You Got Served: Revisiting the Broncos as Super Bowl contenders

Happy Thursday, friends.  In typical salaried-employee fashion, as I prepare to go on vacation Friday, I’m scrambling to do eight days of work in four days this week.  As such, my writing time has been a bit limited, but I want to share some quick thoughts today about team expectations and the stupidity of reporters.

One of my favorite drums to beat is that the NFL is a complex and dynamic system, where the facts of yesterday become the “not so much” of today.  I laugh every year as the John Claytons of the world, and also his imitators, attempt to forecast the NFL in the preseason.

Usually, this takes two forms: the dumber ones, like Clayton himself, will tend to predict that about 10 of the 12 teams that made the playoffs the year before will do so again, and that two other teams which had hyped draft or free agent classes will also get into the mix.  The smarter ones will note that on average, only 7 of 12 teams tend to make the playoffs in back-to-back years, and they’ll try to find the 10 teams that they think are mostly likely to move up and down in class.

Really, though, both approaches are kind of dumb when it comes down to it.  If you really want to have a good idea, you have to watch for signs of decline and signs of improvement in all players, across all teams.  Then, you have to realize that the sum of the parts doesn’t necessarily equal the whole in the NFL; between injuries and on-field luck, there’s a lot that can’t be easily predicted in August.

This year, the darling pick of the media to win the AFC West was Kansas City.  I think this was their thought process:

  1. Denver won the division last year, but they weren’t that good.
  2. They signed Peyton Manning, so saying they’ll win again is obvious.
  3. He might still have the neck-AIDS though, and it would be a much more negative (and fun) story if he did.  So let’s say he probably does.
  4. I kind of want to be edgy and take a risk.
  5. The Chiefs won the division in 2010, and then sucked in 2011, but they had injuries.
  6. Maybe if those dudes get healthy, they’ll win again.
  7. Matt Cassel to win the division over Peyton Manning?  Why the $%^@ not?

The AFC West in 2010 was pretty derptastic on the whole.  You had the Raiders, who found a new way to derp it up by going 6-0 in the division and 2-8 outside it.  The Chargers were second in total offense, and tenth in total defense, and finished 9-7, because they lost several games on special teams.  The Broncos had their worst season in franchise history, as the wheels totally fell off the McDaniels era.

Then you had the Chiefs, who finished 10-6, despite only having scored 40 more points than they allowed.  They stayed super-healthy, went 4-2 in close games, and generally rode good luck to the division championship.  They got rocked in the Wild Card game by Baltimore, as expected, and that was that.

The 2011 Chiefs had some key early injuries (S Eric Berry, TE Tony Moeaki, and RB Jamaal Charles) and got off to a terrible start to the season, losing the first two games by a combined 79 points, before rallying to finish 7-9 and only be outscored by a total of 47 points over the remaining 14 games.

They got their interim coach Romeo Crennel hired by winning two of their final three games against Green Bay and Denver, mostly on the strength of stifling defense against the pass, led by CBs Brandon Carr and Brandon Flowers.  In the offseason, they let Carr walk, and replaced him with the awful Stanford Routt.

It also bears repeating that the Chiefs hired a guy who simply isn't head coaching material.  I lived in Cleveland throughout Crennel’s tenure there, and he’s a really nice guy, and beyond that, more of a standup guy than you normally come across.  If he were your uncle, he’d be your favorite uncle.

Crennel’s also the kind of coach who will frequently answer a question like “Why didn’t Jamaal Charles get more than five carries?” by saying he doesn’t know.  How the hell can you not know?  Even if you don’t know, why wouldn’t you just give the sneering dickbag reporter some coachspeak and subtly make fun of him for not knowing anything about football, and blow him off?  Try this one – “We were doing what we thought we needed to do to get back into the game.”  Easy, right?

Romeo doesn’t give the media types the sense that he’s in charge, and ultimately, that combines with his avuncular persona at the Chiefs facility to give the players the sense that he’s not in charge either.  I think that’s part of the problem, and another part of it is that Scott Pioli gets too many genius points from the media, and the players he’s brought in are very overrated.

I think the Chiefs are exactly what they are, and expectations that they’d be better than lousy were misplaced.  It took until their ninth game of the season to run a single play with a lead, and that tells you the story of their season.

The Broncos, on the other hand, are outperforming expectations, because dumbasses in the media set the expectations too low.

As an undergrad in my first bachelors program, which was in finance, I learned about modern portfolio theory, which holds that if you want to best predict the effect of uncertain future events, the best thing to do is to break the larger eventual outcome into smaller possible outcomes, and assign probabilities to each possible outcome.  You then multiply the magnitude of each outcome by its probability (which should total 100% across all possible outcomes), and add up the results.  That becomes the expected return of your portfolio.

They teach this in an oversimplified way, and I'll do the same to illustrate what I mean.  Let's say that I own shares in a fund that's indexed to the S&P 500.  I determine (through magic) that the following are possible outcomes and probabilities for the S&P 500 over the next year:

  Outcome Probability Magnitude Predictive Factor
1 25% increase in S&P 500 20% 25% 5.0000%
2 11% increase in S&P 500 30% 11% 3.3000%
3 5% increase in S&P 500 20% 5% 1.0000%
4 S&P 500 is flat for the year 20% 0% 0.0000%
5 10% decrease in S&P 500 10% -10% -1.0000%
    100%   8.3000%

That's way oversimplified, as I said, but it's an intelligent approach to try to quantify expected return.  This is the thought process I bring to every prediction I do.

Here was my basic thought process for the Broncos this year:

  1. What are the chances that Manning’s neck is okay?
  2. If his neck is okay, what’s their record?
  3. If his neck is not okay, what’s their record?
  4. Add up the probabilities for expected wins

I would have said it was 80% likely that the neck is okay, and that if it was, I’d expect a 12-4 record.  In the 20% likelihood that it wasn’t okay, I’d expect a 6-10 season.  Yes, 80% and 20% are semi-arbitrary, but I didn't think that the Broncos would go to all the trouble to recruit and sign Manning if they thought that his chances of recovery were worse than that.

80% x 12 wins = 9.6

20% x 6 wins = 1.2

Expected wins  = 10.8

Thesis = The Broncos should go 11-5 or so, which usually is a division-winning record.

I don't think of predictions in terms of narrative, and most reporters and pundits do.  They tell stories for a living, and they therefore craft a story that justifies their prediction, because it gives them comfort.  Listen to Adam Schein pick games sometime; he'll have six different variables present in his game prediction, and end up saying Broncos 28, Panthers 13.  To me, the Broncos season would pretty obviously turn on Peyton Manning's health, and ability to return to form.  Other variables were and are important, but that was the most important variable.

A guy like John Clayton will decide that he thinks that Manning won't return to form, and that the Broncos will therefore struggle.  His prediction is based on a narrative-driven prediction; I think it's better to make one single prediction based on thinking through the probabilities and magnitudes of every likely outcome.  This difference in approach has a lot to do with why I look right, and the Clayton types look wrong.

I know the Broncos roster better than any national NFL writer or talker, and I’m not surprised by most of the improvements that we’ve seen.  I would say that Kevin Vickerson’s improvement surprises me, and that I didn’t see Tony Carter coming, but that those surprises are offset by the fact that I expected more from Ty Warren and Tracy Porter than the Broncos have gotten.

The young players on the Broncos are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, which is improving.  As John Fox often says, Manning raises all boats, and improvements by Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas, Virgil Green, Zane Beadles, J.D. Walton, and Orlando Franklin are probably attributable to some degree to Manning’s influence.  A big part of is that they’re all on the way up on their career life cycles, though, and the Broncos have a good young core group on offense.

On defense, Von Miller, Rahim Moore, and Chris Harris have all improved greatly in their second seasons, and younger veterans like Wesley Woodyard and Robert Ayers have come into their own in new roles too.  Rookies Derek Wolfe and Danny Trevathan have been key contributors, and even Malik Jackson has played some as a backup to Wolfe.

The arrow is pointing up on all these young guys, and when you combine them with established high performers like Ryan Clady, Chris Kuper, Elvis Dumervil, and (hopefully) D.J. Williams, and add in solid veterans like Jacob Tamme, Joel Dreessen, Justin Bannan, and Mike Adams, you’re looking at a really well-constructed team.

I’ve been saying since the preseason that the Broncos are a legit Super Bowl contender, and I feel better and better about that all the time.  I think they have a very good chance to enter the playoffs on an 11-game winning streak as the #2 seed.  They’re already four games in on that, and at this point, they’re starting to show the kind of proficiency on offense that Manning had with the Colts.

The interesting thing is that I think the defense has more talent than any defense Manning ever had in Indianapolis.  Both teams are built to play with leads, and to win by hitting the QB, but the Broncos have more guys who can do that than the Colts ever did.  Furthermore, they’re better against the run, and with the emergence of Harris, Moore, and Carter, they have the capability to be better in coverage as well.

A lot of people talked about it taking time for the offense to get on the same page, but not much mention was made about the newness of the defensive scheme, and some of the players.  Just as the offense has jelled for the Broncos, and looks better than it did in Week 1, the defense has undergone the same kind of growth curve.

This is the way I view the Broncos – they’re going to put up at least 30 points on just about anybody they play.  Opponents need to figure out how they’re going to score 31, or whatever it takes to beat the Broncos.  How are you going to do that?

Are you going to do it by running the ball?  The Patriots won by doing so, but they surprised the Broncos with their up-tempo stuff, and that’s less likely to work as well a second time around.  The Texans build much of their leads by running the ball and throwing deep off play action; that’s a plausible approach, but only for the best teams in the NFL.

Is your number-one receiver going to dominate the Broncos?  I don’t think so.  Can you protect your QB from both edges against Miller and Dumervil?  Good luck with that.

I’m not saying that this Broncos team is going to necessarily win the Super Bowl, but I am saying that they’re pretty tough to beat when they execute, and they’ve been executing more and more consistently all the time recently.  If the Claytons of the world had predicted that the Broncos would win the division easily, and compete for a championship this year, it wouldn't be so hard to picture.  That should tell you to ignore fools like Clayton.  It’s going to be a lot of fun to see how this goes over the next seven weeks, and into the postseason.

Are the Broncos legitimate Super Bowl contenders this season?

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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