The “Winning QB” Theory

Wandering the net a few days ago, this story appeared. There have been lots of discussions on the theory of the "Winning QB" - in other words, references that were common with regard to Kyle Orton or another QB being the key to winning and losing, a belief that I took with a shaker of salt. The QB is very important, but not by himself. I thought that this blurb from SI.com’s Don Banks was particularly interesting:

MOST OVERHYPED STORYLINE -- Whatever will the Steelers do without Ben Roethlisberger? Umm, mainly win. During Roethlisberger's four-game league suspension, the Steelers went 3-1, losing only at home narrowly to Baltimore in Week 4. And the way Pittsburgh ran the ball and played defense, it didn't really matter who played quarterback in those games, (emphasis mine) although Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon turned in some solid relief work.

Pittsburgh went 3-1 without their highly-rated QB, a player whose name usually surfaces in discussions of the top 10, if not top 5, players in the league at his position. Why did the Steelers win with the likes of Charlie Batch? There are three reasons: they have a great running game, a greatly improved offensive line, and a brilliant defense. The only thing that Denver lacks is all three.

I’ve been a Dick LeBeau fan for a very long time. I think that his zone-blitz scheme, demanding as it is, complex as it is, confounds and confuses the QBs and OCs around the league with clockwork regularity. His teams constantly live in the backfield of the opposing team, which helps greatly in stopping both the run and the pass. It’s a rare game that a team can overcome the effects of that defense, and the Ravens, who have very similar credentials, are the most likely team to beat them. LeBeau belongs in the HOF for his coaching.

The point here isn’t to suggest that the QB isn’t an essential aspect of the NFL game - he is. There are teams who, without their QB, wouldn’t be successful. However - one of the aspects of the building and maintaining of an NFL team is recognizing that the QB is just one of the potential keys to winning in this league.

Bill Walsh, long my favorite coach, used to say that the head coach was equivalent to the production manager in a theater. All of the players - Joe Montana included - were simply that - players on Walsh’s stage (Montana never cared for that analogy). That was a long time ago, and granted, times have changed. But it’s important to look at the attributes besides the QB when trying to build a team that wins consistently over the years. Here are the things Denver will need to fix.

The Defensive Line Fix

The kind of defense that Pittsburgh has - not in terms of specific scheme, but in terms of having a powerful central core of players that are talented and who communicate well with each other - is one of the keys to a consistently successful team. Denver is, right now, farther away from that than most would like, but that doesn’t leave them in truly bad shape for the future. It does link to a need to develop and acquire more talent on defense. Every offense feeds off of turnovers, three and outs by your opponent and the knowledge that if it’s in the last two to four minutes of the game, your D will stop the opposing squad.

I have faith in DC Wink Martindale. He’s doing the best with what he has, and what he has needs to improve. He’s experienced, and I believe from watching and listening to what he has had to say, that he’ll do fine. Talent is a bigger concern to me. Denver has 11 rookies on the 53-man active squad, and many of the key players are aging. That’s understandable - you build with the draft, and that means rookies. When you’re replacing a lot of players, you’re also going to need the free agency route. FA acquisitions are often older players, and yet Denver has also found talented veterans who aren’t getting old - Jason Hunter, Kevin Vickerson and Nate Jones, to name a few.

Darrell Reid may yet return next year, and Elvis Dumervil, Matthew Willis and LenDale White will, too. Four more young veterans with experience and some talent - in the cases of Doom and Willis, a lot of talent. Reid is a special-teams ace who can fill in at LB (but probably won’t be in the standard rotation) and White will have another, perhaps a last, chance to prove that he can contribute and maintain his attitude.

The Broncos' run defense has been horrible, the linebacking corp has been hard hit by injuries, and the lack of a consistent pass rush puts way too much strain on the secondary, which has also been hit by the team’s injury bug. The struggles are also, obviously, due in great part to the non-presence of last year’s sackmaster Dumervil. His contract assures Broncos fans that Denver’s ability to rush the passer is going to be improved upon his return. If you can rush the passer, you can force a team to run. The difference here is that Denver will know that the opposing team is going to run; now they have to stop it.  This coming offseason, they can make changes appropriately. How?

I believe that Denver is on the way to achieving that. If the season ended right now, they would chose 5th in the 2011 Draft. That means high picks in each round, not just the first. They don’t have a ton of draft picks right now, but if they are still at or close to position 5 when the season ends, look for McX to be wheeling and dealing to change that. Denver has gone longer without a top 10 pick than any team in the game. That - and a lot of bad drafting by Mike Shanahan (to go with his FA fliers) and some questionable choices by McX have all been factors in the team’s troubles. This is their best chance to change things.

The defensive front 7 is one place to start - The DL is my first choice, and the safety position will also need attention. Brian Dawkins seems less effective so far this year, injuries and all. If that signifies the beginning of his slowing beyond his powerful self-will’s ability to keep him playing at a high level, Denver has options waiting. If Darcel McBath steps up, that only leaves David Bruton as a backup. Another safety will be needed. So will another CB, unless Syd’Quan Thompson shows that he’s able to handle the nickel. Nate Jones is an improvement, but he was a backup for most of his career for good reason and I’ve seen him be a step slow on too many plays. He’ll be able to fill in where needed for a couple of more years, but Denver needs to obtain or develop top people.

As I said above, Pitt tends to live in the opposing offense’s backfield. Whether run or pass - that makes anything far more difficult for the offense. Denver has a better DL than they have in years, which isn’t saying much. Jamal Williams has been a disappointment, if not a totally unexpected one. Another DE and a young NT (even if Kevin Vickerson or Justin Bannan take that role over) are essential. I’d prefer Ronald Fields at DE - he seems more comfortable there, and at 29, I think that he’s best settling in as much as possible, except for when the team runs a 40 front. Ryan McBean needs to recover his level of play or he won’t be around in 2011.

The Offensive Line Fix

The OL is actually in pretty good shape. We need a healthy Ryan Harris or another top RT. Zane Beadles needs to move to LG, and better backups would really help. Otherwise, it’s just an issue of time.

I noted this week something that I found on SI.com. Several of the better GMs around the league have commented to one of the writers that a starting lineup (from left to right) of Ryan Clady, Beadles, JD Walton, Chris Kuper and Harris would, with some experience, be one of the best in the league. It’s worth thinking about. Dreaming about, drooling about...it all starts with the OL - and has since Jim Thorpe was running the single wing back in 1915, and even before.

Fixing the Run

How do you fix the run? It’s easier said than done, but with two second-round picks in Walton and Beadles, very doable. I do wonder when McX will stop proving that Bill Belichick has more experience and will win most trades. Le Kevin Smith, Russ Hochstein, Laurence Maroney, Jarvis Green (via free agency) - the list is getting too long. I will make an exception for Lonie Paxton. Yes, he had a bad snap this season. It’s his first in 9 years:  that’s pretty good odds. The waste of a pick on Maroney bothers me even more than the LaMont Jordan acquisition a year earlier. Jordan knew the system and could help others to grasp it, even if he wasn’t much on the field. Maroney has been a constant injury risk, and hasn’t shown much on the field, either. Dang.

Back to the QB Question

Doug nailed this one in one of his Lard commentaries. From ESPN.com recently:

One of the benefits of having quarterback Tom Brady under center more often is that is sets up the possibility for play-action.

Yet last Sunday's win over the Vikings showed that staying in the shotgun can also create opportunties to keep defenses off balance. Danny Woodhead's 3-yard touchdown run in the second quarter came on a direct snap play, with Brady in the shotgun and faking as if the snap had come in his direction.

That was one of 20 plays in which Brady lined up in the 'gun last Sunday against the Vikings. Out of 54 snaps (including penalties), that meant that Brady was deep behind center 37 percent of the time.

The season numbers now look like this (small margin for error, includes penalties):

Total snaps: 415
Total shotgun: 183
Percentage: 44.0%

Shotgun percentages aside, Doug noted that it’s a lot easier to rebuild on the fly with a certain guy named Tom Brady in your pocket, and he’s exactly right. Orton is doing a heck of a job for Denver, but he had to learn the system. His numbers indicate that he has. He has a history of top red-zone numbers, but not in Denver. Since his red-zone QB rating was 101.3 back in 2008, the problem is unlikely to solely be Orton. Yes, that means OL and RBs - again. So, the big three for this coming offseason will be more running backs, defensive linemen and a safety, with a top linebacker a huge bonus if it’s possible. It’s a lot - but it’s also doable.

Final Note

This was in the Denver Post last Sunday - it may shock, even anger some folks, but it’s worth looking at and thinking seriously about.  

Signs point to eventual success for McD
History suggests that with a 10-14 record halfway through his second season, Broncos coach Josh McDaniels may be on pace to win a Super Bowl. Among the 27 coaches who have won a Super Bowl, 14 did not have a winning record through their second season. A look at their two-year record and Super Bowl season:

Coach First Team Record SB Season SB Team
Tom Landry Cowboys 4-20-2 Eleventh Cowboys
Chuck Noll Steelers 6-22 Sixth Steelers
Jimmy Johnson Cowboys 8-24 Fourth Cowboys
Bill Walsh 49ers 8-24 Third 49ers
Dick Vermeil Eagles 9-19 Fifth Eagles
Weeb Ewbank Colts 8-15-1 Fifth Baltimore Colts*
Bill Parcells Giants 12-19-1 Fourth Giants
Mike Shanahan Raiders 8-12 Fifth Broncos
Tom Coughlin Jaguars 13-19 Twelfth N.Y. Giants
Bill Belichick Browns 13-19 Seventh Patriots
Mike Ditka Bears 11-14 Fourth Bears
Jon Gruden Raiders 16-16 Fifth Buccaneers
Tony Dungy Buccaneers 16-16 Eleventh Colts
Hank Stram Texans 14-14 Third Dallas Texans **
*NFL championship ** AFL championship

We have a ‘now’ culture. The problem is, rebuilding a team isn’t a ‘now’ experience. If you look at the list above, Tom Landry, Chuck Noll, Jimmie Johnson and Bill Walsh might all be ridden out of town on a rail if they were coaching today, since they had worse records (at the same point) than McDaniels. Denver may have a tough decision to make in the next two years.

They have another two years to find out what direction the team is going in. Many say that it’s only one year - perhaps so, but although I know that some will hate this idea, I wouldn’t be so hasty. Pat Bowlen and Joe Ellis now know the numbers on what happened to Shanahan’s players, and they know that the injuries have been far worse than usual. What happens this offseason and next year will answer the questions that are in all our minds. McDaniels will get a fair shake, either way. If the team is visibly developing, McDaniels will probably get a 4th year. If they aren’t, he should leave, and I think that he’d be the first to say so.

Go Broncos!

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

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