You Got Served: Rebuilding Fever - Catch it!

Happy Tuesday, friends.  You have to like a start to the week that includes a win, even if it was a fairly ugly one.  I like the pushback on Monday from John Elway that any Broncos fan who is disappointed with a win isn’t really a Broncos fan.  I agree with that, and I’ll never root for the team to lose for any reason.  Beyond the game at SAF, it was an interesting NFL weekend, and there’s much to discuss.  Ready… BEGIN!!

1.  I’m guilty, and I have to admit it.  I’m the guy who, particularly on my old WordPress site, has relentlessly beaten the drum about how the Broncos media and fan base lack the ability or inclination to allow the team to undertake a real rebuild, or to admit that one is needed.

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.

Then, during the preseason, when the Broncos’ primary players looked good, I let myself get a little overexcited about the team's prospects.  Last week, when the team spit the bit against Oakland, I let myself get down more than I should have.  Today, I’m happy to have witnessed a win, but I’m not letting myself get too high about it.  Perspective has returned.

In fact, I’m going to get back to beating the drum of rebuilding and remind everybody that that’s what the Broncos are doing.  I don’t serve the team, per se, and we purposely don’t interact with their media operation, which I can tell you for sure that MHR does extensively, and I imagine that practically every other Broncos site would as well.  Patrick Smyth will be happy to add any site to the press release distribution list, but we’ve never asked to be on it. 

Independence is really important to us, and we always need to maintain objectivity, but we’re all Broncos fans.  I want to see the team do well, and I think that reminding our reader base that there is a rebuilding process underway is the best thing I can do to help them achieve that.

So, effective immediately, You Got Served will consistently consider and discuss this team through the context of a rebuilding program.  When the Broncos win a game, it’s a reason to be happy, but probably not too exuberantly so.  When they lose, it’s understandable to be disappointed, but if you’re crushed, you might lack the proper perspective.  To this end, the following six assumptions will be inherent to this column, unless I announce that something has changed at some point.

a.  Solid today doesn’t necessarily mean good enough for the rebuilt Broncos.  A guy can have a good game one week, and if you’re not careful this can fool you into thinking that he’s part of the core of your program.  The Broncos have to be careful to keep a wider view of personnel, and so also will I.

b.  There are definitely premium positions, and teams should concentrate their resources on being elite in those areas and work secondarily to be strong in other areas.  I define premium positions as Quarterback, Left Tackle, Pass Rusher, and Interior Run-stuffer.  Some (including John Elway) would say that CB is premium, but I don’t fully agree, given the offense-friendly rules of the modern era.

c.  Player development is king, and if a young guy who is expected to be around for awhile can play, he should play.  Veterans are placeholders, unless they’re clearly part of the rebuilding program.

d.  Process is more important than individual results.  The team should be creating processes which will promote continuity and sustainable effectiveness in the long term.

e.  Effort, toughness, and football intelligence are highly valued on the field even during the rebuilding process, because making them the norm today is a key part of the rebuild.  Those qualities don’t magically start to appear once you finally have the right players in place.  It’s a simultaneous parallel part of the rebuild.

f.  Except to fill a deficit at a premium position, there is no reason to ever not take the best player available in the Draft.  Even when filling those deficits, the guy at the premium position had better project to have a good chance to make that position elite.

Being calm has never really been a problem for me as a football writer, so I’m sure that with this new orientation, I can do a lot to help the fan base relax and support the Broncos as they do something that is painful, but needed.  As I said in one of those One Man Football articles last fall, in regards to the Josh McDaniels era,

This has been 100% a rebuilding situation, but the Broncos organization has erred by not making that clear.  

I’ve decided to be the guy who keeps the fan base focused on that fact and helps the process.  I figure it’s the least that I can do.

2.  So, given those assumptions, here are some general observations on the current Broncos roster and program, after one-eighth of the 2011 season.  I believe that the roster as of 9/17/2011 breaks out as follows for long-term planning purposes:

Cornerstones Core Veterans Young Keepers Developing Young Players Replacement Level Young Players Placeholders
Elvis Dumervil Brandon Lloyd Britton Colquitt Chris Harris Adam Grant Andre' Goodman
Ryan Clady Champ Bailey Brodrick Bunkley Demaryius Thomas Adam Weber Brian Dawkins
Von Miller Daniel Fells Cassius Vaughn J.D. Walton Austin Sylvester Chris Kuper
  Eddie Royal David Bruton Julius Thomas Brady Quinn Derrick Harvey
  Marcus Thomas Eric Decker Knowshon Moreno Brandon Minor D.J. Williams
    Joe Mays Kyle McCarthy Chris Clark Jason Hunter
    Matt Prater Mike Mohamed D'Andre Goodwin Kevin Vickerson
    Rahim Moore Nate Irving DeMario Pressley Kyle Orton
    Robert Ayers Orlando Franklin Derek Domino Lonie Paxton
    Spencer Larsen Quinton Carter Eron Riley Mario Haggan
    Wesley Woodyard Syd'Quan Thompson Jamel Hamler Russ Hochstein
      Tim Tebow Jeremiah Johnson Ryan McBean
      Virgil Green Jeremy Beal Ty Warren
      Zane Beadles Jonathan Wilhite Willis McGahee
        Lance Ball  
        Manny Ramirez  
        Mario Fannin  
        Mark Dell  
        Matt Willis  
        Mitch Unrein  
        Tony Hills  
3 5 11 14 21 14

I’m simply defining a young player as a guy on his rookie contract or a restricted tender, and a veteran as one who is on his second or later one.  Native to that assumption is an acknowledgment that younger players usually have room to improve and are mostly cheaper than veterans, so all things being equal, you’d rather have a lot of them at times like this.

a.  The Broncos have elite-level players at Pass Rusher (two of them, actually) and at Left Tackle.  They’re currently below average (in the aggregate) on the interior Defensive Line and at Quarterback.  Elvis Dumervil, Von Miller and Ryan Clady are the cornerstone players of this team.

b.  Kyle Orton is absolutely not good enough to be considered the starting QB of a team that is expected to compete at the Super Bowl level.  I consider it to be pointless to even play the guy, but I accept that the Broncos' front office disagrees with me for the time being.  As for whether Orton is the go-forward answer, nobody can tell me that he is.  He should be in the prime of his career right now, and if you put him on the best team in the NFL (pick one), he wouldn’t win the Super Bowl.  That tells you everything you need to know.

c.  I almost called Champ Bailey a placeholder, but I’m choosing to optimistically believe the notion that he can play Safety into his late 30s.  For the rest of this exercise, I don’t see a lot of guys who will definitely be starters at the end of the third year of this rebuild.

d.  I’m calling highly-paid guys like D.J. Williams and Chris Kuper placeholders because I don’t think that they play up to their salaries.  In the case of Williams, he’ll be 31 at the end of 2013, and he’s a career underachiever.  In the case of Kuper, he’s better-suited for a more movement-heavy scheme.  When you're asking him to blow a guy off the line like this offense is, that’s really not his game.

e.  Some of the players in the left half of this table aren’t starters on a championship team, per se, but are the kind of guys you want on your roster for special teams and depth.  I’d list them as Marcus Thomas, Daniel Fells, Cassius Vaughn, David Bruton, Joe Mays, Spencer Larsen, and Wesley Woodyard.

f.  Remember how I said that player development was king?  The players in the fourth column are all guys who have shown me something that I think can be developed in order to move them left into “part of the solution” territory.  Not all of them will, of course, but we need the coaching staff to get a lot of these guys there.  As for grading this coaching staff, I’m putting  a huge premium in the next two seasons on seeing who can be developed and moved further left on this chart.  I consider that to be a much more important job, in a broad sense, than beating a bad team with a late field goal or calling a good individual game.  I need teaching and continuous improvement.

g.  The 35 guys in the two far-right columns aren’t part of the long-term solution in my opinion.  Some of them (McGahee, Hunter, Paxton, Haggan) are good team guys who you’re happy to have now, but who you probably aren’t expecting to contribute in 2013 or 2014.  There’s a possibility that some of the young guys can emerge to become keepers, but I don’t really believe in any of the 21 of them at this point.

h.  I guarantee that if you look at the rosters of the good teams in this way, they skew much more toward the left side.  On teams like the Packers, Steelers, Ravens, or Patriots, there’d be a seventh column called something like “Players We Value, But Will Need to Replace Due to Cost.”  Ted Thompson, Bill Belichick, Kevin Colbert, and Ozzie Newsome are always taking the best player available, and in so doing, they keep their teams stocked with talented players who are ready to step up when a starter gets hurt or leaves for more money.

I’ve got rebuilding fever, friends.  Catch it!  It’ll suck for awhile, but just watch a Lions game and you’ll see that a well-executed rebuild makes it all worth the pain in the end.

3.  Two additional viewings of Sunday’s game lead me to these conclusions:

a.  It always starts with the QB, who, as you know, I’m not a big fan of.  That said, Kyle Orton had a pretty solid game-manager-type of game.  He made a great play on the 52-yard TD to Eric Decker, and he made a bad play not stepping up forcefully enough when he fumbled.  Everything else was in the area of “competent.”  That’s a step up from last week, so I’m happy about it.

b.  Interestingly, according to ESPN’s Total QBR metrics, it wasn’t that much of a step up.  In Week 1, Orton was the 22nd-best QB with a Total QBR of 33.0.  In Week 2, he was the 25th-best, with a Total QBR of 39.5.  ESPN ranks Orton 27th in the NFL through two weeks with a Total QBR of 35.1.  I’m not in love with this metric, even if it tells a story that I believe to be true in this instance, and neither is anybody else at this site.  The metric has no love for the Broncos' QB either, so I guess we’re all agreeing to hate each other.

c.  In my notes, verbatim:

Orton hit a checkdown!!!!!

I was really excited to see that, because it doesn’t really happen too often.  The Broncos didn’t run any screens, of course, and we all know why by now.

d.  I think that Britton Colquitt was the most important player of Sunday’s game, because it really subtly came down to field position throughout.  Every time the Broncos offense would stall, Colquitt would help the team with a big-time punt to deny the Bengals what would usually be advantageous positioning.  Colquitt is off to a fantastic start this season, and the punt coverage unit has been excellent through two games as well, Chris Harris’s penalty notwithstanding.

e.  The Bengals also helped the Broncos by frequently taking penalties in their punt return game.  You can’t count on teams doing that every week, but it sure is nice when they do.

f.  I was pleased with the play of the Broncos' offensive line.  Ryan Clady did a really good job blocking throughout the game, and I just need him to quit getting called for holding.  Even on the sack that led to Orton’s fumble, Clady rode his guy deep outside like he’s supposed to, so it’s not on him.  The QB has to either get the ball out at the top or move up forcefully.  It’s never okay to just stand still at the top of the drop, because those outside pass rushers are going to end up just behind that position eventually.

As for the other offensive linemen, I saw a really big week-to-week improvement in both J.D. Walton and Zane Beadles.  They got owned against Oakland, and they more than held their own against Cincinnati.  The best success that the Broncos had running the ball was to their left, and that was because Clady, Beadles, and Walton made it happen up front.  Chris Kuper was better this week, but he still had a couple of lapses, and Orlando Franklin continues to be a work in progress.  He did have a crushing block on the Willis McGahee TD run on the opening possession, and he did pretty well against Carlos Dunlap, who had a really quiet game.

g.  McGahee was really good, and it has to put some pressure on Knowshon Moreno once he’s back to health.  Moreno is the more talented of the two players, but McGahee ran with patience, instincts, and power on Sunday, and Moreno could use more of all three.

h.  I was really, really impressed with several defenders on Sunday.  The defensive players of the game to me were Robert Ayers and Von Miller, because each made huge plays that were the difference between winning and losing this game.  Ayers consistently played with power and leverage, and he consistently maintained his gap responsibility.  That led to the Bengals’ failure on a key third down and the massive late-game fourth down.  Miller set the edge tremendously well all game and was key to a couple of stops on third and short.  For a guy who’s known as a speed rusher, he plays with excellent physicality and leverage in the run game.

i.  Other key defenders making big plays:

Joe Mays – Dominant in the run game all night, but responsible for the long pass to Jerome Simpson on second-and-20 because he didn’t get proper depth in the Tampa-2.

Wesley Woodyard – Played as good a game as D.J. Williams ever has.  Woodyard’s knockdown of the third-down crossing throw was gigantic, because if he didn’t get a hand on it, Mike Nugent was going to be kicking a field goal to win the game.

Cassius Vaughn – I thought that Vaughn did a good job in coverage and a great job in tackling throughout the game.  The pass interference penalty he took was bogus too, because while he didn’t turn around, there was no contact.  I really loved Vaughn’s TD-saving chasedown of Jerome Simpson from the other side of the field.  The Bengals got a TD, but effort like that will pay off in the future.

Andre’ Goodman – He had a really good game.  His coverage on the A.J. Green TD was textbook, but sometimes you get beat by a great throw and catch.  Goodman also made a great play on the ball on the two-point conversion that ended up being the difference in the game.  Like Vaughn, Goodman also took a pretty bogus interference call.  This wasn’t All-Pro stuff, but Dre’ played like an above-average starter, which is where his capability level is.

Rahim Moore – Moore was fairly quiet because the Bengals didn’t test the deep middle much, but he was always where he was supposed to be, and that just happened to be all the way on the defense’s left when Simpson caught the long one.  Moore did make a huge play in getting to the sideline to stop Brian Leonard short of a first down and force a field goal.  Again - in a two-point game, it's the difference between winning and losing.

Brian Dawkins – The Broncos have been using Dawkins a lot to set the edge in the running game, and he’s been winning his battles there. 

j.  When you’re outgained and minus-two in turnovers, you usually lose the game.  The Broncos had a very nice team effort especially given the injuries, and they pulled out one that you lose 7 out of 10 times.  There were so many small plays that each could have been the difference in the game, and the Broncos made all of those plays on Sunday.  It was a nice departure from the prior Monday and the past few years, and hopefully it was a sign of the “steady hand, veteran coach” stuff we’ve been hearing about.

4.  Here are some observations from other games I caught this weekend:

a.  The Bills are a really interesting team, as I started to mention last week.  Their offensive scheme is outstanding, and they have a lot of smart players who execute it well.  I said last week that Ryan Fitzpatrick has been reminding me of Drew Brees.  Well, watching the scheme and execution of the Bills makes me think of the Saints.  There are a lot of similarities in what they’re trying to do and in schematic subtleties, but more than that, there’s a symmetry to the way that they’ve staffed their offensive groups with low-round picks and undrafted players and managed to find guys who really fit what they’re doing.

b.  I was listening to Bills WR David Nelson on Sirius the other day, and he was talking about how everybody trusts each other that they’re going to each execute correctly and be in the right spots, and that they’ll be successful because of it.  Nelson is an interesting guy.  He was made famous while still in high school by uber-douche Regis Philbin, who said on national TV that he’d regret choosing to play at Florida instead of Notre Dame.  He won two national titles, so I am thinking that he didn’t regret anything.  While Nelson was only a part-time player for the Gators, he showed enough ability to get a look from the Bills, and he’s become a very valuable piece of the team.  I think that Buffalo is going to be able to stay competitive in a shootout with New England next week.

c.  The Raiders' defensive line got after Fitzpatrick very well, but it’s amazing how staying on schedule and the ability of a QB to slide and be decisive with getting the ball out quickly can do to negate a pass rush.  The Bills' O-Line was just as physically overmatched as the Broncos' line was, if not even more so, but the outstanding play of Fitzpatrick and RB Fred Jackson (mostly running from nickel situations) overcame that disadvantage.

d.  The Lions are real Super Bowl contenders if they don’t lose any of their cornerstone guys to extended injuries.  I like how they’re playing as a team that realizes that its core offensive competency is throwing the football, and they’re doing their running off of their passing.  Jahvid Best looked really good on Sunday.

e.  The Chiefs did have a significant bright spot on Sunday amid the shellacking they took from the Lions.  Second-year RG Jon Asomoah held up pretty well against Ndamukong Suh, who didn’t have much of an individual impact in the game.  The rest of the Lions' D-line dominated, though, and it was pretty much all bad for the Chiefs except for the play of Asomoah.

f.  Jay Cutler played horribly on Sunday, so if you’re still into schadenfreude with him you can be happy.  Cutler couldn’t get the ball outside to a WR, and if it weren’t for Matt Forte having 117 of his 244 passing yards, the numbers would have looked really, really bad.  He was pressured a lot, but that’s no excuse; a championship QB needs to be able to beat pressure.

g.  What really makes the Saints' offense so tough to defend is Devery Henderson, Jimmy Graham, and Darren Sproles.  Henderson takes the top off of the defense, because he’s so fast and he catches the ball well in traffic.  Graham is an emerging star who’s already better than Jeremy Shockey ever was for the Saints.  Sproles doesn’t threaten teams as much as Reggie Bush did as a downfield route-runner, but he’s more dangerous in short areas than Bush is.  These three players make defenses defend the entire field and enable guys like Robert Meachem, Lance Moore, and (when he’s healthy) Marques Colston to get so open.

h.  Speaking of Bush, that whole “featured back” idea didn’t last long, did it?  It looks like Daniel Thomas is going to be the primary ballcarrier for the Dolphins, and that makes sense.  Bush is a great player, but you need to use him in ways that maximize his strengths and minimize his weaknesses.  That means getting him the ball in space and running to the edges, and otherwise deploying him as the key decoy in the passing game.  The Saints had Bush exactly right.

i.  I don’t think that Peyton Hillis has looked very good yet this season.  His numbers were solid enough on Sunday if you’re okay with 3.5 yards per carry, but I think Peyton’s feet look slower than they did early last season, or when he was with Denver.  I wonder if he didn't get beat up too much in 2010, to where it's still affecting him.

j.  I’m very impressed with what Washington is doing on defense so far this season.  Neither Brian Orakpo nor Ryan Kerrigan is an elite pass rusher, but they’re both in the second tier of good ones - and when you have two of those, it’s as good as having one elite one. 

k.  Sam Bradford didn’t look particularly great on Monday night, but his receivers also really let him down at key moments in the game.  Only Danario Alexander played very well, and Billy Bajema and Greg Salas really hurt their team with key drops.  Empty passing yards and scoring area failures seem to have followed Josh McDaniels to St. Louis, and like in Denver, it's a combination of a lack of power running and a lack of QB precision in small spaces.  Maybe it improves when Steven Jackson gets healthy again, but it looked really questionable for this game.

l. I did like the Rams' pass protection against the excellent Giants' D-line.  Rodger Saffold continues to look like a cornerstone LT, and RT Jason Smith, while probably not worth the second-overall pick in the 2009 Draft, continues to improve to the level of being one of the better RTs in the NFL.

m.  Rick Reilly on television after the MNF game is a huge failure by the Worldwide Leader.  He thinks that Eli Manning is struggling because Peyton is hurt.  Really.  It must be a coincidence, but two of my least favorite media personalities (Reilly and Verne Lundquist) live in Denver, and both stupidly appeared on TV this football weekend and made my head hurt.

n.   While watching the Bucs-Vikings game, I came away thinking that the Bucs really wasted an opportunity in the offseason to improve their offense.  It’s fun being a plucky, overachieving bunch that’s led by an advanced young QB, but the simple fact is that the Bucs don’t have enough talent on offense to consistently put up a lot of points against good teams.  They could have really used upgrades at LG, RB, and slot receiver, and got nothing.  I’m actually not that crazy about Arrelious Benn as a starting WR, either.  Now, it’s all about the defense keeping it close enough for Josh Freeman to pull out games at the end, and it’s not always going to work out.

o.  The Falcons really had a gut check performance on Sunday night, and they did what you have to do to beat Philadelphia, which is run the ball inside.  Philadelphia plays with their DEs and DTs aligned really wide, which Ron Jaworski seems to have decided is a new form of defense called “Wide-9.”  You have to run to beat this Wide-9!  I think that’s completely asinine. 

p.  Wide-9 is simply the way that 9-technique is usually described.  As we all know, 9-technique is simply a landmark-based alignment concept that means that the DE is aligned on the outside shoulder of where a second TE on one side would be.  This diagram refreshes the concept:

The Eagles were often playing their DEs as 9-techniques and their DTs as 4- and 5-techniques, leaving the Center and Guards uncovered.  This puts a lot of pressure on the LBs to engage interior linemen in the running game and make tackles, and the fact that the Eagles don’t seem to care about the running game is a nod to the fact that they expect to be ahead in most games, where opposing offenses will give up on the run and play into their hands by constantly passing.  The Colts have been using the same general strategy (with a different scheme) for years, and it’s mostly worked for them over the years, despite what this clown (he’s always been one) at Stampede Blue seems to think.

Wouldn’t you hate to be a Colts fan?  They’re even worse than we are if they’re suddenly wanting to beat up on Bill Polian for how their team was constructed, now that their super-durable QB got hurt for the first time in 13 years.  How can you not have a contingency plan for something that happens once in 13 years?  Where are the 350-pound DTs that we need only now that we have to play closer games than usual?  Sucks to be them.

Anyway, there is no defense called the Wide-9.  The Eagles are just lining up with a wide DL and a tight set of LBs.  It’s like the 46 in reverse, and while it makes some sense, teams with good running games are going to be able to exploit it and make the Eagles miss Brodrick Bunkley.  There’s nothing particularly innovative about it, and in fact, it’s really just taking Jim Bates’ main idea a little further and replacing the huge DTs with two more fast pass-rushing types.

q.  I think that the loss of Aaron Hernandez for a game or two is going to hurt the Patriots.  No LB or Safety in the NFL can cover him man-to-man, because he runs elite WR-quality routes.  I was watching Bill Belichick: A Football Life over the weekend, and he was lamenting that teams could take away Randy Moss deep and sit on Wes Welker short (after the Denver game, coincidentally), and that that effectively shut down the Patriots' offense in 2009.  What I heard was that he knew the answer was to get much better at TE and to really start to threaten the inside of the field.  With Rob Gronkowski and Hernandez, the Patriots are a terror in stretching the field both vertically and horizontally.  The Patriots stay ahead of the curve because they’re honest with themselves in evaluating themselves, and even when they’re winning games, they recognize when they aren’t really good enough.

r.  Alex Smith continues to play really well this season for San Francisco, but the 49ers' running game and secondary aren’t playing up to their full capacity yet.  The only offensive player that our favored stat service Pro Football Focus graded positively on Sunday was Smith, and I agree with that assessment after watching the game.  Smith took six sacks, but they were the kind of sacks that were all on his offensive line, and when he managed not to get hit, he was 9-of-10 for 111 yards and a TD when the Cowboys blitzed him.  If the Niners shore up their protection and Smith continues to play that well under pressure, they’re going to be hard to beat.

s.  For the Cowboys, the player who has jumped out at me two weeks in a row is ILB Sean Lee.  He’s really playing the run well this season and living up to being a second-round pick in 2010.  I don’t like Penn State, or very many people who went there, but Lee gets a pass for being a good player.

That's all I have for today, friends.  I hope you have a good few days, and I'll be back on Friday to Digest the Titans, in which we'll be trying something new in collaborating with Total Titans.  Check us out that day, and every day, and tell a friend where you're getting the best Broncos coverage available in the world.

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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