The days gone by and yet to come

This year, the Broncos found themselves in an odd and difficult situation: they were unable to retain Brandon Stokley’s services. They found themselves with that most rare of cases by having not merely a sufficiency of talent at the wide receiver position, but an excess of riches. While cocaine may be God’s way of telling you that you’re making too much money, having to let go a player who was your best bet on third downs the year before - an area where Denver only managed to convert about 1/3 of their opportunities - is a far more mundane way of telling you two facts. The first is this - sooner or later, every player will fight the opponent who has yet to lose - Time. There was, of course, a second reason.

Denver has a plethora of skill at the wide receiver position. The players that they have display a wide range of sizes, skills and abilities. There is Eddie Royal - only a third-year player, but one who came out of the early 2010 offseason with guns like an attack helicopter, and a rare ability to make a move at nearly full speed; one that leaves defenders eating dust and screeching in frustration. There is Demaryius Thomas, the newest of Denver’s stars: tall, at 6’3”, powerful at 230 lb, who offsets those strengths with speed that has been timed in the 4.38 area and who turns out to run routes as well as many professionals who have been in the game for a long time.

Brandon Lloyd has made the commitment to change his life and his approach to the game - the outcome has been a series of semi-circus catches for long gains, proving that he takes his promise seriously. Jabar Gaffney is simply a rare player with few weaknesses, yet one who doesn’t mind letting others rack up stats and awards, while he quietly is there when your drive or your game rests on a single play. Not to be outdone, Matt Willis is incredibly fast, having given up football for a time in order to run track: putting him up against most CBs on a ‘go’ route is cruel, if usual punishment. And Eric Decker, who may find getting onto the field more difficult than many expected, has perhaps the best hands on the team. In college, he dropped only three passes in the 354 times that he was targeted - that’s 0.8%. He set two University of Minnesota career records with 227 receptions and 3,119 receiving yards; plus, with those numbers he ranks sixth and eighth, respectively, in Big Ten Conference history.

There is little doubt that Head Coach Josh McDaniels has put together one of, if not the sole best, of the receiving corps in the NFL. With Kyle Orton rising to the occasion and achieving a current QB rating of 103.8 early in this unusual and remarkable season, Denver does not lack for talent at the QB or WR corps. They seem to be doing much the same thing with their offensive line corps: Ryan Clady and Ryan Harris were there when McDaniels arrived, as was Chris Kuper. However - the injuries in 2009 quickly showed how easily seemingly impregnable lines can move from penthouse to outhouse with just a few untimely injuries. This led to the draft of 2010, and the acquisition of Zane Beadles, JD Walton and Eric Olsen. Stanley Daniels was promoted to starting LG; signed as a CFA in 2007 by the Rams, he spent time on the practice squads of the Jets and Packers before signing with Denver in May. Russ Hochstein is the current Swiss Army knife of the team, able to move into any of the 5 OL positions, as well as TE and occasionally fullback. There is a lot of depth there, and a lot of opportunities to protect the quality of the team when difficulties strike, as they inevitably will. Will they add more depth? Sure. And some of that depth will push people to compete for starting jobs.

This is also true of the defensive line, where Justin Bannan, Jamal Williams, Ronnie Fields and Marcus Thomas can all step in at nose tackle in a pinch. Both Robert Ayers and Jason Hunter have taken snaps at that same position on rare occasions. But the point is unchanged; while some teams struggle to put two or three WRs on the field, or manage a functional offensive line (as Denver did last year), or have two reasonable quality nose tackles, Denver can put in any of 4 players (plus the occasional oversized linebacker). This list goes on to DE, CB and safety: while the team is in mostly adequate shape at the other slots, areas that could (and, certainly, will this coming offseason) be areas of interest in free agency and in the draft. However - Denver has made strides in those two years which challenge those of the Colossus of Rome. There is still much to do, but to ignore what’s been done so far would be a mistake.

Let’s go back and see how vastly these things have been changed since two-time Super Bowl-winning head coach Mike Shanahan was dismissed. Head Coach McDaniels was hired and immediately vilified, only barely in that order. I can be, I’m told, a little too fond of the phrase, “Time will tell.” I make no apologies, although I can see where people may find it tiresome. We are, after all, in a time when everyone and their ferret has an opinon on this game and many others, where the day the NFL Draft ends, moronic ‘analysis’ can immediately be found that issues letter grades on how each team did before any of the players have even had their first practice. It is a culture in which ‘Now’ is too late - anticipation of things that cannot be foreseen is often considered a fault. But this time - purely to be contrarian, if nothing else - let’s look back to that final month in Shanahan’s tenure and trace, however superficially, what has happened since then. How shall the ride begin?

Perhaps it could be here: as Brian Xanders told Mike Klis, 32 players from the 2008 roster and practice squad were released, never yet to play again in the NFL. Many of them were not old, even by NFL standards. They were, by and large, simply professionally inept, and it reached a point at which NFL owners or GMs refused to sign checks for the lack of ability that these former players demonstrated. Put another way, more than half of the 2008 Broncos were so lacking in talent and the ability to give a professional performance that they had to leave the game (or were ‘removed’ from it). Many times, last year, I heard or read comments to the effect that we should wonder why we, as fans, should put up with a change from 8-8 to 8-8, when it ‘cost’ us the services of a ‘Super Bowl-Winning Head Coach’, a phrase that carries all the weight of the term ‘Pro Bowl Player’, another term as meaningless as it is common.

The first reason that Denver fans should ‘put up’ with a change from 8-8 to 8-8 is very simply that the team now consists of individual talents who could play - and start - for other teams. In other words, because by doing so, the team created the possibility of actual parity. The 2008 season may have ended 5-11 just as easily as 8-8: I shudder to think of another full year of Bob Slowik as defensive coordinator, with the defensive team feeling, in the terms of one of its leaders, “like second class citizens.” And on the other side, Denver would have Jeremy Bates, unhumbled and unfettered at that point in his life, calling play after strange play because he and the QB decided that they liked them. while Shanahan seemed to stay out of it (Note: I like and respect Mike Shanahan. He did great things for the organization back in the 1990s, and should always be thanked for that. But in the 1st decade of this century, it was a very different story). Having seen the results of Mike’s work during the past few years, I was reminded of Einstein’s definition of insanity - doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result. Even recently, with overwhelming evidence that there was no truth to it, Mike commented again that when he left the Broncos they were just a couple of players away from the Super Bowl. The Denver Post recently boasted an article claiming that Denver is no longer an elite team. Of course they aren’t. But they are putting one in place, which is a different thing altogether. The writers who can’t see that - well, they don’t much matter, do they? None of them scout, coach or manage NFL organizations, so it’s hard to worry about their perspectives.

In 2009, training camp was filled with published tales of woe. Not from the camp itself, which (other than Brandon Marshall acting like a child), was mostly fine. The teams - offense, defense and special teams - were learning new systems. Some players worked out - some did not. Predictably, pundits and prognosticators promptly proclaimed that Denver would be a long-running joke without a punch line. Most beliefs regarding the team predicted a record of 3 or 4 wins. Of course, the Broncos promptly won their first six games, and while some of the pundits admitted that they’d been a little off, they began to talk as it Denver should be ready to go to the Super Bowl. That was absurd, but predictable: when you blow in the wind, you’ll change your direction just as often as the breeze does. But when Denver finished 8-8 on the season, the same demagogues were quick to attack the team - obviously, the young coach and his quickly changing team were frauds! It ignored Occam’s Razor. While this guideline is commonly misstated, it does say that the simplest solution that fits all the facts (and that second part is usually the difficulty) will generally be right. This week, Coach McDaniels dealt with the subject for the first time.

To set the stage properly: back in 2008, kicker Matt Prater was involved in a training camp competition, followed by constant weekly practice plus whatever role he played in games. The result was obvious by the end of the season - Prater’s leg just wore out at about mid-season. Instant experts checked in on how he had ‘lost his confidence’ and should be on the way out as soon as a replacement was found. The 2009 season, however, told a different tale. As Stefan Fatsis had penned in his excellent book A Few Seconds of Panic, overworking the kicking leg will wear on a kicker and create problems with leg exhaustion and chronic pain from repetitive motion problems that have no cure that doesn’t involve a lot of rest. When Head Coach McDaniels provided him with a kicking coach who knew and understood that function and position, he was limited to a certain and much lower number of reps. The outcome was that he was able to keep kicking effectively late into the season.

During that 2009 season, the Broncos roared off to a 6-0 start and then straggled in and finished 2-8. Josh McDaniels finally spoke about it this week, and little of what he said was shocking.

“It wasn’t because we don’t have decent players at any of those positions, we felt like we kind of wore down a little bit — and I think any team can wear down if you don’t have depth in there to make sure that your guys are fresh,” McDaniels said.

“You can’t compare Week 1 to Week 16. From September to December, that’s an 800-play difference,” said linebacker Mario Haggan. “That’s 800 times you’ve gotten hit, so your body is completely different.”

Haggan and veteran safety Brian Dawkins, while admitting that everyone’s bodies were battered by the end of the season, said the bigger issue was the mental drain. Two four-game losing streaks — especially coming off the high of the 6-0 start — took their toll.

One theory had been that Denver didn’t do enough practicing during the bye week. It wasn’t a bad theory, but one that, again, put the blame on the coach, when the real problem was that the coach had inherited the equivalent of a house that wasn’t condemned, but had a fire start in it. Complaining about that is like blaming a firefighter when the blaze is out of control when the engine arrives. Will it take time to put out the fire and rebuild the house? Of course. But one of the questions that the homeowner (or coaches) will face is whether the counters will be low-end formica or good quality granite. Will the floors be cheap carpet, good stone or bamboo?  In the case of the Broncos, many players had to be brought in. Unsurprisingly, some didn’t work out, and others did. Since the ones who have worked out are in the majority, it’s hard to complain much on that.

Another theory, and I held it at that point, was that the opposing teams seemed to know what we were going to do. Looking back, that was probably true, but not completely so. The other teams knew which players were worn out, too, and since all three systems were being installed anew, the team had to start with simpler formations and plays. It wasn’t that hard to see what we’d do. But what many missed is that this was only a single step toward the goal, which is winning, making the playoffs, and then winning the SB. The system, players and plays would all change quickly. They have, this continues, and last week’s game against Seattle showed a taste of what that can create.

What is pleasantly surprising is the quality of the new receiving corps, the level of development of Kyle Orton, and the quality of the OL players that we had to find fast - in the draft, as it turned out. Stanley Daniels was a 3-team reject, but he did a heck of a job last weekend working next to Clady, and JD Walton managed more than a few good plays of his own. Perrish Cox is a keeper, and I was equally impressed with the team’s willingness to cut away those who weren’t developing fast enough to make the team a winner - NOW. We’re seeing, this week, the potential problem with older players - anyone in the NFL is prone to injuries in degree. That degree just goes up a bit when the players get older. There’s been a concerted effort to find players who are leaders, intellectually bright, fast at information processing and who play a strong, aggressive, physical game. Early in the second year of the process, Denver has weapons that vastly outclass what was left when the management and coaching changed. While in 2009, fans were often furious - that ‘great’ offense that Denver had was gone (the fact that Denver now had a defense was cheered at first). Those same fans hadn’t had a chance to see the full direction that McDaniels was going in, nor did he have the time (or as likely, the inclination) to explain his plans. The process is continuing.

What we’re seeing is a team that is not ‘rebuilding’ in the classic sense. I don’t know about you, but I always have a slight sense of queasiness when I read the word ‘rebuilding’ with an NFL team. What they are doing really is more ‘reloading’, even if it’s from the bottom up. Many rebuilding teams appear to lack a specific plan, and they can go on for years, a decade or more, usually changing head coaches (and therefore systems, and the players needed for each of those systems, which is a ticket to obscurity). That’s not something that’s happening in Denver right now, because McDaniels’ staff seems to effectively emphasize communication, clarity of purpose, and specifics as to the exact type of player, size, speed and skillset. That’s not what I generally expect to see from ‘rebuilding’ teams. It’s helped already, and it will continue to bear fruit as long as the people at the top can maintain the level of clarity that has been bringing the team back from the crowded tier of lower mediocrity to an elite team who can compete with or beat anyone on any Sunday. You always have that feeling with a half dozen teams who are at or near the current ‘top’ of the league. Denver is pushing hard in that direction. Seeing what they did with the receiving/passing game on Sunday was eye-opening, to say the least. Is that only one game? Sure. But what a game it was! It’s a step, and an important one, in the right direction.

Observing the fact that McDaniels is showing a very high level of clarity in discussing what went wrong last year, and seeing how they have worked on overcoming it has given me a reminder of what originally drew me to being a supporter of his. His understanding of the various manners in which different people learn, the way that he’s organized his personnel - players and coaches alike - and the unsparing why that he criticizes himself and constantly seems to be looking at ways to improve should be commonplace in head coaches around the league. To put it gently, it’s really not. If you want to see why Denver is growing as an organization so well - and 1-1 may not seem exciting, but the changes from Week 1 to Week 2 certainly are - look no further than how free agency and the draft were handled. First, moves to bolster the poor defensive line were made, and Justin Bannan in particular seems like a solid pickup. Jamal Williams is older and slowing down, but he can certainly fill the middle. Other moves, including recognizing that Jason Hunter is a highly versatile player who can handle the OLB or DE slots equally, have strengthened the team even more. Jarvis Moss is a great example of developing a player from within. So is Elvis Dumervil, even if he’ll miss this year. Turning Marcus Thomas into a player who can handle any of the positions along the defensive line is another example. Both Robert Ayers and Hunter have been used on plays with their hand in the turf or standing up - both players are highly versatile, and both are being used with that in mind. That’s good football.

I’m not going to try to defend every move in the draft - I didn’t agree with a couple, and have said so before. But, even if you don’t like some of the picks, you can’t sensibly argue that the team didn’t use their picks to reorganize their draft to the way they wanted it. Parlaying a single first-round pick into several picks, obtaining one of the two top receivers in the draft (both are very good, and I’m happier with D-Thom), stocking the offensive line, which had turned out to have excellent starters but poor depth and then picking up Perrish Cox was, to me, brilliant. Jammie Kirlew didn’t last, but Syd’Quan Thompson has shown great potential and the cost was minimal. One of the things that is rare in any business is having management that is not afraid to make mistakes, nor are they afraid to see that what they thought was a fair bet was actually mistaken, and to quickly move to rectify the problem. That’s not a common skill, but we’re seeing it in the Broncos, and it’s an impressive process to watch. I happen to love organizational and teaching theory. On both, I’d have to give Coach McDaniels high marks. It’s impossible for me to look, as I’ve been doing, at the film of the Broncos from Week 1 to Week 2 and not feel a frisson of excitement. Denver is chasing a wild card berth, but the division title is, at this point, hardly out of reach.

It’s very early in the season. Players will step up, as Kevin Vickerson and Jason Hunter did this week, joining Cox and Thomas, among others. Jarvis Moss nailed his first sack in a long time, and played well - who would have thought they could revamp his game to this extent? Kyle Orton has shocked a lot of people. Eddie Royal has come back buffed and blazing. The list is long, and it’s early. 1.5 years into the project, I’d give it an A- (and every team makes mistakes, so even that is taken with a grain of salt). The team has cleaned the house, rebuilt much of the foundation and are working upward. I can’t ask for more. There’s only one other thing to say.

Go Broncos!

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

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