It’s really shocking to me how irrelevant the Broncos currently seem to the national media. Their draft picks got almost no discussion this past weekend, and they’re getting graded consistently at a C level for their rookie class. For the most part, the graders are fools who don’t know what they’re talking about, but it still speaks to this ho-hum feeling around the team. I saw two 2009 mock drafts (by Andrew Perloff of SI and Todd McShay of ESPN) which project the Broncos to be picking in the low teens again next year. We’re irrelevant, and we have no chance for improvement. Viva la Broncos fanhood!
National football writers tend to know football to the same extent that Target sells books. Target has all of the bestsellers, and some romance novels to boot, but not much else, because they’re only concerned with stocking the inventory which a broad section of its customer base wants to buy. If I want a non-fiction book about the geopolitical implications of indefinitely occupying Iraq, I won’t find that book at Target, and the kid working there probably won’t even know what geopolitics is. Such is the experience of reading national football writers. They have an overall, high-level feel for the game, but no real deep understanding. They know what agents and players and coaches tell them, most of which comes with agendas. When it comes to really understanding each (or really any) of the 32 teams, national writers don’t do so well. To really understand a team, you have to watch every play of every game they play, preferably more than once.
How far was our team from making the playoffs last season? I say not very far at all. A few things go differently in a few games, and we’re there, and this is an entirely different conversation that’s taking place in the media. Suddenly, the Broncos are called ascendant like the Browns are (expect a decline from the Browns this season.) If you look at the games against Green Bay, Jacksonville, Chicago, and at Oakland, those are four games this team should have won. If they had, they would have been 11-5, not 7-9.
What was the problem last year? There were four big ones that come to mind for me, and you’ll only ever hear the national football media mention one of them.
1) Personnel miscalculations and an ill-advised scheme change led to an inability to effectively stop the run.
2) The offense struggled in the red zone, due mostly to an inability to consistently run the ball in short yardage situations.
3) Field position management was the absolute worst in the NFL, which gave our offense long fields, and our opponents short ones.
4) The pass protection was terrible, particularly in the second half of the season. For examples, see both San Diego games and the Houston game.
If you think about our offseason holistically, I think a lot has been done to address each of these issues. Not many of the individual player acquisitions really blows you away, but taken as a single view of a big picture roster turnover, it really has to strike you. The character of this team is changing, with all of the acquisitions.
1) Niko Koutouvides, Boss Bailey, and Dewayne Robertson were brought in to shore up the run defense. Add in some depth in the draft (Powell, Larsen) and the return of Ebenezer Ekuban, and the pledge that Bob Slowik is returning to an aggressive 8-man front, and I feel pretty good about the Broncos being league-average against the run this year, as opposed to next-to-last.
2) The returns of Tom Nalen and Ben Hamilton, combined with the addition of Ryan Clady, represent a serious talent upgrade over the offensive line we watched last season. The improved health of Travis Henry, and the additions of Ryan Torain and Peyton Hillis in the draft make me feel better about the ability to run inside. Also, Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall, and Tony Scheffler are a year more experienced, and likely to be more effective players.
3) I really like what has happened in the area of field position management. There are a lot of elements at play, and the punting and kickoff situations are admittedly unsettled at this point. From the perspective of the return game, I have high hopes for Eddie Royal and/or Jack Williams. As far as kick coverage, I think the overall athleticism of this roster is far superior to what we had last year, and that nearly always correlates to success in kick coverage. The bottom half of the roster is being turned over, and I expect this to pay dividends on special teams.
4) Clady helps enormously in pass protection, and so do the expected returns of Hamilton and Nalen. That leaves the coaches to pick the best 2 out of 6 candidates (Kuper, Holland, Harris, Wiegmann, Pears, Lichtensteiger) to fill the other spots. Also, improvements to the receiving corps tend to discourage as much blitzing, particularly when you’re worried about Royal in the open field, one on one, against one of your cornerbacks.
The Broncos underachieved last season. Any of these improvements carries over to the Wins column, in a non-linear way. If they all work out to near the best case scenario, which is extremely plausible, the Broncos can certainly compete for the division title with San Diego, and make some real noise in the postseason.
I really like what the team has done this reloading season, and I look forward to a good regular season ahead.