Reid Fischer's World of Rants

Looking at the sports world through orange colored glasses

Note to Broncos Fans: It’s Not As Bad As You Think

Posted by mizzou1028 on April 6, 2009

I am really getting tired of hearing all the whining from my fellow Broncos fans in the past few days.  Look, I wish the Jay Cutler saga had never happened same as you.  It is really unfortunate that the relationship between Cutler and Josh McDaniels deteriorated so severely that the team had no choice but to deal him.  Part of me does shudder at the thought of Kyle Orton running the Broncos offense.  I do wonder sometimes if it was really the best thing for the Broncos to fire Mike Shanahan in the first place, hire an offensive mind to replace him, and then unload the 25-year old franchise quarterback.  Despite all that, a little digging is all that needs to be done to see that things are not always as they seem.  In fact, the Broncos may just be a better football TEAM than they were last season.

It seems appropriate to start with Shanahan since it was really his firing that started this mess in the first place.  While I’m not sure firing him was the answer, it is easy to see why the Broncos did it.  Shanahan was amazingly successful in his first four years, compiling a 54-18 record in those four seasons, including two Super Bowl championships.  Of course Shanahan also had Pro Bowl talent at seemingly every position on offense (including John Elway, Terrell Davis, and Shannon Sharpe just to name a few players) and an excellent defense during those four years.  After Elway’s retirement, Shanahan won just ONE playoff game during a ten year period.  The Broncos actually in fact missed the playoffs during 6 of Shanahan’s final 10 seasons in Denver.  In each of the four years the Broncos did make the playoffs during that time, they got blasted out of the wild card round three times by an average of 25 points a game, and then lost at home to Pittsburgh by 17 points in the 2005 AFC title game.  Shanahan’s tenure also became littered with increasingly poor personnel moves, including Dale Carter, Ashley Lelie, Javon Walker and Travis Henry just to name a few.  Not only were the players Shanahan brought in largely unproductive, many of them were also thugs off the field.  It seemed as though the longer Shanahan’s playoff woes continued, the more desperate he got in terms of personnel.

After the AFC title game loss to Pittsburgh, it was clear that for whatever reason Shanahan decided he could not win a championship with Jake Plummer.  This despite the fact that it was Denver’s defense that couldn’t get the Steelers off the field on third down, and despite an offensive line that got whipped all day by the Steelers’ front seven.  Enter Jay Cutler.  Shanahan selected him with the 11th overall pick (after trading up to get him), so it was clear to everyone that he would be Denver’s starter eventually.  The next season the Broncos started 7-2, despite Shanahan really scaling back the playbook for Plummer and not giving him freedom to do much of anything.  In the 10th game, the Broncos held a 24-7 third quarter lead against San Diego only to see the Chargers roar back to win 35-27 in Denver.  If you connect the dots, it is easy to see that Plummer was not on defense allowing a career day to LaDainian Tomlinson.  Nevertheless, word leaked that Plummer was going to be benched, which he was after a loss in Kansas City.  Mind you, Plummer’s career record in Denver is 39-15, which is certainly not in any way bad.  Cutler started the final five games, going just 2-3, and the Broncos missed the playoffs.  

So why do I bring up all this?  Well for starters I believe Denver would have easily made the playoffs that year had Shanahan stuck with Plummer, but that’s not really the point.  The point is I believe the benching of Plummer in favor of Cutler at that time signaled the beginning of the end of Shanahan in Denver.  I believe Shanahan made that move knowing that there was little to no chance he would be fired.  He knew that even if Cutler tanked in those final five games, that he would still be safe for multiple seasons to come.  While Cutler actually fared well in those five games at times, the team ultimately missed the playoffs in part due to very poor red zone execution against a very poor San Francisco team in the season’s final game.  The next two seasons the Broncos went just 15-17.  The Jay Cutler-led Denver offense had the following doozies over those two seasons:

– A woeful 10 point performance in a 2007 home loss to Jacksonville in which the Broncos mustered less than 250 yards of total offense

– A 41-3 home loss to San Diego in week 5 of 2007

– A 44-7 loss at Detroit in 2007

– Another three point effort by the offense in a Monday night loss at San Diego in 2007

– A four turnover performance and 19-point showing in a loss at Kansas City this season, one of only two wins recorded by the Chiefs.  This against a Chiefs defense that routinely got lit up for 30, 40 (and sometimes 50!) points.  

– A 41-7 thrashing in New England on Monday night (not coinciedently, McDaniels coached against Cutler in that game, more on that in a moment)

– An absolutely pitiful 10 point performance at home against an awful Raiders team

– A three game collapse to cap 2008, in which the Broncos gave away the AFC west.  This was capped by an extremely embarrassing 52-21 defeat in San Diego.  

The point here is that Shanahan was fired largely because the Broncos had slipped into mediocrity.  The numbers even prove it, for the Broncos have gone just 24-24 over the past three seasons (17-20 since Plummer was benched for Cutler).  That is, the entire team slipped into mediocrity.  By the end of 2008 the defense had just two players who would be a guaranteed starter for most teams: Champ Bailey and D.J. Williams.  The offense certainly looked flashy, ranking second in the NFL in yards, but it ranked much, much lower than that in points (try 16th in the league).  Consider that the Broncos had 17 drives in the final two minutes of either half last season that resulted in a total of one field goal.  How about the constant failure to score touchdowns in the red zone?  Keeping in mind that the Broncos really did not have a running game due to all the injuries at running back last season, there were still too many drives that should have resulted in points and didn’t, or drives that should have netted seven points but only got three.  The point is that the Broncos’ offense really wasn’t as good as the numbers made it out to be.  They certainly got yards between the 20s, but didn’t score enough points to even rank in in the top half of the league, let alone the top five.  So really, Jay Cutler made the Pro Bowl for his performance between the 20s.  In fact, if the voting was conducted after the season instead of finishing in week 14, I’ll bet you a year’s worth of pizza that Philip Rivers, not Cutler, would have gotten the trip to Hawaii.  Couple this offensive inefficiency with a defense that couldn’t tackle anyone, and it resulted in Shanahan’s dismissal.  

Enter Josh McDaniels.  I mentioned the Broncos’ 41-7 loss in New England this past season.  It is fitting that the Broncos ended up giving their future coach a first hand demonstration of EVERYTHING that was wrong with the team.  The Patriots were coming off a 30-10 loss in San Diego, and really few people were taking them seriously at that point with Matt Cassel under center.  The Broncos were favored to win the game in large part because of Cutler and the offense.  The Broncos’ offense ended up committing five turnovers, including two interceptions thrown by Cutler.  Cutler had a very pedestrian effort in that game, throwing for just 168 yards.    The only touchdown the Broncos scored came in garbage time in the fourth quarter after it was 34-0.  Throw out the meaningless stats the Broncos accumulated inthe second half, and it might well have been Denver’s worst offensive performance of the entire Shanahan era.  The defense certainly had its faults in the game too, surrendering a staggering 257 yards on the ground (including a career high 138 by Sammy Morris (who hit the century mark by early in the second quarter) and another 65 to BenJarvus Green-Ellis (who I had never heard of until that game).  This is not to say that one game made the season or that McDaniels has based his dealings in Denver on what he saw that night, but it does show that the Broncos were flawed in multiple areas before McDaniels took over.  His job is to improve the team.   By any means necessary.

McDaniels has certainly gutted the defense and brought in new blood, and figures to add some more defensive presence in the draft.  The addition of Brian Dawkins alone will have a monster impact not only in the secondary but also in the locker room.  The addition of Mike Nolan as defensive coordinator I believe will make a bigger impact than most people realize.  Nolan’s no nonsense approach has proven successful in the past when he has been a coordinator.  McDaniels hasn’t touched the offensive line, which has two future perennial Pro Bowl tackles in Ryan Clady and Ryan Harris, and came close to setting a record for fewest sacks allowed last season.  He’s not making many changes to the receiving core, save for adding Jabar Gaffney, whose presence will come in handy if Brandon Marshall misses a lot of time due to suspension.  He elected to retain running backs coach Bobby Turner and offensive line coach Rick Dennison, which means the Broncos’ running game should be able to return to past success if they can keep a back healthy.  Overall the changes McDaniels have made are certainly sweeping, but it’s obvious that he’s been addressing areas of need.  

Which brings us back to Cutler.  Most Broncos fans hitting the panic button right now seem to be forgetting that one player, and specifically a quarterback, does not win games by himself, no matter how talented he is.  For example, I love Drew Brees, but how many games did the Saints win last year?  How about the Cowboys and Tony Romo?  How many playoff games has Cincinnati won with Carson Palmer under center?  Does any Broncos fan remember 1998, the year of the second Super Bowl victory?  Does any Broncos fan remember that John Elway missed four games that year due to injury, in addition to parts of three others?  Does any Denver fan remember the Broncos going 7-0 in those games thanks to the play of Bubby Brister?  

The point is that a good quarterback can help you win, but there are many different ways in which that can happen.  Jay Cutler is talented no question, and certainly the Broncos are losing a signal caller who talent wise is a top five QB.  Cutler’s leadership qualities however really have to be questioned.  Not just because of the past month, but because of what happened in the games I mentioned above and in other Denver losses.  How many great quarterbacks do you know who have a hard time keeping their composure?  Can you imagine Tom Brady throwing a hissy fit when a receiver drops a pass to the point where he’ll force a pass into triple coverage on the next play?  Can you imagine Peyton Manning crying like a baby because a touchdown got called back due to penalty?  Is it possible to imagine Ben Roethlisberger or Philip Rivers ducking the media after every loss?  Can you imagine any of these great quarterbacks pouting every time they are criticized?  To the contrary, a great quarterback has the ability to remain in control at all times, to not be affected by adversity, to be able to tell his teammates that the job will get done no matter the situation.  A great quarterback is a true leader, someone who commands respect and exudes confidence in himself and his team.  Now I ask any of you: has Jay Cutler really shown any of these qualities at any point in his young career?  

Enter Kyle Orton.  Not I’m not saying that Orton will come to Denver and be the answer to all of Denver’s problems, but already the attitude is a vast improvement over Cutler’s.  Less than 24 hours after being dealt to the Broncos, Orton had lengthly phone conversations with Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal, and both receivers came away excited.  This is quite the contrast from Cutler ignoring his teammates’ calls for the past month in addition to those of the coaching staff and owner Pat Bowlen.  Orton has already dived into the offensive playbook, and is showing a willingness to work hard that frankly was hard to see in Cutler.  If Cutler really wanted to stay in Denver, don’t you think he would have shown that by at least studying the playbook?  So far, I detect from Kyle Orton a really positive vibe, and I think he is a quarterback his teammates will respect when they are 10 down in the fourth quarter.  Did you realize that Orton was on track for a Pro Bowl year last year before hurting his ankle midseason?  In 2005, the Bears won eight games in a row with Orton under center.  His career record is 21-12 as a starter.  Think about it.  Does that sound so bad?  

The Broncos are certainly going to have a different look this season no question.  Heck, the team is even busting out the really ugly 1960 brown and mustard throwback unis, vertical striped socks and all, for two games this season. I have a feeling though that Broncos fans will like what they see.  Keep in mind that McDaniels comes from an organization that has been the league standard for the past decade.  Keep in mind that Orton might just be a good fit in his system, or have you already forgotten that Matt Cassel came out of nowhere last year, or even that Brady was a complete no name until Drew Bledsoe’s injury?  Keep in mind that much of the other offensive talent is still in place, that the defense is well in the process of being retooled, and that quick turnarounds are indeed possible in the NFL.  I ask you: if the Broncos go 10-6 and are a wild card team, is that not an improvement?  What if they win a playoff game in year two, and maybe a Super Bowl in year four?  I’m not saying that’s necessarily how it’s going to go, but what if that’s how it does?

To those who want McDaniels fired: shut up.  The coach will not be fired before he coaches a game.  Let’s at least wait and see what happens when actual games are played before we get really stirred up about Cutler’s departure.  I think you might just find that you like these new look Broncos better.  Remember, it’s about winning games, not flashy stats and rocket arms.  

To those who cancel their season tickets and/or jump off the bandwagon: keep walking and don’t come back.  There is nothing I can’t stand more than a fan who bails on his team at the drop of a hat.  If you leave the team now, you shouldn’t be allowed to return when things are good again.  Being a fan is about staying with your team through thick and thin, even if you don’t necessarily agree with their direction.  Being a fan is easy when times are good, but the true fans are the ones who are still fans at times like this.  Just remember that things are not always as they seem, and the 2009 Denver Broncos are not as doomed as you think they are.

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2 Responses to “Note to Broncos Fans: It’s Not As Bad As You Think”

  1. Doug Baker said

    Great article. I agree with it entirely although I think McDaniels will be unde the microscope even more after the Cutler saga.

  2. […] the entire thing up and starting over.  This doesn’t all fall on McDaniels, for I documented a number of embarrassing moments late in the Mike Shanahan era as well when he was fired.  Unfortunately, the trend of embarrassing losses has continued.  In […]

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