When the pieces come together

What a difference a year (or a bye week) can make...

He was just another 4th-round choice in the 2003 NFL draft. He grew up in Missouri and went to college up north a ways at the University of Illinois, after which he became a vagabond. San Francisco took a shot on him, and it really didn’t work out. Then it was a couple of years with Washington and just one with Chicago, who thought they’d seen enough of him. Where to next?

The story was always the same. He blew them away in training camp, and then blew key plays on the field, the stories said. He’d make a circus catch and follow it with a simple drop at a key moment. People talked about his attitude, his persona, about whether he was dedicated. You couldn’t trust him, was the bottom line of the message.

But his ex-teammate and quarterback from Chicago thought, perhaps even knew, that he saw something in him, and he talked Josh McDaniels and Brian Xanders into taking a chance on him. Kyle Orton had a connection to Brandon Lloyd, and after he contributed all of 8 catches for the Broncos and watched 14 games in street clothes in 2009, still they handed him a $2.05 million, two-year deal with incentives for more (his 2011 salary would rise from $795,000 to $1.4 million if Lloyd makes the 2010 Pro Bowl). A case could be made that is was something of a leap of faith: but he believed that he was a top receiver and had been given a clean slate and a total of three years to make his case. Lloyd thought about that, and he thought about the simplest of things - millions of kids and adults would be ecstatic to be where I am. Am I happy? And he knew that he wasn’t. 

He has said that over the course of the last offseason, he had a long talk with Kyle Orton. Kyle has steadfastly maintained that in Chicago, he didn’t feel like Lloyd was used well or treated as well as he could have been. There was a connection between them, Orton felt, and that played into sparking his conversation with McDaniels. Whatever Brandon showed them in those many weeks while he was inactive, it was enough to give him an understanding of the NFL equivalent of a last chance. Two years is promising - a $500,000 signing bonus for a veteran receiver isn’t hay, but it wasn’t top-ten receiver capital, either. Far from it. 

This is the kind of thing that has made New England’s organization work so well - you take a player, one who’s ‘just a guy’ and perhaps things haven’t gone that well for him, but you think that you see something in him. You might be right, might be wrong, but if you’re sure that you see it, you take the chance and you give him one. Cream rises to the top quickly - and that’s often about how long a player has to show that he’s ready to be in the games. They don’t cost that much in NFL dollars, so if they don’t work out or if it they later price themselves out, that’s OK - it’s a business, and you wish them well. Few of them work out quite this well. Orton to Lloyd has become this year’s Tinker to Evers to Chance.

I don’t know exactly what they talked about. From what I can glean from the comments of Josh, Kyle and Brandon in piecing this together, apparently they covered a lot of ground. It sounded like there was more than one talk, as you’d pretty much expect. They talked it out, and it helped Brandon to work out his way, how he wanted his life to look. When Lloyd gave them the ‘wow’ catches in training camp, even good commentators noted that they’d seen it all before. But they didn’t know about what had transpired in the offseason. Brandon Lloyd had changed as a football player, and he’d changed from the inside out. Remarkable things can happen when a man can change his heart. And it took the simple act of someone having faith in him to turn his own changes into a chance at something real. 

That connection that Orton has talked about has translated into a man going from a vagabond headcase to top NFL receiver, a player who goes intently about his work and is quick to give the credit to those around him as much as himself. Some of the things he’s doing on the field are almost other-worldly. That catch he made up the middle in the Kansas City game, in tight double coverage, catching the ball by reaching out  and ripping it off the helmet of one of his cover men was a thing of beauty. It was one among many this year. Only 9 games in, he’s just short of 1,000 yards already with 968. He’s noted that in this offense, you get the ball by getting open. He comes to work each day with that attitude - I’m going to get open, and that will get me the ball. It’s on me.  And it’s working.

It hasn’t hurt that old noodle-arm, the guy with the accuracy problems who’d never be anything more than a game manager - has threaded more needles than a tailor this year. No flare, no skills, they said. Point to his record and they talked about the defense winning the games (the one that was 21st in the league in 2008, when the Bears won 9). Point to his steady improvement each year in category after category, despite the dysfunction in the organization around him and they talked about knowing what they see when they watch him on the field. Touch base on the fact that he was changing coaches, systems and all the players around him and they said that he was a throw-in, there because his team was the only one whose team would give up two 1st-round picks just to get rid of him. And, perhaps that last part is even somewhat true. His locker room mates in Chicago had a very different spin on that, though. Looking back at it, the players had it right. Brandon Lloyd was one of those players. 

But when he arrived in Denver and told the media and the fans that he knew that Kyle Orton was a top quarterback, it gained little traction. It was the sort of thing, folks assumed, that you generally say about a teammate if you wind up moving along together; no big deal. But what Brandon was really saying was, “This is a guy I’d trust to talk about who I really am, and what I want to be. I’d trust him enough to open up to him and talk about how things could be, and how ready I am to do them, inside and on the field. I’d trust him to help me accomplish them.” 

A little trust goes a long, long way. It also helps when the person you choose to trust is serious about making things even better. These two men have shown something that you don’t get to see all the time. Each of them, even back in Chicago, was already a great player. It hadn’t fully manifested yet, it’s true, but like the oak within the acorn, it was already there. They just had to work endlessly, run faster (OK, in Kyle’s case, at all), lift more, hit the resistance bands to maximize explosiveness, hit the training tables and find places to go and throw the ball over and over again to bring it out. 

When they can, they work on it with the rest of the team, spreading around the ball, developing connections with everyone, but having that certain trust, that connection between the two of them. It’s 3rd and 12 -  so what’s new? Lloyd is averaging over 20 yards a catch and his 1st down percentage is a mind-boggling 93.8%

There are some short passes in there too - McDaniels hasn’t given up using the pass as a short run. A healthy offensive line with guys in their right slots, a healthy Knowshon Moreno (and his first 100-yard game), and Orton not even touching the grass except for pregame stretching didn’t hurt last week, either, and keeping Orton healthy is a very good idea. But no matter what’s happened around them, Orton and Lloyd have been doing it all season. 

Dan Marino holds the record for the most yards by a quarterback in one season. That simple, cold fact doesn’t go on to say that he had receivers that he knew in his heart that he could trust, and an OL that worked hard to keep him protected. That kind of trust, if it’s combined with innate skills and repetitive, consistent and smart hard work, can work wonders. The hours together in the film room, the camaraderie of a good locker room and working even harder when things weren’t looking that good led to one, single victory for the Broncos last weekend.

On Beating K.C.

It’s not a small thing that it was against the top running team in football in Kansas City, or that the Broncos' run defense had been in the cellar but had suddenly grown fangs. DE Kevin Vickerson came back, and I think that Joe Mays would punch out Mike Tyson in a heartbeat. Ryan Harris came back, Zane Beadles moved to left guard and the offense took off. It didn’t hurt that they were up against a division rival with a lot to play for. But it’s still just one win, even if Orton is on pace to break Marino’s record. He’d rather win the division than the record, and that’s not just talk. 

But it’s also one win by the team that has the #1 yardage receiver in football (now 49 yards behind Atlanta's Roddy White pending tonight), one who’s hugely underpaid and quite rightfully is utterly unconcerned with it right now, and by the #2 QB in both yards and in 20+ yard passes and who is #1 in 40+ yard passes. The offensive line has returned badly-missed players to the slots they were supposed to be playing, launching a solid running game, a Continental Divide-level of pass protection (You can cross it, but it hurts a lot and it takes a long time) and helping in a surgical dissection of Kansas City. I loved reading this regarding Lloyd:

Although a case can be made that Lloyd is the NFL's most productive receiver this season, he believes the Broncos did right by him in signing him to a two-year, $2.05 million contract, although he had only eight catches last year.

"It was generous and fair, the deal I have now from where I was," Lloyd said. "There's no part of me saying, 'I need to renegotiate now.' I'm going to play the rest of the year and we'll go from there."

I don’t know every reason why the defense was suddenly so stout. I found a few, though. I finally stopped watching the game after 7 run-throughs, with innumerable back-and-forth slo-mos, but I can list a couple of things. The first is that Wink Martindale coached that game to near perfection. Fans often forget that the game plan was put together by the coaches and taught to the team by them. Last week was a fine example of a well-coached game. Kudos to the whole group of them.

Mario Haggan seems happy at OLB - he’s the sort of player who always seems happy, but it seemed that he’s happier at OLB. He doesn’t seem to mind getting after the QB either, and he had three sacks to prove it. He was very solid against the run, and his colleague and this week’s run-stuffer-in-chief, Joe Mays, provided a wall of protection in setting that edge that was remarkable against the league’s top rushing attack. I had to imagine Jamaal Charles going back to the huddle and asking, “Who IS that guy?” DJ Williams did seem to be working even harder, and there was another story there that the Denver Post shared - Jamal Williams was double-teamed more, pushed back more, and was in on stopping more running plays than I’ve seen all season. Part of the lower level of performance that fans have seen, it turns out, was needing to lose 20 pounds to play in the Colorado altitude and weather. He looked slower in the 1st half of the season, and dropping so much weight will do that to you. Part of things was just that everything went right, and while that doesn’t happen much, it’s infectious during the games when it happens - everyone steps up. 

Josh calls it ‘complementary football’, and that’s as good a name as any. I believe that every team has to start at the top, with good ownership, management and good coaching, and that every game starts with the team’s level of preparation. I think that next on the list is the OL. After that, there’s a lot of ways to go, but if you can combine a 100-yard rusher who adds 50 receiving yards with the #1 WR and #2 QB in the league and put a solid OL back in place, you can jump-start a sputtering offense that is showing signs of coming together.

Looking to Tonight

Robert Ayers and most of the injured players, in fact, are due back - and it’s past mid-November. This is when good teams win, and lesser ones make vacation plans. We’ll have most of the defense back for the San Diego contest, and they have the best passing attack in the league. The awful, awful AFC has turn around right under folk's noses. Denver is playing the #1 rushing and passing attacks back to back, and the Broncos have the #1 receiver. Depth will take time to develop, but the core is coming together. 

Come tonight, SD will score their points. For perhaps the first time under McDaniels, Denver isn’t talking about the defense carrying the offense. If you want to win games like this one, the Denver squads need to impassion and complement each other. All three areas - offense, defense and special teams - need to play in sync. Denver has a passing attack that has only gotten stronger as the year has worn on - I’m not talking about stats, I’m talking about the kinds of catches that are there on film, the ball threaded between two and three receivers at times, the kinds of plays that take the heart out of a defense. Demaryius Thomas is a rookie, is playing like a rookie, and is showing flashes of just how good he’s going to be. Jabar Gaffney’s TD catch was pure talent - plucking the ball just above the top of the tallest blade of grass, controlling it as he rolled over. Eddie Royal has gone back to being Eddie Royal - and it’s nice to have you back, Eddie. The punt returns and your catches, with that slashing run-after-the-catch style is a pleasure to watch. 

There’s a long way to go in the season, and it’s just one win. As much as I have enjoyed it, I know how tough this league is. But seeing the pieces come together like that, and to see that Denver has a shot at being in every remaining game changes how I tend to view the rest of the season. The Denver at San Diego Monday Night Football contest could tell us a lot about the team - they’ve handled losing the right way - they hated it, but they put that energy into coming together, not falling apart. They have the tools in place to play as well as they have all year. 

This is the kind of game that players, if they’re fit for this league, love to be in. Orton’s calm, even style and the quiet intensity that Lloyd bring to the team are a very good place to start up an offense. We’re likely to need it tonight.

Go Broncos!

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

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