will also need a talisman - in its older meaning of something that will complete the process - to bring the team back to the level of play that fans have rightfully grown used to over the years and decades. That completion will, without question, require money.

I don’t know how the stories about how Denver is short on funds started, but they’ve been going on for some years now: I was hearing them back in the 1990s.  But from everything that I’ve read and been able to find, Brian Xanders was hired originally because he’s an excellent contracts and cap guy. He came into the league as a scout, and he’s also worked his way up the player personnel ranks, so the commonly stated theory that he doesn’t know scouting and that area of player personnel needs to be put to rest. It’s what Atlanta hired Xanders to do. Even so - cap and contracts specialty were how he got to Denver. He’s done an excellent job. Denver has a good amount of cap space moving forward and they cleared a lot of dead money from old contracts that started during the Shanahan years. They are poised to be able to take advantage of either scenario - having football in 2011 or not. It’s a part of the process that we as fans often take for granted, but it’s a big part of rebuilding a winning team.

Rumors have cropped up for years that Pat Bowlen doesn’t have the money to build a contending team, but that’s not what I’m reading is happening. They have the same cap - upper and lower - that every team does, and recent articles have noted that they do have the money to use it, with sufficient space to handle a good player deal if one comes up. They also, through Xanders' work, have comparatively little tied up in what is called ‘dead money’ - funds still owed on contracts to players no longer with the team. In that arena, the future is in good shape. And, that’s just what the Broncos need right now, because obtaining both higher end players and quality depth will require them to use that revenue.

I don’t expect a lot of wins this season from the Broncos, although I’ll certainly take them if we get them. I didn’t expect a lot by the end of training camp - too many key players weren’t going to be playing by then, the team had too little depth, and the injury bug  got worse over the first half of the season. Part of my life was being a semi-pro athlete for over a decade (while going to school and then running a clinic - I just didn’t sleep much), and I know from experience the effect of multiple injuries to key people, as do many of the folks here who do or have coached. With a better injury record, I’d expect closer to an 8-8 record, and with more competitive games. Still, Denver only lost to the Jets on a 4th quarter drive that the defense couldn’t stop, and the Jets are showing themselves to be one of the best teams in the league. The Broncos beat Tennessee on the road, and that’s not easy. They’ve had some terrible losses, and fought other teams to a standstill or beat them. It’s exactly what you’d expect when you’re 1.5 years into rebuilding, which, coincidentally, is exactly where Denver is.

Needs

I’m not here to tell you that everything is roses - it’s not. It’s rebuilding, and rebuilding is always difficult and frustrating: losing is hard on everyone. But it never hurts to recognize the things that have improved, and I thought I’d note a few:  the CB corps has solid young players, and despite Darcel McBath’s injuries this season, he’s a gem of a young safety. David Bruton is extremely promising, and Kyle McCarthy is getting an audition, since we clearly need another safety - Brian Dawkins is finally starting to show his age. Justin Bannan has played very well at LDE and Vickerson has done the same at RDE. The Broncos really need a NT, and if they don’t take one with the first or second pick they have in the draft, I’ll be surprised unless there are several to choose from.

I don’t know exactly what we’ll need at the LB corps, but with his second DUI, I’ve wondered if DJ Williams may be on the road out. I think that might be good for both parties, although DJ has handled his punishments like a man and McDaniels has been nothing but supportive of him as a player. A quality replacement who can cover would really help. Denver will get Elvis Dumervil back whenever the game is played next, which would also help. He can be used more situationally as a pass rusher with the other players that are developing at OLB such as Jason Hunter - Doom is still learning the OLB position and how it is used to stop the run and he’s being caught out of position too often.

That is probably a factor of time - he has a lot of quicks, and has to transfer them to quickly recognizing and stopping the running game on the edge. Hunter has been an excellent find. Joe Mays is, through two games, an excellent run stopper at ILB. Mario Haggan is 30, but he’s never played better. That won’t last forever, but he’s playing well right now and there are some good younger players behind him. We’re waiting to see what Kevin Alexander and/or David Veikune can develop into. Wesley Woodyard has multiple skills and Robert Ayers’ return, once he shakes the rust off, could impact the Broncos in a very good way - they’ve really missed him. This Denver Post article has a good section at the end showing why.

The offense has an excellent receiving corp and Orton has, again, had his best year so far. We need to deepen the OL, the starting 5 need to have some time together and we need a RB or two. Make it two. And, when I think about it, that’s not bad, especially if the owners force a lockout in 2011. The coaching staff still needs to develop, but at 1.5 years, that’s about normal.  The offense is developing well, and the young receiving corp looks exciting.

In the meantime, we’ll start to talk about the Rams. We’re short Darcel McBath, Demaryius Thomas and Andre’ Goodman, at the very least. Robert Ayers is just getting back. Still, even with Sam Bradford, who is playing very well, and the redoubtable Stephen Jackson at RB, even with Steve ‘Spags’ Spagnuolo this is one game that Denver should be able to win at home. The key is to stop Jackson without losing sight of Bradford. Not an easy thing to do, but it’s within reach. That may soothe the hearts of some of the savage beasts. For a while, at least.

Go Broncos!

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

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