NFL Handicapping: Another Denver Broncos Collapse?
by Trevor Whenham - 11/19/2009
Last year, the Denver Broncos waited until the last three games of the season to throw a solid start away. If they had won just one of those games then they would have made the playoffs and Mike Shanahan and Jay Cutler might still be in town. This year, Denver seems to be embarking on their destructive streak a couple of months sooner. After flying out to a 6-0 start and a massive lead in their division they've dropped three in a row and have let the Chargers back into the race. The Broncos are in a freefall. There's no other way to describe what is happening when a good team loses to the Redskins. They sit at 40/1 in the Super Bowl futures odds pool. A month ago that would have been more than tempting. Now, it's hard to know. So, what's going wrong, and can they snap out of it? Here's a look at a few issues that will determine that:
Quarterback - Kyle Orton was in a tough spot this year - he was the guy that they got for the Pro Bowler. The fans in Denver may not have wanted him, but they have certainly warmed to him now. He's thrown for 11 touchdowns while tossing just four interceptions. Three of those interceptions came in an uncharacteristically bad game against Pittsburgh. Remove that and he's been verging on spectacular. He won't wow you, and hasn't found his way onto many highlight reels, but he largely avoids mistakes, and he brings a surprising amount of confidence and swagger to the field.
To get a sense of just how good Orton has been and how important he is to the team all you have to do is look at last week's game against Washington. Orton threw for two first half touchdowns and looked to be on the way to a solid win. He hurt his ankle and had to leave the game. Chris Simms took over, and Denver looked like a very different team. Simms was terrible, and the Broncos suffered a humiliating loss. Now, Orton is questionable, and that would put Simms in the saddle again. That's not good news.
Schedule - Four of the Broncos' wins have been quality ones - Cincinnati, Dallas, New England, and San Diego. It's important that they have shown that they can beat good teams, because they face a few more down the road - this is not the easiest possible schedule. They will be playing host to San Diego and the Giants, and then traveling to Indianapolis and Philadelphia.
Thankfully, there are some easier games as well - Oakland at home and two against Kansas City. If they don't win those last three then they don't deserve to make the playoffs. That gives them at least nine wins. San Diego will be tough if Orton isn't ready. Assuming that is a loss, that means that they need to win one of the other three to give themselves a shot at a wild card, and two more to make it comfortable for them. In other words, this schedule gives the team no reason to panic. It won't be a gift, but I believe that this string allows the Broncos to control their own destiny.
Defensive line - If there is a singular concern about the Broncos this has to be it. In the last three games teams have been getting away with far too much against this defensive front. The Redskins did something continuously that has to make Denver coaches blind with anger - they would load up the receivers in a obvious passing look, and then run it down Denver's throat. Washington had their best running game of the season, and Pittsburgh had their second best the week before. They have the pieces in place to make the QB uncomfortable if they have time, but until they can get much better against the run they are going to continue to cause aching heads among fans and bettors. We know they can do it effectively because they did earlier in the season. They just badly need to get back to that earlier, better place.
Coaching staff - I have been impressed with Josh McDaniels, and I think he has a bright NFL future. That being said, it can't be seen as a surprise that the pace of the team has cooled at this point in the season. Early on, teams had never seen him and his staff in action, and they knew that he had some new pieces to work with, so they didn't know what to expect from him. Now those teams have a library of video from this season, and they are starting to figure out what to expect and how to deal with it.
That happens with every team all the team, but the difference between Denver this year and the elite teams is that established teams and able to change and adapt every week as well, so their opponents have to keep guessing. McDaniels only had the spring and summer to get his team ready and adjust to the new style, and he didn't have a starting quarterback for much of that. That means that the team doesn't have a depth of knowledge and comfort yet, and they can't adjust fast enough. That depth of knowledge never comes from bad coaches. McDaniels will get there, but it will take another year or so. This year's early success was ahead of schedule.
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