Denver Broncos: Black Hole in Josh McDaniels' Lingering Scheme May Limit Success

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Denver Broncos: Black Hole in Josh McDaniels' Lingering Scheme May Limit Success
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images
Eddie Royal has been put in some tight situations in the failed bubble screen packages along with short pass game plays. Combined they often wind up being wasted downs and terminating drives.

Since the 1800s, mankind has investigated the possibility and eventually the probability of the existence of black holes in space.  Through theory and general studies in the field it has been confirmed that mass can be broken down in space through black holes.  With gravitational fields so strong—not even light can escape the horizontal plane of black holes—that’s why it took so long to discover them.

It’s been a historical week—no not on Wall Street—but perhaps you missed it.  Just last week scientists discovered a most amazing astrological find: It was revealed that a black hole swallowing a star in space had been witnessed for the first time.  In essence, the long thought-of theory of general relativity published by Albert Einstein nearly 100 years ago in 1916 has turned into documented and substantiated fact.  Scientists and journalists alike are communicating worldwide through literally hundreds of articles covering the subject. 

It is a true find for mankind so pat yourself on the back!

So how does that all apply to football and the NFL game at that?  Well, it does and it doesn’t.  You see, the concept of the black hole in the sports world is a relative term with no amazing general theories of anything backing them up other than the fact that fans witness them happening time and time again.

Things like power hitters swinging for the fence only to have the baseball swiftly dodge heavy bats for a strike-three call.  Things like the power dunk that defies logic and bounces off the rim from a dead-to-rights slam dunk gone astray.  Finally there are the ways in which schemes in sports are executed—they all look great on paper until something goes awry. 

A great example is how the Colorado Avalanche were revered during the regular season over a decade ago.  They did win two Stanley Cups, however they might have won more had the NHL either upheld the regular-season rules (the Avs had the most potent goal scorers bar none in the NHL) or had the Avs been a more physical hockey team in the trenches. 

In the end, the scheme wasn’t foolproof either because rules weren’t reinforced or other teams were more physical in the playoffs and the Avs could not counter every time.  The NHL has long turned the proverbial blind eye to infractions during the playoffs which really change the game altogether.  So it’s hard to blame the Avs regardless because they did win Cups and came close to winning others amid the poor officiating.  It does, however, point out that there was a hole in the ability to problem-solve, so to speak, based on anything definitive.

Such is the focus of this article: It is to point out one black hole that has been theorized about for a couple years now, but it’s time to call a spade a spade as it relates to the sports world.  In particular, this will address exactly where the black hole currently exists within the Denver Broncos' current offensive philosophy and/or scheme.

The Black Hole Concept Is Nothing New in Football

Growing up playing football in the 1970s and 1980s, youth and high school coaches alike held their own tried and true football theory.  It went something like this:  “Only three things can happen in the passing game, and two of them are bad.”

To spell it out, the thinking behind that statement still applies.  The meaning behind the statement was that if a team throws the ball they are susceptible to incompletions and turnovers while running the risk of seeking a big strike downfield.  From a failed odds perception, it would appear that the odds were definitely against success when considering two out of three is bad.

Obviously with that sort of thinking football would have never evolved out of the run-only dark ages.  However, the originally stated principal still stands and it still applies to football on all levels today.  It’s sort of perplexing when understanding that the underlying reason behind the above statement is that run-only or run-dominant offensive football reigned supreme back in those times revering the pass game. 

Traditional college powerhouses like Michigan, Ohio State, Alabama, Penn State, Oklahoma and Nebraska were run-heavy teams who traditionally contended for the mythical national championship.  Run philosophies varied as much as they do today, but in the end teams saw running the ball as their clearest path to success.  The way the University of Colorado got back on track towards a national championship was reverting back to the old-school option run offense combined with solid defense. 

Getty Images/Getty Images
Paul "Bear" Bryant coached physical football philosophies that are frowned upon today, yet his approach still has impact in the football world nearly 30 years since his passing..

Look back at the history of the NFL as well; it was founded on the run game, evolved but remained true to the run-first philosophies.  Look no further than the Vince Lombardi-coached Green Bay Packers who won the first two Super Bowls with more NFL Championships to boot.  Even Broadway Joe Namath and the Jets took it to the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III by out-muscling them with the run and using the pass sparingly but effectively to essentially keep the Colts at bay.

It’s been a fairly sturdy template for over a hundred years now for new offensive schemes to be based out of the run game first.

Essentially, when looking at the original statement above, it may not entirely prove that there are black holes in offensive football schemes per se.  However, the evidence is circumstantial in nature and backed up with over a centuries worth of hard data about successful run games being a key piece towards building championship teams.

The Black Hole still Exists in Denver within the Broncos' Offensive Scheme

When considering the Broncos' shortfalls on the offensive side of the ball the past two seasons, it was a dysfunctional scheme, partially swallowing the franchise's future, and a nightmare to watch.  The Josh McDaniels era in Denver was short, however the damage left on the franchise is something John Elway and John Fox were hired to fix. 

The transition is logical in nature—with a handful of McDaniels' coaches remaining as the new headmaster and the rest of his staff have taken control.

The one fact that will remain in the 2011 season for the Denver Broncos and their fans is that the success of the franchise might be limited in large part because the remnants of McDaniels' offensive scheme.  Many will try to wish it away, but it will be the elephant in the room for the Denver Broncos' 2011 campaign.

How could that be?

Haven’t the Broncos taken on a whole new offensive approach to counter the damage left by McDaniels? 

Well one would think—however the reality is that the Broncos have the same offensive coordinator that they had under McDaniels.  The players and the rudimentary philosophies underneath the newfound run-first approach are still in place, for better or worse.  Fans should keep in mind the Broncos were the league's worst rushing attack and varied between positions 10 and 15 in most other offensive categories.

The Denver Broncos are currently seeking to work their way out of this quagmire that might be best described as “Apolitical Football."  They seek to take their next major step at the same exact moment where they wrestle with who they became under McDaniels.  It’s a paradox, a paradigm and much like the discoveries out in space, for this football puzzle there is a lingering black hole—one which needs a cure.

Justin Edmonds/Getty Images
Josh McDaniels fiery personality wore on players while his scheme made him out kick the coverage. He knew what he knew, but didn't know what he didn't know. The black holes in his offensive scheme proved that out.

A Short Football Definition on the Black Hole Concept

Essentially for there to be a “black hole” in a scheme, there is a compound element which causes the offensive attack to halt.  Generally speaking there might be one hole in a scheme, like not running the ball enough.  What causes “black holes” to form in plans of attack is the failure to make the proper adjustments.  Those adjustments usually occur in philosophy, implementation and obviously in execution. 

Offensive schemes that fail usually do so because one of the following four elements is either implemented or omitted in a plan of attack.  Here are the four elements that cause holes in scheme development:

1. There is too much implementation of play types or overemphasis on them called in games.

2. There is an absence of plays that keep the defense honest. 

3. The defense is able to easily read the play prior to the snap and therefore make the right adjustments to stop the play.

4. Failure to properly adjust the plan and at the point of attack.

Outlining the Black Hole in the Denver Broncos' Current Offensive Scheme

For two years under McDaniels' lead, readers have seen prior articles here referring to there being a hole in the Denver Broncos offensive scheme.  Fans near and far have exclaimed at the top of their lungs that two main elements were causing problems for the Broncos offensive attack.

The most obvious problem the Broncos developed under McDaniels was that they gambled on a pass-first approach.  That essentially worked its way into a compound fracture of the offensive attack.  Those philosophies led to a mitigated run game with essentially no short-yardage package that worked effectively.  Additionally, the offensive line that once was a prize of the Broncos offense and run game was all pass protection with no push up front in critical situations.

Moreover, there were annoying problems within the overemphasis of the bubble-screen package still attached to the offensive scheme.  More often than not in this approach, offensive coordinator Mike McCoy has defaulted to staples of the old New England approach that McDaniels brought to Denver.  Those staples of course are held within the bubble screen and short-yardage pass packages. 

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
The Denver Broncos season eventually imploded and the defense continued to get give way to the pressure that was placed upon them by the subpar scheme implemented by Josh McDaniels and Mike McCoy.

It took Charlie Weis years in New England to derive his version of the spread offense which gave defenses headaches.  The problem is defenses have been catching up to the scheme and philosophy (i.e. making the right reads and adjustments) since the New York Giants kept the Patriots from going undefeated in Super Bowl XLII.  McDaniels was promoted after that run, but he essentially took the system and blindly trusted that it would work regardless of the personnel, as long as he was teaching it.

What Broncos fans have grown unhappily accustomed too with McDaniels' system is the fact that it leads to a lack of 1st downs and subsequently fewer points being generated.  Once again, this caused another fracture by placing too much pressure on the defense where it was witnessed on multiple occasions and they eventually imploded.

It’s a Team, a Scheme and a Coach in Transition

Fans really need to realize the above point—that this Denver Broncos team is clearly in transition even though they have shown so much fight early on this preseason.  The team is changing quite a bit in its attitude and philosophies on both sides of the ball. 

From the offensive scheme point of view, things have changed and yet they haven’t—and may not soon enough for all intents and purposes.  The philosophy is run first, let the defense help you out, try to control the clock and the tempo, score enough to win.  Easier said than done, no doubt, but there is an emphasis on running the football that has been sorely lacking under the previous regime.

Right now the Broncos are focused on run-blocking, getting push and creating more push as the season goes along.  The Broncos now have a dual-back system with Knowshon Moreno and Willis McGahee toting the rock for the Broncos.  Denver has an improving offensive line with good potential up front.  This does work well for the transition they are currently working through.  The issue, the elephant in the room this season, is how well can the Broncos disguise their run and pass game?

As things stand now, what has been witnessed in the preseason, the Broncos are running the same system they previously ran with an altered emphasis on running.  Clearly Kyle Orton and Brandon Lloyd benefited most from the previous offensive system and will be relied upon from time to time to get the team 1st downs in a clutch.  The clear-cut problem is that the scheme has a few years of film now, so adjustments must be made.  It is not even a question anymore—teams knew what to expect under Josh McDaniels and Mike McCoy is a holdover offensive coordinator guiding a lame-duck offensive approach with new keys and emphasis.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Kyle Orton has had to learn the hard way that it's hard to be an affective leader with subpar offensive philosophies as your guide.

So there is potential for a major quagmire here.  Thus far, the Broncos have performed well offensively, but they have also fallen victim to not disgusting their scheme enough.  The prime case in point was watching how Pete Carroll’s defense shut down the reinvigorated attack of the Orange and Blue early and often in their tilt last weekend.

On the first run from scrimmage, the offensive line failed to execute and put a hat on a hat, causing a short gain, then was called for holding on the play and the team was pushed back.

There were obvious flaws in the way McCoy had the offense start up the other night.  If you don’t believe it, ask yourself: What was the most failed and overemphasized play under McDaniels? 



That’s right—the bubble screen.  So which one showed up immediately on the second play against Seattle and was promptly shut down?

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Mike McCoy and the Broncos offense have the pressures of overcoming the past while transitioning into the future. It won't be easy overcoming the holes in McDaniels legacy scheme.



That’s right—the bubble screen.

Then on the next play from scrimmage, the Broncos retry the first run from scrimmage for another small gain.  The counterpunch on 3rd-and-long was an Orton-to-Royal completion on the short cross route, then an ensuing punt as the series ended.

The frustration is that there was no adjustment here and the Broncos lose out on an early opportunity to control the tempo and the ball a while longer.  So you see five small holes there if you count the penalty, and the hole in the scheme looms larger until a black hole is born and it’s time to punt.

This series quite specifically outlines how and where McCoy needs to mature as the Broncos signal-caller.  It is series like these early on from the Seattle game that could keep the Orange and Blue out of tight games this season.  It could also keep them at .500 or less until facets of this approach change.

Additionally, on the Broncos' next series, the team has another dumb penalty and a clearly tired Orton (who should have been held out because of a family matter) throws into a roll double coverage for an interception.

As much as people want to say this is John Fox’s stamp on this season, the reality is that he has trusted McCoy to help transition a somewhat effective offense from 2010 into 2011. 

Immediate and Long-Range Remedies

The issue here is the Broncos need to get better on offense sooner than later given their current talent pool on the defensive side of the ball.  The defense will carry the team but the offense is what can help them have a faster-than-usual turnaround and transition from being out of it to contender.  So what remedies are there?

Some short-term solutions are to ditch the bubble-screen package entirely for now, place an emphasis on running old plays out of new formations and help the offensive line in their development. 

There needs to be some form of greater progress made here.  Brian Griese said as much during the Broncos' preseason opener in Dallas, that McCoy needs to ramp up and get a scheme that works comfortably moving forward.  It’s obvious that at times he’s wrestling with the old ways of doing things and what needs to get done now.  Denver clearly needs a stronger identity which will come from running the ball, but three-and-outs need to become the exception and not the rule for this Broncos offense.  So McCoy has his work cut out to make this offense more creative while getting them to hit on all cylinders.

In the long run, this team will in all likelihood have new starters at running back and at quarterback but the team should be more effective offensively.  The only way towards that goal is to not be so predictable in the play-calling.  Part of that comes from knowing which reads are being handed to the defenses that are studying the film from both the McDaniels era here and Fox’s offense in Carolina

In all fairness, the Broncos were able to overcome their early mistakes against Seattle.  The Seahawks were ambushed by the Denver defense.  Steven Hauschka kicked the winning field goal from 51 yards out to preserve the win that was dominated by an Orange Crush-worthy performance.

Denver will overcome the black hole issues as soon as they are willing to work a little more out of their comfort zone.  Obviously execution goes a very long way, but setting the team up for success in this area is king.  So in order to avoid the pitfalls for the black hole three-and-outs, the coaching staff has to believe that these holes do exist and that they need to find appropriate remedies in better disguising their approach.

The Broncos can choose to ignore them, but then they will only be another three-and-out from discovering another black hole exists within the scheme.  It sounds like a price that’s not worth paying during the regular season.

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