The Broncography of Brandon Lloyd

As the 2010 season approached, speculation and dark commentary abounded regarding how Denver would clearly be unable to replace the 100+ catches and 1,000+ yards of production that they had come to expect from Brandon Marshall. How could they replace his blocking, which had always been one of Marshall's strong suit? What could Josh McDaniels possibly be thinking (a question which ignored the common rumor that Mike Shanahan had considered cutting Marshall outright, just to get him off the team)? The national sports media were overwhelmingly critical of Denver’s move to trade Marshall.

There was nothing new there - they’d been critical of nearly everything Denver had done since the day they hired McDaniels. A few writers, here and there (mostly here) noted the many options that Denver had in the receiving game, including new acquisitions DeMaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, practice-squad promotee and former track star Matthew Willis, and returning veterans Eddie Royal, Jabar Gaffney and Brandon Lloyd. Among tight ends, Marquez Branson had been injured and Richard Quinn was struggling to find his game, but Daniel Graham was still playing well. The trade of Alphonso Smith for Dan Gronkowski was yet to occur, but there was clearly no shortage of possible options for receiving. At this point, though, no one could have predicted Lloyd’s league-leading performance.

Marshall, it was noted repeatedly, was a very tall, very strong receiver. He was a possession receiver, a WCO yards-after-the-catch guy, a Pro Bowler (a term that should be printed in a special font as if it must be spoken in reverent terms). The simple, basic fact that when a player who gets that many catches leaves a team, those catches are available for other good players on that team, was usually either ignored or decried...

Seriously, Demaryius Thomas? The guy was in a triple-option offense in college - he can’t run a route. Eddie Royal is too small, and Jabar Gaffney has never been worth much. Eric Decker? Maybe in a couple of years, but he’s a rookie. Brandon Lloyd? Don’t make us laugh. He’s never amounted to anything.

The Broncos' passing game, it was suggested or even plainly stated, was going into the tank. They just didn’t have the players. Beyond the fan community (and even in areas of that) it was a simplistic belief, based on simplistic (if any) criteria. It wouldn’t take long to begin to see the error of that perspective. The fact that Brandon Marshall also couldn’t catch the ball well, if at all, over his shoulder on the run was generally avoided by the discussions. With the Broncos stating up front that they were going to stretch the field vertically this year, it was a key point. Since Brandon Marshall rarely could catch the long ball without turning and facing the QB, his contribution there was going to be limited anyway.

There was one player on the Broncos who was looking at errors of perspective that were all his own. Since being chosen by San Francisco in the fourth round (124th overall) of the 2003 NFL Draft, later landing in Washington in 2006, Chicago in 2008 and then Denver in 2009, Brandon Lloyd had never quite risen to the innate level of skill that he possessed.  Lloyd had gone from 14 receptions in his rookie year with SF to 43 in 2004, then 48 in 2005. He then spent two years with minimal production in Washington (23 catches in 2006, 2 in 2007) before spending that one year in Chicago (26 receptions) and finally moving on to Denver. There were hints and suggestions of a very high level of skill, but it didn’t come out well enough on the field. People wondered why, and many - probably most - blamed Lloyd for a bad attitude and lack of courage in fighting for the ball. The press let him have it, and it affected him more than he wanted to admit.

There were also hints, gossip and media comments, all directed at much the same idea: that Lloyd was an artist in training camp or practices, and he could make the tough catches, the circus catches even, but he didn’t have the focus to produce on a regular enough basis during games. ‘Immature’ was frequently used to describe him. When he came to Denver from Chicago, he found himself riding the pine for nearly all of the first year, but Josh McDaniels also told him that what was in the past was unimportant to the staff of the Broncos. What he did when given his chance would dictate what would happen next.

Brandon Lloyd played in only the 2009 season's final two games (starting the last), but he walked away from those two games with 8 catches for 117 yards and a 14.6 average. Knowing his own capabilities and expectations led Lloyd to plenty of introspection as to why he’d never become more successful. While it was true that he had never found the right situation, he couldn’t ignore the fact that this also reflected his own attitudes and actions.

Talking it through with his friend and quarterback Kyle Orton in the offseason and during training camp, Lloyd spoke from the heart of how he hadn’t felt like he’d ever been given a real chance. He didn’t think that the systems he’d played in had suited his skillset, but he also didn’t lay the entirety of fault on others. Brandon took on responsibility for his own role in his problems: his lack of enough hard work and his attitude, which could be less than completely professional at times.

Unlike most people, Brandon saw himself in that time period through unflinching eyes, and he bought into what it would take to change that around in his life. He knew that Kyle Orton, his QB for most of 2010, would support him. He also found great support from wide receivers coach Adam Gase, who recently credited Lloyd's selflessness and positive attitude for carrying him through and making his Pro Bowl season possible:

(Lloyd) never gave up hope on the fact that he wanted to be here. He liked his teammates, liked the coaching staff, liked the offense we were running, and I think he just wanted to be a part of it.

He did, and it showed from the beginning of OTAs. Orton also had no shortage of positive comments for his teammate with both the Bears and Broncos. Back in June, before the season even began, Orton was quoted as saying, "I had a lot of confidence in Brandon. He's an explosive receiver and can make plays when he's covered. He's really coming into his own on this team. Everybody has confidence in him...He's had a heck of a spring." Orton would later add, “He’s probably one of the most explosive guys that I’ve been around, not just in terms of straight-line speed, but he’s one of the better jumpers that I’ve ever seen. Making plays on the sidelines, contorting his body and making plays and still being able to catch the ball, he’s very good at that stuff.”

Lloyd has an extensive list of such plays this year, including a gravity-defying snag against Houston this past weekend, leaping into the air and reaching over the top of a defender’s head, pulling in a Tim Tebow pass that was flying headlong towards being an interception for the Texans.  Such plays have been commonplace this year. Finally, Orton said, "It's tough in this league with the rules how it is to totally take away a guy, just double coverage. So, (I) throw it up and let him go grab it." Grab it he does. 

At the beginning of this year, a friend who I generally find exacting in his analysis told me, “Don’t bother about Lloyd. He does this every year in training camp, and then stinks out on the field on gameday. He won’t go after the hard-contact catch - no guts.” Less truthful words have never been spoken, but he couldn’t know that then. Brandon Lloyd had changed. It was to show in a degree that no one could have predicted, except perhaps Lloyd himself. 

History

Brandon Matthew Lloyd was born on July 5, 1981, in Kansas City, Missouri. By the time he attended Blue Springs High School, Lloyd’s athletic talents were apparent to all. He lettered in three sports - four years in track (which explains a lot), one year in basketball, and three years in football, where he played punter, kicker, cornerback and wide receiver. Lloyd still holds his high school's record for the high jump at 7’2”, a fact that explains something of his rare skills at leaping and catching the ball. He was also a three-time All-Suburban Big Eight honoree in football, and was awarded All-Region by Mo-Kan Magazine (also in football) and was named an All-State honoree in football by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 

Following high school, he decided to move on up the road to attend the University of Illinois at Champaign starting in 1999, where he majored in speech communications with an emphasis in journalism. He’s using that training to prepare for life after football and took part in an internship at Fox Sports Midwest in the summer of 2002. 

Football at the U of I was a natural next step for the fast, elusive, hard-working player, but it wasn’t without its challenges. Lloyd missed the 2000 season with a broken femur (the upper leg bone). He had an immediate impact upon returning: U of I went 10-2 in 2001 and played in the Sugar Bowl. He was outstanding during his sophomore and junior years and decided to declare his eligibility for the NFL Draft in 2003. Even without his senior year’s numbers to add, Lloyd ended his stint at U of I with the second-most receiving yards (2,583) and touchdown catches (21) in Illinois history, as well as ranking third all-time in receptions (160).

The Draft

As noted, Lloyd’s draft status took a bit of a hit following the Combine, in which he only managed a 4.62-second 40-yard dash, something that might surprise Broncos fans who have seen him outrun many cornerbacks. He’d been timed at 4.49 and under while in college, but because, on this one day, his 40 was unusually slow and his 10-yard dash was very slow at 1.62 seconds, everything seemed to change. It’s a triumph of perception over experience - Lloyd’s film was suddenly even being perceived in a different light. While that appears to be so, keep in mind one of Kyle Orton’s comments:

“He’s probably one of the most explosive guys that I’ve been around, not just in terms of straight-line speed...” It’s worth recalling that Jerry Rice had a 4.64 average for the 40. He, too, had a substantial burst, but Rice had the added advantage of being able to cut without losing speed, making it nearly impossible for a cornerback to stay with him. Lloyd has much of that ability as well, but his greatest strength probably is his leaping ability - the way he times it and his total focus while in the air, placing his hands to snatch the ball from CBs who had near-perfect position, but who didn’t believe that Lloyd would be able to reach a certain pass. They learned differently.

I found this older but insightful commentary on FFtoday.com and I wanted to share it with you. Please forgive the length - it concerns a matter that gets too little coverage in the media and covers several others as well. That same matter is a big reason that Brandon Lloyd is on the Pro Bowl roster today (and, more importantly, leading the league in receiving yardage). The article was written by Mark Waldman back in June of 2004, and other than the irritation of reading someone who likes to refer to themselves in the third person by a self-appointed nickname, it’s got a lot of depth that’s worth spending some time and thought on:

On a continued quest to dispel the link between certain scouting prototypes and fantasy production, The Gut Check is profiling Brandon Lloyd...There are many proven, feature receivers that don’t look like the tight ends from our fathers and grandfathers’ NFL (Note - this one lost me. I think it’s a reference to the ‘bigger WRs are better belief’ that you will see below). Brandon Lloyd is one of them.

Lloyd was regarded as a top prospect heading into his senior year, but his stock dropped after running a sub-par time in the 40 at the combine. Lloyd doesn’t fit the recent, optimum physical prototypes that scouts look for in NFL receivers. Despite Lloyd’s collegiate penchant for big plays, scouts continue to write him off as strictly a complement in an NFL offense and not a true #1 receiver.

NFL scouts and personnel men seem to forget about the game film when staring at a stopwatch. This was the case with Brandon Lloyd. Lloyd claimed his 40-time was slow because he was recovering from the flu. Illness and injuries are common excuses for players that don’t perform up to par for the combine. These “the dog ate my homework,” excuses are made so often to scouts, they’re rarely worth considering. 

Nonetheless, Lloyd was an All-Big Ten and 2nd team All-American matched up against top athletes that are now playing in NFL defensive backfields. You don’t get deep on Big-Ten defensive backs with smoke and mirrors. Yet based on his fourth round selection, scouts must have chucked the game film after seeing the 40-time.

If that weren’t the case, Dennis Erickson wouldn’t have commented to the media at the beginning of the 2003 training camp that Brandon Lloyd was significantly faster than they thought. Looking back on it, maybe there was some credence to the 4.49, 40 yard dash time posted on the University of Illinois website as opposed to the 4.62 Lloyd ran at the combine. Sports Information Directors at big-time universities are more akin to marketing directors than purveyors of truth, but that’s why piecing together information from various sources sometimes creates the most accurate picture.

The inconsistency among the reported times is another reason why Lloyd fell to the fourth round. Personnel types came to the conclusion that Lloyd wasn’t the kind of prospect they could hang their draft on. But heading into his senior year, Lloyd was scouted in many circles as a first round pick. This is an example of a developing theory The Gut Check may someday postulate on pro football scouting: sometimes it’s better to listen to what the scout says about a player the year before he comes out for the draft.

The article goes on to cover the belief that our modern obsession with timed and tested drills versus watching game film is starting to swing back in favor of film. I hope that’s true, but it’s now six years later, and it’s still hard to say. This is one reason that I’ve devoted as much time as my own life allows to watching and learning to watch film - given a choice between a good player with great measurables and a great player with only fair measurables, I’ll tend to stick to the great player. Too many greats over the years haven’t fit into the mold that scouts (and fans) so often feel are essential.

I do appreciate the thoroughness of considering all available information on a player, and I think that most players can improve by working constantly on the fundamentals of the game as they affect a player’s particular position. But as Lloyd’s case suggests, there is more to the art of scouting than reading measurements of various sorts. Were that not true, nearly any fan could scout. Waldman later describes a FOX Network "Skills Challenge”. I’ve enjoyed them as much as anyone, from time to time. Here’s how Lloyd did that day:

Lloyd was the most impressive. He was very smooth in his patterns while running them at high speed. He adjusted his body to make a good target for Ken Dorsey (who by the way looked better than advertised, and the 49ers may have stolen themselves a QB they can develop into at least a solid backup). On one of his routes, Lloyd even made an acrobatic grab on Dorsey’s only bad throw. By far he was the most polished receiver. Same thing when the receivers ran an obstacle course: Lloyd won the event. You don’t win a timed obstacle course unless you have a decent amount of speed. What I learned was Brandon Lloyd displayed the same body control, leaping ability, and quickness that had a scout say during the college season that next to Rogers, Lloyd was the most athletic WR coming out of college. Yet Rogers, Jacobs, and Johnson were all much higher picks than Lloyd.

Everything the Gut Check has been describing, fans saw glimpses of this season (2004). Under the lights, Lloyd displayed his playmaking flair with long grabs in tight coverage and feats of body control echoing those of Cris Carter against the Rams, and most memorably, that 3rd down, sideline contortionist act versus the Seahawks. If Lloyd were in a situation similar to fellow draft classmates Anquan Bolden (sic) and Charles Rogers, the Gut Check firmly believes he would be have made a case for rookie of the year.

Rookie of the Year, Pro Bowl, Player of the Week or Month, all of these have publicity benefits for the NFL and are also a way to get recognition to the players who stand out in any given time period. Yet, it’s important to recognize the role that perception plays - people begin to believe that Player X isn’t as good as Player Y because the media says so, and that begins to affect the way that a scout perceives him, or the way that the film itself is interpreted. I’m not trying to say that under different circumstances, Brandon Lloyd would have made this honor sooner, although that might also be true. As Lloyd himself pointed out, a player has to fit a system, and the system needs to fit the player. Under Josh McDaniels, Denver implemented a system that fits Lloyd's skills and strengths better those of the WR's prior teams. But at the same time, Lloyd is probably right in feeling that at times his coaches have believed the ‘hype’ about him as he’s come into their organization, and that has affected his playing time and efficacy as well. It shouldn’t, but it often does.

Lloyd’s talents, if they continue to develop, will place him more in the group of players that base their game on routes, athleticism after the catch, and getting deep with sneaky speed: Bruce, Holt, Ward, and Mason.

They would, and they did. This year, with a QB who gave him friendship and appreciated his skills, and with a coach, Josh McDaniels, who had him brought in and who believed in him (as did WR coach Adam Gase), Lloyd reached a major goal for nearly any NFL player. Finally, from Waldman’s article:

The 49ers say Lloyd is may not turn out to be primary receiver material because they watch the replays of his deep receptions and do not see the separation they feel should be there on these routes. They say this lack of speed is the reason he’s had to make such acrobatic grabs. The Gut Check disagrees and though he’s as far away from an NFL coach as it gets, he bases his argument on the 49ers worst critic: Terrell Owens.

T.O. knows a thing or two about getting separation from a defensive back and he has a fair understanding of the team. So when Owens was asked to give a comparison and contract of his current and previous quarterbacks, his answer explained that separation is often dictated as much by the thrower as the receiver:

"I got a taste when the ball kind of got in on me a little faster than I'm used to. I think it's a situation where we'll have to work together. Everybody knows Donovan has a hose of an arm. I know he can get it out there.

"It's something I haven't really been accustomed to, as far as being open, beating guys and getting that chemistry where if I'm approaching a (cornerback), him knowing that I'm going to beat the guy and really just him throwing it out there and letting me go get it. Versus the last couple years with Garcia, he pretty much waited until he saw me behind the guy and then threw it. The chemistry wasn't there because he didn't have a strong enough arm."

None of the 49ers quarterbacks (this was written in 2004, proving that some things rarely change) have a great arm. And based on what Owens said above, Garcia was the reason receivers never got a chance to retain their initial separation from a defensive back. Additionally, Garcia is a scrambler in an offense that was transitioning to a deep passing game. This means Garcia either lacked the time or timing (anticipation) to make the type of throw that allows a receiver to retain the separation the 49ers claim Lloyd wasn’t getting. This is why Gut Check has a problem with this explanation. He watched spot-shadow replays of Lloyd one-on-one with a corner where Lloyd beat the man so bad with a move that it put the receiver a solid 3-4 steps in front. Two things happened on the play: the safety was playing in the deep zone on Lloyd’s side and Garcia put so much air under the ball, Lloyd had to compensate for the throw.

Whether you have experience in watching film or not, and whether you know the difference between a hitch and a go route isn’t really the question here. What is, to me, is that it was obvious early on that the 49ers were looking for reasons why Brandon Lloyd wasn’t going to be a successful receiver in the NFL. Lloyd was fighting an uphill battle by that time, and with that following him, he didn’t get much of a chance in Washington, or in Chicago, for that matter. 

But when he came to Denver, he got a clean slate and a supportive environment. It makes me wonder how many other Brandon Lloyds are out there in the league: I’d expect the number to be higher than most of us want to think about. When the team isn’t really convinced that you’re the answer they’re looking for, somehow that becomes more likely to be right. Perhaps the player doesn’t handle game situations as well. Maybe the fans only see the reasons that they are hearing from the team. It turns into a nasty cycle. Only by reaching inside himself and seeing his role in this did Lloyd become the player that he has always been, yet not always been able to manifest. Of all the achievements that Brandon Lloyd has accomplished this year, to me this is by far the most impressive. Aside from the salty comment that reflected his earlier career struggles, Brandon was for the most part humble in his presser this week, gave out credit with a shovel and kept it with an eyedropper. Given the time this has taken, and the struggles along the way, that’s a rare and laudable thing.

Congratulations, Brandon. You’re managed to show everyone around you, and everyone around the league, the kind of player that you are. Far beyond that, you’ve shown them what kind of a human being you are - unwilling to accept defeat, open to seeing and changing those things within yourself that were holding you back, and producing highlight-reel play after highlight-reel play weekly. Congratulations also to Kyle Orton, to Coach Adam Gase and to the family and teammates that made your accomplishment possible. 

The final thing that Lloyd did was to thank everyone around him, every person who influenced his life, and to think of them at a moment in which no one would look down on him for basking in the well-earned and softly warming praise from fans, coaches and pundits. From Andrew Mason:

When the overload of emotions over the game’s result (Sunday, vs. Houston) had passed in the days that followed, Lloyd was more talkative, often available at his locker-room stall and always candid and thoughtful.  A moment after his salty comment, Lloyd shared thoughts that were equally revealing.

“I wanted to say one last thing: One of the things that really sticks out to me about when I first came to the Denver Broncos was how well the media accepted me, and I wanted to thank you guys for that,” Lloyd said. ” I don’t know why the hell you guys would accept me and believe that I was any different than what you guys were told, but you did.

“Every (other) team I’ve been on has been media, negative press, from Day One. And I wanted to thank you guys. I appreciate that. You gave me a lot of confidence to really be myself, and I was able to really come out of my shell and be myself — and to realize that being myself isn’t so different. I really appreciate and thank you that, and I do credit you guys with my success also.

Crediting anyone who was even tangentially responsible for his emergence as one of the NFL’s best receivers, from Josh McDaniels to the press, was the thread of honest humility that tied together the answers to questions he was asked Tuesday afternoon. Teammates, coaches, fans, and even the press — all combined to make Denver different than anyplace he’d ever been.

Sometimes, fans question whether or not the players read what’s being said about them. This was a good, insightful look into the fact that they do, and the effect that uncalled-for comments and attacks by members of the media (and from fans, with the comment threads now being a standard part of almost any website) can have on a player or coach. I recall that Bill Walsh was shocked, even horrified at the things that the press said about him and his players, regardless of how extreme and uncalled-for they might have been. He never really got over that as a coach, and it cost him a lot of sleepless nights. It’s only one of many reasons that media pundits have a legitimate obligation to at least attempt to be accurate in their reporting. 

Finale

How did Denver overcome the loss of Brandon Marshall? Without difficulty or complaint, to put it simply. Look at the numbers:

Brandon Lloyd - 72 receptions, 1,375 yards, 19.1 YPR, 10 TD

Jabar Gaffney - 64 receptions, 863 yards, 13.5 YPR 2 TD

Eddie Royal - 59 receptions, 627 yards, 10.6 YPR, 3 TD

Knowshon Moreno - 36 receptions, 370 yards, 10.3 YPR, 3 TD

Perhaps more than anyone else this year, Lloyd has been the player charged with stretching the field. Defenses have put safeties over the top, matched him with their best cornerback, and he still managed to produce.

"I think coach (Josh) McDaniels puts the players he thinks are going to help the team be successful out there on the field. I don't think that's always the case on other teams," Lloyd said in helping explain his breakout season.

Coach Gase said it was McDaniels who saw Lloyd’s potential. “I think most of the credit for that has to go to Josh,” Gase said in quotes released by the team. “He had a lot of confidence in (Lloyd) when we brought him in last June. He said, ‘Hey, work with this guy, get him up to speed for training camp,’ and he said, ‘I feel like if this guy is anywhere near where he was coming out [of the draft], if he shows some of the things he did on tape at San Francisco, Chicago, he has a chance to help us.'” 

Entering the season finale, the Broncos currently have three players with at least 59 catches. But Lloyd has been the most consistently dangerous. "It's tough in this league with the rules how it is to totally take away a guy, just double coverage," Orton said. "So throw it up and let him go grab it."

Game after game, that’s exactly what Brandon Lloyd did. Congratulations to a man who overcame long odds, bad situations, poor coaching and fan distaste and who came out of the other side of it a wiser man - a man who became more powerful as a person than merely as a football player, and who played the game this year as well as any, and better than he was supposed to be able to. Bask in it well, Brandon. You’ve truly earned it.

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

You can reach Doc at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or follow him on Twitter @alloverfatman

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