Rebuilding the Broncos: Offseason outlook, Part 1

I spent much of yesterday evening watching film of the Broncos' SB 32 win against the heavily favored Packers, a therapy which I prescribed to treat a case of the almost-past lockout blues. It was a nice memory to revisit, too: In a showing packed with memorable moments, perhaps the most telling comment came from then-Packer Aaron Taylor, who simply said, “I think that they wanted it more than we did.” It was true, too - what stood Denver above the Packers was that the Broncos, to a man, just weren’t going to see John Elway locked out of the finishing touch to a brilliant career by losing a fourth SB. That kind of loyalty is a potent weapon, and the ability to earn it says a lot about why Elway was so successful.

In a game filled with extraordinary performances, the other thing that stood out to me was the play of the Denver offensive line, particularly that of RT Tony Jones, who completely shut star DE Reggie White down and out of the game. Eugene Robinson later commented that as much as Terrell Davis’s performance was brilliant, the offensive line deserved a lot of the credit for the length of many of his runs. It’s a lesson that can’t be overstated in the NFL - if you want to have a running game, you’re going to need a talented line. Watching TD's gutsy play in producing 157 yards despite the lingering effects of a killer migraine was amazing: it was a performance that earned him the SB MVP that year. It also reminded me what you can achieve when you have good offensive line players like Jones, Gary Zimmerman, Tom Nalen, Mark Schlereth and Brian Habib and when the group instinctively plays together as a unit.

That takes time for the group to mesh, to only need to communicate with nods and grunts and to open holes that you could drive an RV through (particularly in the fourth quarter on Denver’s final scoring drive, where they had Gilbert Brown blowing so hard that “a couple of angry girl scouts could have moved him”. I’d forgotten the way that Denver’s defense dealt with the heavily favored Brett Favre, attacking him constantly, harrying him, forcing both him and WR Antonio Freeman to fumble and generally beating each man one on one, in their hand-to-hand combat despite a good showing by Freeman, TE Mark Chmura and Favre himself. I was also struck by the higher quality of the tackling - even when watching Steve Atwater knock out himself, WR Robert Brooks and his fellow DB Randy Hilliard with a stadium-rattling hit, I noted that Atwater’s hit was completely legal, by modern standards. This was quality football, and a heck of a game. Hearing Pat Bowlen cry out those four words - ”This one’s for John” - was the icing on that beautiful cake.

Like all of us, I’d grown weary of the vagaries of the lockout: the constant rhetoric that marked the first stages of the process and the pettiness of the public statements on both sides, owners and players alike, and I had an itch to watch something in which teamwork was the key to the goal. Finally, we’re told, with the aid of the unusual practice of sitting down together and just talking things out, an end to the labor conflict appears to be moving closer. If the reports are to be believed, as I fervently hope, within a short time we’ll be seeing the end of the official brawling and beginning of the mutual and rapid processes of free agency and college free agency - although I suspect that they will be done separately, at least in some degree. Playbooks will be distributed and some level of a mini-camp may be held, with training camp coming fast upon its heels and opening July 28. The season will be affected, but not as badly as we recently had reason for concerns for it. If they do get this done, while I don’t forget the unnecessary way it was handled, I’ll be cheerfully willing to praise the participants for managing to work together when the chips were down. DeMaurice Smith’s ace in the hole of insurance that would pay players in the absence of a season was pretty brilliant.

That said, the Denver Broncos have an opportunity that is rare in the long history of the NFL - they have a nucleus of young players with every reason to believe that many of them will be quality starters or role players - and quality role players have gotten a lot of teams deeper into the season and even into the playoffs, year after year. I don’t expect that Denver will be in the playoffs this year - there are just too many things that stand in the way. I’m always open to it, however. Rebuilding always takes skill, patience and a solid portion of luck.

What’s on Denver’s side here? First and foremost, the new agreement is said to up the training camp rosters to about 90 players, up from 80. The final roster size may be increased for 2011 and possibly for the years to come afterwards. If the final roster limit going into training camp is 90, Denver will currently have 18 slots available to fill (two of which figure to be taken up by the retention of Matt Prater and Wesley Woodyard), since they currently have 72 players under contract. That number may change with the number of years prior to FA kicking in, a point of debate in the talks. It looks like good sense is going to win and four years will be the norm, and I’m happy with that.

John Fox understands the ramifications of this situation, perhaps better than most. After working with one of the most penurious owners in sports and being forbidden to add quality players to his roster for the final year and a half he spent in Carolina, he and the rest of the FO have apparently nailed down exactly who they want and what they can pay them once free agency starts. It’s going to be an absolute brawl of an event and some teams will put key pieces into place while others are going to seriously overpay to get the players they think they need. Denver feels good about its chances. I’m willing to trust in that until they show otherwise.

There’s one thing that I want to say - I’ve felt a distinct change in the ‘vibe’ of the FO since Elway came in and Joe Ellis suddenly disappeared from view. Joe may still be President of the team, but not only did Elway create a powerful bond among his teammates as a player, he’s shown since then that his skills in leadership have translated well to the business community. Given that he’s also brought an Arena Football team to the sport’s championship and has done well creating effective management teams in all his businesses, he was well prepared to step in at a time when Denver desperately needed a nucleation site of cohesion: someone that the players and coaches can look to professionally, who cares deeply about the franchise, understands the game of football and who has consistently created an atmosphere of unity on and off the field.

Although the lockout created a barn full of manure for all concerned, when there’s a pile of horse dung, there’s always a pony in there somewhere. In this case, it’s been the chance for EFX to carefully investigate all of the FAs - and this is the biggest crop of FAs in NFL and CFAs and to choose exactly who they want to mold their former 5-2 formation into an faster, attacking style that uses the 4-3 base front. Granting that those appellations - 3-4, 5-2 and 4-3 - are simply loose ways of describing the base formations, and that there is an infinite number of options for exactly how those formations are placed and used, Denver now has the chance to seriously improve their team, for this year and for the years to come. The choices that are made should also give us a better idea of some of the specifics of the new defensive system. The offense has already been described as a simplified version of Josh McDaniels’ approach, with an added emphasis on the run. Running back will be a position of priority, and it won’t be the only one.

There were a lot of rumors to the effect that Coach McDaniels was ordered to hold to a minimum as far as obtaining higher quality (and therefore higher cost) players. Regardless of the accuracy of those insinuations (they are rumors, after all), the ‘new’ Broncos have done their due diligence and are ready to work the FA markets. You have to give Brian Xanders credit for one thing - due to his work on contracts, his abilities in getting dead money off the books and of clearing cap space, the Broncos have the capital to obtain a couple of high quality players as well as some role players. Pat Bowlen has given his blessing to the process, and I’m looking forward to seeing who Denver goes after.

Fox and Xanders are both reading from the same script to the media: Like nearly every team, Denver has lists for ranking four-, five- and six-year free agents. Fox added something that every team that keeps up the quality of their play understands - he wants to rebuild mainly through the draft and will use free agency only to fill in the spots that they can’t reach in any given year’s draft.  Fox noted,

You want your homegrown players who you can teach, coach and mold to fit into your system and haven't developed bad habits.

What struck me was that Bill Belichick has said almost exactly the same words, and over the past decade, Belichick has consistently drafted well and built on it year after year. He’s one of the best at that aspect of his craft, and it’s a tough craft to master. Belichick, along with brilliant sidekick and childhood friend Ernie Adams, has also had substantial success at finding veterans who didn’t fit with other teams and molding them into successful starters in New England. It’s something that I hope Denver achieves. The reason is simple - it’s part of the numbers game.

It’s tough to rebuild through the draft. On average, you’re hoping to get from four to six good players from the draft each year, and you need 53 players (currently) on your team. You have to draft well, maximize your number of picks as often as is possible, do it consistently and every year will still be a bit of a crapshoot. You have to pay the players when their rookie contracts end, if they’ve shown that they’re players who can help you win, and you have to keep on developing them. It takes time, it requires a franchise stability as far as how the scheme that team lines up and plays in and it takes a talent at coaching as well as in drafting. While folks can argue that Xanders (or McDaniels, or both - that remains hazy to me) hasn’t always chosen well, there are already several Broncos filling key slots who came to the team in the 2009 and 2010 drafts - Richard Quinn at TE, David Bruton as a special teams pro, RB Knowshon Moreno (who improved a lot towards the end of last season, due in great part to improvement on the OL), WR Eric Decker, QB Tim Tebow and DE Robert Ayers, among others. Xanders has also shown a substantial talent for moving up and down in the draft and adding picks in the process, a rare skill whose value can’t be overestimated. The ever-passionate Jeff Legwold quoted Xanders as saying,

Our pro department is ready. It's probably the biggest list of potential free agents we've ever had and we think you're going to have a significant chance to affect your roster. We think there are some quality undrafted rookies we'll make a significant effort to get as well.

Think about Blaine Sumner. Please?

Denver will almost certainly exit this process with a couple of new DTs, plus Marcus Thomas if they can get him to return. They have one quality DT in Kevin Vickerson, which leaves three openings to fill. They need a quality second running back to balance Knowshon Moreno and perhaps yet another, a power back who can find the end zone, unless LenDale White is able to bounce back from his injury and be that guy. They may even obtain a fullback, given the injuries that Spencer Larsen has suffered. Larsen himself noted that it’s a lot different when guys are hitting you, rather than you doing the hitting that he did at linebacker. They need another quality tackle, and they might need a guard - the lockout prevented Denver from seeing what their OL depth looks like this year, and the development of second-year player Eric Olsen is still an open question. Beyond that, they need quality depth across the board to deal with the inevitable injuries that each team will endure over the course of the season. They also have some free agents of their own to sign, with RFA Matt Prater seeming to me to be the #1 priority - kickers like him don’t grow on trees.

Woody Paige has written that he believes that Denver has to obtain a TE in free agency. Even with a question regarding the number of players that will be permitted on the final roster, I’m not sure that there’s a need there, but I’d agree that the TE corps is very young. Of course, Paige believes that Richard Quinn is a bust who will only be used situationally, and that probably influences his statements. The film I’ve watched has shown Quinn’s steady improvement, so I view things a little differently.

I also took some time last week and went through all of Denver’s players as they appear on the official site. I took a look at what areas are player-heavy, which seemed most skill-light and which are still obvious areas for potential upgrades. I’ll get into this more on Wednesday, but I will say this - I’m looking at the fifth-year/FA players, and I’m still seeing a number of options that would upgrade the product that the Broncos put forth at Invesco Field right away. It’s a time of great potential for a team that’s rebuilding. There’s a lot in Denver’s favor, even though it’s likely to be a pretty wild ride during FA and CFA periods.

Denver needs a number of things, and not all of them can be obtained via FA or CFA. They need a vocal leader on offense, preferably the QB. They need at least two on defense - one safety (generally, the player designated the free safety calls the backfield plays, although Brian Dawkins and Renaldo Hill have taken turns at it for the past two years) and the middle linebacker. A lot went into the demise of the quality that the Broncos had developed in the 1990s, but the loss of MLB Al Wilson’s focused ferocity in 2006 marked a major drop in Denver’s defensive aptitude. The power that Elway exuded to his teammates can’t be duplicated, and that goes for Wilson as well. But in their own way, someone is going to have to pick up that role and motivate his teammates.

The kind of play that Steve Atwater brought on the field also is a heck of a motivator - when someone makes plays like he did, everyone on the team tends to step up a little more. Of course, the Super Bowl Broncos also had a heck of a defense, a talented and seasoned OL and perhaps the best QB to play the game, as well as Terrell Davis at his peak. Joe Mays’ hits remind me of Atwater - both play or played the game legally, but their hits made and make the rest of the team step their game up a notch. That’s a quality that’s been missing for too long in Denver - a seriously nasty demeanor on both sides of the ball. It’s also something that’s cyclic - if you’ve got enough tough players, the ones around them will tend to pick up the pace. If you lack those kinds of players, the rest of the team will tend to play with less intensity. Obtaining RT Orlando Franklin was a deliberate attempt to up the level of mean on the offensive line. Mays has shown that attitude, and rookie LB Nate Irving, although he may not play immediately, has it in spades. S Rahim Moore seems somewhat more technique oriented (which isn’t a bad thing), but fellow S Quinton Carter looked more like a banger in the game film. I look forward to seeing if and how much it helps.

Denver also had run much the same system for two full seasons prior to their two-year SB run, so players knew their roles. The McDaniels team had been through a full change to an extremely complex offensive system starting in 2009 and ending in later 2010. When Elway talks about a three-year rebuilding process, I have to suspect that his own experience with Mike Shanahan coming on board as head coach affects into that estimate. With the right coaches - and I’ll admit that I’ve been very pleased with the quality of head coach, coordinators and position coaches that the Broncos have put in place so far - you have a year to install a system, a year to polish it (and to find out what players can and can’t help you) and a year to get into the playoff hunt. It can be done - sometimes teams jump from losers to winners in a single offseason, but I’ve noticed that they often fade back quickly when that’s so. Denver has the unenviable task of building for the long haul.

Building a full team, from the elite players to the weakest role player, with coaches who know their charges and understand how they fit into the overall system and how they’re going to develop their players is far more likely to take time. Compared to the last coaching change, this one seems to have identified and dealt with many of the errors that were the facts of the McDaniels experience. Certainly, Xanders bringing a four-inch thick notebook with evals of all the players they obtained helped clear the air for he and Elway. Some of it was his responsibility - and some of it wasn’t. We’ll never really know how much.  Right now, there are more players with talent than McDaniels inherited. Either way, since Elway came into his role as both figurehead and motivator of the new Broncos, I’ve seen a lot that I like.

I’ve supported the decision to bring Elway on from the beginning; not based directly on what he did as a player, but on his combination of those achievements and his constant success in the business and sports world since he retired from playing the game. He’s been a winner at nearly everything that he’s done, and the magnetism that I saw yesterday in the SB game film still radiates from him in interviews. He’s smart enough to know what he doesn’t know, and that’s a rare quality in people with a background of success. He mainly has an inborn talent for bringing people together, and the Broncos probably needed that as much as anything else. The franchise was in fragments when Elway was enlisted. The changes since, although limited, have reflected a consistency in the attitude and approach to the team that’s been missing for a long time.

Next column, I want to get into some of the players that I see as good options for the Broncos, and ones who I’d tend to avoid. I’ve already talked about how I see the draft picks fitting into the Broncos' system, and as I’ve looked at that, it struck me how much I could understand what Denver did and why (we’d all liked to have seen a DT or two in the draft, but there are good ones available in the market if Denver moves fast). We won’t know for two or three years how the draft really went, but on its surface it looks good to me. Now they have to fill the holes, and not with bodies who will be gone in a year or two. We’re looking at an utterly unique situation, with players who were essentially screwed out of their right to test the market as FAs last year being added to this year’s crop, and we could be looking at plenty of fifth- and sixth-year players all hitting the market. Having time to examine all the FAs and CFAs out there and knowing where they might be able to stick is also a benefit. We should know more by Wednesday.

So, let’s talk about it then. In the meantime, here’s to the coming end of the lockout - and Go Broncos!

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

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