With that lanyard swinging and the hoodie dangling from his shoulders, new Denver Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels looks like the spitting image of his mentor Bill Belichick. Perhaps he should have paid more attention to the team management talk, rather than the fashion statement conversations.
McDaniels was known for his offensive genius in engineering the highest-scoring offense in NFL history, as well as nurturing the young and inexperienced Matt Cassel into a viable starter.
Apparently, his genius applies to the playbooks and not to the management of a team.
Only weeks after his arrival in Denver, he began trying to court the Patriots for Matt Cassel. The shockwaves of Jay Cutler’s fury were felt in the media for a month and then some, until he was finally traded to Chicago.
Now, McDaniels will once again get to prove his ability as a coordinator in an offense that lacks a franchise quarterback, a stable offensive line, and a consistent/proven running back.
According to Josh McDaniels, Kyle Orton is the No. 1 quarterback as of right now, but that job is still up for grabs to lifetime pine-rider Chris Simms.
“I promise you this: the best quarterback we have on our roster will be starting on September 13th in Cincinatti. I don’t know who that’s going to be, but as of right now that’s Kyle," said McDaniels recently.
Orton was a statistical surprise in Chicago for the first seven weeks of the 2008 season (prior to his knee injury), completing an average of 62.2% of his passes and throwing for 1,669 yards. On that pace, he would have gone over 3,500 yards with no viable No .1 receiving option.
Now, with McDaniels’ offensive wizardry and a more distinguished group of targets, Orton hopes to have even more success.
He will need to get good, or even great, protection from the offensive line to survive. Though Jay Cutler was only sacked 11 times last year, he is a much more mobile quarterback than Orton, whose mobility may even be decreased following the knee injury.
In terms of the running game, they still managed to produce respectable numbers despite being near the bottom of the league in total rushing attempts, a product of their pass-happy offense last year.
At an average of 4.8 yards per carry and with 15 total rushing touchdowns, the Broncos produced a legitimate running game even through inconsistency at the position. They started five different running backs over the course of last season, and by the end of the season they had placed six on injured reserve.
After taking Knowshon Moreno in the first round of the 2009 draft and picking up former Patriots running back Lamont Jordan, McDaniels has addressed the strength and durability issue at running back.
But did they do too much with their running game and not enough anywhere else?
Though many of their running backs were injured last season, they failed to address more pressing issues on defense.
One of the Broncos many offensive strengths last season was their line. Their list of starters last season possesses unheralded (and unknown) names like Ben Hamilton, Chris Kuper, Ryan Harris, and Ryan Clady. Their center, Casey Wiegmann, was one of three Pro Bowlers from last season’s offensive squad. The other two were Brandon Marshall, and of course, Jay Cutler.
How did McDaniels choose to address this? They took a few late-round fliers on Iowa guard Seth Olsen, who has potential no doubt, but is hardly the type of guy who can be stuck in the starting line-up on day one.
Perhaps he’s hoping that he can develop the talent much like New England did with their offensive line, only one of whom was a first-round draft pick (Logan Mankins).
I would anticipate a spread-based attack from the Denver Broncos, and I would expect McDaniels to employ a lot of the offensive strategies he used in New England; a lot of short dump passes and slants to Eddie Royal, a speedy Kevin Faulk-like running back in Moreno, who has experience in a pro-style offense and can catch passes out of the backfield.
The production of the defense was downright abominable last season. They ranked 30th overall in yards allowed and 29th overall in points allowed.
A lot of this has been attributed to a lack of pressure up front. They only generated 26 sacks, the eighth lowest total in the league. They drafted Tennessee’s Robert Ayers in the first round, an outside linebacker who came on strong over his last two seasons with seven sacks and nearly 100 tackles.
Other than that, they did nothing to bolster their pass rush. They had draft picks in every round, and failed to use a single one of them on a defensive lineman.
Their secondary, which featured the highly regarded names of Champ Bailey and Dre Bly, generated only generated six interceptions. It was second lowest in the league only to the 0-and-16 Detroit Lions. They addressed this issue by picking up two defensive backs in the second round, Alphonso Smith and Darcel McBath.
Alphonso Smith is more of a cover corner, but he’s only 5’9”, and at that stature may never become a true shutdown corner; although he could be a good option as a nickel corner. McBath, on the other hand, isn’t as great in coverage, but he converted from corner and has great range, making him a good developmental prospect at safety.
But how can they expect to generate any interceptions with the front seven failing to create any pressure?
The Broncos woeful miseries in the running game are well-documented; they allowed 2,337 yards and 26 touchdowns, good for third worst in the league. With so many weaknesses on defense, the failure to address most of those spots could come back to haunt them.
Josh McDaniels must really be hoping that his defense can drastically turn their dismal performance from last season around. How they hope to do that without any drastic improvements in personnel remains to be seen.
Chances of Winning This Year
It’s hard to say exactly how good of a chance the Denver Broncos have in the 2009 season. In such a historically weak division of the AFC West, and in this day and age of free agency, it’s anyone’s ball game (though it’s hard to imagine the Raiders winning, isn’t it?)
Offensively, they have a handful of weapons; Eddie Royal came on strong in his rookie year, Brandon Marshall has continued to develop despite off-field issues, Tony Scheffler continues to create mismatches for opposing linebackers, and the presence of rookie Knowshon Moreno could add a whole new dimension to the offense.
But who will be starting at quarterback? And more importantly, how will they perform?
With two inconsistent quarterbacks in Kyle Orton and Chris Simms, the Broncos have taken a drastic turn from a certain future with franchise quarterback Jay Cutler to a former Rex Grossman back-up, and a guy who hasn’t started a meaningful game in almost three years.
As far as the quarterbacking is concerned, it seems McDaniels is going to rely on his ability to mold a quarterback to fit his system, as he did with Matt Cassel last year in New England.
Even if their offense produces spectacularly like they did last season, it will all mean nothing if Denver's porous defense continues to perform as poorly as they did in 2008. With such dismal play all season long, and no real improvements in terms of personnel, they’ll be hard-pressed to turn things around.
But let’s not count them out; they are professional athletes, and they get paid to play the sport for a reason: they’re pretty good at it. It may just take a bit more overachieving on their part to create an impact, but the Broncos could do it in 2009.
Chances of Winning In The Future
We know the short-term success of Josh McDaniels' ability as a tutor; he took lifetime bench-boy Matt Cassel, and made him into a surefire starter.
The team has become a backlog of youth over the past few years. They helped their depth issues at a few key roster spots in the draft, especially in the secondary, where they selected three prospective rookies.
I've used a lot of adjectives for Denver's defense, from dismal to abominable, but regardless of how their defense is described, it was downright disappointing for Denver fans from beginning to bitter end last season.
Quite frankly, it's not a problem that could have been fixed all at once anyway; that many holes on one side of the ball can't be upgraded or improved upon in one off-season. So they did what any organization would do: draft the best players they think are available and hope for the best.
The success of the Denver Broncos franchise relies largely on the teams ability to develop their young talent.
With so much potential talent on their team, good coaching will breed success in the franchise for years to come.