The answer lies in history.
With the fortunes of the Broncos continuing their annual seasonal toboggan ride, it might be hard to imagine how things could get any worse. Realistically, they probably can’t, other than in minor degree. The Broncos brought in someone to completely change over the team in a brief amount of time with little help from management and plenty of errors on their part and made him the scapegoat when it didn’t bear immediate fruit. Josh McDaniels didn’t create a shortage of problems himself, but it’s well worth considering that by the end of his second month, Pat Bowlen and Joe Ellis had placed him in very much the same situation that led to Mike Shanahan’s perhaps-overdue firing, heaping responsibility on his head, agreeing to let him function as head coach, personnel partner with Brian Xanders and offensive coordinator pro temp. Considering that he’d never held the HC reins at any level, this was problematic even when Jim Goodman was going to be around to help guide him - no first time HC is ready for that level of obligation. Without direction or experienced advice, it was masochistic of the team and cruel to the fans.
There’s a reason that successful head coaches usually have good, experienced general managers. There’s also a reason that teams have generally fled the HC/GM role - a head coach normally works 100+ hours per week just on his own obligations, and most GMs keep a similar schedule. Since there aren’t 200 hours in a week and most people need to sleep a couple or so hours each night, it’s a pointless exercise to give the HC any of the normal GM responsibilities. When your HC hasn’t held the position before, it’s just foolish.
Brian Xanders seems like a nice enough guy; someone who has worked up through the ranks of front office responsibility and under other circumstances he might have been a decent to very good GM, but these weren’t other circumstances. He, too, was learning by doing. Two men without experience in their jobs were overseen by Pat Bowlen, who wants to get more and more away from day-to-day management and who isn’t a trained personnel or team management guy, and Joe Ellis who everyone seems fairly clear on after his last press conference, since he spent it explaining that things weren’t McDaniels’ fault and were the team’s, so rather than change the fundamental way the team was doing business, the Broncos had decided to fire McDaniels. Several other heads are likely to be rolling in the (potentially long) offseason. Of course, the players don’t deserve to escape without scrutiny - some won’t be back, and probably won’t be missed.
And, of course, there’s no concept of future scheme or team identity. Smashmouth, run-based, pass-based, balanced offense? No idea. Defense - 3-4, 4-3, 5-2, over or under hybrid? Your guess is as good as mine. Shotgun offense, under center, deception-based? No clue. I’ve no idea who Denver will play, much less start, next season. Do you keep Brady Quinn around, and if so, why? Kyle Orton, for the experience factor? Tebow, unproven at the pro level and a likely multi-year project, was boastfully claiming this week that ‘the Black Hole doesn’t scare me’? It should. He’s a big player for a QB, and small for a defensive lineman. Oakland is a better team than Denver right now, and they’re in the race for the division title. They also dismantled the Chargers recently, and Denver can’t realistically expect to beat either one. The Chargers and Raiders are tied for 3rd in the league with 38 sacks each, one behind the Giants and Steelers. That isn’t a smart thing to claim.
Most teams have caught on to the fact that Denver doesn’t have the ability to max-protect without leaving their WRs well-covered and often double teamed. They can run the ball at times, but aren’t by any stretch talented at it yet as a team identity. I’d expect much of that to be fixable if there is a semi-normal offseason - lots of the problems are created by a lack of experience at key positions, like center and left guard. That just takes time and repetition, as well as a functioning defense. However, it leaves your QB hanging in the wind much of the time this season, and mobility doesn’t help much when the sides of the pocket are cluttered with rushers and the middle just gave up a stunt to a blitzing MLB. There isn’t anywhere to go, and a rookie claiming that doesn’t concern him reminds me of the old saw that when you can keep your head when those all around you are losing theirs, you probably don’t understand the depth of the problem. If Tebow does play, I’m sure his comments will be classic bulletin board fodder.
But this does get to the heart of this column - at this point, I honestly consider the rest of the story of this season to be a generally stressless situation. Why? Because it just doesn’t matter, and it isn’t going to. At that point, I tend to stop worrying and let it all play out like the entertainment that it deserves to be. All life may be a stage, and seen from that perspective, this play has become far more farce than tragedy. You can only stay attached to the outcomes for just so long before there’s a repetitive sameness to the mistakes that the team is making, from the front office to the penalties to the missed throws and assignments to the fumbles. If your QB forces the ball into the coverage that Denver doesn’t seem able to shake, the odds on INTs go way up. If not, he’ll complete a pass long about January. When someone is open, Orton’s been missing them. When he hits them, they drop it or fumble it, as often as not. It’s not a recipe for success.
The defense has managed to ensure that the team plays from behind more often than not. Winning is contagious - so is losing. Players respond differently when they’re losing. Bill Parcells could be an evil-minded SOB, but he was also a brilliant psychologist, and knew when to build someone up, and how to do it. That’s not happening right now. Eric Studesville seems like a smart, nice, passionate guy, but he keeps talking about taking a poll among the coaches about what to do, which isn’t really his job. Denver needs someone with two missing attributes - a vision for the team from here on out and someone who has the leadership skills to implement it. I really like Studesville, but he’s not that guy at this point in his career. I did think that the play calling against AZ reminded me why Mike McCoy wasn’t overwhelmed with head coaching offers two seasons back. It also reminded me that I’d suggested that John Skelton was the closest thing to a good QB that I saw Denver possibly taking. Ouch. Never saw last game coming, though.
So, hold to your feelings on what should change. I’ll be looking to see what players really do want a job next year. If you want to see Tim Tebow, you probably will, although it might be against Houston. It may or may not make sense for Tebow, but at least everyone will get to see if he’s made any progress. I have been impressed at the total lack of a call for Brady Quinn to play. For the guy who was going to take over from Orton - and all kinds of people knew that early last April - he’s been among the disappeared of the Broncos.
Are there bright spots? Sure. There’s a chance that ILB Lee Robinson might see the field - if we’re going to see what young players have to offer, we might as well stay with it. Wink Martindale is almost certainly gone, but at least some of the young guys have shown us why players like Champ Bailey and Andre’ Goodman matter so much. If you believe that it will take Denver another three or more years to regain their ability as a team, Champ is expensive. If you do a sign and trade with him, you’re likely to see a lot of receptions against the Broncos over that time, but other players will get more reps. Goodman was injured for all but a couple of games this year, and someone asked me if he is really that important. Yes, he is - his tackling could bring old coaches to tears, but his coverage skills, when he’s healthy, are superb and Perrish Cox may not be back. Syd’Quan Thompson could be a very good CB in the league, and if Denver drafts De’Quan Bowers we could be seeing the beginnings of the all-Quan defense. It isn’t much and it isn’t all-star, but you take what you can.
There is one thing that I’d strongly suggest, though. It’s probably time to let this year go. The Broncos aren’t playing well, the IR rolls get bigger with each passing week, the FO is in shambles and the roster isn’t much better. We can repeat the same things over and again, but that’s just where the team is. It happens to all of them, sooner or later. It will bother the fans just as much as they decide to let it, heartless as that may sound. This year is a loss. It’s all about playing for next year, and about draft position. If I was in Denver, I’d go to the games and cheer just as loud when given an excuse to - I’m a fan. But I’m not going to be shocked or terribly bothered if they lose. They’re rewriting the blueprint for how to fail at running a team. They aren’t the first.
I’m more hopeful than many that John Elway - backed and bolstered by the vast organizational and personnel knowledge of his father, Jack - will bring a level of football understanding into the front office that it’s lacked for quite a while. Until that happens and I can see where the team is going to go, I don’t expect much. I would love to see a couple of wins (even one?) but it looks less likely with each passing (and fumbling) week. There is one possible shortcut, though, hidden from most in the mists of history.
Many years ago, the Philadelphia football team and the Pittsburgh football team exchanged their entire rosters. The first Mr. Art Rooney was very good at running a team, and Bert Bell, the first owner of the Philadelphia club and the second commissioner of the NFL, the man who developed the idea of the reverse football draft, with last place teams picking first (and even getting an extra pick, on some years) and who presided over most of the initial growth of the NFL was a terrible owner/coach, and was even worse on personnel. The first player ever drafted by Bell was a halfback from the University of Chicago named Jay Berwanger, a player who refused to even sign a contract and who decided instead to cover football for the Chicago Daily News. Bell and Rooney had been gambling buddies who met at a horse track in 1927, came into the league at the same time as owners in 1933 and stayed great friends. To give Bell’s struggling franchise a fighting chance, Rooney extracted a promise from him to hire a pro coach and then they just exchanged rosters in totem to get it jump started. The Philadelphia Eagles and the Pittsburgh Steelers teams actually swapped cities.
Which leads to this year. Pat Bowlen is supposed to be among the most popular of the NFL owners. It’s time for him to find a friend among them, repeat history and swap out rosters. At least it would give the Broncos a fighting chance.
Happily, the Combine is only two months away. Maybe by then, Denver will have a new head coach. A guy can dream, can’t he?