Denver Broncos: Key Elements To Draw Upon From the 2010-11 Playoffs

Chaz MattsonAnalyst IJanuary 25, 2011

The Steelers are the only AFC team to appear in more Super Bowls than the Denver Broncos but have four more Lombardis going into their next Super Bowl appearance..
The Steelers are the only AFC team to appear in more Super Bowls than the Denver Broncos but have four more Lombardis going into their next Super Bowl appearance..Al Bello/Getty Images

Every team in the NFL that isn’t Pittsburgh or Green Bay is focusing on where they currently stack up against this years Super Bowl matchup, one which is built upon tradition, strong football minds, solid physical schemes, sound coaching and solid talent pools. 

In so many ways, Pittsburgh and Green Bay emulate one another while still finding slightly different ways to reach the big game in Dallas.  The Super Bowl is what the NFL is supposed to all be about, and this year it takes on a throwback persona that dates back to the origins of the sport at its core.

A Brief Overview of MVP’s and the Super Bowl

It seems the Super Bowl has been the trend-setter for most of the following decade.  In looking at Super Bowl history, a number of things begin to be revealed about the changes to the game over the years. 

The first two Super Bowls were won by Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers for whom the trophy is now named. 

Those Packer teams were physical running teams led on the field by Bart Starr’s calm management style on the field with a great defense in their back pocket. 

The winners of Super Bowl III were the world-beater New York Jets led by the renegade Joe Namath. 

The Jets cracked the door on the modern passing attacks on their way to the Super Bowl, where Namath’s bombs in particular became key elements in sinking their opponents like the Oakland Raiders on their way to the big game.

Most of the early Super Bowls were defined by solid physical football, good running games, manageable pass offenses that were conservative by nature and of course great defenses that eventually won out. 

In fact it wasn’t until Super Bowl X that the league had a praiseworthy performance by a wide receiver.  Lynn Swann of the Steelers made two of the most acrobatic clutch catches of all time in helping Pittsburgh edge Dallas 21-14 in January of the bi-centennial year 1976. 

The following year Fred Biletnkoff the Oakland Raiders clutch receiver became the MVP in their Super Bowl trouncing of the Minnesota Vikings.

Most of the 1980s was defined by superior quarterback play with Joe Montana of the 49ers racking up three MVPs and Terry Bradshaw with two. 

Other notable quarterbacks of the era were Jim Plunkett with the Raiders, Phil Simms with the Giants and Doug Williams, who was the first African-American quarterback to both start and win the MVP in the Super Bowl with Washington

Oddly enough Williams played the majority of his career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who were usually a second-tier team at best in their early years; at worst they were the worst bar none. 

Still Williams did lead the Buccaneers to the NFC Championship game following the worst two-year stretch by any NFL team, expansion or otherwise, which speaks volumes more about the talent he had as a quarterback.

The 1990s saw balance in the MVP voting and for the first time a corner back (Larry Brown, Dallas) and a special teamer (Desmond Howard KR / PR,Green Bay). 

The Dallas Cowboys won three Super Bowls, two of them back-to-back and saw Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith recognized as their other two MVPs. 

Denver finally saw the coronation of John Elway’s career in back-to-back seasons where he won an MVP and Terrell Davis won the other for the Broncos.  John Elway led his Broncos teams to five Super Bowls, more than any other player in NFL history.

In 2001, for the first time ever a middle linebacker won the Super Bowl MVP (Ray Lewis, Baltimore).  New England won three Super Bowls—two back-to-back. Then they made four Super Bowls in seven years second only the Pittsburgh Steelers who won four in six years from the late 1970s through 1980.  The Steelers are currently in their third Super Bowl in six seasons.

This all leads us full circle it seems to a matchup with the Green Bay Packers, the first ever Super Bowl Champion and first modern dynasty against the greatest dynasty of the modern era. 

The Steelers have now reached eight Super Bowls (tied with Dallas) and will hold a 7-1 mark in the big game should they defeat Green Bay in the 45th edition of the Super Bowl.

The NFL of the Next Decade

As previously mentioned, it seems as though things surrounding the Super Bowl have come full circle with the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV. 

The NFL currently has a definite appearance of elite football looking as it did over 40 years ago.  Physical teams won the conference championships with reliable running games, reliable defense and clutch pass plays.  That is exactly where the NFL is headed during the next decade on the gridiron.

To understand where things are, you have to understand how they got there.  Old school thinking in high school, college and professional football was that running the ball was always the best way to dominate an opponent. 

While that theme carries over to today’s football, the innovations in the passing game have been significant to the evolution of football on the field. 

The 1950s opened up the passing game, the AFL thrived off of it, and since the merger, the passing game has become more and more of a staple of offensive football schemes. 

In conjunction, the passing game has evolved to the point it changed the way defensive schemes are put together and implemented. 

Two of the most successful passing teams of the Super Bowl era have been the San Francisco 49ers running their version of the West Coast Offense and the New England Patriots with their version of the spread offense.

Most teams utilize some flavor of the West Coast Offense in their current offensive schemes; essentially it keeps the run and passes games balanced.  The New England spread was perfected by them and really only them. 

When Denver tried to implement the system under former Patriot offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Josh McDaniels, it failed miserably in large part because the Broncos no longer ran the ball affectively. 

The spread, however, is an offense that defenses have been widely catching up to because it allows teams to sit in zone coverage and disguise their looks. 

This makes it very difficult in three areas: 1) if the run is shut down, teams can pressure the passer more effectively; 2)  zone schemes make it easier on the defense to rally to the ball location (against short passing schemes it can result in turnovers, more incompletion, and smaller gains per play); and 3) when defenses play against the spread, they can disguise coverage’s better in part because the run game is less relevant than it otherwise would be and because they know a high percentage of passes will be in shorter zones.

So what is this all saying to us as football fans, writers, coaches, etc.?

Due to the fact that defenses have caught up to the spread (last time we checked the New England Patriots were one-and-out in the playoffs) it really indicates one thing, especially with the emergence of Pittsburgh and Green Bay this postseason. 

Physical football is on its way back to the NFL.  Teams will have to run effectively like they did in the old days or at worst be very balanced in order to control the clock and eventually the game. 

This also places an emphasis on strong defenses being a premium.  In the end, the old saying is that defenses win championships—certainly that old adage stays intact throughout the coming decade. 

Expect the NFL to look a little old school with new world influences.  The quarterback position is becoming more of an evolutionary one.  More quarterbacks are being asked to be mobile in addition to being top-notch passers.  Running games are evolving as well with most teams having two backs that they ask to carry the load instead of just one.

So moving forward fans should expect the Denver Broncos to become a more physical team on offense and defense with a solid run game once again. 

Furthermore, as the defense keeps the Broncos in games, they should win more and become contenders once again.  Regardless of where they are now, the roadmap is very clear where they are headed and where they need to go in order to be successful over the coming decade.

Re-Building a Winning Tradition Also Starts With the Fans

The Denver Broncos have had a tradition of winning ever since the “Make Those Miracles Happen” season of 1977.  Even with a decade of .500 ball and two of the worst seasons the franchise has ever seen back to back, the Broncos still have the second most wins in the league under owner Pat Bowlen’s watch. 

That is saying a great deal; probably what it says most is that there is expectation but it’s one that has been supported from the top down.

Ever since the Denver Broncos moved out of the old Mile High Stadium into the new and improved version that is INVESCO Field at Mile High, the team has struggled at home as well as on the road. 

The Broncos have just not had the same home-field advantage they once enjoyed on the field or in the stands.  

This is where it becomes crucial under a new regime to bring back the old “Orange Crush” mentality amongst the fanbase. 

It’s time to be vocally loud once again in support of the Broncos the entire game long.  That’s what made the games of the past the can’t-miss events that they were. 

The Broncos at one point had the greatest home field in the entire NFL; it’s time to get back to that as a fanbase.

So just as the team on the field will be getting back on track, as a fanbase it’s time to do the same and make it difficult for teams to play in Denver once again.  

Strong Football Minds Find Ways To Win

When looking at the likes of the Steelers, Jets, Bears and Packers who all made their respective conference championships, one thing is glaringly clear.  These football teams have strong front offices and all of them are embracing old world smash-mouth football.

All of these franchises have traditionally had strong front offices and have rarely strayed from their formula for success.  All of these teams can now boast of their being among the league's elite.

In Denver with the sharp decision-making by owner Pat Bowlen to dismiss Josh McDaniels from his failed two-year experiment as headmaster, the Broncos are now on the road back to being relevant once again. 

The second sharp move Pat Bowlen made was in bringing John Elway back into the fold as V.P. and Director of Football Operations. 

While some league-wide scoffed at the move, they altogether have forgotten the competitor and the football mind that John Elway has.  Elway’s first big move retaining Brian Xanders as GM his second was hiring John Fox as head coach, a little bit of a surprise, but certainly a fit within the Broncos current front office scheme. 

It’s that sort of template that has led to the success of the best teams in football this season, so it’s obvious why the Broncos needed to embrace a similar model.

Moving forward John Fox has retained a number of coaches as holdovers from the Josh McDaniels era, however he has also brought on other good coaches into the fold.  The Broncos will certainly have to reformulate their offensive schemes and make them more palatable to a physical attack and one that allows them to convert on third and fourth down, an area they were miserable in under Josh McDaniels.

Solid Physical Football Teams Win With Solid Schemes

The Broncos, in order to get better immediately and to rebuild their winning tradition, must have solid schemes moving forward. 

Where Josh McDaniels failed was when he unwisely decided to deconstruct the second-ranked offense in the NFL while virtually ignoring enhancements on the defensive side of the ball. 

This caused the offense to be even less physical than they were Mike Shanahan’s last year in Denver and the scheme was horrible.  The scheme itself put the Broncos in less than a 40 percent conversion rate both seasons and put constant pressure on an immobile Kyle Orton at quarterback.

This year's four conference championship game representatives finished one through four in the team rushing statistics during the postseason.  The Jets had the best ground attack in the playoffs followed by the Packers, Bears and Steelers. 

During the regular season the Jets ranked fourth, the Steelers 11th, the Bears 22nd and the Packers 24th.  Ironically enough the Bears and Packers both appeared to be heading out of the playoff picture at different points in the season, but it brings the point home. 

During the regular season, you don’t have to be great all the time on the ground; however, come playoff time teams better run effectively to seemingly have any chance against the competition.

So when looking at Denver, the immediate fix on offense for the Broncos is really two-fold.  While it is much easier said than done, the Broncos must run the ball physically and not back down while utilizing the strength of the pass game they have developed over the past two seasons. 

The Broncos will probably only utilize the spread on 3rd-and-long situations. However, the offense can still be dynamic, powerful and set the team up for success in moving the chains and scoring points.

Defensively it appears John Fox was first of all a good hire to address the issues plaguing the orange and blue on the defensive side of the ball.  Fox appears ready to bring his 4-3 scheme to Denver, and it appears there is nothing worth salvaging of the 3-4 of the last two years under McDaniels. 

The Broncos need a lot of help up front, so when looking at things logically, they are now likely to trade down to get an additional pick or two from their first-round position.

When looking at the conference championship team defenses in the playoffs Pittsburgh is first, Green Bay third, Chicago sixth and the Jets seventh overall.  During the regular season Pittsburgh was second, the Jets third, the Packers fifth and the Bears ninth.  

What it all preaches is that defenses win championships, great defenses put their teams in position to take it all down just as these teams have shown this postseason. 

Moreover, three out of four of those squads play a 3-4 defense; the Bears play the 4-3.  However a team gets there it is about playing solid defense in the clutch. 

Keep in mind Chicago still had a chance to win the NFC even after a game-plan that lacked a rushing attack in the first half and the demise of Jay Cutler.  The Bears were on the verge of tying the game with their third-string quarterback late in the fourth quarter before the Packers defense shut the door.

For Denver, the hard fit is that this team is clearly rebuilding and Champ Bailey is now a restricted free agent.  While it should be a no-brainer to bring him back, the Broncos may allow him to pursue a team that has a shot of winning it all sooner than later. 

How that shakes out will absolutely impact the makeup of this defense moving forward.  The Broncos have talent, but it was not cohesive by any stretch and they clearly lacked solid depth and team play in honoring run gap responsibilities. 

So look for the Broncos to improve dramatically in this area as their talent base and teamwork improves.  John Fox has a reliable sense of defensive systems that work and that is stock for the Broncos faithful to put at least some trust in.

Solid Coaching and Talent Is a Must

Obviously the thing that often separates the winners from the losers is often due to coaching.  The Broncos now have a fairly stable coaching group and a stable front office; it at least on the surface has all the signs of positive returns for the Broncos into the future. 

When looking at the Steelers and the Packers, both teams have young coaches; however they have achieved the most important thing.  Both Mike Tomlin of the Steelers and Mike McCarty of the Packers have gotten their teams to buy into their systems. 

Tomlin oozes wisdom and character, so it’s obvious how his team would continue to respond even after having a long winning tradition.  The Packers were shrouded in the controversy that is Brett Favre two of the past three seasons. 

Following Favre’s demise with the Vikings this season and the Packers reaching the Super Bowl, things appear to be at a stalemate until Favre is either allowed to retire as a Packer or not.

The fact is these teams reached the pinnacle of NFL football through strong concerted actions and efforts as coaches and players.  It’s those actions and efforts as teams and organizations to build and trust in their talent pools.  From there, they are able to contend year in and year out. 

When looking at the Packers, not only does their winning tradition dates back roughly 80 years, but they also own the most titles in NFL history with 12, twice that of the Pittsburgh Steelers. 

The Steelers have won the most titles of the Super Bowl era.  What it all points to is doing things the right way, historically, as an organization, and eventually the tradition of winning pays off.

In Denver’s case that was the model that put the team over the top previously.  Even after four Super Bowl failures, Denver won back to back Super Bowls in 1997 and 1998.  The Broncos nearly reached another Super Bowl in 2005 but eventually fell to the Steelers who believed in their system. 

Denver remained too highly experimental defensively in that 2005 AFC Championship game, and Jake Plummer played his worst game of the season and the Broncos lost 34-17 when the Lombardi trophy was there for the taking.

Again at the end it’s about getting the talent pool to help put the franchise over the top.  After Super Bowl XLV all eyes turn towards the draft and the future. 

For the Broncos franchise to be successful well into the future, other team models should be taken to heart and applies for the betterment of the orange and blue for years to come. 

It’s that real team concept that could make it possible for Tim Tebow to emerge in Denver as the starting quarterback for the next decade if all goes well.  At the end of the day it will take the consensus pool of strong football minds that currently reside in Dove Valley to bring the Broncos back to respectability.

Here’s to hoping the Broncos learn these key lessons from this season and these playoffs sooner than later.


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