Happy Tuesday, friends. As I write this, I have to tell you that I feel a little strange, because I was pretty disengaged from football this weekend, much more so than I virtually ever am, between July and February.
I mentioned last week that I'd be traveling to a pretty out-of-the-way part of New Hampshire, but it's 20 miles outside the capitol city of Concord, so it's not THAT out-of-the-way, right? Turns out, you can't get decent cell signal even on the outskirts of Concord, so in Warner, where I was, there is literally No Service. There's no cable or DirecTV where I was staying either, so by the time I got back to Cleveland around noon on Sunday, I had missed a lot of football that I normally would have seen. I did see the game, up until Tony Scheffler's unfortunate fumble, live, Saturday night, and watched the whole game on Sunday afternoon, so there will be some thoughts forthcoming. ST&NO will be a little lighter on other games than normal, but we'll have fun anyway. Ready.... BEGIN!
1. So, I have been getting asked here and there on Twitter (follow me @TedBartlett905) how many wins I think is reasonable to expect from the Broncos this season. Twitter is good for quick notes, but 140 characters doesn't go a long way toward explaining your thinking. I decided to dedicate some space here in the ST&NO mother-ship this week, to answering that question.
To start with the answer, with decent team health, I think the Broncos can be reasonably expected to win 10-11 games this season. Now, I know the Kool-Aid set wants to read 13-3, and the Negative Nancies are thinking 4-12, at best. Some very reasonable people think that this is a close to .500 season, like the last 3 have been. I kind of feel alone in the "fairly optimistic" territory, but I have three key reasons for my thinking, which I will share with you now.
a. The Baseline Reason - I have said this before, and I will now say it again. Think back to last December, and get a good mental picture of the Broncos who lost their last 3 games of the season. Now think about this season's roster. Now ponder the following question:
Exactly where, besides starting QB, is the team less talented now than it was in December?
I say that the answer is absolutely nowhere. I think offensive line, Tight End, Kicker, and Punter are relatively flat, and Running Back, Wide Receiver, Defensive Line, Linebacker, and the Secondary are improved to dramatically improved. (Really, I expect the flat groups to improve, based on young players developing, but the names are the same.)
If the baseline is last season, and last season's result was 8-8, and a tie for the Division title, how can this more-talented team not do better? Don't give me the nonsense about the schedule. Even if it is the best reason you can think of, it's still nonsense. Last year's schedule strength means nothing at all. Things change year-to-year in the NFL - injuries happen, players underachieve; there are far too many variables to simply assume that things will just stay the same.
This team is definitely more talented and balanced than the 2008 version. I am very encouraged by the performance of the first team defense so far, and just some improvement there should be enough to improve the team this year.
b. The Relative Talent Reason - Last season saw three teams take a leap from being very lousy in 2007 to being playoff teams in 2008: Miami, Atlanta, and Baltimore. This Broncos team has more talent on its roster than any of those three teams did. Those three rags-to-riches teams found winning formulas (formulae?) and two of them got strong play out of rookie QBs.
The 2009 Broncos have about 14 good-starter caliber (or better) players on offense (off the top of my head: Orton, Moreno, Hillis, Marshall, Royal, Stokley, Gaffney, Graham, Scheffler, Clady, Hamilton, Wiegmann, Kuper, Harris). On defense, the scheme is much better, the talent is a good deal better, and the results by the first team have reflected those improvements. I have also been pleased with the play of the coverage teams, which, to me, is the most important area to be good at in the kicking game.
c. The Leadership Reason - This team now has a couple of clear leaders (and had severely lacked them over the last 3 seasons). Brian Dawkins will naturally lead the way on defense, and Kyle Orton will settle into the role on offense. Some may doubt Orton, but I watched his reaction very closely when Jabar Gaffney dropped a TD pass, and he did what a LEADER does. He smiled and clapped, he encouraged Gaffney, and he basically said, we'll get them next time, no worries. You never, ever saw the Broncos previous QB do that, and I don't think I am going on too thin of a limb to suggest that Bears fans never will either. Some people just don't have real leadership in them. Kyle Orton absolutely does have it in him (see Brian Urlacher's comments at the time of the trade), and it will translate to wins.
I am also struck by the fact that Josh McDaniels has never been part of a losing team in his life, and I think that that can't possibly be coincidental. People with winning habits are the people who always seem to win. I have not always been complimentary of McDaniels, and it's certain that I will find reason to criticize him before this column is completely finished. A winner, though, is a winner, and Josh McDaniels is one of those.
The 2009 Broncos were 8-8 last season, and are significantly more talented from 1-53 now than they were then. Things will have to break somewhat right for them to maximize their success, but 31 other teams are in the same boat there. This is a team that can win the division, and be competitive in the playoffs. Once you get there, you never know what can happen. Just ask the Cardinals.
2. Thoughts and Observations on Saturday night's game:
a. This Broncos team looks like a good tackling team, and nothing could possibly make me happier. They are going to be somewhat vulnerable to the pass in the middle of the field, but if they consistently tackle well, that portends to being league-average on defense, which is all we can probably aspire to this season.
b. I will take that kind of play from Kyle Orton all season, and definitely take the Over on wins if I can get it. He looked very confident and decisive, and his feet looked settled down from the previous week's game.
c. You have to feel really good about the starting offensive line's ability to pass-protect. Seattle's pass rush never got very close to Orton at all, and that was a key driver in his success. The second and third team, however, looked very vulnerable as whole units, which, admittedly, they'd never play as in a regular-season game.
d. I loved the use of the smash route against man-to-man coverage. It worked like this, for those who didn't get to see it, or can't visualize it.
This works really nicely in short areas, like when you're lined up from the 3-yard line. You want man-to-man defense, because you're looking to make the two CBs bump into each other, or at least worry about bumping into each other. Anything to get Stokley a step to the outside helps, and if the QB reads it right, he makes a safe, easy throw to the back pylon, and only Stokley can get to it.
If a defense thinks this is coming, the CBs should switch to what is essentially a partial zone, and not follow the receivers. If you think you may have seen that before, you have. Champ Bailey's interception against the Patriots in the 2005 Divisional Playoff game came on virtually this exact route construction, and was forced by a good read by Champ to zone up, rather than follow the man across from him.
So what do you do if it's a zone? Well, you'd like Gaffney to read it as such, and break off the route outside of the inside CB, and post up just inside the goal line, making himself big for the throw. I would also run Hillis or Graham to the right flat, and think about throwing it there, because those guys can break a tackle.
e. Chris Baker once again looked really good, and I was pleased with what I saw from Lee Robinson in garbage time. He looks quick and active, and generally like the kind of backup LB I want on my football team.
f. Robert Ayers has taken a lot of criticism on MHR the past few days, and I don't think it is particularly warranted. I really like his physicality and effort, and the results will come, once he gets his technique refined, and his bearings with what is going on. It's way, way too early to judge him as a player. I believe that when it is all said and done, he will play a lot on running downs this year, and make his best contributions setting the edge. He has the best ability to do that of all the OLBs.
g. If Kenny McKinley doesn't know, he better ask somebody. The fumbled punt return was pretty bad, but the mishandled kickoff was worse, in my opinion, because nobody hit him there. He recovered fairly well, and made something of the return, but it was a lost opportunity. Mistakes like that are a good way to be a practice squad guy, or even get cut.
h. I didn't think Champ Bailey or Andre' Goodman had particularly great games, but they were still much better than the Broncos' CB performance in 2008. Goodman gave up two TDs, but particularly on the first one, he was in good position, and came very close to making the play, getting beaten by a great throw.
i. Kenny Peterson had a great game on Saturday. I hope he can keep that up, because getting some pressure from a 5-technique makes a defense really tough in passing situations.
j. The Broncos need to run the ball more and better than they did against Seattle. I said I would criticize Josh McDaniels, and here is some criticism. With no balance, you let defenses sit in zone and wait for you to throw it. Now, I think the key offensive goal on Saturday was to get Kyle Orton more comfortable, and with Knowshon Moreno out, you want to keep your other backs healthy, so I understand the situation, but the Broncos will need to run more as the season goes on.
3. Other games Thoughts & Observations:
a. James Davis is going to be the starting RB for the Browns by Week 5 if the Browns want to win more than a couple games this season. Davis was overshadowed some by C.J. Spiller in college, but he's a good player. Jamal Lewis is washed up, and can't be the workhorse for the Browns that he once was.
b. I liked seeing Tom Brady get hit. The only way to slow down New England is to hit Brady, and the Bengals seemed to have that idea in mind. Brady didn't look too great, incidentally.
c. Chase Daniel looked a lot better than Colt Brennan for the Redskins, and one of them is likely not to make the team. The smart money is on Brennan getting cut.
d. The Packers look outstanding on both sides of the ball, especially Aaron Rodgers at QB. I think they look like the favorites in the NFC North, although I am not sold on their offensive line.
e. Matt Schaub continued to look really sharp for the Texans, and they have to be very pleased about that. Houston is going to be very competitive in the AFC South, which, of course, is looking very tough, as usual.
f. Old friend Mike Bell had 10 carries for 100 yards for New Orleans, including a 46-yard TD run. He's the type of runner I think the Saints need in their rotation, with his predilection for running downhill. Reggie Bush isn't a real RB.
g. I got a look at Josh Freeman, and I think the Bucs ought to start the season with him under center. In fact, I would endorse starting Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez, too. I am a believer in getting young QBs game reps as soon as possible, unless the talent around him is so pitiful that the guy is set up to definitely fail. I think each of those three teams is clearly rebuilding, but each has enough talent to avoid destroying their young QB.
h. Sanchez looked like a talented rookie Monday Night - sometimes looking talented, and other times looking every bit like a rookie.
i. You know who is a great player? Haloti Ngata is a great player. There is nobody else like him in the NFL. I love Shaun Rogers, but if you ask me who the best NT in the NFL is, I would have to say it's Ngata.
j. During Monday Night's first half, broncobear emailed me to ask if I had been high on Paul Kruger in the Draft (yes, I had been, is the answer). He is going to be a double-digit sack guy for the Ravens, because he's fast and has a great motor. He even looked good in coverage Monday night.
k. Kruger's college teammate at Utah, Sean Smith, was my favorite player in the draft, which many will remember, since I beat the bejesus out of that drum. I would have taken him 12th overall, I liked him so much. Well, it turns out, he is probably going to start for Miami, and has vastly out-shined Vontae Davis, their first-round pick. Smith was the only CB I liked better than Alphonso Smith, and I am pretty sure I had him pegged right (and Alphonso too, for that matter.)
4. The Brandon Marshall media saga needs to end, and he just needs to shut up and play football. If he plays well and stays out of trouble, he'll get his money from somebody. Brandon malingering will hurt everybody, but most especially, it will hurt him. I don't think he is a bad guy, and I actually give him some credit for being pretty low-key with his comments to the media. I think he wants to do the right thing, and that he eventually will. The situation reads to me like the Broncos think so, too.
5. I'm shooting for debuting a video-package version of Lighting Up The Scoreboard on Friday night. I want to run it for the Bears game, because I expect the starters to play most of the game, and it's a good opportunity to do a pilot program. I will skip the Arizona preseason snoozer, and run it every Friday night during the regular season. Please check it out on Friday, and tell me what you think.
Since I was so disengaged this week, that is about all I have on football. I would comment on games I didn't see, if I were some MSM hack, but since I'm not, I'm going to do the other thing. I will be working hard on my video package this week, and I'll have a more extensive ST&NO next Tuesday. Have a great week!