What about when it’s run right?

After nearly two years were dedicated to installing much of Josh McDaniels’ offense, one that clearly had its roots in the New England Patriots' approach, I was interested to look at how the Pats' offense has done this season. Having seen McDaniels try to get the Denver offense to play in much the same system and style, I wanted to see where he was going, and which externally visible factors might have come into play. When McDaniels was hired, Doug and I did an in-depth series on his offensive tendencies while with NE. We thought that he’d start off in much the same style of play, and that’s essentially what happened.

Last season, people complained loudly that ‘all’ Denver ran were screens and short passes, and there was a lot of truth to those claims. But what didn’t seem to reach the fans was that the team struggled to handle those aspects of the system, and adding more complex plays that take longer to unfold was simply impossible with Denver's ragtag offensive line. It was a line hurt by internal problems, a lack of depth and an attempt to get into a different blocking scheme on many of the plays. The group still ran the zone-blocking run game during much of the year, but that wasn’t effective either - too many injuries to both linemen and running backs simply took their toll. The passing game was erratic, the defense porous, and the personnel issues and deep-seated anger of the fan base made for less-than-optimal viewing and even less enjoyable reading as the year wore on.

In the wake of that season, some bright viewers looked over the 2008 roster and noticed that the majority of the team’s players couldn’t get or hold jobs around the league once Denver cut ties with them. Personnel was a far bigger problem than scheme or coach’s preparation for the games, and it still is. The players didn’t execute well;  that and other factors eventually led to McDaniels' dismissal. It’s old news, now. But what’s interesting to me was watching film of New England over the past several weeks. It was a sort of window into where McDaniels saw the team going in his imagination, a direction that resulted in his hiring. Remarkably, if the same offense came to Denver, there would have been a lot of initial resistance. It isn’t what the fans are used to, but with some pieces back in place for New England, it’s winning. Eventually, winning solves nearly all of a team’s issues. Unfortunately, without properly developing the team, winning is nearly impossible.

Last year, Tom Brady was still recovering from his knee surgery, and a lot of people went to sleep on the Patriots. Note - it usually takes a guy with that kind of surgery another full year to get back all of his skillset. Learn to expect it. You’re dealing with adhesions that form during the surgical and rehab process, you’re asking the human mind to ignore the pain and stiffness that professional sports will create in a post-surgical knee patient, and you’re asking that same mind to accept that the area that hurts and is stiff is actually fine and perfectly safe to put your weight upon. It’s a tough road.

Even Brady couldn’t manage that right away, but this season, he’s back to his usual form. With 4 games yet to play in the regular season, he’s just over the 3,000-yard mark and has 27 TDs to go with a stingy 4 INTs. His QB rating is a scorching 109.5, and his team is 10-2. He’s running to perfection that offense that Denver fans absolutely hated at first, and still didn’t care much for in 2010. 

With that background in mind, I happened across this analysis from Bill Simmons of the upcoming games this weekend, and found it instructional. It mentions something that Denver fans should consider when looking to the future or contemplating the recent past:

BEARS (+3) over Patriots

The 9-3 Bears need to get to 12-4 and a 2-seed to qualify for "creeper" status. Don't sleep on them Sunday. Haven't we been here before? A contender looks unstoppable on Monday night at home, everyone spends the next few days fawning over the team, and meanwhile, it has a scary road game looming six days later against an underrated contender that matches up with it pretty well.

Put it this way: If the Patriots win this one, we can officially say they're peaking better than the 2007 Pats did. The 2007 offense peaked from Week 1 to Week 11 (41 points a game), then faded a little down the stretch (29.7 points a game) when the weather turned, the pressure mounted and defenses realized that the Pats couldn't really run the ball. The 2010 Pats just dropped 160 points in their past four games (two of them against the two best AFC teams) and are suddenly pushing the 2007 Pats as the best offense footballoutsiders.com has EVER measured. The big differences: They can run the ball better; they aren't as reliant on big plays from one receiver; and their screens in the two-tight-end offense (whether it's a running back or a receiver catching the ball) have been absolutely devastating. Teams are terrified to blitz them now because they can unleash one of those screens at any time. On the flip side, their defense isn't as good as the 2007 crew. Not even close. We'll know more after Sunday.

Well, we will, of course, know more on Monday. But if you just read the blurb, you already know more - more about what McD was trying to create in Denver and more about the personnel problems that Denver has in moving forward as well. 

Last season, fans were ready to explode if they saw one more screen. They cried out for the long pass, something to ‘keep the defense honest’. As is often the case in life, the answer was right in front of people, but it was hard to accept. You see, the ‘2 TE’ screens that NE is having such success with were exactly what Denver was trying to use for the same purpose. Fans listened to the general media and yelled that they’d scream even louder if they saw one more bubble screen. Time with some film hinted to me that most of them wouldn’t know a bubble screen from a tunnel screen or a smoke route, but that didn’t really matter. The meme was making the rounds, and as Mark Twain once noted, a lie can run around the globe twice while the truth is getting its shoes on. 

The problem in Denver was simple - implementing the playbook was going to take some time, as would improving the personnel (some through coaching and some through replacement). It called for a level of personnel that Denver didn’t have, doesn’t have right now, and wasn’t able to fully establish in time to save either McDaniels' job or the season. The tight ends have specific and essential roles in those screen plays, and without those plays the defense can blitz pretty much at will. The running backs also have key responsibilities, and in 2009 Knowshon Moreno wasn’t prepared to make the kinds of adjustments on the fly that his own role (shared by Correll Buckhalter) would also require. 

Add to that an offensive line that married multiple injuries with lack of depth and simple failures of execution, and it’s unlikely that even the most rabid fans were less happy than McDaniels. Matt Cassel had run one of those screens 30 times in 2008 and was successful on 28 of them. Denver ran it nearly 30 times in 2009 before getting it right once. It would work in practice but fall apart on the field. Blame the coaches, blame the players, blame the Curse of Brett Kern, but that’s still what happened. 

Which made it even more interesting to watch what New England is doing. Granted, as much as I like Kyle Orton, he’s no Tom Brady. Eddie Royal so far isn’t Wes Welker, either, but NE can do this with other players as well. NE has been dunned for the level of play of its TEs in the past, but watching Alge Crumpler teaching Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez (with Carson Butler in the wings) to play this role has in itself been instructional (Crumpler, by the way, has been mentoring Denver's Richard Quinn since Quinn was in college). By the way, no separate TEs coach is listed on the NE website, which I found interesting. The offensive assistant is Brian Ferentz, and Brian Flores is the assistant to both the offense and special teams while Tad O’Shea fills in the role of wide receivers coach. Shane Walton, the former TEs coach, left the team last February, and Ferentz, the oldest son of Iowa Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz and a former Iowa center himself, has taken on most of Walton’s duties. 

I’ve noted before that the illustrious HOF coach Sid Gillman used to say that with two good tight ends he could control the center of the field. Half a century later, NE is proving that. McDaniels was in a permanent state of flux with the tight end group, which is a big reason that former second-round pick Alphonso Smith, clearly unhappy and a poor fit for Denver, was quickly traded to the Detroit Lions for Dan Gronkowski, brother of the Patriots’ 2010 second-round pick Rob Gronkowski. Denver had to have quality TEs to protect the QB and make those screens an effective weapon. They really never got where they needed to in that arena (Dan Gronkowski was developing quickly when he dropped to a season-ending injury last week, as had Marquez Branson in the preseason).  Without the two-TE screens working to protect the QB, blitzing becomes viciously effective and repetitious - far too effective. Brady is as immobile outside the pocket as Orton, but Brady’s been sacked 18 times to Orton’s 33. Hits and hurries are similarly weighted towards Denver being on the short end of the stick. 

Tony Scheffler had always run into inconsistency, and while his blocking improved over time, it never became a strong suit. His attitude in 2009 was simply unacceptable for a professional athlete, when he commented that he couldn’t wait for the season to end; it was a comment made when Denver was still in the hunt for a wild card slot. He wasn’t the player Denver needed. Richard Quinn has come along in a pretty common style, getting his feet wet on special teams, struggling to understand a complex playbook and improving over the course of his second season, but he’s just getting to the point where he’s becoming consistently effective. Daniel Graham is a good receiver and a good blocker, but the approach needs two good TEs, a third to rotate in on 3-TE sets and a functional offensive line (the TEs don’t do you any good if the middle of your O-line consistently allows double A-gap blitzes to keep hammering the QB up the middle). 

But to get to the highest offensive rating that FO.com has ever measured, New England has all of those things in place that Denver struggled to find: a quality, mostly stable OL (and one that has depth) as well as a HOF quarterback, a HOF head coach, Wes Welker sometimes even coming off the bench to add 72 catches this season, Deion Branch adding 36 catches and a lineup of additional receivers you probably haven’t heard of. The system has been in place long enough that NE can bring in people and get them up to speed quickly. And, they have a surgically precise screen game, run off of a max-protect two-TE set. 

That’s exactly where Josh McDaniels was heading, had he better help with personnel decisions and time to implement it (on the fly, while replacing over half of the team and dealing with injuries to players who had no backups of sufficient skills in place). I find it interesting, given recent history, to watch that ‘dink and dunk’ offense. With murderously effective screens, an experienced OL, a real running game and longer passes when appropriate, the dink and dunk has started once again to rewrite the record books. And, oh, yes - having a defense that ranks somewhat above the bottom of the barrel is also very helpful. 

I’m not here to praise McDaniels or to criticize him. He made the usual 1st-time HC mistakes, and he had no one to turn to for a more experienced view other than Mike McCoy, who was learning the new system himself. Whether you feel that a better GM would have helped, whether Jim Goodman was a key component who was treated poorly or whether you believe that all of the problems lay with McD, looking at New England is a remarkable insight into what he saw in his mind’s eye. With the probable OL of the future just coming together and a defense that ranks in the bottom three places in points, rushing yards and takeaways as well as injury problems that have been breathtaking since the first few days of training camp, McDaniels was quickly over his head. He was also simply spread too thin, and no one but Brian Xanders, new to his own position, was really there to help him out. Bill Belichick isn’t over his, and he has both Ernie Adams and the ear of owner Robert Kraft. New England looks much like it did in 2007, but it’s even more efficient. That’s a scary thought if you’re looking at going up against them in the playoffs. 

And, it’s dangerous as heck to blitz them, which tends to keep Brady on his feet. BenJarvus Green-Ellis (a running back who started out much as Lance Ball has for Denver) has 763 yards from scrimmage, while Danny Woodhead has 689. Their running game isn’t overpowering, but it doesn’t have to be. The RBs block well for Brady and they keep the defenses honest. All of these factors come together to create what Josh McDaniels could not possibly have created in less than 2 seasons. Watching Brady pick apart defenses is a remarkable experience. Looking at the level of skill that he’s been surrounded by is sobering. Considering how long it could take Denver to reach that level is hard on the optimism.

This year in the playoffs, watch the New England games carefully. It’s worthwhile - after a time, you’ll start to see clearly where McDaniels was going, and what the offense was expected to reach over time.  You’ll see why the emphasis on the screen was a constant work in progress. I’m not sure that NE’s offensive line is that much better than Denver’s will be in another season or two. I’m positive that their TEs and RBs are playing better than Denver’s did in the early season this year. There’s no doubt at all that Brady is one of the best of all time, and comparing nearly anyone to him is pointless. But the scheme - the underlying structure that permits all of these things to come together in remarkable synergistic power - isn’t much different from that which Denver was trying to put into place. 

Personally, I’m going to enjoy that experience. There’s little as much fun as watching any physical skill being taken to a new high, seeing the way that the field is set, analyzed and attacked. Watching the way that the matchups are going to be created, pressed and exploited will be instructive. But while we’re waiting to find that out, we can look at what was to be;  the goal, the reason for the things that Denver has done since Mike Shanahan (who doesn’t seem to have learned as much as was touted in his time off) was invited to move onward in his career. It’s a heck of an offense, and we are getting to watch it being run to perfection. 

I’ll always enjoy watching that being achieved. To create a record offense, and in a few years to improve on it is quite a feat. Here’s to the organization that found the pieces and which put all the pieces together.  They’ve earned it. 

And, here’s to what might have been.  Hopefully, this time the lessons will be learned and improved upon.  Here is also to Eric Studesville - may his own passion and positivity lift Denver over Arizona (unless you’re hoping more for a top draft position in 2011). As always - 

Go Broncos!

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

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