Team identity, the Broncos and the Steelers

The always excellent Mike Lombardi wrote another fine column on Wednesday - this one on the coaching carousel - which coaches are still on the ‘hot seat’ - and why. I think it should be required reading for the Denver Broncos' front office. Lombardi has a long history with the Broncos, and his insights should not be taken lightly - he’s among the minority of writers who have been involved in nearly every facet of the game, and he’s worked with Denver. 

His reference to the Steelers comes near the end of the article - it points to the biggest vacancy on the Broncos, and it isn’t the head coaching position. It isn’t the GM either, nor is it the scouting setup; rather, it’s the utter lack of a clear team identity. This has been Denver's problem for years now, and it’s far past time to figure this one out. Josh McDaniels tried to instill one, but the time and effort it would require wasn’t going to be accepted (although the team is starting to see in retrospect that he did a lot of things right). In the wake of his scapegoating firing, Denver should take the opportunity to make some hard decisions. Frankly though, plenty of solutions are already in place.

First things first - Tim Tebow is going to be the quarterback of the Denver Broncos. You know it, I know it, and hopefully, the front office in Dove Valley knows it. Great - now there’s a starting QB who is generally accepted by the team, FO, media and even the fickle and boisterous fan base. Now what?

As John Elway settles into a front office role, I’m hopeful that the current rash of blame casting and tail covering can be set aside in favor of actually trying to establish a future for the team. Tebow isn’t going to be a pocket passer, although he needs to learn a lot about that option. There’s a lot of great stuff in the playbooks that Josh McDaniels left behind, but whoever the new head coach is, and whoever the offensive coordinator is, they’d better be thrilled to have a QB that fits a particular mold. He’s going to be what Denver has pined for since John Elway left - a passionate QB who loves broken plays, excels at throwing on the run and delights in 4th-quarter comebacks.

Fans can take a deep breath and let out a sigh of relief. Every QB since John Elway has essentially either been run out of town or thrown out, no matter what his skills or performance. Now there’s a guy who resembles what fans remember about Elway closely enough that he can get a chance to play and be accepted here. His choirboy image and behavior combined with a genuine passion for the game destroys the aspect of the fan base that will quickly point to any minor fault in a Denver QB as if it were the Grand Canyon. Tebow fits exactly what the city wants. Now the burning question comes:  what does the organization do with that?

This is where the hiring of the head coach and the coordinators has to come into a crystalline clarity of focus - if the team doesn’t hire these three men (the HC, OC and DC) with an exacting sense of where the team wants to go and where it wants to stay, even if getting back to the top requires a bit of a fight - Denver loses. If the head coach and offensive coordinator want to run a bootleg, play-action and rollout-heavy, wide open game, the Broncos will climb the ranks much more quickly. It’s a delicate balance - you don’t want to become predictable, and you don’t want to get your QB killed, either, but you want to play to your strengths.

Denver has its QB and they have a remarkable stable of WRs. The line is starting to block better, and Tebow loves leaving the pocket, anyway. The TEs could be better, but Dan Gronkowski and Richard Quinn are both coming along well, and while I know only a bit about Daniel Coats, it’s clear that Daniel Graham is still a fighter, even if his replacement should be considered now before it’s needed. The running game will continue to open up as opposing defenses have to protect against a new set of challenges, which creates problems for the other team's defensive line. Rather than just a pocket passing game - although looking at New England, that’s a good team identity too (if you have the will, the coaches and the personnel) Denver will once again be a team that plays a more wide open game.

The HC and OC have to have experience with and love that idea. They need to build an offense around Tebow and the receivers’ strengths without letting TT fall back into his earlier bad habits. The most promising thing I saw out of Tebow last week in terms of development was that he’s getting the ball out much faster, and that was the biggest concern I had with him. He’s learning the footwork, learning to read defenses, and he’s using that looping motion infrequently. He’s developing - that’s what rookies and younger players have to do. He still needs a lot of direction, and I hope they keep Ben McDaniels working with him. It’s in both Tebow and the team’s best interest. Ensuring that Tebow experiences continuity and quality coaching should be at the top of Denver’s list.

That leaves the defensive coordinator, and Denver needs to make a huge decision before he’s hired. The HC has to be on board with the DC and both need to be committed to a certain type of defense. DT Louis Leonard, the newest Bronco, is built for a 4-3 defense. He’s just one guy - Denver can go in either direction and do well, but they HAVE to choose a direction, build for it and stay true to it. Either direction will bring challenges as well as advantages. Denver hasn’t had a defensive identity since Larry Coyer was run out of town - well, aside from fading late (in games as well as in seasons), although getting blown out early has been part of their identity for the past few years. Coyer has done well with the Colts, although his squad has faced an avalanche of injuries this season.

Look at the bottom of Lombardi’s article. Consider this:

The Steelers don't change coaches after one bad year, because they hire a coach who fits their organization. They treat the hiring process much like they do the drafting process, they know what they want in their leader, they know the qualities they need and they identify coaches who fit those characteristics. And most of all, they have an organization that helps the young coach grow into the job.

But not all teams are like the Steelers, so when those teams hire a new coach, they start a new beginning and are not ready for the tough times or the bumps in the road. All teams should clearly identify what they need in their next coach, not just from a scheme standpoint, but also from a leadership standpoint.

They should also refrain from limiting their list to fresh coaches and keep an open mind. Don't try to win the press conference with a perceived popular choice, but rather get the right man who can win games.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s pretty much the final word on the subject. I don’t know, and don’t strongly care, which direction the Broncos will go with their head coach or defensive scheme. They don’t have a powerful young leader on the D at this time. I love the 3-4 personally, but I recognize the need for a clear-cut decision on the scheme followed by exacting personnel decisions on that - you can only convert so many tweeners and have them play exceptionally well, so Denver will have to draft for its needs. We’ve talked at some length on the Broncos' personnel this season, and over the next month I’ll try to clarify some of their future considerations by examining each position. But whether a 4-3 or a 3-4, Denver needs two things on defense - a scheme that they believe in and a serious attitude.

Brian Dawkins brought some of that attitude back last Sunday, but he won’t be here forever. There’s the fact that on any given day, any team....and there’s also the fact that Houston is a faltering team. San Diego tomorrow will be a much bigger test, yet it brings one of Denver’s challenges into exacting focus. The tallest obstacle facing the Broncos going forward will be to build a defense that can beat KC’s running game, SD’s passing attack, and Oakland’s power running game every season. They need to develop players who understand and believe in the system; they need at least one or two more players that the offense has to be aware of at all times, and they need to start that by deciding on a direction. The Steelers looked for a head coach who would carry on the traditions and systems that they already had in place. Denver needs to decide upon a set of philosophies, and then hire a head coach and coordinators who will put those traditions in place.

It’s commonly said these days, but the Chinese character for danger includes the radicals (a small part of the written character, that combines with the other radicals to produce meaning) for crisis and for opportunity. That’s where the Broncos stand right now. They have a wonderful chance to change not only the fortunes of the team, but the opportunity to alter the nature of how it establishes and views itself and how it moves to achieve greatness once again. They need to recognize that circumstance, embrace it, put their decisions into place, and make darned sure that they are willing to back up their choices even if the road gets rough for a while.

And if they do? Denver can once again be a franchise to be proud of. More than anything, that’s what the fans are begging for. It’s time to put it into place.

Go Broncos, and Happy New Year!

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

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