Every year since 2002, the Broncos have started at least 3-1, and several of those years have started 3-0. This year's rendition started 6-0. Since that time they've lost seven of nine.
There are tons of theories as to why the Broncos start out strong and then fade.
- "They're a finesse team".
- "The altitude helps them in training camp but the grind of the season whittles it away."
- "They are too small".
- "The offensive line is too small."
- "The defensive line stinks... every year."
Some or all of these are right, but none of them alone. It is much bigger than one piece of a puzzle: I submit: the Broncos don't have a brand of football that takes advantage of their natural surroundings. It starts with how the team practices, where they practice, and how this defines them as a football operation. It ends with the style of offense they run (or don't run) and what types of players they end up drafting as opposed to who they could draft (brawn and skills over brains, in other words, only a few steps removed from Al Davis level insanity).
For better or worse, you are a product of your surroundings (can you smell the real estate metaphor building?). The Broncos present identity crisis begins in their exurb, sterile, entitled, pampered training facility named... Dove Valley. Man up boys and hit the weights in... Dove Valley. I really want you to lay the wood on that running back, we hit like men here at... Dove Valley. I want you to be mentally prepared for the hostile, frothing angry mob you're about to face... not get in your SUV and drive out to the sprawling business park in Parker called... Dove Valley.
The Broncos left Greeley after 23 years in 2003. They relocated their training camp to "Dove Valley" a cushy 13.5 acre spread in "the rapidly growing Dove Valley Business Park." Yes, the Broncos are the anchor tenant in a Business Park where private jets land and depart and high-tech cargo is off-loaded. In fact, on the Broncos own site, they highlight the numerous spa-like amenities of this facility:
- A 9000 square foot weight room "which gives the Broncos one of the most comfortable strength and conditioning environments in sports"
- Three full size practice fields, one of which is field turf (installed 2003) and another which is natural grass that is heated underground so it never freezes.
- A 90,000 square foot Bowlen Bronco Centre (named after owner Pat's father, and yes, it ends in a pretensious Canadian "e") that is three times larger than the Broncos previous facility.
Why the big to-do about the Broncos Real Estate?
Because the Broncos have an identity crisis that begins and ends with their real estate problem.
Let's look at this through different lenses, the Shannahan prism and Cutler grimace. There are rumors this week that Mikey is going to resurface as head coach in Washington DC as the Redskins new honcho. But there are lingering rumors that Lovie Smith will be canned in Chicago, where Shannahan's old protege Jay Cutler stews and pouts with a grossly ineffective offensive line, no playmakers and his bad decision-making constantly over-committing. Add to the mix that Shannahan is from Illinois and went to Eastern Illinois in college, and the match seems intriguing.
If Shanny does an uncompromising strength-weakness-opportunity-threat assessment of himself, he will go to DC and stay the heck away from Chicago. He coaches finesse football. His practice-time innovation was the removal of pads and rolling through plays in a complicated fashion. This established a trend throughout the NFL where the majority of teams now spend training camp in shorts and practice jerseys with minimal protection. Shoot, why wear helmets? Interestingly, arm tackling and plain old bad tackling is rampant throughout the NFL. Now I ask you: how does this produce a recipe for success on the shores of Lake Michigan? It was considered a huge departure from form whan Josh McDaniels had the team hitting and practicing in pads this summer. How can a team practice, play and gameplan this way for games played on a 5 degree, blustery December day? These are the standard conditions in Chicago, not just this year: every year. That's their real estate hand they were dealt. Enter their "best quarterback since Sid Luckman". Jay Cutler forces plays. Jay Cutler has played on bad teams that leaned on his arm alone for the last 8 years of his life. He does not know how to play within himself or rely on a single unit as a team. He would be awesome in Miami. He'd be awesome in St. Louis's dome. But his December record was miserable because he was not playing team football: he was playing me football, and that me was restricted to his right arm. Cutler is a bright guy to be sure (Vanderbilt doesn't accept dummies), but for the last 8 years of his life, a team won or lost on his arm. He's developed the heinous habit of football existentialism: it's totally up to me and nobody else. In other words... Shanahan is a really good match for DC. The weather is not exactly balmy, but it is far more condusive to realizing skilled players fullest capabilities than say, Cutler-town.
Shannahan should make his next stop about geography and opportunity as much as it should be about control and cash. The idea of him in Buffalo was laughable.
The Greatest Show on Turf in St. Louis worked because they were in a dome. The on-field-coach-and-cyborg-in-chief Peyton Manning led Colts work brilliantly because they are in a dome. The high-octance Saints do not have too much to worry about, because if they do not get homefield, they probably have to go through Minnesota... who also plays in a dome. Nasty weather can benefit singular talents who play in nasty weather stadiums, but not whole teams. Gale Sayers is in the Hall of Fame primarily because he could score on any play. He did this despite playing at Soldier Field. But the identity of that team was "The Monsters of the Midway." It was Butkus-led smack-mouth... and Sayers. The two greatest return men in present history are Devin Hester (Bears) and Joshua Cribbs (Browns), who play at the aforementioned Solider Field and whatever they call the latest Mistake on the Lake in Cleveland. These are single players that don't play quarterback. They also do their most effective work during the anarchic madness that is kick returns, really a solo event. What has been the identity of the Bears, the Steelers and the Browns over the years (especially when they were good)? Grind it out football. Hard-nosed gang-tackling defense. Grind it out football requires a team approach. It's pretty hard to generate a team-focused approach...
...when you practice in a business park.
Or when your training camp bed is your own California King in your own 8000 square foot home.
Yes, lots of teams (the Patriots!) operate this way. But there is no doubt that the Patriots have also emphasized and developed and have had 9 years for a all-for-one-one-for-all culture to take hold. It was kindergarten punishment, but Bellicheck sent home players who were late to an 8 am meeting due to... a snowstorm. I think questioning their manhood was a little at play there. They've since won three straight and Randy Moss has five touchdowns since the Kindergarten smack-around. THAT'S CALLED A TEAM IDENTITY.
I submit: even under McDaniels, the Broncos still have an identity crisis. That identity is building. It can be built. Yesterday's game showed a lot of heart. But for them to get over 8-8 or 9-7 and move to 12-4 like the Chargers... they must develop a brand of football that plays up the biggest advantage in the NFL: Home Field at 5280.
Would the Broncos be any better if they still practiced at 38th and I-25 in the warehouse section of Denver? Probably not. They probably would have an impossible time signing high draft picks, let alone free agents. And the idea of dumping a facility that just underwent a $4.5 million facelift (at 18 years old, the place was getting a little long in the tooth there, and the last renovation was over three years ago and only cost $3 million...!) is nonsense. But the Broncos seem to be plodding along on a course that is in denial of that fact that:
- They play cold-weather games often (the win in KC was the Broncos first in December since 1993. That was on an unusually balmy evening).
- They play at a Mile High
- Offensive Line Play works best as a single unit (the loss of Ryan Harris and the addition of Tyler Polumbus seems to have missed all media attention)
- Defensive Line Play works best as a single unit (especially in a 3-4 where they hold up all the blockers and let linebackers and safeties make plays)
These are all real estate problems. They play at least 9 altitude or cold-weather games every year. They should win all 9. Over the last decade, on average it has taken 10 wins to get into the playoffs in the AFC. They can train, condition and gameplan for a singular brand of football that ideally gets them 90% of the way there. Get three or four bonus wins and your guaranteed to get one if not two home playoff games in January... again, ideally suited for the environment. Other teams have cold-weather advantages. Other teams have dome advantages. No other team has an altitude advantage. The cold weather is merely a multiplier.
How do the Broncos do that? How do they not lose that early season training advantage? Here are 7 tactics to a bigger strategy: Creating an Identity of Denver Broncos Football that plays to the strengths of the hand their dealt, namely, life at 5280, in a cool-weather environment, and a draft that is deep for their needs in 2010.
1.) They need to go on the road for Training Camp. A Ski Resort sounds cushy, but restricted to one field (not three) and training at higher elevations (Vail is almost 8000 feet, Breck is just shy of 10,000) has some serious mental and physical advantages. Teams that play as a single unit play emotional football. A common experience of "suffering" would have some great bonding advantages. Shoot, the mere logistical challenge of the coaches managing 90+ players on one field would be an organizational bonding achievement. Better to blow it in August then December when you can overcome your foibles. It also helps encourage goodwill among the fan base by bringing the players out of their bubble in the business park to a destination where the family might actually want to come out and see them. They don't need to spend all of training camp here, maybe two or three days. But a built-in road trip forces concentration and builds team morale. A Business Park Facility, er... doesn't.
2.) They have to win over the fans of Colorado with Blue-Collar story-telling. No product is worth your time or treasure if it is not worth talking about. There is an insidious under-current of racism at work in the fan reaction to Peyton Hillis not getting playing, Peyton being the white running back, and first round pick Knowshon Moreno getting the rock a lot. Peyton is a fan favorite just as Ed McCafferty... the white wide receiver and mustard salesman... was a fan favorite. But there is something fun about a guy named "Petyon Hillis" from Arkansas, drafted in the 7th round who weighs 250 and likes to return kicks. That's a fun story to tell about perseverance. Fans can relate to Peyton and the team should endeavor to make themselves relate a little better with their fans. Just as a trip to Vail would be a great publicity stunt, a trip to Pueblo would be an equally effective publicity stunt. Or a weekend back in Greeley. Organize the base. Reach out to the masses. It worked for Obama because human beings are emotional creatures who want to interact with something bigger. It had nothing to do with people being Democrats and scads to do with access. Besides... just two years ago south of Pueblo Pat Bowlen's marketing department had the audacity to put up a billboard with a man's hand covering his heart on his $500 ugly-as-sin Bronco leather jacket with the pronouncement "you're entering Bronco country". Really? How many Bronco bars are there in Pueblo? How many Steeler bars are there in that Steel Town? I know there are more Roethlisberger and Polamalu jersies down there then there are Orton and Dawkins. A billboard proclaiming it does not make it so. But practice at USC (that would be University of Southern Colorado!) for a weekend? Put the billboard back up the next week. You get Pueblo fans going to one game a year, you get loyalty. The kind of loyalty that doesn't sell their season ticket to Yinzers from Western PA as 20,000 some fans did this season. That loyalty is also louder than Highlands Ranch loyalty. When the Broncos beat the Patriots and Cowboys back to back this fall, Mile High was raucous and fun. That needs to last beyond mid-October. Pueblo and Greeley fans who share the story bring the noise.
3.) Your defense is a rock. This is part of the plan that is rapidly being implemented. Little-known fact: the Broncos 1997 Orange Crush unit was #1 against the run in the NFL. They were #27 (out of 28) against the pass. That's why Staubach tore them to shreds in the Super Bowl.Ladies and Gentlemen: the 2010 Broncos are one of the best defenses ever put on the field in Denver history. The NFL is now a totally pass happy league and a great defense is harder and harder to form. The Broncos are well on their way though as they are still rated #3 in the league after week 16 after being 30th last year. They will have their pick of free agents this year as a destination rather than a curiousity. McDaniels does have a knack for great free agent signings. People like watching great offenses, but people get loud and behind great defenses. Guys who hit like Brian Dawkins, who blitz like Elvis Dumervil, who cause fumbles like Darrel Reid, who persevere like Vonnie Holiday... those are studs who let Champ Bailey be Champ, etc.
4.) You wear a team out with the no huddle. McDaniels has tried to do this with Orton, but the limitations of his arm strength are just overwhelming. Marhsall had a gimpy Sheldon Brown beat by three yards on a deep out yesterday and the ball from Orton just died. He's precise, but you don't have to cover past 15 yards. A tired team makes stupid mistakes. Orton has the highest passing accuracy of his career (and yards and touchdowns) but he should be accurate if he rarely passes more than 10 yards (Marshall had 7 catches on Sunday... for 39 yards). To run the hurry-up, a team needs a quarterback who defenses must respect, which means he must be able to throw downfield on any play further than say, Brian Griese from his butt which appears to be Orton's max; the quarterback must be accurate so the cadence and flow of the play runs consistently without breaks between frequent incompletions; and just when you think I'm gonna say draft Colt McCoy, the quarterback must also be smart enough to audible constantly to take advantage of what he sees from his position, so no, don't draft Colt McCoy who always plays out of the shotgun in the spread. That quarterback also needs a center who is intelligent, respected by his peers and trusted by his quarterback. It's a pretty high formula for success, but why do you think Elway had so many game-winning drives at Mile High? Yes, his althletic abilities were great, but he rarely threw the ball 70 yards in the last two minutes. He engineered drives. He called the plays. He seized the opportunities. He gassed teams. Where did Elway go to school? Stanford. Why is Elway not like Dan Marino on the set yucking it up with six other stooges before games? He doesn't have to. He's worth mucho bank. He's smarted his way to much bigger millions after his playing career. The Broncos will probably pick around 10th in the draft. They'll probably need to package to move up into the top 6 which is where Sam Bradford and Colt McCoy will be picked. But also in there: Jimmy Clausen, University of Notre Dame. He's a cocky little punk in the Cutler mold, but he's matured into a leader and he threw 29 TD's this year against 4 picks. Three of the four picks were tipped. He has a cannon for an arm, a presence in the pocket, mobility, and due to Norte Dame's uncompromising academic standards: a brain. Perhaps the biggest prize in the draft might be to go after a cerebral center in the later rounds. Arguably the best center in the business right now is Jeff Saturday who with a few more years in the league will probably end up in the Hall of Fame as Peyton Manning's right hand mand (he's even making Mastercard ads now!). Saturday was undrafted. Where did he go to school? North Carolina, one of the finest public universities in the nation. When I used to tote camera gear at CU football games, the guy who the media always went to for a quote? Jay Leeuwenberg, the center. Jay was both an Academic All-American and a unanimous All-American at Center in 1991. Yet he was drafted in the 9th round. Still made the Pro Bowl and had a 10 year career. Jay was an English major which might sound puff... unless you consider he got his degree after three years at CU. Smart lineman are often passed over for brawn in the combine-centric world of the NFL, yet they can make teams go. If you have an intelligent gamer at center, you can run the no-huddle. Matt Tennant right now is the highest rated center in the 2010 draft, as high as mid 2nd round. Where does he hail from? Brain School: Boston College.
5.) On that note: Screens. The best way to defeat the no-huddle is with an effective blitz. The best way to beat blitzing teams is with the screen. The best way to run a team into the ground at elevation is to gas them out. Where on earth are the screens? Knowshon showed how effective he is on them yesterday with his 16 yard touchdown? It was the first time this year he had the ball in the open field... and in a blink he acted rather than thought and was in the end zone, barely grazed. Why not try that again? Do you know what Ryan Clady could do at left tackle on screen passes to guys after five or six straight successful plays? A healthy Ryan Harris on right tackle?
6.) Return to Zone-Blocking. All of the above build a cohesive, all-for-one unit. Emblematic of that is the zone block. It doesn't have to resort to chop blocking, especially with the size of Clady and Harris leading the way on tackle. Offensive lineman love the running game. Teams with happy offensive lineman build dynasties. Zone-Blocking is designed around offensive linemans' core competency: they're freaking huge human beings. Four or five of them shooting out in one direction as a single unit downfield, in the hurry-up, at elevation... bad news for any other team in the league.
7.) Stop playing for a "5" on the safety scale when the possibility of a "9" or a "10" is right out the door for the taking. Yes it requires execution. Yes it requires a QB with attitude and aptitude (and an arm). Yes it requires more younger bodies on the defense. Yes it requires some creative scheduling. But if there is anything more discouraging to Bronco fans of late than the sight of Steeler Bars in their town... then I don't know what else a team can do. If the Broncos pick 10th, the best thing they can probably get is the 3rd best Nose Tackle in football. To move up and get Suh (who would be amazing at 5280) would require way too much of Xanders and McDaniels who like value and utility. But they probably only need to move up three positions to 7th to get Clausen. They can probably do that by packaging either Tony Sheffler or Daniel Graham with their present first round pick.
On that note, this is the Broncos current route into the playoffs as presented in the Denver Post this afternoon.Hopefully you agree, my alternative it a little more attractive.