John Fox holds to a theory of the game that has fallen out of favor with many. The advent of using statistics in football is still in its young stages. Even so, it’s impossible to argue that the NFL has become a passing league, which makes people wonder when Fox declares cheerfully that he believes in running the ball, defending the run and controlling the game. While it’s true, certainly, that the overall stats are more in favor of a passing game, Denver did try that with Josh McDaniels. McDaniels did a lot of good things that Denver is still benefiting from, but he didn’t turn the offense around much and the defense, which was gutted before he arrived, proceeded to head for the cellar while he was head coach. Pat Bowlen was ready to go out and find another offensive guy, but it was John Elway who convinced him that Fox was his man.
It hasn’t taken long for that to be shown to be a solid decision. Players have commented that Fox was a big reason for them to come to Denver - Ty Warren was one, Brodrick Bunkley another, and there were others. The draft looks like it went well, although you can’t tell for a few years to be sure. But there’s one thing that gets fans talking a lot - Fox’s belief in a system of football that statistics show should be less effective - running the ball, stopping the run, hard, aggressive football. Eric Decker believes that he has an answer:
There's no question. Getting those safeties to come down into the box, getting eight men in the box, it really exploits them down the field. We've done a great job of staying balanced, and that's our biggest key this year -- to run and pass.
Despite the amount of consternation around the issue, it’s a matter of percentages, and not that large ones, either. Play-action forced the Seahawks on Saturday night to respect the Broncos' commitment to running the football, leaving targets open for big plays. Kyle Orton was good at play-action when he had a bad team behind him. With a good one - a better one, at the least - he’s even better. Balancing the run and the pass is mostly a matter of who you have on your team, what your philosophy of the game is and what your team really needs. If you inherit Peyton Manning, you’re going to go with a passing game. If you inherit Adrian Peterson, you are going to run more. If you inherit a team that’s down in the dumps, there’s a huge advantage to using the running game more.
Following the Seattle game, you can see how, in real life, upping the running game was one of the smartest things that John Fox could have done. It’s reduced the third-down blitzes that created problems for Orton. It’s opened up passing lanes. And, Denver has developed a stable of good backs. They’re letting the OL guys do what they like to do most - run blocking, and the linemen get to attack the opposing defense. It helps to maintain the mentality of taking the game to the other guys, making them respond to you and always staying aggressive. It’s a philosophy that has worked for decades, and it’s one that still carries a lot of weight - look at the difference in Denver’s play so far.
It may not fit into the charts and numbers, but charts and numbers aren’t football teams. Every team has a different situation - if Fox had come in and found Peyton Manning, he’d be likely to keep to a passing offense. In this case, he needed to change the whole attitude of the team, and he kept OC Mike McCoy who can keep some continuity in the offense, but is also installing some twists that the WRs have publicly mentioned that they really like. Fox found no running game to speak of, and he decided to make major changes. The OL wasn’t doing its job: they weren’t handling the hybrid running style that McDaniels wanted from them, the RBs weren’t top drawer and Fox had to fix it. He moved to a zone-blocking scheme that the line had played before. He let them run-block, which linemen love to do. The team began to get aggressive. It’s been a long time since Denver was an aggressive team - now the question is whether that can carry over to the regular season.
Fox was lucky enough to get Dennis Allen as defensive coordinator. Brodrick Bunkley played under the late Jim Johnson in Philadelphia and said recently,
D.A. (Allen) might be as aggressive. He just might be, we'll see how that all plays out. I loved playing under Jim, he was a genius. Right now, what I'm feeling on that first night (against the Dallas Cowboys) and the night we played the Bills, it was a great feeling out there, we didn't want to leave.
That’s a great compliment. We’ll have to wait and see on DA, but the running game? Brady Quinn had this to say:
The running game opens up a lot of things. It allows the passing game and the play-action passes really to be more effective. So believe me, that’s something, as a quarterback, you love. You’re controlling the clock; you’re giving your defense time to rest.
It also looks like the Broncos have a few backs that will be able to move the ball this year. Knowshon Moreno has been noticeably faster and stronger this preseason at his new reduced weight. Young Jeremiah Johnson looks like he could be a keeper, as well as Brandon Minor. But the biggest difference in the running attack is veteran Willis McGahee, who said:
This is a great offensive scheme we’ve got going on. Coach Fox — he’s run first, then pass. You don’t get too many coaches like that.
McGahee provides the short - I’m talking 1-2 yards - run, the power run that Denver had gotten away from, and it’s clear from watching him over five quarters of play just how effective he can be. He’s the most familiar with the one-cut running style that is required to work with zone blocking, and he’s showing it. Knowshon Moreno is increasingly comfortable and his play, as noted, has picked up. Inclusive of the points above, I think this is additional evidence that the run-first offense is simply a matter of degree, and Fox seems to have determined a superb balance that the team really likes, plays well and believes in.
What’s most encouraging, I think, is that the same thing has happened on defense - the team has bought into the approach and the results have been very good. It’s no shock that the D had been suffering. DA recently came on the scene, having trained for the past two seasons under one of the greatest defensive minds to ever coach the game: Gregg Williams. Allen has Williams' fire, his focus, and a lot of his aggression comes verbatim from Williams' playbook. Allen appears to have picked up Williams' emphasis in practice and on the field - aggression, hostility, fear, focus and attack. The players love it. He gives them plays that let them attack the offense in ways that the OC has to constantly try and prepare for - and once the OC is trying to defend against Allen’s attacks, the battle is half won.
And the players love this team. They love the offense, they love the defense. Orton says that there may not be a team that can stop this offense for four quarters, and while it’s a prediction that will come back to haunt him now and then when there’s a bad game, he has a point: it’s a very well-balanced team compared to those in the recent past. I love the positive belief that he’s feeling. He’s got a better offense/defense than he has since Chicago, and Orton believes that they will be successful and he’s not sitting back anymore. It’s a good change to see - folks forget this, but Orton’s still learning. Champ Bailey has a surgical attachment named Rahim Moore, and Moore occasionally attaches himself to Brian Dawkins, just for the fun of it. Can you imagine how much joy that young man must feel, coming in as the starting FS and having Brian Dawkins and Champ Bailey to learn from? He just won the lottery. And, he shows the kind of young talent that can change games. The fact that he rarely needs to so far is a testament to the rest of the defense.
The players are vocally happy. They love Fox and his curt, folksy ways and they love that the community has come together again. They are forging an identity, learning who they are as a team. For the first time in many years, the team looks like they have a good coach who was given good pieces to put in place and top rate coordinators to run his system and who bring systems of their own to the party. I love the aggression that they show. It wins ball games, and it develops a sense of Denver’s tradition of winning. There’s a quality to the team that’s hard to put into words, but they are playing fierce. The defense in particular adapts to nearly anything and creates sheer chaos throughout the LOS area. The secondary is handling things in a manner that I haven’t seen in a long time - they play as a team, fill the gaps and tackle with hostility. The coverage from everyone, LBs and secondary taken together, has been the best that I’ve seen in quite a while. Moore, Kyle McCarthy and Cassius Vaughn are playing like polished veterans more often than not. They make their young mistakes, but they haven’t been repeating them. That’s good. The penalty situation needs to be addressed. People are making mental errors - it’s part of the lack of OTAs and minicamps that we knew might happen. But Denver is outdoing its opponents in the penalty department, and that’s a contest that you don’t want to win.
Other than that, there’s a remarkable sense of strength that I get when I follow what’s going on with these players. I hated to see Braxton Kelley go, and I think that he’s going to catch on somewhere. Final cutdowns this weekend will be tough - this is a very talented group, and you can’t keep all of them. But the ones who are left should provide an entertaining season for Broncos Country.
Bring on the 2011 season - and welcome to Denver, Coach Fox.