"The true test of an organization is not how it fares one year. It's building a competitive team year after year and competing for championships. It's what Indianapolis, New England and Pittsburgh have done. It's not one year of glory. We will see how Atlanta and Miami do this year. They started fast, but can they sustain success? That is the most difficult thing to do in this business." Anonymous Head Coach, August 2009
It may surprise the folks who adamantly believe that the people on staff of MHR are a monolithic whole and that all of us are a group of choate positivists, but that's really not the case. As a single example, I don't have any sense that the Broncos will be a team to beat in 2009. I don't even worry about whether we will reach .500 this season. We might, I hope that we do, but it isn't a concern to me. I think that there is a bigger issue.
Too often, people everywhere believe that their team must be instantly respectable or that those who are guiding the team through a major period of change aren't doing their jobs. I'm finding that to be short-sighted. I've heard a lot of statements such as, "If we don't go at least 8-8, we would have been better off keeping Shanahan," and "McDaniels has to win this year or he's going to be gone." I sympathize with those who feel this way. I don't agree. This has nothing to do with holding or not holding the team to a high standard. It has a lot to do with what I perceive a high standard to be and how I believe that you get from here to there.
There has been a lot of discussion centering around the performance of the Denver Broncos over the past three years. I won't belabor it, but there are a few things that I think are central to understanding just where the team was when this transition began. After all, a belief that a painful transition is required and even beneficial - a belief that I share - requires certain key elements to be true, to be worthy of the pain of acting on it. With regard to an NFL team, the qualifications to recognize in terms of needing to rebuild would go much like this:
- Does the performance of the team as it is structured indicate a trend towards success, a holding pattern or a trend toward failure? You don't make major changes if you're heading in the right direction. If you're treading water, finding the positives, accentuating them and reversing some negatives may be all that is required. If you're going downhill, it may be time to blow up the team and start anew.
- Second - Can you make wholesale changes within your current organizational model? Is the management team flexible enough and motivated enough to respond to what needs to be done?
- Last - Is there a plan for making change when it's required? These are the three questions that will establish what your needs are as an organization.
I. The Problem
Assessing the first question is easy: I doubt that anyone would seriously argue that the Broncos were doing well, or even holding steady. Look at the situation as it stood on defense: Not only did our defensive points per game rise like mercury in the summer, for the past three years, there was no plan for that to change. Bob Slowik was the third new coordinator in as many years, and it was painfully obvious that he had no innate grasp of how to remedy the situation. He was Mike Shanahan's guy, yet Shanahan had already decided to keep him another year. The roster was threadbare. Special teams were among the worst in the league, and all the fans heard about was the beautiful computer models that the ST coach was creating while their production was among the worst in the league.
And offense? Despite the '2nd in the league' story of offensive yardage, we had a lot of problems. The O line was great but Jay Cutler wasn't progressing, the running back position was decimated by scheme long before it was decimated by injuries and after the first 3 games, the Broncos weren't even scoring points. Red zone play was terrible and Cutler had too many turnovers in the RZ (7 plus a fumble that Hoculi gave him back). Wide receiver was looking pretty good, but our scoring was mediocre at best and more importantly - there was a palpable sense that no one was minding the store. Why was a young, inexperienced quarterbacks coach even calling the plays? Was Mike Shanahan even paying attention?What was going on?
The second point in the numbered list above is essential - Mike Shanahan wasn't making good changes. He made a lot of them, but they tended to be ineffective - the revolving door at defensive coordinator, the fliers we took on free agents and in the draft, the promotion of Jeremy Bates and the terrible special teams play were starting to show an uncomfortable sameness. After he toured other programs this summer, Shanahan was mentioned as looking into learning again, developing new approaches and doing the kinds of things that he hadn't done for years - and it showed, in his performance and the team's, that he hadn't. Few coaches are successful after a decade in the same place.
That led to the third issue - at no point in the past few years did I ever get a sense that Mike was clear on both where we were going and how we would get there. If that doesn't come from the head coach, it doesn't come into fruition. Bill Walsh, who took a 2-14 SF 49ers organization and turned it into a perennial contender and repeat Super Bowl champion, had a few rules that apply here. He said:
- Mold, refine and re-define the job you have.
- Skill, tradition of the organization you work for…Marines fight for Marines, no matter who they are. Develop a foundation for the organization; how we do things is critical.
- Do not expect players to be leaders. You must make sure that you develop the leaders. It’s an extension of you -- promote from within.
- Involve everyone in making the decision. Make sure everyone has an opinion. You must be a good listener
- Must be able to exact detail from everyone in the organization. Must be a network of longevity.
By these standards, the Broncos were in deep trouble. Given all of this information, Pat Bowlen made a tough decision. He decided to fire a well-respected coach and a personal friend.
II. The Change
At this point, a couple of facts of human life come into play. The first is this - everyone has an opinion. No matter what Pat Bowlen did, a lot of fans were going to dislike it. Mike Shanahan did a lot of great things with the Denver Broncos organization, but he hadn't done anything remotely great since 2005. The ship of state appeared to be drifting, the players were uninspired and the locker room was getting downright ugly, especially on defense, where players felt slighted and poorly used. Bowlen's decision was to bring on a young man who had unusually deep experience in coaching - Josh McDaniels.
The second deals with certain specifics of the process of creating change. This isn't about what particular changes have been made so far. There's no point in rehashing people's opinions about what has been done and what hasn't, who was and wasn't 'right' or what someone would do instead. In the final analysis - the person at the top has to implement the changes to the organization that he deems necessary to turn the ship around. People do not like change. It challenges their assumptions, it feels out of control and it always is - that's the nature of change. Change isn't simple and it isn't neat. It's messy. People will react to it. They will feel threatened by it. And, inevitably, the human ego-mind will rise to the forefront.
After one change in the organization, a fan wrote me and said, "I don't know what's wrong with this guy. You or I wouldn't have made that mistake!" I wrote back and agreed. We would have made a slew of other ones instead. I ran companies for most of my professional life, and one thing I became clear on was this: If you're at the helm, when you make decisions, many people will assure themselves that they would do things differently. They would, too. They will also assure themselves that their decisions would have worked out better than yours, which is debatable. And they will make the inevitable mistakes that people in new situations make, just like you do. But while they would ask for understanding and support for themselves, those same folks aren't going to give any to you. It's just the nature of mind-ego, and it hasn't changed since the first tribe had a conflict of leadership that was settled with a handy rock.
But when you make a change, you have to accept both problems and successes as part of the package. If a team goes through a crisis that requires wholesale change, it will be a rare situation that will suddenly and magically turn all around. You can't have a long memory in the leadership business. You have to accept your own human frailties and move on after each decision is made. I love Bill Walsh and all he gave football, but he also suffered terribly because he truly, deeply cared about what other people said about him and what was printed in the media. Josh McDaniels has said that he doesn't read the papers or other forms of the media. He really doesn't care what people think. He's hired to do a job to the best of his abilities. He's going to do just that. From an organiizational theory viewpoint he's done a lot of very good things, but that isn't going to convince anyone who dislikes him or disagrees with his decisions. And that's fine. The measure of his success will be his W-L record in 2010 and 2011 and that means that a lot of folks will stay angry during 2009.
That brings us to this season. I don't tend to do much predicting. My crystal ball is permanently at the shop and I don't read minds nor tea leaves. The factors that will dictate wins and losses in November will be very different from what we might project right now. They will be affected by injuries that haven't manifested yet, both ours and our opponents. They will be affected by which games we lose and win between now and them, by trials and benefits in each organization that haven't yet occurred. But here's what matters most to me.
I believe that the Broncos were a team on their way to the cellar.
The players were disheartened, especially on defense. The schemes on both offense and defense were often strange and lacked apparent cohesion. There seemed to be gaps in the coaching on both offense and defense (particularly between Bates and Cutler, on offense) that didn't bode well for the future. We lacked a coherent strategy for changing our direction and seemed to float on the wind with regard to coaching. There was no over-arcing approach that the organization could hold on to or stick to. Now, for better or worse, there is.
Coach McDaniels brought in some extremely good coaches. Wayne Nunnely, as an example, has seen it all and he's a treasure. Mike Nolan has already brought a different theory, formation, scheme and attitude to the defense. The scheme that Coach McDaniels used on offense in New England has been one of the most productive in football, but NE didn't suddenly and magically have a great team. They had to build it. The Broncos' organization has brought in capable veterans. Some folks won't like any approach to the draft, but there's early evidence that players like Knowshon Moreno, Darcel McBath, Richard Quinn, David Bruton and even Tom Brandstater will work out well. I have yet to hear a good argument that our current roster isn't a big improvement over last season's. Sure, there will be arguments on certain players and deals that have occurred, but overall? Overall, we have more talent on the roster. We've jettisoned some bad contracts and some bad players. We've gotten bigger, tougher and more physical.
I've heard a lot of people assert, rightfully, that you have to build through the draft. I agree, but doing so takes years and most of those same folks want to see wins this year. I do too, but it's hard to have both. You have to bring in payers who can contribute right away. You have to replace them, over time, with young talent, players who will be better at their jobs and who will fit the scheme even better. You can reasonably ask for 4-6 good players per draft and with a team of 53, that's a lot of drafting. NFL coaches don't have long to show results. Asking too much, too fast, has killed a lot of teams.
My own feeling is that people need to be a little more realistic. A bad game or two (especially if it's preseason) isn't a reason to jump off a bridge. You don't jump from one approach to another - that's how we got into this mess. If you're a coach, you have to work with the players you have, develop them and have faith in the system. It takes time. There are no shortcuts.You have to take a group of man who have never worked together. They need to get to know each other, trust each other and believe in themselves as a group. There are no simple answers.
If you're a fan, it's your life and it's your liver. Passion is beautiful. Too frequent complaining and too much anger are hard on the heart and bad for the health and don't help anyone much. Patience is a virtue, but it's often a rarity. If you expect a team with this much change to be good immediately, I think that you're setting yourself up for disappointment. Excellence takes time, effort and consistency. It won't happen quickly. There are things that are happening quickly, though. HT noted a few of them in the comments to his (danged brilliant) 5-2 article:
- Much less missed tackles,
- Much less over pursuit,
- Much more effort.
These aren't small differences. They go beyond scheme and into the realm of pure coaching. They are among the things that we've lacked and that needed to be changed.They will give us better chances to win in the future.
We've needed to accept that the only way to turn a team around in the short run is to improve the schemes, improve the coaching and to bring in a lot of free agents. Free agency is a poor approach to overall team building but we were left with little choice, really. With such disparate defensive schemes as Larry Coyers', Jim Bates' and Bob Slowik's, you aren't going to have much of a nucleus of players to work with and that was true. The cupboard was bare. That's a huge problem that isn't going to be solved in one offseason. There are going to be gaps in our rebuilding this year and other teams are going to exploit them.
We now have new schemes on offense, defense and special teams. It takes time to learn them, to produce within them and to excel at them. The defense already looks better than last year, which is faint praise but true. The offensive scheme is one of the most complex in football and it won't emerge overnight (And yes, it's a lot more than screen passes and dumpoffs). Look at what NE did even with Matt Cassel at the helm.Complex offenses don't evolve overnight, and you can't teach them overnight, either. Different players are going to make mistakes each week as they are mastering the schemes and their responsibilities in them.
Pat Bowlen has already mentioned publicly that they've talked about the possibility of a slow start to the season, they recognize what it could mean and they are going to move forward. I suspect that the Broncos fans may go ballistic if it happens. I won't. I know that creating long term change is difficult. It's messy. You're going to be questioned, disliked, hated and reviled, but that if you're the head of a team, you can't listen and you can't let it dictate your decisions. You have to look within yourself and make the decisions, accept that some will be right and some wrong and move forward. If you're a fan, seeing that might make this process a little less painful.
When Bill Belichick took over the New England Patriots, he would frequently say, "We're not assembling talent. We're building a team." It's a good point. You really are as good as your worst players. Developing that kind of depth requires time. Bill Walsh went 2-14 in his first season with the 49ers, but he won the Super Bowl two years after that. Bill Belichick had a 5-11 record in his first season with the now-perennial playoff contender squad in New England. Personally, I'm looking at a similar season for the Broncos. I'd be glad if I'm wrong, but if I'm right, it doesn't dishearten me.
There's been a saying going around that if we don't at least reach 8-8, there was no reason to make these changes. My own feeling is that if a few calls had been accurate last season, we would have gone 5-11, not 8-8. That kind of production is a very good reason to create wholesale change. It's unreasonable to expect those kinds of gifts to flow from the officiating two season in a row. If we end up 5-11, we'll be maintaining the same level of production for this season. If we do better than that, we're going to be accomplishing two things - stopping the slide we were in, and turning around our momentum. It won't be easy.
I'll be looking toward December more than anything. If you can see an improvement in the way we play later in the season, there is a huge change in the wind. Keep in mind our record over the past three Decembers - 1-3 last year, 2-3 in 2007 and 2-3 in 2006. We were a team that started well and failed miserably. We need to grow, develop and improve over the course of the season. It's something we haven't done in a few years.
We might look at something that's been happening in San Diego. They have been starting out poorly, perhaps reading their own press clippings and then settling down, stiffening up as the season goes on. That's one big reason that they've been winning the division. Some Super Bowl winners have started 1-3, 1-4, but they finished strongly. Arizona had a mediocre year in 2008, but they got hot when it counted and went to the SB as a wildcard team. How you play in winter dictates what direction you are moving in as a team. If we play .500 ball in December of this year, we'll have improved on our late season record of each year since 2005. That should give every fan a little pause.
There's nothing tougher than change. It challenges our beliefs, summons our most fearful thoughts and can always - always - go wrong on you. You can't know if you're on the right track in preseason - they don't count those games for a reason. Detroit goes 4-0 in preseason because no one else really cares if they win. You can't know if you're making the right changes in the first quarter or even the first half of your first season. Some of the best teams in history had lousy first seasons under new coaches and they, too, heard the boos, the demands for their heads and the bitter complaints of the fans who knew in their hearts that they could do better than the bum on the sidelines. Josh McDaniels isn't the first and he won't be the last.
When Belichick took over in New England, he had a few things going for him. One was that no one expected instant results that would manifest in the wins column. You rarely make wholesale changes in coaching, personnel and scheme and expect a quick improvement i the record - it isn't usually going to happen, and it places an unrealistic burden on the new order. Broncos fans aren't used to losing and they shouldn't be, but this season might be an exception. Will Bowlen fire McDaniels if they have a bad season? I doubt it. Will people scream, yell and curse his name? A lot of them are already doing that now, so there won't be that much of a difference if they do. But are those expectations of instant success reasonable? I'd argue that they're not. If the fans don't give the new systems a chance to develop, they'll be working themselves up for nothing. McDaniels is here for 2-3 years at the least.
By the way, Coach Belichick also had a degree in economics. He understood the 'new order' of the NFL with the salary cap better than nearly any other coach, and it's shown. While some folks have tried to dismiss Brian Xanders as a 'nobody', 'unimportant' and 'a tool', he's an expert on the cap and on contracts. Every team in the modern era has or needs such a person. Coaches coach, and general managers handle personnel matters, by which I mean the negotiation of contracts and the management of the cap. Xanders is well suited to the job and has been highly regarded in that respect around the league (there's no shortage of articles mentioning this, for those who want to look a little more closely). That's also in the Broncos favor. In an era where one bad contract can hamstring a club for half a decade, contracts are an essential ingredient in brewing a winner. If you look at history, becoming a winning franchise, a perennial playoff contender, is a job that takes at least 2-3 seasons.
How you see this is an individual thing. I wouldn't presume to tell someone else how to see the situation. I'm just telling you how I see it. More often than not, it's been my experience that people show a projection of other things in their personality when they decide how to respond to change, but as fans we have every right to cheer, to boo and to let our feelings be known. But I will say this - try to keep a sense of history. Big changes offer big challenges and huge opportunities. Don't give in to your greatest fears, your inner demons or a rampaging mind-ego. Try to find a sense of comfort. It isn't all bad. I promise you that it could be worse.
We could be sitting here and debating the oncoming season including Bob Slowik's role in it. We could be running a scheme that isn't a 5-2, 3-4 or even a realistic 4-3. Jeremy Bates could be calling the plays on offense. Nate Webster could be starting at middle linebacker. Think about that. Now, realize that it's only a bad dream.
Doesn't that feel better?