Going into the 2009 season, the Denver Broncos are being written off by all but a very few media observers. The reasons for their disdain are not entirely specious - the Broncs have changed their head coach, offensive and defensive coordinators and schemes, replaced the defensive staff, starting quarterbacks, fired players wholesale (some of whom can't even get an audition with other teams, after a dreadful 2008), and turned over all of the position coaches save for offensive standouts Bobby Turner and Rick Dennison. The schedule, if you accept last season's rankings as valid, is nothing short of brutal. Their organization has had more drama than TNT.
But the process of rebuilding, if I can use the R word, is rarely easy. If you remove the statistics from the first few games of last season, the Broncos' offense was simply ordinary. Their ability to put points on the board and wins on their record was mediocre, while the defense was horrible. Head Coach Josh McDaniels has inherited a difficult task, but it's not impossible. He started the process by creating a game plan for the transformation of an organization that was too often laying down and accepting blowout losses as just 'part of the game'. He sold his vision to Pat Bowlen, Joe Ellis and Jim Goodman, and the die was cast.
McDaniels began the process by bringing in some of the best coaches that he could find. Mike Nolan was brought in to turn around a defense that was on life support and fading fast. Mike McCoy came on to work closely with McDaniels and change the offense. Wayne Nunnely, a 35-year veteran of the game, came in to teach the techniques and secrets of the 3-4 defense to the linemen, while other quality position coaches like Don Martindale (linebackers) and Ed Donatell (defensive backs) filled out the positions. On offense, Clancy Barone took over the tight ends and Adam Gase took on the receiving corps, while Turner and Dennison guaranteed some continuity with the running game that has long been a Denver mainstay. The special-teams play that had been missing in action for years was handed to Mike Priefer and supported by longtime Broncos specialist Keith Burns. If it's true that it all starts with the coaching, the Broncos have taken a big step forward.
The next step was to clean house on the players' side of the equation. There were wholesale releases of players who the coaches felt would not fit into the new approach to the game. Bigger, more physical, more cerebral and more versatile became the war cry of the day. Quickly, new pieces came together. Ronald Fields, Brian Dawkins, Andre' Goodman, Renaldo Hill and Andra Davis brought instant upgrades at their various positions. Surprise holdovers included Mario Haggan, who may start at OLB and safety Vernon Fox. While it's inevitable that there will be issues and glitches with the transition, there is also no question that McDaniels believes that he can win, and win quickly. There is a method to the madness.
"It's all very simple what my motive is - winning. That is the only reason I'm here. I'm not interested in talking about anything else but. Every minute of this job is done with winning in mind. That's all I talk to the team about. Winning is always the message."
Next came the NFL Draft, and the basis of Josh McDaniels' approach quickly became apparent. The Denver draft became a parade of players who excelled academically, on the football field, and as leaders of their teams. Even a cursory glance at the current roster reveals a cavalcade of captains and leaders. While the Broncos gave some thought to the issues of character last year as well, the difference between the two rosters is clear. Whenever it's possible, character isn't enough. Leadership is required. The players they have brought in are, with very few exceptions, those who not only are self-starters with excellent work ethics, but those who are able to motivate themselves as well as those around them; who can bring direction as well as enthusiasm to each aspect of the team. Such people also support and give back to the community.
I was contemplating this transformation recently and I began to accumulate some data. The more I investigated this tendency, on the insistence on collecting those who lead as well as those who excel, the more obvious the pattern became. The individual stories quickly became a cohesive whole, a tapestry woven of skill, belief and personal excellence. Leadership, by itself, won't win games. You have to have skills, scheme, ability and quality at all levels of the organization. But you can turn a program around far more quickly if all of the pieces maintain a talent for believing in themselves and the people around them. The process will not be painless. But if the players are able to manifest heir own highest selves and are willing to share that with all of those that surround them, the process will be, I believe, much faster and infinitely more effective. These are men who are giving back to the community as well as giving their best efforts to the team. Here are some of their stories. Whenever possible, I also linked the players' names to additional articles from MHR, for those who want a deeper level of understanding.
Brian Dawkins - I don't think that you can talk about leadership among the players without starting with Brian Dawkins. The former fiery soul of the Philadelphia Eagles was the spark that burns brightest on their defense for many years. Some feel that he's lost a step. Dawkins vocally disagrees. The effect of his passion and the transmission of his knowledge are incalculable. However, Dawkins was also named 'Father of the Year by the American Diabetes Association for his love of family and his dedicated work on the behalf of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. 2005 Eagles Man of the Year. Byron 'Whizzer' White Award winner, 2009. He was the 2009 spokesman for the United Way 'Live United ' campaign. On or off the field, Dawkins defines the role of a vocal, motivating leader.
Andre' Goodman - Those who aren't impressed haven't looked at the direction of his career. Goodman has continued to improve, unlike many players who plateau at whatever level they achieve in a couple of seasons. He brings a skill at interceptions that he can transmit to Alphonso Smith and Jack Williams. He tied for second in the league among cornerbacks with 5 INTs last season. He received Miami's nomination for the Ed Block Courage Award in 2007.
Renaldo Hill - Was twice named to his high school's honor roll. Recipient of the Miami Dolphins' Nat More Community Service award and was part of their All-Community Service team. He has worked with Habitat for Humanity. Has his own charitable foundation. He sponsored 21 foster children last holiday season.
Andra Davis - Former team captain of both his high school football and basketball teams, Davis was also a Butkus Award semifinalist. He came from extreme poverty in Live Oak, Florida to make a name for himself. After injuring his knee and redshirting his senior season, he returned to the Florida Gators and received the Most Inspirational Player award. Davis did something all too rare when he agreed to drop his base salary from $3 million to $1.67 million for 2008, also dropping two seasons off the five-year deal originally signed in 2005. He said, "Me and my wife (Monique, his childhood sweetheart from Live Oak, Fla.), money is the last thing on our minds. We grew up dirt poor. I’m doing way better than 99 percent of the people." He'll make the education of those players like Wesley Woodyard and Spencer Larsen much easier. He doesn't take plays off. He's not fast, but he's a sure tackler.
Mario Haggan - His predraft scouting report said in part, "Good tackler. Team leader with good intangibles. Smart player." He was a tweener when he came to the league, and fits the 3-4 very well. He was a leader on special teams in Buffalo.
Ron Fields - Most people don't know that in college, Fields majored in two things - teaching and coaching. He's an excellent leader. You start building a team by building the lines. Offense is set. Fields is an excellent student of the game.
Champ Bailey - He's a perennial team captain. Isn't always vocal, but you can't mistake his work ethic. A brilliant student of the game. 8 consecutive Pro Bowls and 4 consecutive years on the AP All-Pro team. Still a constant threat.
Vernon Fox - Serves as a motivational speaker for churches and schools.
Daniel Graham - Earned the Randy Brewer Award, given annually by Thomas Jefferson High School in Denver for the most inspirational player. Highest grade point average in his class as a junior in high school. 2008 team captain for the Denver Broncos. Previously was an offensive captain for the New England Patriots, a leader at every level he's encountered. Dedicated, devout Muslim.
Ryan Harris - Member of the National Honor Society and Junior ROTC, high school student council co-president. Part of St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly's Youth Advisory Board.
Peyton Hillis - Josh McDaniels said, "he is kind of an older-school type of guy in terms of being hard-nosed. Everything he does is that way, you are right. Physical fits him. Tough fits him. (He) plays smart. He plays a lot of different positions on our team. He has got very versatile skills. Those are the things we look for in all our players, and Peyton seems to be one of the few that it all comes naturally to him. That is just the way he is. He is a great guy to have on your team, a great teammate. We are fortunate to have him on our team." Casey Wiegmann said that when Peyton went down last year, it took the air out of the Broncos' sails - his enthusiasm is that contagious. Hillis is involved in supporting early reading among grade school students.
Spencer Larsen - Won the inaugural Pac-10 Student-Athlete of the Year Award. Earned a 3.7 GPA at Arizona. Took 2003-4 off for a two-year Mormon mission. A vocal leader and co-captain of his Arizona team. In college he was referred to as the 'Heart and Soul' of his defensive squad. He has a reputation for not being shy about vocally demanding the best from himself and his teammates.
Darcel McBath - Defensive captain, Texas Tech, 2008 Currently playing as Brian Dawkins' understudy.
Kyle Orton - Team captain for the Chicago Bears. Quiet leader, well-liked by his teammates. Works with an environmental organization called Cool Globes in Chicago.
Lonie Paxton - Although eyebrows raised at his signing, Paxton has two things to commend him: He hasn't missed a snap in years, and he serves as vice president of Active Force Foundation, which offers disabled people the opportunity to pursue an active lifestyle
Kenny Peterson - He's never smoked or drank, and speaks to youth groups in the D.A.R.E about staying away from drugs and alcohol.
David Bruton - A captain at Notre Dame, Bruton carries his love for his son, Jarden, on his sleeve and his passion for football out on the field. Another young man with a lot going for him, he achieved a double major in political science and sociology while in college.
Lee Robinson - CFA. His college coach, Earnest Jones, said, "...having Robinson is like having a coach on the field."
Tony Scheffler - 3.63 GPA in college.
Alphonso Smith - Defensive leader in college for Wake Forest
Brandon Stokley - Brandon served as the spokesman for the Meningitis Foundation of America (MFA) in 2004. A native of Louisiana, Stokley also assisted the victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita by donating clothing, food and supplies to people in the Gulf Region.
Casey Wiegmann - Along with being a leader on the Broncos offensive line, here's what denverbroncos.com has to say, "Spearheaded a fundraising effort by the Broncos that assisted in raising more than $50,000 to help rebuild his high school after it was devastated by a tornado on May 25, 2008... Served as an intern for the Legacy Financial Group during the 2005-06 offseasons... Worked as co-chairman for the Chiefs First Downs for Down Syndrome program, which raised $250,000 annually based on the production of the Chiefs’ offensive line, and is involved with the Denver chapter"
There are more, but the list is sufficient. The Broncos have loaded the roster with the smart and talented. The ones who lead are also those who excel, on and off the field. If the Broncos are to be successful in this rebuilding season - and I believe that they can be - they will have to rely on intellect, dedication and leadership as well as physical talent. they have begun to stack the roster with players who can lead on and off the field, those who are dedicated to more than just their own careers. As I did the research here, I found that nearly every player was involved with training camps for underprivileged children. Peyton Hillis and yes, even Brandon Marshall were involved in a child's reading program.
I am not going to suggest that this year will be easy. I don't know that we'll do more than come close to breaking even. I'm open to more, and I hope for better but I've read NFL history. These kinds of turnarounds aren't easy, and they're not usually fast. Yet the road back to prominence often requires sacrifice, and the Broncos are trying to achieve something not easily attained. They want to rebuild back to another Super Bowl while achieving rapid competitiveness. They have no intention of being mired in year after year of changing scheme and overhauling personnel, as many clubs have done. Coach McDaniels has obviously decided that in order to lead the league, you have to have leaders on your team. It makes a great deal of sense.
One of the advantages of bringing together a group of leaders is that leaders tend, by their nature, to be self-starters and self-directed individuals. They usually understand what it takes to be a leader and they try to manifest that in their professional lives. That means extra time in the weight room and the film room. It means listening to the senior leaders on the team. It means a better team and tends to continue to get better - that's what a leader enjoys doing. Leaders tend to take pleasure in personal improvement and a team-supportive environment.
I have to give credit to everyone from Pat Bowlen on down on this one. It's obvious that collecting players who are leaders is a priority. Last season, no one seemed to be willing to take up that role, especially on defense. DJ was being moved yet again and when moved out of the Mike position he became less of a leader. Nate Webster was supposedly leading the charge on the defensive play-calling, and there was no evidence that he was good at it. Champ isn't usually a vocal leader - he has a different style, more centered on example than vocalization. That weakness - that lack of leadership - was only one in a laundry list of issues, but without it the team was missing an essential cog, without which they did not seem capable of driving themselves upward. It obviously started at the top, with Mike Shanahan too long ignoring the needs of the defense and the skill-sets of the special teams. That isn't meant as a dig at Shanahan - just a statement of fact. The players complained about not even knowing what the scheme was, what was required of them. The result was odious.
In any successful organization, the quality of the leadership will determine the quality of the outcome. Leadership means having specific roles, clearly defined, from which the players can take their direction. It means personal accountability, effort, striving and production. It's the glue that creates a cohesive whole. Without it, you only have a mass of individuals, like the fingers on a hand. With it, you have a fist, powerful and daunting.
Leadership is the prow of the ship, slicing through waves of opposition. It can turn a contender into a winner.