When the circus leaves town, what’s left?

Happy Tuesday, friends.  I re-watched the Lions-Broncos game on Monday night, and then I started feeling ill.  I’m not saying that one thing caused the other, but a case could definitely be made that it did.  Anyway, I normally write my 5,000ish word articles on Monday night, and that fits into a very tightly scheduled week that has no slack in it.  (People sometimes ask how I fit my writing here in with my day job and my MBA program – that’s how; schedule the hell out of it, and stay on schedule.) 

Because I ended up going to sleep pretty early on Monday night and had nothing substantial written, I’m up early on Tuesday morning before work to deliver something.  (I’m feeling better now.)  It’s not going to be the typical YGS, but something is better than nothing, right?

I’ve decided that TJ is right, and I’m not going to fight it anymore.  It’s not about football evaluation, it’s about recognizing an organizational decision.  Tim Tebow won’t be the starting QB of the Denver Broncos next season, and I’m okay with that.  As I’ve said a number of times, I’ve always been okay with that, even if I don’t find it preferable.

When I listen to John Elway say that he sees no progress in Tebow, that tells me everything that I need to know.  The standard is that he has to be a polished starting QB instantly, or he’s not what they’re looking for.  There’s no suspense to that one, friends; Tebow’s not polished, and it will take him a lot of work to get there.  Blaine Gabbert looked a lot worse than Tebow did on Sunday, but nobody from that organization is publicly criticizing his progress.  Gabbert has six starts to Tebow’s five.  Here’s a comparison of their career statistics.

Player ATT Comp Comp % Yards YPA TD INT Rush Att Rush Yds TD
Gabbert 173 79 45.66% 780 4.51 5 4 24 57 0
Tebow 158 76 48.10% 981 6.21 9 4 69 386 7

This is not to say that Tebow has taken a big leap in his second year, because he hasn’t.  He’s improved on some mechanical things, and still needs to improve on a lot of others.  I’m simply making the point that the prism through which Tebow is being judged is a lot different than that of Gabbert.

Really, that’s okay.  If this Broncos regime doesn’t want to be in the project QB business, with a side of religious zealotry, I don’t really blame them.  I maintain that Tebow is improving, and will continue to improve.  His throwing was much better Sunday than it was in Miami, regardless of the results, and nobody seems to have mentioned this, but he has been getting away from the center a lot more cleanly.  He’s going to be a very good QB for somebody eventually, but it won’t be in Denver. 

I want to touch on a couple of deep issues that trouble the Broncos offense beyond the QB position, because they were really on display Sunday.  The major one is that the Broncos have been terrible in pass protection for a year and a half.  Ryan Clady and Chris Kuper do a pretty good job, and J.D. Walton is improving, but Zane Beadles and Orlando Franklin continue to struggle mightily.  There’s an ability deficit, with ability being the confluence of talent and skill.  I think Franklin has good Left Guard talent, and his skill is a work in progress, and Beadles looks a lot less talented than he did as a rookie, when I thought he was going to grow into a very good Left Guard.

Regardless of the long-term outlook of those players, though, there’s the question of how you handle the ability deficit right now and maximize the competitiveness of the 2011 team.  For the Broncos, the answer is that they handle it shockingly badly.  I could have told you that Orlando Franklin would struggle one-on-one with Cameron Wake and Cliff Avril the last two weeks.  For some reason, I didn’t explicitly mention it in either Digesting piece, most probably because in my mind, I considered it to be too obvious to even mention. 

When the best pass rusher on the other team is going against the worst pass protector on your team, you need to have a plan to deal with that.  The Broncos have had no such plan, and that represents coaching malpractice, to me.  You have to either double the guy, chip him, or have an outlet ready to go.  The Broncos haven’t been doing any of these things on a consistent basis.  Take a look at the sacks that Kyle Orton and Tebow have taken this year, and what you’ll see far more often than not is no outlet player in the screen.  (If I had All-22 film, I could take some screenshots to show you exactly where they are; hopefully that’s coming soon.)

The Broncos' failure at protecting against pressure off the offense’s right side shows a subtle way in which the NFL is changing.  Left Tackles have gotten to be so good that teams would rather rush teams from the Right Tackle side.  Wake, Avril, Clay Matthews, Von Miller, LaMarr Woodley, Jason Babin, and Chris Long just make up a partial list of top-notch left-side pass rushers.  The adjustment is to have two starting-caliber LTs and play one on the right side.  If Ryan Harris could have stayed healthy, he would have been ideal, but all 32 teams seem to have decided that his proneness to injury makes him a no-go.  Franklin is probably never going to have good enough feet to play outside, and he’s going to ultimately need to be a Guard.

The Packers drafted Bryan Bulaga and Derek Sherrod in the first round in back-to-back years because they understand what’s going on with the emphasis on front-side rush.  The Patriots' drafting of Nate Solder showed the same thing.  You don’t need two elite LTs, but you’d better have two good ones.

I mentioned the lack of outlets in the passing scheme, and that’s also been very troubling.  It’s not a new concept that it’s best to give a QB an automatic checkdown option on every play, especially ones with 5- or 7-step drops, and a lot of downfield routes.  For some reason, the Broncos haven’t been doing so this season.

This leads to people saying that Tebow is holding the ball too long.  Sometimes he almost certainly is, and there’s a throw to be made that we can’t see with the tight camera angle on the pocket.  A lot of times, though, Tebow has no checkdown option, and nothing has developed downfield by the time the rush gets there.  When you’re minimum-protecting a 5-step drop (and you’re the Broncos), somebody better get open quickly, because that rush is coming.

I take this, frankly, as stubborn adherence to a scheme that counts on much better protection than the Broncos can presently provide.  Tom Brady usually has all day to find somebody, so he doesn’t need a checkdown as much. 

My overarching point here is that the scheme, as it relates to protection and outlets, is not particularly conducive to anybody being successful behind the Broncos' current offensive line.  People like to bang Mike McCoy for play-calling, but my bigger beef with the guy is schematic.

An interesting article came out on FOX Sports.com Tuesday morning that opined that John Fox and his staff really just want to get out from under the Tebow hysteria, and that’s understandable, if it’s the case.  I’m not going to go so far as to say that they’re sabotaging the kid on purpose, like this guy Greg Couch does, but the play-calling was pretty questionable.  Jeff Legwold saying that the offense was tailored to Tebow is laughable, as was the Jay Glazer report on Sunday.  Neither one of those guys would know if it was or wasn’t, to look at it, so they’re taking somebody else’s word for it.

Another issue is the play of the receivers this season.  It’s been bad, and I would go so far as to say that Eric Decker is the only one who has played like a consistently good player all year (including Brandon Lloyd).  These receivers aren’t getting quick enough separation, and they’re dropping a lot of balls.  Eddie Royal runs a 2-yard route on 3rd and 3 and gets tackled immediately, forcing a punt.  That kind of stuff has been happening all season.

The Broncos defense is competitive enough to be in most games this year, so I’m not even going to get into that side of it.  If the offense could pull their weight, the defense would get worn down less in the second half of games.  I see a lot of people still complaining about DTs, and that's silly.  Brodrick Bunkley and Marcus Thomas have been a good starting duo, and really, that's been a quiet success story this season.  The Broncos need to get better at RCB and nickel CB, and they need Rahim Moore and Quinton Carter to develop faster, but by and large, the defense has been a positive, especially when you compare it to last season's version.

If you plugged an elite QB into this offense (meaning Rodgers, Brady, Manning, Brees, or Stafford) they could get by okay, and the team could be competitive, but those guys aren’t walking through the door on Wednesday morning.  The Broncos can do some schematic things to help themselves, but they seem like they won’t.  The good news is that there are five or six QBs who will be in the Draft who’ll be NFL starters, and I’m going to start studying them in detail shortly.  I think we can all see what direction this is going.  Like Stringer Bell said, “If the man is coming, make ready for the man.”

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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Ted's Analysis