The Broncos started out the preseason looking exactly the way John Fox’s teams tend to look: they had 20 runs to 14 passes at halftime. During one stretch of their first offensive series, they ran the ball six consecutive times (the last nullified by penalty). Never mind the preseason-ishness of the goal-to-go fiasco. They are going to run the ball, run it hard and dare teams to stop them. And while you’re waving the pitchforks and torches made of stat printouts, let me say one thing in their favor: it can work. Maybe it won’t as an average in the league, but it’s not an average that the Broncos need. It’s a single franchise - prone to laws of probability only in part. The fact is, every team makes its own season by doing what it does better than the guys who try to stop them. Denver has made two very smart moves this offseason - one on offense, and one on defense.
It doesn’t matter who you prefer, like, dislike or cheer for - everyone can agree on a few things. We can, for example, agree that no one knows if Denver has a franchise QB among their four. None of them have stepped out enough to stake such a claim, and that may mean going through some harder times at the position. When you’re putting together your options and traditionally you’ve had a lot of success with the run, you start with the run.
You put a big, mean road grader in Orlando Franklin at RT, who could move to LG if some onlookers are right and Zane Beadles isn’t getting it done (I’m on the fence - much too early to know), and you find a better option at RT next year. You pick up an efficient runner like Willis McGahee and you see how he, Knowshon Moreno and (apparently) Jeremiah Johnson fit together. Along with Lance Ball (who tweeted on Monday, “I GO HARD!”), the media guys at practice were calling them Fox Force Five as a half-joke prior to yesterday's release of LenDale White. C.J. Gable is another option that Denver picked up two weeks ago when Mario Fannin (now on IR) succumbed to injury. Brandon Minor is also turning some heads.
All of them have multiple skills, and in this league that’s essential - every QB has to find and use a key outlet - Kyle Orton had great success in Chicago in the red zone with Matt Forte as one. Brandon Lloyd is not an outlet, he’s a sword. In another life I studied the arts and history of the sword, from the Japanese bokken and katana through the French foil. The outlet guy is a dagger, a short weapon used when you’re in close. No matter who’s at QB, he’ll have to have one. A few QBs can develop more, but that’s usually over time.
One thing that you can’t get by - McGahee has the experience in a one-cut zone blocking system that the other backs lack, and it has really been showing in practice. It’s there in that smoothness that he exhibits. Moreno also looked much better on Saturday, while Jeremiah Johnson looked good both Saturday and Monday, but including Ball, all three are trying to learn what McGahee does naturally. It showed in Dallas, and it’s showing in practice.
For the most part, I liked J.D. Walton’s run blocking a lot more then I did last year, and Franklin seems to be having an effect on these guys. If they make running the ball into something that’s hard to stop, those passes in the red zone get a lot easier. Lloyd, Eddie Royal, Matthew Willis and Julius Thomas (as his blocking improves) are a great bunch of options, and Daniel Fells could be what we need at TE. If the line holds up better on the run, play action - which is one of Orton’s strengths - becomes a lot harder to stop. It’s the beginnings of a simple, effective offense that has to start with the run.
You can’t forget the importance of the receivers blocking in the run game, especially downfield. Five yards can turn into 50 with one good WR block in the second level. Denver’s receivers have taken a certain level of pride in their run blocking, and that’s something else that a running team just has to have - the WRs have to buy in and take pride in it. The TEs should be included without question. Denver has those things, although they’re a work in progress on the TEs. The WRs, though, are big on their role there. Suddenly, your team has a weapon that they can bring to the party. It’s limited - it’s no help when you’re down two TDs in the 4th quarter, but it can get you up by a TD earlier on, and it does open the passing game. Sure, the modern game is designed on the pass, but the run is a serious weapon when used right.
This is what’s true for the defense: they don’t have to be brilliant - they have to be better. I’m encouraged by what I’m seeing so far. It’s a diverse group of guys, coming together with only a handful of ties to the past. Rookie Rahim Moore looks to be a fast learner - and he’s a rookie, so expect the mistakes. Brian Dawkins and Champ Bailey anchor the DBs - there’s a lot of young talent around them. The youth has to step up - and they’ve made a good start.
The front seven got a makeover. It needed one - it’s still a group of guys who don’t even know who’s going to have a job, so getting the chemistry together is a day-by-day thing. I really like the start that they’ve made - they also left a chunk of room (about $20 million’s worth) in the till, so they’ve got space to improve the group next year, and I think that’s smart. They are putting a good group together with great changes and some continuity at LB, and going with an aggressive, in-your-face approach. Finding out how that holds up in adversity will tell us a lot about where this season will go.
The Fox Effect
Head Coach John Fox has his own way of doing things. He showed that in the way that he took his time bringing new players into the system. As Fox told the Denver Post,
I think we eased them in some. It's not like we just threw them in there immediately. But they were in meetings, they were learning, and these guys have played. It's not like they're rookies or in their first time in the NFL. They know the drill. They've got that football background.
Ty Warren was very verbal about coming here because he liked what Fox had to say, and other free agents, much as Broncos fans feared that Denver was no longer a desirable location, have said much the same. While Warren’s injury, combined with that of Marcus Thomas are a challenge, Fox has orchestrated a franchise turnaround before, and his simple, direct, aw-shucks style combines to partly hide an incessantly focused and competitive drive. He trained one of the guys around him (Mike McCoy) and seems to fit pretty seamlessly with the others. He’s taken the entire defense a step or two closer to highly competitive. EFX will have to keep their own focus, but the foundation has been well-laid.
"If there are some opportunities for you out there, you try to pick the one that suits you best," said tight end Daniel Fells. "I know I can contribute to this team, with Coach Fox's philosophy. It's just a matter of getting the opportunity." Fells, at 272 a tenacious blocker, is the kind of player that Fox seems to attract - tough, sometimes underappreciated, and very hardworking. Those are also the FAs who are starting. Fox brings his own calm panache along with him, and it’s a valuable quality for Denver. Adding it to John Elway’s veritas and the intense, quiet fire of Dennis Allen means that this is a very different group for Denver. Results are always the final arbiter.
On the other end of the process, DT Louis Leonard has been released and LB Derek Domino was waived without me referring to him as the Derek ‘And The Dominos’ once. Denver picked up wide receiver Greg Orton (nope, no relation) and he practiced on Monday. Ty Warren picked up #94 when Leonard left - we’ll have to wait to see if he’s going to wear it. The words ‘partial tear’ are a ray of partial hope.
My Quotes of the Week came from RB Coach Eric Studesville, courtesy of Kenny Legan,
Running Backs Coach Eric Studesville shouted instructions the whole time such as, “Stay square; bring your hips,” and the classic, “We pay for that weight room. Use it!”
and from DC Dennis Allen, via Gray Caldwell:
During a tackling drill near the sideline, Defensive Coordinator Dennis Allen told the linebackers, “Don’t let him go out of bounds — make him pay the toll!”
The Injury Game
Denver was fortunate in the early going in training camp,suffering little but a few sprains and soreness. Sadly, that ended this week with injuries to Marcus Thomas (pectoral strain) and Ty Warren (triceps tear). This may change the starting lineup for a while, but it’s normal to the game. Every team needs to be able to cover for injured players, which is what depth is all about.
Ted’s article yesterday talked about this thoroughly in one sense - Denver has a lot of options with regard to the front seven. Jeremy Jarmon has been taking snaps at DT. Brodrick Bunkley's been taking them at NT. Robert Ayers rolls to DT on some downs. There are a lot of ways to cover for an injured player, and there is a necessity for the depth players to step up.
No one really thought that Warren would get through this season uninjured. He’s 30, he’s got a history of injuries over the past four seasons now, and Denver was going to have to manage his reps at the least. While it’s disappointing to lose his pass-rushing and run-stopping abilities this early, the team rolled the dice on this one. It’s why they didn’t offer a better contract to 32-year-old Justin Bannan. The dice came up snake-eyes for Warren so far, but it’s part of the sport. You deal with it both by players stepping up - Bunkley and Kevin Vickerson isn’t a terrible pairing - and by adjusting the scheme. Improving the DT position will continue to be an emphasis for Denver over the next season and offseason.
Most of you know that I tend to step back these day when people are arguing about the Broncos' QBs. I’m in favor of whoever starts for Denver doing a good job. I’m in favor of the team making sure that whoever starts has the tools he needs to do his job - that means developing receivers (which Denver has done beautifully), an offensive line (a work in progress that looked better in brief work in Dallas) and a running game (John Fox’s first objective, which requires players, scheme and an OL).
But I think that all of us are in favor of Denver developing players - any and all positions, and especially QB. Let’s face it - if we don’t know if the Broncos have a “franchise guy” on the team (and we as fans and they as a team don’t), they need to be developing whoever they have as best as they can. Kyle Orton noted that after four months of training with Josh McDaniels he’d learned more than he had during four years in Chicago, and I’ve noted why in the past. QBs in the NFL are all too frequently poorly trained by the team, both during and between seasons. In today’s case, it’s Tim Tebow who’s getting some much needed development, and the source of his training is none other than John Elway.
Clark Judge wrote a nice article about how Elway took Tebow out onto the field and they went through an intense workout on Monday, taking the time to make all the drops and all the throws, and emphasizing something that Tebow has had trouble with - learning how to keep and use his base. You see, even though Elway made throws that were unreal, throws that no one should be able to make, it was more than the cannon on his shoulder. Elway grew up under Coach Jack Elway, and Coach Jack made sure that John was trained and retrained by the best. John knows the basics and advanced concepts and techniques that make a top QB.
"We kind of did everything in that period," said Tebow. "Every type of drop. But more than anything, it was working on footwork and having the same footwork on every single drop. If you have the footwork, you have the same base. And when you have the same base every time, you can have the same throw every time." Meaning ..."If your base changes," said Tebow, "then your shoulder is going to change, and your arm is going to change. But if you have the same base you have the same type of drop, whether it's three or five or seven steps, and your throws won't change. So you can get consistency."
Consistency would go a long way to improving Tebow’s game. So far, he hasn’t been able to put the pieces together, but he’s young and he needs time and training. Having one of the top QBs of all time take the time out to privately work with you is no small thing. I keep an archive on articles, videos and training concepts on developing QBs, and it’s a complex world where there is not complete agreement on the best way to develop and train the younger QBs. But no one can really suggest that given how the movement aspects of Elway’s game and that of Tebow’s overlap, that Elway’s help could go to a more important task.
Tebow hasn’t shown yet that he’s ready to be a #1 QB. That’s not surprising to me - he’s a guy whom Josh McDaniels, John Elway, John Fox and Mike McCoy have all talked about as being a heck of a guy and a great football player, but not yet an NFL QB. Tebow needs time and development - I’ve always said so, and that hasn’t changed. But I love hearing that Elway has decided to take a personal interest in improving that situation. It helps the player, and it also speaks pretty loudly to those who suddenly want to see Tebow gone. Tebow will work hard on what he’s being taught and he deserves a chance to try and put it into action. All the best to him.
Shuffling off to Buffalo
Ask John Fox what he wants to see changed in the next preseason game other than the final score - Fox doesn’t play Tiddlywinks for fun - and he’s likely to tell you ‘Eliminate the errors’. The 10 penalties, for example. The 15-yarder that eliminated a nice deep punt would be one good choice. One of the keys to a well-coached team is eliminating errors.
I’m not trying to suggest that guys who’ve just been together for a week or two are going to have all the glitches worked out. Some of the mistakes were just young guys who were excited at their first pro game - Von Miller played out of control at times due to that. The real question will be whether they’re making the same ones over and over again.
Big kudos to those guys who made impact plays in Dallas, too - Jason Hunter’s two sacks and Kyle McCarthy’s one among others. Denver needs guys who make big plays - every successful team has them, and backs them up with more players who can do the same. You need plays that kill drives and give your offense a numerical advantage. It can matter more than time of possession.
Run blocking, play action and tough yardage will decide the Buffalo game.