WWTBD? (Part 1)

I’m nowhere near Jesus-like.  I mean, hell, if you’re talking about the Christian portrayal of the historical figure Jesus Christ, I can’t even grow a full beard, and I’m already the same age that that Jesus is reported to have died at.  If you’re talking about The Jesus, I’ve never had to register as a sex offender and go door-to-door, and I’m not too good at bowling.  (My strategy: Use the heaviest ball they have, and throw it straight as hard as I can.)  TJ “The Dude” Johnson’s cat, Jesus Quintana?  I’m not like him either.  For one thing, I’m badly allergic to cats, and for another, I decline to predict the outcomes of football games, or other complex future events.  I don’t even really like fish.  You get it.  I’m nothing like Jesus.

We’re going to play a little game today.  It’s called “What Would Ted Bartlett Do?”  To me, the game called “What Will Joe Ellis Do?” is lame, and all the work that you’d do to play it becomes valueless as soon as he Does Something.  (Just like predicting games… really, does anybody want to go back through your archives to read that, after the games happened?)  For this exercise, I’ll theoretically assume the role of an outside football consultant, hired by the Denver Broncos, the guy who’s tasked with righting the ship.  (I do love my ship metaphors.)  I report directly to the owner, and I have carte blanche to get this thing headed in the right direction.  Here’s the plan.

1.       TB would start by doing a SWOT analysis on the current state of the organization.  From the Department of Don’t Talk About It, Be About It, here goes.

Strengths

a.       This is a roster which is talented in several places, most notably Wide Receiver, Running Back, Defensive End/Outside Linebacker, Inside Linebacker, and Cornerback.  Each of those positions has quality among the starters, as well as the reserves.  There’s also good age balance in each group, and most of these players are scheme-indifferent.  (We’ll cover that shortly.)

b.      The starting offensive line group is very young and talented, and with experience playing together, should continue to grow into the strength of the football team.

c.       The rookie QB Tim Tebow is one of the best overall athletes in the NFL, and has every intangible quality you’d want in a QB.  A lot of pundits are doubting his ability to play the position in the NFL, which provides a cover of fairly low expectations, nationally.  Tebow will exceed those expectations quickly, because he’s a playmaker, and a winner.

d.      The incumbent veteran QB Kyle Orton is a solid football player who has made the most of an excellent scheme this year.

e.      The McDaniels regime’s attention to improving the athleticism of the bottom of the roster has led to the presence of a lot of quality special teams players.

f.        Kicker Matt Prater and Punter Britton Colquitt are both young and excellent.

g.       The local fans buy tickets to games, and there’s a long waiting list for season tickets.

h.      The pro scouting has been very good the last few years, and the college scouting has been above average.

Weaknesses

a.       The interior Defensive Line and Safety positions are generally old, and limited in their ability to be effective.  The Broncos haven’t found enough quality 30-front linemen, and Brian Dawkins has appeared to age a lot this season.  Renaldo Hill is very smart and sound, but his athletic limitations indicate that his coaching career should be starting soon.

b.      The entire defense lacks a cohesive feel for the game, because they’ve had their schemes changed annually for years.  They’re the anti-Chargers, who went from being a confused, mentally-slow team to being one who plays excellent cooperative team defense, with the same basic set of players.  Experience in the scheme matters a lot, just like on offense.

c.       The Broncos seem to lack vocal on-field leadership, and sometimes don’t play with the energy and emotion that you’d like to see.

d.      Tackling has seemingly been a problem for the Broncos for 30 years, and while it’s not as bad as it’s been at times, it could definitely stand to improve.

e.      This team doesn’t make its own luck, and isn’t opportunistic.

f.        Between the Shanahan and McDaniels regimes, the Broncos have been a technocratic organization, and you can tell that they’re trying to win by outsmarting their opponents, rather than trying to outhit them.  Football is an inherently physical game, and while the 2010 Broncos have been physical for parts of games, it’s clearly not this group of players’ natural inclination, as a whole.

g.       This roster lacks the kind of depth you need to replace injured players effectively.  It’s moving in the right direction on that score, but it’s one more effective talent acquisition cycle from being a strong roster, top-to-bottom.

Opportunities

a.       With the firing of Josh McDaniels after less than two seasons, there may be more tolerance of a rebuilding process from the fan base and local media.

b.      There is a solid base of talent that was brought in by McDaniels, and that can shorten the necessary rebuilding process, if it’s leveraged well by the new coaching regime.

c.       Hiring John Elway into a front office position may inject some loving feelings into a fan and media environment which is presently full of hate and discontent.

d.      There will most probably be a rookie wage scale in place by the time of the 2011 Draft, which makes this the first time ever in the modern era that there is no downside to having a top 5 pick.  (I’m confident that it will be in place, because both the NFL and the veteran players want it, so it’s a natural place for the players to give something up to get something.  The only constituency which doesn’t is the agents, and they’re not represented in the CBA talks.)

Threats

a.       The Denver Post clearly feels that it’s their role to conduct advocacy campaigns in order to “help” the Broncos run themselves effectively.  The current leadership, embodied by COO Joe Ellis seems to be far too responsive to media negativity, and this threatens to throw the Broncos into a continuous loop of coaching change for the sake of coaching change.

b.      Broncos fans are spoiled and entitled, after 30 successful years, which included 7 AFC championship appearances, 5 Super Bowl appearances, and 2 victories.  They unreasonably demand winning now, while mostly not understanding that every team has eventually had to rebuild.

2.       Having done that, it’s time to consider how to recast the front office.  My recommendations are as follows:

a.       When Mike Shanahan was fired, Joe Ellis became the most powerful player in the building, because he filled a void.  Ellis wasn’t Shanahan’s boss, but he became McDaniels’ boss, and that hasn’t worked out well.  Ellis should remain the Chief Operating Officer, but his duties should be walked back entirely to just running the business side, which is a big job, and is the one that he’s well suited for.  If he’s dealing with football questions, he’s acting as a surrogate meddling owner who doesn’t know much about football.  Those kind of owners lead failing teams in all sports.

b.      John Elway should be hired as Executive Vice President for Football Operations.  This role should be similar to what Nolan Ryan does with the Texas Rangers, which is essentially serve as a buffer between the football people and the owner.  Elway should effectively be the boss of both the GM and the Head Coach, and their sounding board on football matters.  Player procurement should be done by consensus between the three.  Elway is smart enough to know that he’s not a player-personnel expert, and has been quoted in the media to that effect.  He is qualified to lend football perspective, though, and to help form an intelligent consensus.  He’s also much better qualified than Ellis to be evaluating the effectiveness of the football operations at a high level, and discussing them with Pat Bowlen.

c.       I don’t know if Brian Xanders is, or is not, the answer as GM.  I’m indifferent to him returning.  If not, I would favor giving Phil Savage a second chance as a GM, and limiting his duties to being the head scout, which is what he’s really good at.  In Cleveland, Savage had three downfalls; he hired the wrong Head Coach, he talked (clumsily) to the media far too much, and he hated the business management side of the GM role, and did poorly at it.  In this case, he won’t be the Head Coach’s boss, he’ll be instructed only to speak to the media formally, and on a scheduled and monitored basis in the offseason, and never during the season, and the business stuff will reside with Ellis.  Savage will be free to scout and procure players, and head up all scouting efforts.

d.      I’d definitely keep Keith Kidd (Director of Pro Personnel), and Matt Russell (Director of College Scouting) in place.  I’ve been pretty impressed with what has been going on in both shops the last couple of years.  Some people say the Broncos haven’t procured the right talent, but that’s not true.  They haven’t procured enough of it yet, to successfully complete the holistic roster transformation which they were tasked with.

 

3.        While the talent level in flux the last two years, the Broncos have gotten a great deal of added value from the offensive schemes and play-calling of Josh McDaniels, as well as his excellent game management skills.  I think the defense has been somewhat less well-schemed (under both Mike Nolan and Wink Martindale), but it’s been okay.  The decision of the new Head Coach is the most important one, by far.  A lot of people seem to want to see an all-powerful GM lording over a Head Coach, just because it’s the opposite of how things have been done in the past.  The Head Coach should usually have more power in the organization, though, because he’s responsible for the end product.

There are a lot of good coaches out there, and it seems like about 15 have been speculatively linked to the Broncos job.  It makes you wonder where these reporters get the names from, because I’m sure that the Broncos aren’t even thinking about 2/3 of them.  Since, for the purposes of this exercise, it’s on me to recommend hiring a coach, I’ll walk you through my thought process, and how I go to an answer that most of you probably aren’t going to be too high on.

a.       The first task is to identify the entire pool of qualified football coaches who aren’t currently expected to be employed NFL head coaches by the middle of January.  Here goes:

1.       Sean McDermott               DC          Philadelphia

2.       Marty Mornhinweg         OC          Philadelphia

3.       Perry Fewell                       DC          NY Giants

4.       Jim Haslett                          DC          Washington

5.       Jason Garrett                    IHC         Dallas

6.       Mike Martz                          OC          Chicago

7.       Rod Marinelli                    DC          Chicago

8.       Dom Capers                        DC          Green Bay

9.       Leslie Frazier                     IHC         Minnesota

10.   Darrell Bevell                      OC          Minnesota

11.   Scott Linehan                      OC          Detroit

12.   Mike Mularkey                   OC          Atlanta

13.   Bill Callahan                       AHC        NY Jets

14.   Gregg Williams                  DC          New Orleans

15.   Greg Olson                          OC          Tampa Bay

16.   John Fox                             HC          Carolina

17.   Jeremy Bates                    OC          Seattle

18.   Russ Grimm                       AHC       Arizona

19.   Brian Schottenheimer    OC          NY Jets

20.   Mike Nolan                         DC          Miami

21.   Dick LeBeau                        DC          Pittsburgh

22.   Cam Cameron                   OC           Baltimore

23.   Greg Mattison                   DC           Baltimore

24.   Rob Ryan                            DC          Cleveland

25.   Larry Coyer                        DC          Indianapolis

26.   Gary Kubiak                       HC          Houston

27.   Rick Dennison                   OC          Houston

28.   Charlie Weis                       OC          Kansas City

29.   Romeo Crennel                 DC          Kansas City

30.   Ron Rivera                         DC          San Diego

31.   Hue Jackson                       OC          Oakland

32.   Eric Studesville                 IHC         Denver

33.   Jon Gruden                         TV           ESPN

34.   Bill Cowher                         TV           CBS

35.   Brian Billick                        TV           CBS

36.   Jim Mora, Jr                      TV           Fox

37.   Jim Harbaugh                   HC          Stanford

38.   Marty Schottenheimer  Out of NFL

39.   Jim Fassel                           Out of NFL

40.   Jim Bates                             Out of NFL

I might be missing somebody, but a list of 40 names is a good starting point, right?  I’d be pretty shocked if the next Head Coach of the Broncos wasn’t one of those 40 men.  Now, the next question is, what do you want the team to be?  This is where I can be a helpful consultant, because I’m stronger with schemes than I am with anything else.

With the talent that’s in place on offense, with all else being equal, I’d definitely try to keep a similar scheme in place to the one that Josh McDaniels installed.  The Broncos have a lot of quality talent at WR, and Knowshon Moreno is excellent as a nickel runner, because he breaks the tackles of secondary players very often.  I’d be surprised if Pat Bowlen has much of a taste for going back to the “emulate the Patriots” well, because Woody and The Dullards would squawk about it endlessly, even though none of them has any idea what they’re talking about, when it comes to schemes.  Ponder this question; who is using a lot of multi-WR sets, and doing it well?  We’ll return to offense momentarily.

Defensively, the existing front-seven personnel that you’d want to keep actually lends itself better to a 40-front than it does the 30-front the Broncos have been trying to play.  Some of you are shaking your heads, but think about this.  Elvis Dumervil was a 4-3 DE his whole life, and most of his sacks have come from rushing the passer with his hand on the ground, even in 2009.  He’s a pass-rusher, not a blitzer.  (Clay Matthews is a blitzer.)  Robert Ayers is a natural strongside DE in an even front.  That’s what he did in college, and I’m certain that he’d look better given a chance to do it again.  Jason Hunter was always a 4-3 guy before this season, too.  Marcus Thomas is a natural one-gap DT, and he’s been asked to play a lot of two-gap stuff the last couple years.  Justin Bannan comes from a hybrid scheme in Baltimore, and he can play well in any spot on the DL, from 5-technique to 5-technique.  We know that D.J. Williams is scheme indifferent; it might be his greatest selling point.  Mario Haggan might struggle in a 40-front as a Sam LB, but if you used him correctly, I think he’d be just fine.  Joe Mays is a natural 4-3 Mike.  Wesley Woodyard is a natural 4-3 Will.  The Broncos don’t have to go back to a 40-front, but I think it’s a better choice, by 55-45%.

So, back to the list of our coaches.  There are a lot of interesting names on there, but when I went through it, I pared it down to 10 names.  They follow alphabetically:

a.  Perry Fewell – New York Giants Defensive Coordinator – A Tampa-2 guy who went 3-4 last season as Interim Head Coach of a bad Buffalo team.

b. John Fox – Carolina Panthers Head Coach – A guy who has been a winner for a long time, and who was left with a bad roster this season in his lame duck season.  He has run a zone-heavy 4-3, and his current Offensive Coordinator Jeff Davidson is an Erhardt-Perkins guy who learned his craft in New England from Charlie Weis.

c.  Jon Gruden – ESPN TV Analyst – A creative offensive coach who unabashedly loves Tim Tebow’s talent.  On the “downside” (not really) he generally doesn’t give a crap about coddling players, and that would offend people like Josina Anderson.

d. Gary Kubiak – Houston Texans Head Coach –  A familiar name and face, obviously.  He’s been presiding over some soft, technocratic Texans teams with bad defenses, so at least things would look familiar if he brought that MO back to Denver.  It’d be like 2000-2008 all over again!

e.  Sean McDermott – Philadelphia Eagles Defensive Coordinator – A young Jim Johnson pupil, McDermott likes to heat up QBs with blitzes from a 40-front.  He’s 36 years old, and has never been a Head Coach at any level, so that may be a tough sell, but he appears to have the goods.

f.  Marty Mornhinweg – Philadelphia Eagles Assistant Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator – Despite a rough tenure as Head Coach of the Detroit Lions, Mornhinweg is very well-regarded, and it seems likely that take 2 would go much better for him.  He grew up as a west coast guy under Steve Mariucci, but he’s been exposed to much more vertical schemes with Andy Reid in Philadelphia.  Mornhinweg has also been instrumental in helping to re-invent a raw, athletic, left-handed QB in Michael Vick.  One downside is that I don’t like how his O-line coach Juan Castillo teaches pass drops.  (Hopefully, he wouldn’t come.)

g.  Mike Mularkey – Atlanta Falcons Offensive Coordinator – This is the name that’s been in the media lately, and it’s a reasonable one.  Mularkey is creative and he likes to use a lot of trick plays, which excites players and fans.  I didn’t have a great impression of him as a Head Coach in Buffalo, but he could be another one who does better with a second chance.

h. Mike Nolan - Miami Dolphins Defensive Coordinator – He’s another former Head Coach looking for another chance, which is not a coincidence.  I’m targeting that kind of coach, for the most part, because it would fit well with a team that just went through a first-timer making some mistakes.  Nolan is a good defensive schemer, and he has some political capital in Denver.  It’d be hard for Woody and the Dullards to start taking shots at him too quickly, after spending the last year using him as a tool to beat Josh McDaniels with.

i.  Ron Rivera – San Diego Chargers Defensive Coordinator – The luster came off Rivera when Lovie Smith canned him in Chicago in 2006, but it’s come back as he’s gotten the Chargers defense playing really well.  Rivera has been in a blitz-heavy 4-3 under Jim Johnson, a Tampa-2 scheme under Smith, and he inherited and adapted a Phillips 3-4 in San Diego.  That kind of scheme versatility is useful, and as an added bonus, his departure would weaken the Chargers.  The downside is that I’ve heard that Rivera doesn’t interview particularly well, so he may have trouble getting the job, given a chance.

j.  Gregg Williams – New Orleans Saints Defensive Coordinator – Williams is one of the truly outstanding defensive schemers in the NFL, maybe the best.  The guy is always prepared, and he has an outstanding network of coaches throughout the league, which he’s consciously cultivated throughout his career.  (I remember a story when he got hired in Buffalo in 2001, that he’d been keeping notes on other assistants, identifying who was good, and talking to them where possible to build relationships.)  Williams would be yet another second-chance guy.

Some near-misses were Bill Callahan, Rick Dennison, Cam Cameron, and Russ Grimm.  Jim Harbaugh isn’t realistic for the Broncos, so he’s not here.  I know what some of you are thinking; where’s Bill Cowher?  Well, I’m not a fan at all.  He was the beneficiary of the program in Pittsburgh, and not ever the setter of it.  He also consistently had excellent assistants, who did nearly all of the heavy lifting for him, x’s and o’s wise.  He’s not what the Broncos need, in my opinion.  Also, if you want to hire him, he’s not going to allow himself to be a runner-up publically, so you basically have to decide to hire him, sight unseen.  No, thanks.

So, back to the list of 10.  I’ve been thinking of who I want to emulate, and some teams from this list aren’t what I’m looking for.  Kubiak is out, because I don’t want a soft football team that falls short in close games.  I don’t think Nolan works, because he seems like he’s just as difficult to get along with as McDaniels was reputed to be, and his 49ers teams weren’t what I’m looking for.  Fewell is a good coach, but I’m inclined to shy away from the Tampa-2 stuff.  I’ve also never known him to work with any particularly good offensive coaches, so I wonder if he has any relationships with any.  I think that McDermott has a bright future, but he’s pretty young, and it’s hard to do that twice in a row.  Rivera is intriguing, but it’s hard to be confident hiring a first-time Head Coach right now.

We’re down to Fox, Gruden, Mornhinweg, Mularkey, and Williams, which is a manageable list of finalists.  Each has been an NFL Head Coach, Gruden (the youngest) of two teams.  Gruden is 47, Mornhinweg is 48, Mularkey is 49, Williams is 52, and Fox is 55.  Age is not a differentiating factor despite the fact that some look younger than others.  Any of these five excellent coaches would be good choices, but I can only have one.  I reluctantly get off the Fox and Mularkey trains because they like running the ball too much on offense.  A lot of ill-informed people think that running is how you win in the NFL, but it isn’t.  You win by throwing the ball, and by hindering your opponent’s ability to throw the ball.  I don’t think that Gruden’s ideas on defense are the greatest, and I leave him behind based on that.

Choosing between Mornhinweg and Williams, I ultimately go with Gregg Williams.  I want to emulate the New Orleans Saints, and Williams gets a ton of production out of his defensive players there.  The whole is much greater than the sum of the parts, and the scheme is the main thing.  It was the key difference between the 8-8 Saints of 2008, and last year’s Super Bowl champions.  As I mentioned, Williams may be the best defensive schemer in the game, having learned a great deal from Buddy Ryan.  The main problem with Williams in Buffalo from 2001-2003 was that he was too conservative offensively.  He’s been with Sean Payton now for two years, and Payton is anything but conservative.  I think that has to have rubbed off on him, and he’ll realize that the Broncos have excellent talent in place on offense.  I’d push for him to bring Saints Offensive Coordinator Pete Carmichael, Jr. with him, and give him a lot of autonomy over the offense.  Carmichael is young, and has an excellent background, and he doesn’t call plays in New Orleans, so this would be a promotion for him.

Williams doesn’t want to control everything in the organization, and I’m certain that he’ll be an outstanding Head Coach the second time around.  He should have been hired by the Redskins in 2008, when Joe Gibbs retired, but Dan Snyder opted to hire Jim Zorn instead, for some strange reason.  (It’s the Redskins, you know?)  We’d see a cooperative program, shared by Elway, Savage, and Williams.  The priorities would be throwing the ball, and stopping the other team from doing so successfully, because that’s how you win in today’s NFL.  Tomorrow, in Part 2 of WWTBD, we’ll explore a player acquisition strategy, to go with our shiny new coaches and GM.  Hopefully, I haven’t scared you off too much, and you’ll check it out.

Originally posted at One Man Football

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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