You Got Served: The copycat NFL (we hope)

Happy Tuesday, friends, and welcome to what will be a somewhat abbreviated version of You Got Served.  The Broncos lost, and frankly, my Digesting preview from Friday had it pegged.  I got a bunch of reaction that thought I was underselling the Broncos, but I wasn’t.  I just had it right; this Broncos team isn’t ready to compete with the Super Bowl Champions in their building yet.  Hilariously on Sunday, one of my least favorite trolls from my four years of writing about football accused me of “blatant homerism” in the Lard comments because I can see that Robert Ayers is a good player, and I frequently say so.  I got a good laugh at that when I was sitting in the Key West airport on Monday morning waiting to come home.  Evidently, I’m a homer who has somehow picked the Broncos to lose three of their four games this season so far.  I had a win against Oakland and a loss against Cincinnati, but otherwise I’ve had it right, and in the case of the Tennessee and Green Bay games, I’ve had it very right.

I’ve got rebuilding fever, even if John Elway doesn’t really like that word, because he feels like it provides a built-in excuse.  At least his objection was of a semantic nature, and he didn’t just dismiss the idea out of hand that a clear transition is underway.  Teams have to be honest with themselves about what they are, and since our analysis here aspires to be of a similar quality to what teams are seeing themselves, we also have to be honest about what the Broncos are.

I only saw one game this weekend, and as I write this I’m passively listening to Monday Night Football, so I’m going to focus nearly everything on the Broncos' game for this week.  That, and myself.  I definitely will be focusing on myself, just because I know it pisses some people off, and I get a huge chuckle out of that.  What is it the kids say nowadays?  Oh yeah… I’m doing me, that’s what.  Picture me smirking, and wait for it…..  Ready… BEGIN!!

1.  I had some connectivity issues with DirecTV’s streaming service on Sunday, so I didn’t see much of the game live, but I watched it twice when I returned to Cleveland on Monday evening, and I have some Broncos-related thoughts and observations to share, which follow:

a.  I liked Phil Simms’ observation that the Broncos consistently like to run their routes to the sticks on third down, and that the Packers were going to sit on those routes.  That observation proved to be prescient when Charles Woodson took one back for a TD.  That’s two weeks in a row where CBS analysts had insightful observations about the Broncos and their issues on offense, after Steve Tasker broke down how Kyle Orton was tipping screens with his footwork.

b.  I was pleased with the play of both Willis McGahee and Knowshon Moreno at RB.  I’m fine with McGahee being the primary ballcarrier as long as he’s doing well with it, and I thought Moreno was just excellent with his opportunities.  This will elude people who just look at the stat sheet and see no sacks, but Moreno just stoned a couple of pass rushers, and his fake on that flea flicker was brilliant, and it got Brandon Lloyd the 20 yards of separation he needed to catch Kyle Orton’s horribly underthrown pass.  I’ve never seen anything like that fake before.  I know, I know, give it to me; durrr he only got four yards on two carries, he’s a bust, he shouldn’t have been a first-rounder, and McDumbass is a McDumbass!

Here’s the deal about Draft picks, which I’ve covered before, and will surely cover again.  In and of itself, a Draft pick is worthless.  Its only value is that it confers upon a team the right to pick a football player at some point.  Once you pick the player, he’s a player, and if you’re being intelligent, it doesn’t matter what round he was picked in.  Sunk costs are irrelevant to the decisions we face today.  If you can’t get down with that fundamental concept, you don’t belong in any kind of decision-making capacity for anything. 

The question is, once you have a player on your team, is he part of the problem, or part of the solution?  Sunday, Moreno made himself part of the solution in limited opportunities.  Maybe it gets him more chances, and maybe it doesn’t; I don’t really care.  I want to see whoever the back is in the game maximize his utility in whatever he’s asked to do, and on Sunday, both guys did that.

c.  Eric Decker is turning into quite a player.  His second TD catch was a spectacular reaction and adjustment to a high and outside throw that had a low probability of being caught.  The ball went where Orton wanted to throw it, but he was clearly counting on a play from Decker, and he got one.  Decker is a guy who’ll clearly be a key player on this team when it gets good again.

d.  Generally, I liked the pattern design in the passing game on Sunday better than I did in the first couple of games.  It seems that Mike McCoy is back to working to scheme receivers open, like the Broncos did when Josh McDaniels was still around.  As much as you can use a route tree to combine a passing scheme into as many possible permutations as Waffle House has for hash browns, there are certain repetitive concepts that any good offensive team will use to maximize their effectiveness in specific situations, and I’ve been pleased with the Broncos' return to showing those kinds of concepts.

e.  I thought that the Broncos' offensive line was pretty solid throughout the game, given the givens.  Zane Beadles had a hard time with B.J. Raji throughout, but I think that everybody expected that, and Raji had a fairly low impact game, when it came to making plays that affected what was happening with the football.  Beyond that, the protection was pretty good for a second week in a row, and the Broncos got the running game blocked throughout the game.  I’m seeing progress in this area the last couple weeks, even if we’re not approaching ideal just yet.  The degree to which the Broncos can develop Beadles, J.D. Walton and Orlando Franklin into good starters will go a long way toward determining how long the rebuilding process has to last.

f.  Elvis Dumervil looked pretty good early in the game, especially with his bull rush against Chad Clifton, but he seemed to wear down as the game went on.  That’s no particular surprise, given that he’s missed a couple weeks of practice and games, but it will be interesting to see how he does in terms of endurance and consistency against Whale’s Vagina.

g.  Von Miller ended up playing a lot of snaps at DE in nickel situations as I expected.  He did an outstanding job as a pass rusher there, getting a couple of sacks and just missing a couple more, but it served to somewhat limit his ability to make an impact on every down.  When he gets to play some Sam LB, Miller really can make his presence felt in the running game, and that wasn’t there as much on Sunday.

h.  In a general way, any team that doesn’t have an Aaron Rodgers-caliber QB should be pretty worried about dropping back and throwing against Miller, Dumervil, and Ayers.  The Broncos are going to get plenty of pressure with those guys and somebody else coming, and they’re going to be very schematically sound on the back end, by being able to drop seven men into coverage.

i.  Speaking of coverage, it was pretty up-and-down on Sunday.  Again, the stat sheet readers are getting ready to flame me, but if you watched the game, Rodgers made some outstanding throws to covered receivers.  There’s nothing Andre’ Goodman can do when he has perfect outside coverage, and Rodgers just hits a spot that nobody else in the NFL can consistently hit.

j.  The Broncos looked pretty bad in zone coverage, and they’re clearly better in man-to-man.  Of course, the Packers will make any team scared to play man, but I would have played Cover-1 Man the whole game, with Jermichael Finley mostly doubled.  Dennis Allen mixed it up, but when the Broncos really got exposed, it was in the seams of zones.

k.  Rahim Moore struggled early but played better in the second half, especially with taking angles to the ball and tackling.  I also liked his awareness on his first career interception, and the fact that he was playing fast late in an out-of-reach game, like he felt like it was meaningful.  Moore looks like a talented rookie who’s learning valuable lessons and improving as a player.  In other words, he’s what Darcel McBath was supposed to be, but never became.

l.  I was thinking about discussing Orton and Tim Tebow in the context of this game, but I decided that it would be pretty pointless.  I’ve got rebuilding fever, and since it’s pretty clear that neither player is the one that John Elway wants in the long term, I’m cool with whoever playing right now.  Orton did some good things Sunday, and he did some atrocious things.  In other words, he was Kyle Orton.  Do what you’ve always done, and you get what you’ve always gotten.

2.  I did like Dan Reeves’ comparison of Tebow to Roger Staubach.  It actually made me smile, because I made the same comparison about three weeks ago.  I am not old enough to have seen Staubach play live, but I was watching NFL Network about a month ago and saw some footage of him, and he reminded me greatly of Tebow, which is what prompted the above-linked comment.  Staubach was also a clean-living Christian type, so there’s that comparison to be made too.

Staubach was nowhere near the prototypical NFL QB in the 70s, but he played for a really good team and for a coach who was as much of an outside-the-box thinker as the NFL has ever seen.  There was no Twitter or ESPN back then, and everybody didn’t think they were a scout because they read Mel Kiper’s Draft annual.

Actually, I don’t think anybody was probably talking about prototypes for QBs yet.  If they had been, players like Fran Tarkenton, Johnny Unitas, and Joe Montana may have had a harder time getting a chance to play.  Did you know that Unitas was a ninth-round pick in 1955?  Or that Tarkenton was a third-rounder in the 1961 NFL Draft and a fifth-rounder in the AFL Draft?

Now that everybody thinks they’re a scout, it’s really hard, in an optical sense, to go with an unconventional guy.  The coach has to suffer questions from idiots like Mark Kiszla, who has been encouraged to think that he knows something, when he doesn’t really know anything.  There are voices everywhere, and it sucks the oxygen straight out of the room.  If a guy like Unitas or Tarkenton didn’t have instant success in today’s game, they almost certainly wouldn’t get enough time to grow into the job.

I don’t think that Tebow is probably going to be a long-term Bronco, and I suspect that his agent and family get that same impression.  His most likely best case is to get in some games and have a chance to show some good things on tape while playing for a rebuilding team, so he can showcase himself for other teams.  The only other good scenario for him is to come in and lead the Broncos on a long winning streak and convince everybody that he should be the guy for the long-term.  That’s probably not in the cards on this team, against this schedule.

3.  From the department of copycat leagues, the Packers offer an excellent template for what the Broncos should be building toward.  They have an elite QB, an elite pass rusher (Clay Matthews), and an elite run-stuffer (B.J. Raji).  They don’t have the LT exactly, but Chad Clifton is serviceable, if declining, and RT Bryan Bulaga, RG Josh Sitton, and C Scott Wells are all really good.  The Packers have developed an outstanding receiving corps from a bunch of non-first-round picks.  Greg Jennings (2), Jordy Nelson (2), Donald Driver (7), Randall Cobb (2), James Jones (3), and Jermichael Finley (3) are a really formidable bunch, as we saw Sunday.

Defensively, the Packers are built around secondary play and conservative blitzing, and they’ve also developed excellent players who weren’t high picks like ILB Desmond Bishop (6), DE Jarius Wynn (6), Erik Walden (6 for the Cowboys), and CBs Tramon Williams and Sam Shields (both undrafted), and added them to smart free-agent signings like Charles Woodson and DE Ryan Pickett, and their own first-rounders like Matthews, Raji, and A.J. Hawk. 

The Packers have two important understandings that have made them such an excellent team:

a.  This is an offense-driven league, and most importantly, it’s a pass-driven league.  You need to build your team, from both a roster and scheme perspective, to be excellent at throwing the ball.

b.  This is a personnel-constrained league, because of both the Draft and the salary cap, so the teams that consistently win will tend to be the teams that do the best job of developing all of their players and maximizing their effectiveness.

The second point is especially critical.  Who are the consistent winners of the last 10 years or so?  New England, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Green Bay, and Pittsburgh, if you ask me.  All five of those teams get a lot of credit for selecting the right players, because we are a society that likes to oversimplify and hero-worship.  Bill Belichick, Ozzie Newsome, Andy Reid, Ted Thompson, and Kevin Colbert are heroes, because they pick players that nobody else thinks will be good.

That’s only part of the story, of course.  Sure, they pick players who they think can play, and who fit what they’re trying to do.  They also have organizations and programs in place which are longstanding, and which specializing in taking the raw talents of acquired players, and developing those talents into useful on-field skills, which contribute to team victories. 

The Broncos have had some misses in picking players, sure, but I would say that I think where they’ve really struggled, going back many years, is in the area of player development.  Except for the RB position, where has the team ever really taken a raw talent and turned them into a big-time player?  When you develop the players you get, it’s amazing how many “busts” you no longer have to explain.  It gets to the point where you can be Belichick and take Darius Butler 41st-overall in 2009, and just discard him two years later because he didn’t make the grade.  To you, it wasn’t a mistake of a pick, it was just a guy who didn’t develop as expected - and that’s okay, because you have other players around who did.  Nobody in the media is going to hit you very hard because they can see that Kyle Arrington is playing pretty well, and developing an undrafted guy into a productive player mitigates the failure to do so with a second-rounder.  They cancel each other out, unless you’re the kind of clown who still worries about where a guy was once picked, and considers it in a vacuum so that you can blame the picker.

The Broncos have some building blocks of the kind of passing game that you need to compete with the Packers in place.  I still believe in Demaryius Thomas, and I think he’s going to be a beast once he finally gets on the field, and Decker is definitely a keeper.  Julius Thomas and Virgil Green both look like nice players, and between Brandon Lloyd, Eddie Royal, and Matt Willis, there is even more receiving quality.  The current backs can catch and block, and the offensive line isn’t too far away from being good enough in pass protection.  The QB is seemingly missing, but I expect that the Broncos are going to rectify that after this season somehow.

We need player development, though, and John Fox has a good track record of converting mid- and late-round picks in Carolina into really good players.  A partial list includes C Ryan Kalil (2), WR Steve Smith (3), DE Charles Johnson (3), LB James Anderson (3), S Charles Godfrey (3), and S Sherrod Martin (2). 

I really like the development aspect of the history of Fox and his assistants, and I can see improvement happening in places already with the Broncos.  Fox is the kind of coach who takes the players he’s given and coaches them up.  I think that John Elway is smart enough, and is viewing things from a high enough level to realize that passing is the answer in the modern NFL, and that that will guide the Broncos forward organizationally.  They always say it’s a copycat league, and if you can’t copy success, you shouldn’t be in the NFL.

4.  I promised to talk about myself, so here goes.  I had a really good weekend in Key West, despite the technical difficulties of watching the game Sunday.  The new USS Spruance is a fine ship, and I was honored to attend her commissioning.  This is what she looks like, for those who haven’t seen an Arleigh Burke class Destroyer.

We did tourist stuff, and ate and drank, were merry, and it was cool.  The end.  (I didn't really want to talk about myself that much.)

5.  Well, not exactly the end.  I have a confession to make.  I’ve never read anything by Ernest Hemingway.  My education never forced me to, and I never was that interested on my own.  I tend to read about economics, geopolitics, American foreign policy, and football.  Some people would say I should be ashamed for not reading Hemingway, but I’m not. Nobody can be well-read in all things, and I'm well-read in the stuff that I find most interesting.

My girlfriend Laura likes Hemingway’s work and wanted to visit the Hemingway House, where he lived in the 1930s while also maintaining a residence in Havana.  We walked up to the entrance, and a sign says “Please don’t pick up the cats”.  Cats?  At a museum?  I asked the lady at the ticket counter what was up with the cats.

She told me that there are 44 cats living on the property, and that they were descendants of Hemingway’s cats.  Well, I’m badly allergic to cats, so the tour was a no-go.  I was also flummoxed; Hemingway is supposed to be this quintessential man’s man, and he had a bunch of cats running around?  Who ever heard of such a thing?

I looked it up, and it turned out that according to Hemingway’s son, who lived in the house, there were no cats there, only peacocks.  He had cats in Havana.  The Hemingway family also says that the hucksters who own the (for-profit) house/museum now are lying about the cats being descended from any that Hemingway owned, and that they abused the Hemingway name for years in breeding and selling polydactyl cats.  They don’t sell them anymore, which is evidently why there are 44 of the things running around the museum.

I thought I was going to have to question Ernie’s man card, and I was glad to find out that it’s just the current owners of the house who are animal hoarders.  In any case, I’d recommend that you not visit this dubious landmark if you ever make the trip down to the Conch Republic.

That’s all I have for this edition, friends.  I’ll see you Friday to Digest some Lightning Bolts, and next week, I’m sure I’ll have a fuller complement of games to talk about.  Keep hanging with the Fat Man, and we’ll keep doing what we do.  And please respond positively about the all-22 coaching tape, as Doug mentioned this morning.  We need it here, and you’ll benefit from us having access to it by way of improved analysis, even if you don’t buy it yourselves.

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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