You Got Served: Why are the Broncos winning?

Happy Victory Tuesday, friends.  Are you getting used to Victory Tuesdays, yet?  I kind of like them, personally.  Those of you who had your hearts set on a Top-5 pick may not, but football is funny.  Players and coaches like to win, and they try really hard to make that happen, and sometimes they get it done, even if some find it to be strategically unpreferable.  In this space, we’re always pro-#winning, so deal with it.  Ready… BEGIN!!

1.  Today, I want to share some thoughts about why the Broncos are winning, and why it has seemed like a tale of two seasons.  There are a number of reasons for it, and it qualifies as a confluence of all of those reasons.  I’m one guy with an opinion, but here’s my list:

a.  It took a little while, but the team has taken very well to the new defensive scheme.  The Broncos tried to use even-front players in a Fairbanks-Bullough 3-4 scheme for two seasons and didn’t have great results.  This staff came in and installed an aggressive 4-3 that has a very simple and sound approach to gap control.

The best thing about the defensive coaching is that it has maximized the productivity of holdover players while finding the best way for newcomers to contribute as well.  There’s no scheme orthodoxy that’s set in stone.  The defense has Champ Bailey and Andre’ Goodman at CB, and they’ve been playing a lot of man-to-man for two years.  Bailey can go either way, but Goodman is much better in man.  The Broncos play a lot of man, because it’s the best approach for their talent, even though John Fox has been a zone guy for the most part.

b.  The changes in the offensive scheme have been fairly minor year-over-year, but they’ve been very intelligent.  It always irritates me when people say that the Broncos are playing an “option offense.”  They absolutely are not, so let’s just stop with that nonsense.  They’re using the same Erhardt-Perkins stuff they’ve been using since Josh McDaniels was hired in 2009.

The Broncos are using a zone read series and a dive option series at times, as part of a very diverse running game.  Going back to Pee Wee football, coaches teach 10-year olds the 20 series and the 30 series.  Series football means that a number of plays are designed to look similar and to be used in conjunction with each other, in order to promote deception and avoid predictability.

As I predicted, the Broncos expanded the zone read series even further on Sunday, incorporating some passing looks.  They did this while running fewer straight-up zone read plays, which is making this series more difficult to defend each week.  The new wrinkles were the bubble screen (Tim Tebow’s first completion to Eric Decker), and the fake bubble screen to the seam throw (the TD pass to Decker, which came after a brilliant fake by Tebow). 

This stuff is going to stay in the Broncos offense as long as Tebow is the QB, because, as I mentioned in Sunday’s Chewing the Fat, it’s a run series that works.  It’s really difficult to defend, and a lot of the negativity about it comes from whispers from teams who’d rather not have to deal with it.  Make no mistake, this is a big part of what Matt Bowen was talking about when he said that the Broncos are suddenly difficult to prepare for.  The Panthers are using zone read principles too, and whoever drafts Robert Griffin III (and he’s not making it to the Broncos, so just forget that) probably will too.  If you have the right QB, you’d be a fool not to use it.  Frankly, I hope it stays lightly used around the NFL, because that just continues to make the Broncos difficult to game plan for.

c.  Von Miller is a mother-$%^*ing monster.  This one makes me proud, because if you recall, back in January when Dennis Allen was hired, I was the first Broncos media guy to talk about scheme fit with Miller, even if I did love Nick Fairley a little more at that time.  Then, after he was drafted, I did a Fat Camp piece, where I touched on some of the things that you can do with a “Sam LB” like Miller.  I underestimated the frequency with which Miller would be used as a down pass-rusher, but lately, the Broncos have been using him as a blitzer too.  The young fellow is making me proud.

Miller is a legitimate franchise player, and really, I think he’s the second coming of Lawrence Taylor.  He’s better than Derrick Thomas, because he plays with a lot more power than the other 58 ever did.  It’s scary, but this dude is only scratching the surface of what he’ll be someday, when he gets some veteran knowledge to go with his physical skills and instincts.

d.  Elvis Dumervil took a month or so to round into shape, but he’s back in a big way.  Since Dumervil got going four weeks ago, nobody has been able to block either him or Miller, and they know it.  It’s had a profound effect on the offensive play-calling of Oakland (both games, actually), Kansas City, the Jets, and San Diego.  None of these teams has particularly wanted to drop back straight-up and try to throw the football downfield, because they know they can’t get it protected.  Don’t believe me?  I give you Norv Turner:

“No one threw in the towel,” Norv said. “We were sitting there and Philip was having a tough time getting into the end zone, No. 1 (true, in that they scored but one touchdown). No. 2, I don’t think we would have protected and gotten it off.”

Norv tells Nick Canepa the truth, and Canepa second-guesses him, and intimates that Turner should have just let Rivers get hit and simultaneously win the game, as if one thing doesn't serve to prevent the other.  In other news, Canepa is an idiot.

It’s a really tough thing playing against the Broncos defense, because you’d better be able to protect both edges, and even if you can, Dennis Allen can just move Miller around and blitz him from where you’re weak.  So few teams in the NFL can handle these two rushers simultaneously that the Broncos have a puncher’s chance against anybody right now.

e.  The run defense came together with the emergence of Brodrick Bunkley, D.J. Williams, and Marcus Thomas.  Bunkley has been one of the best interior run-stuffers in the NFL all season, and he was a steal for whatever low-round pick the Broncos gave up (it remains unspecified, as far as I know).  Thomas and Williams were hurt early in the season, when the Broncos were getting off to a 1-4 start.  Thomas returned against Detroit, and Denver is now 4-1 in games he’s played in.  He’s been a difference-maker, even without making stats, so I’m comfortable saying that. 

Williams also is 4-1, and he’s amassed 56 tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles, and one recovery in those five games.  I’ve always been critical of D.J., but a good analyst has to keep an open mind, and be ready to recognize changes in conditions.  D.J. is playing the best football of his life, and I give him a lot of credit for seemingly getting serious about being good for the first time ever.

The Broncos aren’t great in run defense yet, but they’re definitely at least average, and that’s good enough for now, when you consider where they came from.  Between Bunkley, Williams, Thomas, and contribution from other solid players like Robert Ayers, Joe Mays, and Mr. Miller, run defense has been a reason for the winning streak.

f.  The special teams has been outstanding, save for a bad decision here and there in the return game.  Jeff Rodgers deserves a lot of credit for coaching up the coverage and protection units, and Matt Prater and Britton Colquitt have provided excellent field position all season with their kicking.  Prater has uncharacteristically missed a few field goals, but he’s hit the important ones lately.  The Broncos special teams have been as good as those of any team in the NFL, and it’s made a big difference all season.

g.  The offensive line has played much better since the Broncos have gone to the run-heavy approach, beginning with the Oakland game.  This is a group that’s a lot better moving forward than backward, and as much as the new approach has maximized the productivity of Tim Tebow, it’s done the same for the linemen.  Did you see Zane Beadles bury #58 on that 24-yard Willis McGahee run in overtime?  What a great block.

Even when these guys protect, they’re helped by the fact that defenders have to read, and can’t just rush off the snap.  This has been a key element of the dramatically reduced number of sacks that Tebow has taken in November.  Remember, he took 12 in his first two starts.  In the last four games, he’s taken three sacks in total.  That’s a credit to the line, Tebow, and the play-calling, and it’s a big contributory factor to the winning that’s been going on.

h.  McGahee has provided a very high return on the modest investment that the Broncos made in him.  He’s really taken very well to the shotgun running he’s been asked to do, despite the fact that it isn’t something he’d done a lot of before this season.  Willis has validated the team’s lack of urgency to sign one of the massively overpriced guys, and made them look smart for taking a guy with warts down-market a little bit.

i.  The receivers haven’t separated very well, and that’s been an issue all year, but they’re really blocking well downfield for the running game.  It’s reminiscent of the way that Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey used to go hunting, and I’m always excited to see a little guy like Matt Willis get out there and lock somebody up. 

j.  Eric Decker has improved a lot as an all-around receiver in his second season, and really, he’s the only one who I’d call very reliable at that position.  He gets the correct depth in his routes, often gets some separation, and usually catches the ball.  He’d struggle to see the field on some of the better teams, but on this one, his emergence as the best receiver on the team has been welcome.

k.  Then there’s Mr. Tebow.  First of all, he’s been a positive force in helping the Broncos win.  They’re not winning in spite of him, just like they’re not winning solely because of him.  Taking either position is silly, and unnecessarily hyperbolic.  It’s always a mixed bag, but he’s done enough to win in the situations that the team has found themselves in, however they may have gotten to those situations.  We know that beyond any doubt, because the Broncos have won the games. 

Think about that.  It’s not like the Broncos lost, and I’m rationalizing Tebow’s play, and saying he did enough to win, and others let him down.  There's no woulda, coulda, or shoulda out of me; that's coming from the other guys.  Tebow has been part of a winning formula, and he’s made a positive contribution to every one of these victories, especially at key moments.  Let’s be intellectually honest enough to give him that, and forget about what it means in the global sense.

I fully expect this team to win four of its last five games, and make the playoffs with a 10-6 record.  I think that would be fantastic, because I like my team to win, and because a lot of unsavory people’s heads would explode, and there’s great sport in that.  I’m looking at you, Pete Prisco, and others like you.  Whatever does happen, though, it’s certainly been interesting and fun, and I’m sure it will continue to be over the next five weeks.

2.  Doug made a comment in CTF the other day that if this team had a league-average QB, it would be a serious contender, and he went on to say that they had that in Kyle Orton.  I’ve been thinking about that for two days, and I have to disagree on several levels.  Since this represents an opposition viewpoint that I think Doug shares with some others, I’m going to take a couple minutes and explain why I disagree.

First of all, Orton isn’t close to league-average.  He’s a guy who can make some throws in perfect conditions, and who can’t when the slightest little thing is off.  He also consistently fails in key moments, and then acts like it ain’t no thing.  Any team that wants to start that guy at QB can have a blast.

Secondly, you can’t lift and shift Tebow out and drop Player X in, and expect that the other 10 guys on offense will show the same results that they’re showing now.  Football is an interdependent system, and one variable plays a huge part in other variables. 

I’ll give you an example - the Broncos have given up three sacks in four games, after giving up 22 in their first seven games.  It could be stated that the pass protection has really stepped it up based upon that measurement of performance.  The truth, though, is that the threat of Tebow in the running game, and the offensive scheme are hiding the team’s continuing deficiency in protection.  If you don’t believe me, watch the Chargers film.  They weren’t even trying to sack Tebow, just to contain him in the pocket, and on the one play where he was sacked, it was when he was tripped up running out of the pocket.  The mythical league-average QB doesn’t get the benefit of this, and he’s back to getting sacked 3-4 times per game.

Another example is the effectiveness of the running game.  My eyes tell me that Tebow helps the RBs a lot, but there have been studies done that show the same thing.  The league-average QB doesn’t get the benefit of the excellent running game math that Tebow gives you. 

Finally, Tebow is above average in a couple of places where it really counts.  For one thing, his running is an added benefit that has repeatedly proven to help the Broncos win.  Few QBs can do what Tebow can do on the ground, and it mitigates some of his current-day shortcomings as a passer.

Where Tebow is really showing excellent performance, though, is in throwing TDs and in not throwing interceptions.  Since the beginning of the 2010 season, there have been 29,224 pass attempts across the NFL, and that’s led to 1,249 TD passes and 868 interceptions.  I feel very comfortable in saying that the population mean TD% is 4.27%, and that the population mean INT% is 2.97%.  There aren’t any other NFL games being played in the world that we don’t know about, so we’re certain that every occurrence is accounted for, and that more than 29,000 attempts is miles beyond adequate as a sample.

Tebow’s career stats show a TD% of 5.78% and an INT% of 1.78% over 224 attempts.  I could use academic statistics, and tell you with whatever degree of confidence you want that these numbers are not a fluke, and that they represent competencies which are stronger than the majority of his peers.  I won’t bore you with a lesson on the Z distribution for large samples (defined as being greater than or equal to 30), but I could, thanks to my fine Cleveland State University education.  Before you ask, including last year’s stats slightly helps Tebow’s TD% and substantially hurts his INT%.  I tend to give some qualitative credence to recency, and see an offseason as a natural cutoff point, but on the other hand, 224 observations should be more descriptive than 143.

Since these are rate stats, we can compare Tebow’s performance to others in the NFL.  His TD% is fifth-best in the NFL over the last two years, behind Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, David Garrard (really), and Matthew Stafford.  His INT% is second-best, behind Brady and just ahead of Rodgers.

I’m not saying that the kid has the art of playing QB mastered, because he clearly doesn’t, but I am saying that even as he struggles to complete throws at times, he’s taking care of the ball extremely well, and he’s putting it in the end zone at a high rate when he does get a chance to throw it.  These indicators portend very well for continued success.

It’s no less likely that Tebow can begin to consistently complete throws that he misses now than it is that Cam Newton (3.6% INT) will stop throwing too many interceptions, or that Sam Bradford (2.6% TD) will be able to throw the ball into tight spaces in the end zone once he gets into the scoring area.  All young QBs have to grow and improve on something, and they need to time to do so, before it’s reasonable to decide what they are. 

So, no, dropping in some mythical league-average QB doesn’t make this team an automatic contender.  It changes a lot of parameters, and the only positive one is that the new guy maybe throws a more aesthetically pleasing ball than Tebow, and completes a few more, while throwing less TDs and more INTs per attempt.  I haven’t even gotten into the question of intangibles, where Tebow is off the charts.  In other words, no thanks.

3.  Finally, I want to walk back an article I wrote a month ago, where I agreed with TJ that Tebow wouldn't be the QB in 2012, because I think that something has fundamentally changed.  Did you happen to notice John Elway’s reaction to being called out for his outward lukewarmness toward Tebow?  I think that it’s really affected him, and he got more than a little butt-hurt about it, and that his behavior has changed as a result of it.  A similar thing happened with the John Fox “we’d be screwed” comments. 

This tells me that Elway isn't going to be able to end the Tebow era if he continues to win this season.  It’s one thing when a bunch of fans get upset about it, because that’s a given.  Elway needs to ignore them anyway.  It’s another when the local media poobah is a Tebow fan, but again, Elway can overcome that, because he’s known Woody for 30 years.  Woody can be finessed, if you bother to do it, unlike Josh McDaniels.

The problem comes when you go against the coaches, who seem to be buying into Tebow more and more every week.  It gets worse when you go against the players, who are also enjoying winning and can’t help but notice that Tebow has led game-winning drives in three of the five wins.  I’m sure they all see him as a work in progress, but as long as there’s progress, why would you stop doing what you’re doing?

A personnel executive goes against his coaches and players at considerable risk, and I’m sure that Elway knows that.  How happy was he when Dan Reeves drafted Tommy Maddox in 1992?  How happy was the rest of the team?  How did it work out in 1999 when Brian Griese was named the starter over Bubby Brister?  As long as Tebow is part of a winning team and is making visible contributions to winning, going away from him will be a chemistry destroyer, guaranteed.  It sends the message that all the hard work the team did in 2011 didn’t matter, and it would have been a whole lot cooler if you’d lost more so we could have gotten a higher draft pick.

The narrative in the national media is now “Has Tebow earned 2012?”  That’s such a massive change from a month ago, and the national guys can’t be controlled like Woody can.  The only thing that Elway can do is keep riding the train until the failure that some people predict will happen happens.  I don’t think it’s ever going to happen, but that’s beside the point.  You can’t fire an extremely popular QB who’s winning on spec, and no matter what my eyes tell me, or somebody like Brian Burke’s stats tell him, that’s what it would be.  What do you tell the world?  If you want to do that, invest heavily in Vaseline.  We learned this week that Elway doesn’t have the constitution or the inclination to take 10% of the pounding that he’d get from replacing Tebow, so we should all recognize that going in a different direction is far less likely to happen than it was a month ago.

So what should Elway do as the guy responsible for setting this team on a consistent winning path?  Quite simply, he should defer the QB decision for a year, and work on filling other holes this offseason, because there are lots of them.  I want a RT who can protect, and others want other things, so there are directions you can go with this.  The Denver Broncos aren’t a rookie QB away from being the Packers anyway, so if they have to wait until next year to draft a guy highly, so be it. 

As for Tebow, you send him out in January with a development plan.  He’s expected to come back in March having developed or improved on the following skills:

a.  Consistently hit the slant from each of the following eight landmarks.  The Broncos have big receivers, and they should be wearing the slant out against all of the man-to-man coverage they face.  Brett Favre’s whole career was based on making this throw, on time and on point.  Tebow can do it too.

b.  Consistently hit the curl from the same eight landmarks.  The curl and slant open each other up, and the curl is the key stick throw QBs have to make in order to pick up first downs.  On a related note, the Broncos WR corps needs to be a lot better about getting to the proper first-down depth on this route.

c.  Consistently hit the deep dig (in-cut) from outside landmarks, and the deep out from inside landmarks.  These plays stretch zones, and allow the underneath stuff to work.

d.  Get better at being accurate throwing the ball to the sideline on the run, moving both left and right.  This is important given the nature of Tebow as a player.

When Tebow comes back in March, you evaluate his progress on those specific things.  How much he improves dictates how aggressively you hedge against his progress stopping, and ineffectiveness starting.  If he hasn’t improved much, you look at Ryan Tannehill or Nick Foles or Brandon Weeden in the second round.  If he has, you consider re-signing Brady Quinn, and maybe drafting a guy like Ryan Lindley in the third or fourth round, or Jordan Jefferson in the fifth or so. 

Elway’s public-facing commentary should be “We’ve seen a lot to like from Tim, and there’s a lot he can improve on.  We’re very high on his potential, and we expect to start 2012 with him as the starting QB.”  That’s simple and understandable, and it leaves little room for controversy.  If your hedge guy beats Tebow out in training camp next year, so be it.

In any case, it’s amazing how winning changes things.  It's the great deodorizer, even if some people are determined to sniff out some stink.  That’s all I have for today, friends.  Have a good few days, and I’ll see you on Friday to Digest the Vikings.

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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