Where to now? Coaches, players & schemes

Well, whatever else may be the case, the Josh McDaniels era is over in Denver. Left in its wake is a team in the middle of a multi-year rebuilding process that has been interrupted for a second time, a process that could create as many issues as it solves. I watched Eric Studesville’s press conference, and while I’m uncertain that he could be a long term solution (I believe that a coach with experience is essential), he’s an engaging and obviously bright, passionate individual.  I enjoyed watching him.

When the news came down, I found myself more interested in the future than the past. There are no shortages of articles from every conceivable viewpoint on what McDaniels and Brian Xanders did - and didn’t - do over the past 21 months; the members have done a remarkable job of putting together the history of the events accurately. Rather than chewing old soup, I’d like to talk about some basic issues for the future. Where the team goes from here is going to be dependent on going on from here to developing success.

I’d like to note a couple of things. The first is that different coaches may not have run the same scheme that McDaniels was putting into place, but an experienced coach - a coordinator is what I’m referring to here - with substantial insight into the game can run any of several forms of offense or defense effectively. A good example is Ron Rivera in San Diego- he’s a longtime 4-3 defensive coach, but he came in and ran a Phillip’s variation 3-4 defense to near perfection. He was able to overcome serious injury problems along his defensive line and to group together disparate individuals with very different body types from the players they replaced and still managed to create a winning corps quickly. There are coaches who will take over a system and find success within it without having run it before. These coaches have certain things in common - passion, intellect, understanding of the game, understanding of the players they have and their skill sets, as well as being clear on their goals and what pieces are essential to moving forward with some success.

Basic Principles

Players are not always fungible, and this may be in lesser or greater degree. Often, the scheme creates an opportunity for the player to succeed or pushes him to fail. Project or developmental players in particular may find the transition difficult. They, like the veterans, may or may not fit the next management/coaches’ systems. The only real difference is that the projects are chosen with X system in mind, and are being trained only for that system. Some of the veterans, and even many of the young draft choices can become linchpins for the new coach if that individual recognizes what the realistic state of the franchise is and acts in accordance with that, using the last team’s current additions as stepping stones to a more successful organization. Those same veterans may have experience in other systems. Projects may suffer the most - they aren’t ready to step in to any given system yet. Being partly trained can be worse than untrained. Extensive coverage of the importance of this has come from many sources this past year. Authors ranging from Matt Bowen to Michael Lombardi, and from TedB’s work to my own have discussed this issue at some length.

As an example, the variation on the Bullough 3-4 that Josh McDaniels and his group have been installing is well underway to achieving an identity of its own. That may not sit well with those who can rightly point to the defense’s abysmal ratings in the league this season, but when you look at the players who will be returning for the next training camp - whenever that may be - the greatest weakness of this group is their pass rushing ability. They will get the equivalent of an upper 1st round pick in Elvis ‘Doom’ Dumervil, a player who led the NFL in sacks only a year ago.  It’s also worth at least considering that the defense that was left in defensive coordinator Bob Slowik’s wake wasn’t anything at all, being neither a 4-3 nor a 3-4 defense, lacking proper personnel for either. If the new coaching group decides to go with an Indianapolis-style defense, based predominantly in smaller, lighter, fast players (and using the intricate schemes of former Broncos DC Larry Coyer to achieve success), the changeover will be long and arduous.

That being the case, I’d like to talk about what probably can - and cannot - be done with the team and why. I would disagree with those that feel that the team is only set up for the NE schemes on offense and defense. Even so, I take their point seriously - there are options available, but they are by no means unlimited. I’d like to take the offense first in this discussion, followed by the defense. Special teams are likely to also see substantial turnover, and that concerns me. Denver’s have struggled at times, but they seemed to be heading in increasingly good directions.

David Bruton, for example, has simply been a stud for the STs, and showed considerable potential on the field as Brian Dawkins’ replacement as well. Prior to his broken arm, Darcel McBath led the team in ST tackles in 2009 and was showing skill regular defensive play. The STs are generally heavily influenced by linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks--the faster players who know how to tackle. Blockers will also have to show foot-speed and balance. Matt Prater is showing himself to be a talented kicker. Denverhas been accumulating a good group - it will be interesting to see how many remain after another year.  Overall, though, it appears that the pieces are in place to succeed here - the players who lead the squad are a nice mix of experience and youth.

Today, I’m going to emphasize the offense - who they have, what options seem to make the most sense and what pieces will probably need to be upgraded. I’ll be doing the same with the defense tomorrow. I look forward to your thoughts on the matters at hand.

Offense

Denver’s offense is heavily invested in a pocket passing system that uses a relatively high percentage of shotgun formations, but which has seen considerable success using play action, which requires the QB to be under center. They currently rely predominately on a primary runner rather than a committee, whether that means two RBs or four. The theory is that a primary runner can ‘get into a rhythm’ and do the most damage. The alternative, of course, is to bring a fresh RB regularly so that the corps wears down the defense over the course of the game and to minimize the wear and tear on the primary back. Opinions differ as to the best approach, but if Denverwants a committee, they are probably at least one RB away from achieving that. Spencer Larsen has been playing fullback and generally playing well: he’s caught a couple of passes out of the backfield and has run the ball with power but the current system tends to minimize the use of that position, relying more on a one-back spread offensive formation.

Running Backs

Since at this time Knowshon Moreno is functioning as that primary back (with minimal help from 5’9” 220lb Lance Ball), which offensive rushing philosophy and blocking scheme Denver will use is a major question. One thing that I see as essential is recognizing that it was clear last year that Morenowasn’t comfortable in a zone blocking scheme. He could be trained in it, but it’s hard to know if he can adapt to it, since the one-cut style of running isn’t his usual or comfortable approach. He’s doing better of late, due to a combination of his own health, that of the OL and a blocking scheme that suits his skill set. It could put the franchise back even further if Denverchanges back to the ZB scheme, which is only, I hasten to point out, a run-blocking scheme and doesn’t affect pass protection. It’s something to consider.  LenDale White should also return from injury and can compete for a position. His attitude has needed to catch up with his physical skills, and that’s something that only time will tell. Laurence Maroney is on the team, but hasn’t contributed in any degree at this time. He was a disappointment in New Englandas well, and cost Denveranother draft choice. This is a group with more questions than answers, despite Moreno’s clear development.

Offensive Line

The heart of any offense is the offensive line. Happily, if ironically,  Denverhas finally achieved the starting group that they wanted at the beginning of this season (a desire that, if fulfilled, might have changed the course of several games). They are shaky on depth - Russ Hochstein has had some good plays, but his overall performance wasn’t pleasantly memorable at best, and he was generally the first choice for fill-ins at guard. Draft choice Eric Olsen was a puzzle to me at the time, as were Seth Olsen and Blake Schlueter. Hochstein is flexible, in that he has played all five OL positions, can block as a TE and has been used as a fullback in goal line situations, but he hasn’t stood out in a positive sense in any of those roles. He may last a year, and may not. It really depends on how much help the next coach can get for the OL -and what scheme he chooses to rush the ball with.

Someone asked the very good question - can the current group learn to go back to zone blocking? Well, three of the 5 thrived in it, so on that level, yes, of course, if the new coach requires it. This group is larger, physically, than the one with Ben Hamilton and Casey Wiegmann, but the players pull and trap fairly well for a corps that hasn’t been together long, so that would certainly be an option for them. JD Walton and Zane Beadles would have to be developed in that system, but I suspect that they are up to it. However - you probably would have to replace your 1st-round draft pick running back in Knowshon Moreno who was visibly uncomfortable with that approach; Denverhas a lot invested in him. Moreover, he’s starting to find real success with the current system over the past few weeks. Changing it again seems counterproductive.

Pass blocking is generally more standardized, and the techniques are well established. I don’t expect a drop-off there. The biggest issues are probably health, experience (which is overcome through time and repetition) and communication among the OL players, which also comes through experience. This is a good group. They need better backups, but that’s a common problem. Even so, it will have to be overcome.

Receiving Corps

This is one area that can probably adapt to nearly any scheme that is used. Denverhas an excellent group of WRs and they pretty well span the spectrum of receiving options. Eddie Royal has been much better at the slot, even though he’s not being targeted as much as he was earlier on this year. Eric Decker has excellent slot receiver skills, unusually good hands and who is being developed in the return game as well. D. ‘Bey Bey’ Thomas is a raw speedster who can stretch the field (also being groomed for the return game until his injury left him out for the year) and the same could be said about Matt Willis, who is expected to return next season. Brandon Lloyd, despite disappearing for much of the KC game, is one of the top long-yardage receivers in the league this year. Jabar Gaffney continues to go quietly about playing well - he and Lloyd also provide a veteran presence for the group. I can think of several different options for offensive schemes, and this group is capable of adapting to all of them. The tall, possession-type receiver role that most West Coast Offenses rely on is fulfilled by Decker and DeMaryius Thomas, although Thomas would have to be developed in that role. Decker could be excellent in much the same role as Easy Eddie McCaffrey was in the 1990’s.

Tight End

The picture at TE is somewhat murky, especially with Dan Gronkowski going on injured reserve. Assuming that his recovery is complete by the next training camp, the Broncos would have all-around player Daniel Graham, blocking TE Richard Quinn and Dan Gronkowski himself making up the current TE corps. It’s still possible that Marquez Branson will recover from his own injury (if you’re getting tired of reading ‘injury’, believe me, I’m getting tired of writing it, and it will only get worse on defense) and could return to the lineup as a receiving TE who can also block. The year that Denverput into developing him shouldn’t be wasted if it’s possible for him to earn the job.

The New Englandsystem doesn’t make a lot of use of the tight end, compared, at least, to the west coast offense (WCO) that Mike Shanahan played. I think that showed in how the team has developed. This doesn’t mean that the tight ends can’t fulfill a larger role in a one-back spread offense - legendary passing guru Sid Gillman once said that with two good TEs, a team can control the entire middle of the field. I’ve seen it to be true before, and San Diegowas doing with with Brandon Malumaleuna and Antonio Gates last season. I’m a believer in the efficacy of this position in attacking both the 3-4 and the 4-3, and that influences how I see this situation. A talent upgrade would be helpful - given that Daniel Graham is 32, if the new coach likes to use TEs a replacement to be groomed for Graham seems sensible. If he doesn’t use them extensively, Denvermight be OK for another year or so. If that doesn’t sound like a glowing endorsement, well, that’s true. Certainly, I can’t argue that the position hasn’t really been strengthened over the past two years. Adding a quality TE would be a large help.

Quarterback

I saved the beast for last, and that’s not a typo. Deciding if Kyle Orton’s development has found its ceiling, if a pocket passer is the answer the coach is looking for or if a more mobile player is going to be preferred will be one of the biggest decisions that the new head coach will make.  There may be pressure from Pat Bowlen as well, since the rumor is that he all but forced McD into drafting another QB, yet McD was thrilled to see and get Tim Tebow, who many well-versed coaches considered a long-term project. An outside evaluation of Tebow’s current status would make for interesting reading. Coaches past and present were all over the map in analyzing how he might develop, with some feeling that he was a 3 to 4 year project and others feeling that he could play after a single season. That situation obscures much of the picture for the future of the team. Fans generally have strong feelings on this, but we are missing the information to make an informed opinion.

My own feeling was that the pick wasn’t in Denver’s best interest at the time, and I haven’t really wavered on that. He’s a very likable guy, very passionate, and may be either a very fine QB or an incredibly expensive fullback or wingback. Those three draft picks, even though they were developed by a truly nifty bit of draft day horse trading, might have been better spent on immediate needs since the team was, you know, rebuilding.

The 2010 draft was weak on linebackers (and SD got the one that probably would have fit Denver best in Don Butler) but very long on defensive linemen. Not using a single pick over two drafts on the front 7 has struck me as nearly bizarre - certainly, it’s a weakness. But since Denverhas Tebow, it will help to have someone other than Josh looking at the players and deciding if Tebow is developing well as a more mobile QB. Many versions of the WCO, for example, prefer or even require a mobile passer. That doesn’t mean that it always requires one - it doesn’t. It just means that many coaches prefer one.

By the way, you should also know that the WCO principles can be run without the zone blocking scheme option. Even though Mike Shanahan and Any Reid, among others, have preferred using the ZB scheme in the WCO, it’s just one way to go and not at all essential. I’ve done a very long article on that system, and it will be up this off season in our archives. You might enjoy it.

With the assessment of Tebow’s future in the hands of the new coaching team, Kyle Orton and Brady Quinn will be joining him there in a bid to see the future of the franchise. Quinn’s contract ends after this season, while Orton’s runs through next year. Orton is the QB that many Denverfans love to hate, but the question of who could do better isn’t a small one. None of us have any direct information on the development of Quinn and Tebow - if the verdict isn’t glowingly positive for at least one of them, the question may be moot. If it is, for either player, Orton’s future becomes murkier still. This is always linchpin decision in a coach’s career, since the QB touches the ball on all but a very few offensive plays. I’ll be extremely interested to see this one playing out.

Conclusion

So, where does this leave the team? Overall, in roughly equivalent, or even better shape than when the McX team took over. The receiving corps is deeper. The offensive line is finally in better shape - the sudden implosion of Ben Hamilton and Casey Wiegmann’s discomfort with the change in OL scheme were problems that I doubt anyone saw coming. The situation, as it unfolded, pointed more than anything to a lack of developmental players at any of the OL positions and that aspect still remains to be improved. There was no center ready to step up - Kory Lichtensteiger hasn’t done well as of the last I read (last month) and Ben Hamilton was the other backup center, so we really lost two players when he seemed to fall apart. Right now, as I understand it, Eric Olsen is considered the backup center, but fans have no way to know if he’s doing well, poorly or somewhere in between. It’s an important question.

The running game was falling apart in 2008, and a factor that most didn’t see coming was that McDaniels and Peyton Hillis weren’t a good fit, partly because Hillis is a classic zone-block,  WCO runner and partly for reasons that we don’t fully know. It’s certainly true that Hillis didn’t impress much on the playing field under McDaniels, and it was true that Mike Shanahan benched him too, until Shanny ran out of other options. Clevelandsaw him as a great piece to their puzzle and I will always wish him well. However, it’s amusing to look back at the number of pundits who badgered McDaniels for having too many running backs. Reality didn’t go that way.

With a greater range of WR types and skillsets, that position is probably set for years to come, although player development shouldn’t be abandoned. The tight end position needs some help if possible. The receiving corps as a whole is in pretty good shape - deeper than in 2008, certainly, and with more young talent.  This was a factor that was missing on the final Shanahan team.

As we consider the options that the team faces, a few schematic issues should be noted. The first is that WCO and zone blocking are not necessarily synonymous. The team still uses somezone blocking, and that’s as it should be, in my opinion. One area that Bill Belichick has long harped on and which the McX group was right in is that the players should be as versatile as possible without sacrificing results.

The second consideration is that the one-back spread that NE and McD have generally run is far from the only approach to the spread formation that the players we have can run. The spread is a part of nearly every team’s repertoire at this point, and that’s as it should be - it’s extremely versatile. Shanahan uses aspects of it in his WCO system. So do Andy Reid and Mike Holmgren. You can keep the aspects of the spread and change the system in part. I tend to expect that to happen, but we won’t really know until the head coach and his staff are chosen, and perhaps not until the next regular season begins. I hope that’s fairly soon - there will, we’re told, be a draft in 2011, and the sooner the scheme is chosen, the more accurately the players can be drafted.

There’s also a major obstacle on the horizon - while the odds of having football in 2011 is in question, the new group will have to prepare for the possibility of there being a 2011 free agency period. It may or may not happen, but you can’t ignore it’s importance. The last FA period was marred by the lack of a CBA, and the team’s options became vastly more limited. Many of the players who weren’t on the market in 2010 may be in 2011 (or 2012). If you look at the struggles that the team went through to prepare for the draft in ‘09, it clarifies just how important the coaching choice is going to be.

I hope that this synopsis was helpful. Next article, I’m going to talk about our defensive personnel and strategy and some of the things that can be done to minimize problems with the transition to the new coaching staff.

In the meantime - Go Broncos!

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

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