You Got Served: Taking stock of the Broncos after five games

Happy Tuesday, friends.  I wanted to take a few moments today to evaluate the overall state of affairs for the 2012 Broncos.  When you’re a fan of a team, it’s easy to watch a few losses, and take them hard, and get all emotional about them.  It can seem like all is lost, and that this guy should get benched, and that guy should get fired, and that if you were the GM, things would be different.

I’m a professional analyst, and a key part of the analyst skill set is the ability to be dispassionate, and just try to see things for what they are.  I work with a guy who is a Steelers fan, and he keeps his security badge on a Steelers lanyard, and he has Steelers crap on his car, and in his office.  That’s not the kind of Broncos fan I am.  I’ve owned two Broncos jerseys in the last 10 years or so, and they’re both useless now.  (Catler and Teebs, if you must know).

I’m not a fanatic – I started out being one as a kid, but in the course of becoming a widely-read writer about the Broncos, my approach to fanhood became kind of professional and dispassionate.  This is like a job, and today, I’m going to do my job, and tell you what I think is going on with the Broncos without emotion.

I wrote an article before the regular season started saying that I thought the Broncos would be Super Bowl contenders in 2012.  That opinion hasn’t changed a bit.  In watching the two wins and three losses, what I’ve seen is a team that can match up physically with the best teams in the NFL, but which has made too many mistakes.  The thing about mistakes is that you can stop making them.  That’s more likely to happen as everybody gets more comfortable with what’s going on.

The following are some observations of the team, through five games. 

1.  The Broncos have already played their three toughest opponents, two of them on the road.  It sucks to be 0-3 against them, but I think that the Broncos showed that they could beat any of them in a second game.  In no game this year should the Broncos have walked off the field thinking, man, we got our asses kicked today.  They’ve been out-executed (in all three losses), and out-schemed (against the Falcons and Patriots), but they haven’t been overmatched physically.

2.  The offense is executing at a higher level all the time.  That’s only going to be more true with the return of Chris Kuper, who can send Manny Ramirez back to his rightful place at Right Bench.  I’ve been talking about proficiency lately, particularly vis-à-vis the offenses of the Texans and Patriots.  What I mean by that is that the players in those offenses have been doing what they do for so long that a high level of execution is to be expected. 

The Broncos aren’t as proficient yet as a team, and can’t possibly be, because they’re all pretty new to what they’re doing, at least in the sense of doing it together.  In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, he talks about the "10,000-Hour Rule," which states that to be successful in any activity, you have to devote about 10,000 hours to practicing it.  While guys like Demaryius Thomas, Zane Beadles, and Willis McGahee have undoubtedly practiced playing football for more than 10,000 hours in their lives, an offense is a collection of players who have to work together, and unit success is more important than individual success.

Obviously, the Broncos offense can’t practice together for 10,000 hours by season’s end.  (There are only 8,760 hours in a calendar year.)  Every hour that they do practice together, though, will make them better, and will promote increasing degrees of success.

3.  The same thing is true of the defense, where the talent is better than the recent production.  We have the same newness factor at play, and the talent isn’t top-notch in all areas, but the defense has been mostly solid this year.

Briefly, against the Patriots, I think that Jack Del Rio got his ass kicked.  This year, the Broncos are switching their defensive front based on open or closed looks.  What that means is that Derek Wolfe (or Malik Jackson) is assigned to line up on the TE side of the offense, and Elvis Dumervil (or Robert Ayers) is assigned to line up on the open side.  If the offense flips their alignment pre-snap, the defensive front is switching with it.

In the Patriots game, the Broncos were caught switching quite a few times as Tom Brady was snapping the ball.  I guarantee that Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick saw the policy of switching on film, and decided to exploit it.  The better plan against New England would have been to not switch.

Also, the Patriots have a really strong tendency to run the ball when Tom Brady is under center.  It never looked like the Broncos realized that, or were playing for the run when it was very likely coming.  Further, I think it took Del Rio too long to give up on man coverage, once it became clear that the Broncos weren’t effective with it.

The thing is, though, knowledge and experience were gained.  The ugliness of the execution also makes it easy to remember that the Patriots probably have the best offense in the NFL, in terms of both players and scheme.  Getting gashed against them isn’t really a dishonorable thing; you just have to realize that to beat New England, you have to try to outscore them, and that means not punting on 4th-and-5 from the plus-39.

4.  Joe Mays is the object of much hatred, but the Broncos don’t really have a better answer right now.  I was listening to Sirius NFL Radio on Monday, and some dumbass Chiefs fan called in and tried to defend the fans’ cheering of Matt Cassel’s injury.  The guy was saying that the Chiefs needed to upgrade on Cassel, and Pat Kirwan told him that they had no way to do so during the season.

Once you start the year, you play with who you’ve got.  If Keith Brooking or Nate Irving were better than Mays, they’d have been starting since Day 1.  Both may get a chance to replace him, but expecting them to be significantly better is probably unrealistic.

The right answer for 2012 is to either give up on the idea that Mays should be on the field for nickel downs, or get really comfortable with the idea of playing lots of zone coverage while he’s in the game.  I take Del Rio’s point that having Mays out of the game makes the Broncos susceptible to the nickel run game, but asking him to cover anybody in man-to-man makes them more susceptible to the nickel pass game.

For 2013, yeah, upgrading the MLB position would be great, and I think it should be a high priority.  For now, seeing Mays benched may make you feel better, but I don’t find it terribly likely that it improves much on the field.  It will end the weekly tradition of my brother texting “I hate Joe Mays” though, and there’s that.

5.  John Fox has a shortcoming or two, but we shouldn’t ignore the positive things he’s brought to the team.  Fox is conservative, and he struggles with the whole arithmetic thing.  One of my greatest desires, that’s never going to happen, would be for the Broncos to hire somebody who can run the numbers, and determine the best approaches to game management.  Fox does things in an old-school way, because it’s how he was taught.  You punt on fourth down and “trust your defense,” even if the evidence suggests that you shouldn’t trust your defense, because they’re getting mauled.

The best thing about Fox is that in one-plus seasons, he’s turned the Broncos from a soft team into a tough and physical one.  That has been evident all season, but it really showed up against Pittsburgh and Oakland, who are pretty tough and physical teams themselves.  I really do believe that this is going to maximize the competitiveness of the Broncos as we get into December and January, because that’s when soft teams historically fade, as I was just telling my friend Mike Shanahan.

That’s all I have for today, friends.  Keep your heads up, and look for the Broncos to beat the overrated Chargers next Monday night.

How have the Broncos performed relative to your preseason expectations?

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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Ted's AnalysisYou Got Served