Thanks to a major overhaul of leadership and team personnel (in progress), plus the lockout, the Denver Broncos will be a mystery going into the 2011 season. We know that there will be a new team philosophy in play, on offense and defense, but we don’t know how that will look on the field, and were not even sure who the starting quarterback will be.
When Pat Bowlen brought in Josh McDaniels to run the team (read: to ruin the team) it was obvious at the time that the Broncos would be, to some extent, modeled after the Patriots.
With the hiring of John Fox, the assumption has mostly been that the Broncos will soon resemble the Carolina Panthers—the version of the Panthers that narrowly lost to the Patriots in the Super Bowl, not the team that finished with the worst record in the NFL last season.
Fox loves a strong defense and a great running game. John Elway would like to draw on the past, a Super Bowl-winning past, while also pushing the team forward in a new, exciting era of NFL football.
We will call that Assumption A.
Assumption B is a bit spicier, and it goes something like this: The Denver Broncos plan to be the New Orleans Saints-Lite in 2011; forget about playing it safe on offense and relying on a strong running game. This team plans to score and score often, while making just enough plays on defense to win games. In fact, they don’t just want the defense to make stops, no, they want a defense that can help the offense out on the scoreboard.
Let’s take a closer look at the evidence.
Out with the old, and in with the new.
We are not just talking about a new leadership team: A new VP of football operations, a new head coach, a new defensive coordinator. Instead, we’re looking at a fresh outlook from the team post-Josh McDaniels. Under the iron fist of McD (too melodramatic?), Brian Xanders role as GM was diminished, and the Broncos organization was more single-party rule than open democracy. But since his departure the Broncos are leading the way in transparency. Put simply, that means a whole slue of tweets from John Elway, a constantly updated team web site, and an apparent attempt to make the fans feel “included”, even if the latter is purely a symbolic gesture.
How does any of this make the Broncos more likely to model themselves after the Saints more than any other one team, past or present?
Well it means that John Elway and Brian Xanders will be drawing on the coaches, scouts, etc.—and not just the head coach—for advice. That was made evident by how the team approached their first draft as a new partnership.
We couldn’t definitively say, “Oh yeah, that draft choice was clearly an Elway pick” or “a John Fox player” at any point during the draft. It truly looked like a group effort, and they certainly confirmed as much during their subsequent interviews, tweets, etc.
And if Elway leans on Fox, and Fox leans on his position coaches, he would be wise to lean heavily on Dennis Allen, who is considered a rising star within the coaching ranks.
Why would Fox start this new era of Broncos football by making the same mistakes that Josh McDaniels made; namely, ignoring the experience and wisdom of fellow coaches, being mulish and overly-confident in “my vision” and “my team”? He wouldn’t. Also, did Allen choose the Broncos over the Eagles because he was offered more opportunity to truly create a defense in Denver? It sure looks like it.
Fox has been around long enough to know that he can’t go it alone, and Denver’s Brass has seemed to make the message read loud and clear: There will be cooperation and a true team concept this time around.
Hiring Allen away from the Saints—and for that matter, the Eagles who were equally interested in Allen for the same position on their team—was an absolute coup. As the coach of the defensive backs, Allen helped the Saints defense go from constantly abused to a unit that intercepted a lot of passes and made a ton of spectacular plays.
In 2009, he coached Darren Sharper, who had a career-best year. Remember Tracy Porter’s magnificent interception of Peyton Manning in the Super Bowl? Well, that was Allen on the side-line cheering him on as Porter dashed triumphantly to the end-zone.
Elway and Fox understand that Allen can help the Broncos go from bad to good and even great in many areas of the defense, and while Fox, a defensive-minded coach, will leave his imprint, don’t think for a minute that Allen wont be the biggest factor on defense. In fact, they already found their version of Darren Sharper. His name is Rahim Moore.
The almost unanimous assumption is that the Broncos will have a run-first, conservative mentality in 2011 (Panthers-esque), but the team could be surprisingly pass-aggressive instead (Saints-esque).
Again, we can draw on the team’s stated goals of being more inclusive and receptive to the input of others: John Elway wants to oversee an overhaul that makes the Broncos immediate playoff contenders, but cannot avoid drawing on his background as an elite NFL quarterback; John Fox is known for making the run game a top priority, but as previously noted, will want to integrate the vision and goals of Elway, Xanders, Dennis Allen, and offensive coordinator Mike McCoy; McCoy will want to establish himself as a more prominent offensive mind now that he is free of the restraints put on him by McDaniels.
The Broncos will still likely add another running back, so that the team will not have to depend so heavily on Knowshon Moreno, but this is a team that is built to pass more so than it is to run.
Fox and McCoy, understanding that they cannot dramatically alter the offense in one offseason, especially one that has been hamstrung by a lockout, will likely look to maintain an aggressive offense that highlights the pass, not the run.
This Broncos wide receiving corps, after all, is very deep. Brandon Lloyd had a fantastic 2010 campaign, and looks to build on it, while Jabar Gaffney, Eddie Royal and Eric Decker offer their own unique strengths. Once Demarius Thomas is fully healed, he will add yet another explosive weapon to a team that will most likely be led by Tim Tebow.
When the Saints march out on the field coverage always becomes a nightmare for the opposing team's defense. Drew Brees has quite a few options to throw to: Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem and Lance Moore. Why wouldn't the Broncos run a similar offense, and put Decker on the field with Lloyd, Gaffney and Royal?
In the draft, the Broncos also selected two tight ends, Julius Thomas and Virgil Green. This has always been an X-factor on Saints teams whether it be Jeremy Shockey or Jimmy Graham, and with the selection of those two tight ends, the Broncos are banking on one or both becoming pass-catching weapons who can stretch the field and get big yards after the catch. In other words, they would be the opposite of Richard Quinn, who is purely a blocking tight end.
Finally, there is the quarterback comparison, the Saints Drew Brees and the Broncos Tim Tebow. Drew Brees was a shotgun quarterback coming out of Purdue who dropped into the latter part of the first round of his draft because he played the spread offense, among other “faults”. Tebow has had much of the same criticism since he too played a lot of shotgun in college; Tebow, in fact, has made it a priority to take all snaps from under center this offseason, just to quiet the nay-sayers.
But something tells me it won’t matter. Something tells me that the Broncos, like so many teams including the Colts and the Saints, who both utilize plenty of spread formations in their offense, will learn to love Tebow for what he is and what he can accomplish from the shotgun.
This all leads me to believe that the Broncos will trust Tebow to distribute the ball, and that they won’t just trust the run game, punt and play the “field position game”. This team is built to pass the ball, and Tebow is a dynamic weapon when he is running or passing, not when he is handing off to Knowshon Moreno.
The Broncos understand this. They know where the strengths are on offense, and on defense, and they won’t try to fit a square peg into a round hole; after all, that is what got McDaniels run out of town. Isn’t it?