A Necessary Bloodletting

So long, and thanks for the Super Bowl titles.

So long, and thanks for the Super Bowl titles.

If the Rocky Mountain News is to be believed, the firing of Mike Shanahan after 14 years and back-to-back Super Bowls came down to an ultimatum over Broncos’ D-coordinator Bob Slowik. Owner Pat Bowlen wanted him out; the Rat Fink wouldn’t fire him, even after this horrendous defensive season. So, out goes the coach that helped John Elway and Terrell Davis take Denver to the Promised Land.

Truth is, it probably should have happened a couple of years ago. Maybe not the firing, but at least a reduction in the Fink’s authority; a removal of the exec VP of football ops title he held — with an Isiah-style plan, rebuild in one or two years or you’re done. The trends in the NFL have changed again; coaches who hold final personnel say are an endangered species. Only Coach Hobo continues to wield this power in New England; someone will give Bill Cowher similar power to return to the ranks, but that’s it.

When Shanahan fired GM Ted Sundquist last year (and I say Shanahan did it rather than Bowlen for a reason), all the focus went on him and a very visible inability to identify defensive talent and the right coaches to bring them along. Elvis Dumervil and D.J. Williams were the only two recent draft picks on defense that turned out ot be anything decent.  (Verdict’s still out on Marcus Thomas; Spencer Larsen could be really good.)

You never want to be the person pulling for the coach who won two titles to get fired, but I had come to that conclusion after watching seasons where the Fink blew through DCs every year with no defensive improvement; at the very least, he needed a GM to check and balance.

Shanahan wanted all the responsibility, accepted it, and did well with legendary talent. Now, he has to accept the loss of his job for sustained mediocrity. Such is life in the NFL, and maybe, just maybe, the Broncos needed to cut losses now and start over, because no matter how promising that offense looked with Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall, Eddie Royal, and Tony Scheffler, the defense would have let them down — and after so many DCs, that goes straight to the man who wanted all that authority and responsibility.

So, thanks for the titles and the aggressive play-calling, Coach, but the franchise needs to go somewhere you can’t take it any more. It happens. Nothing can last forever when you go 1-4 in the playoffs in the 10 seasons after the glory years.

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Horses At Heel

shannyandcutler

I’m skipping this week’s general rundown of NFL games because I feel like I need to focus on the morass the Broncos are in and I haven’t written specifically on them in some time.

It’s bad enough that I tend towards the pessimistic with this team for the past few years.  Watching Mike Shanahan burn through offensive philosophies and, as of late, coordinators, will do that.  I fully expect Bob Slowik to be fired after the season is over; I’m surprised he wasn’t canned before Ted Cottrell. (Of course, there is the whole “Cottrell’s defense actually cost the Chargers wins” thing, but the same deal kind of applies. It only happened more often to San Diego.)

What I saw out of the higlights and limited, pirated-TV action from Mile High when the Dolphins came to town was a team that didn’t have the personnel to play defense, let alone know how to tackle properly.  Of course, it does not help when the current young and talented quarterback at the helm of the offense has somehow managed to make me wonder if Jake Plummer ever really left the team.  Belief that you can make any throw is a great thing, but belief doesn’t necessarily make it so — three picks will prove that real easy.

And Brandon Marshall is already getting his T.O. on — he’s more right that we’d admit, but it’s not probably the best thing to say on mike:

“When the quarterback sees 1-high or cover-1 (coverage), he’s got to be on the same page as me and get the ball to me,” Marshall said. “But it’s a team game, and oh, well.”

Eh.  Offensive problems aside, the whole defense, with no Champ Bailey, no D.J. Williams, that doesn’t matters. Michael Pittman and Andre Hall are now on IR — so that’s a hit to the Tailback Factory, and where else do we go from here?

If it weren’t Norv Turner in charge of the Chargers, I would say that we were dead in the water. And we probably are dead in the water, depending on whether Ron Rivera can make hay with a 3-4 defense now. However, the Broncos right now are falling apart at the worst time — when they could take advantage of their crappy division.

Context Is Everything

Obviously, over the past couple of days, you’ve likely heard or read plenty about Broncos’ head coach Mike Shanahan’s decision to go for two at the end of the Chargers’ game. Much of it revolves around the testicular fortitude necessary to make such a call (true, because Les Miles thinks that was ballsy) and the rest is about the supposed “offensive genius” of the Rat Fink (which I would argue, went out when John Elway retired.)

I am not arguing that Shanahan isn’t a very good to great coach.  The majority of Super Bowl winning coaches fall in that category, particularly ones who win back to back — no matter the great talent level, coach input, motivation, and game planning must count for something. He is very good with good personnel on offense and knows how to identify it. (At this point, he looks very savvy for going after Jay Cutler when fans in 2006 were wondering why he didn’t go higher in the draft for Matt Leinart or Vince Young if he was going to trade up.)

And that call made sense. If your defense is bleeding, having given up 28 points in the second half, it’s a much smarter call to take a shot at winning the game right there and then rather than risk the capriciousness of a coin flip in overtime, where you may not get the ball. At that point, the team that wins the coin flip wins the game.  While I don’t like citing Easterbrook too much, if the percentages are so good for two-point conversions, coaches should be going for it more often.

But neither Easterbrook nor Michael Silver nor any analyst can really go into the reserve that allows Shanahan to make a call like that, because it’s not something you can call and confirm.

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I Wish I Had Coach Rat Fink’s Optimism

The edit staff at my occasional other posting home, Sports by Brooks, caught Mike Shanahan promising a playoff berth for the Denver Broncos this season on talk radio this week. I’m hoping he’s right; I’m just not that optimistic right now. Fortunately, they’ve addressed some of their problems in the safety area by signing Marlon McCree away from the Chargers, but at the cost of John Lynch, who wouldn’t accept a reduced role and will be leaving town.

My personal concern is less with the team’s defense right now than with the offensive end: we don’t know what’s going to happen to Brandon Marshall in terms of possible discipline for off-field matters, and that makes the team’s wide receiver corps kind of thin. Selvin Young is back, too, and could build on the form that made Travis Henry expendable after one year. Shanahan always finds a top rusher out of nowhere if he falls flat, but I want to see the offense get going before I feel confident enough to say they’re going to play into January.

I have fewer concerns about Jay Cutler than a lot of others; I think the inconsistencies will work themselves out — he’ll continue to get better and avoid the badly-timed pick, it’s really a question of what and who are around him. The offensive line is in transition, it should be reliable enough for him.

I’m also looking at the schedule: there are four games the team should be able to win against KC and Oakland, but it’d be a minor miracle if we eke out a split with San Diego. More games we could lose: hosting the Saints, Bucs, and Jaguars. Going to Foxboro to play the Pats is asking a lot, same with Cleveland, which has upped its game in the off-season. We should be able to handle Miami, Carolina, the Jets, and Buffalo. It could be as good as 12-4 and we could be looking at .500.

Regardless, right now, I see the Chargers winning the division and we’ll have to scrap and claw for a wild card with teams from a loaded AFC South and North — we’d have to battle the Jags, Steelers, Browns, and Titans for one of those two slots.

Lynch: Reduced role “not right” [Denver Post]
Shanahan Promises Broncos Won’t Miss Playoffs [Sports by Brooks]

Please Don’t Bring In The Idiot Kicker

It’s really taken me this long to even acknowledge that Mike Shanahan even let Jason Elam go to Atlanta and sign a free agent contract in the first place. That really shouldn’t have happened. Elam may be in his high 30s, but was still more accurate from a certain range than most kickers the Broncos could have picked up — and while he was kind of a nutball who wrote Tom Clancy rip-off novels with his pastor, he might as well be there with John Elway, Terrell Davis, Gary Zimmerman, Rod Smith, and the rest of the guys who won back to back titles in 1997 and 1998..

So what does the Mastermind do when he lets Elam go?  He has this Matt Prater fellow, sure, but decides to bring in the Idiot Kicker himself, MIke Vanderjagt (or, if you prefer, “Vanderchoke”) to compete with Prater for the kicker slot. At least Todd Sauerbrun’s 10-cent head was on top of a roided-out punting foot with sky-high hang-time on punts. Vanderchoke’s had issues hitting broad sides of barns, and I can’t imagine that having gotten better after being out of action since a short stint two years ago with Dallas.

It’s possible [Vanderjagt’s] enormous success has been offset in recent years by character concerns that have stuck with him since Peyton Manning’s Pro Bowl diatribe after the 2002 season.

After the Indianapolis Colts lost a playoff game that year, Vanderjagt said Manning, the team’s quarterback, needs to show more emotion and that coach Tony Dungy was too mild-mannered.

Manning responded a few days later during a Pro Bowl interview by saying, “We’re talking about our idiot kicker who got liquored up and ran his mouth off.”

Better keep him out of the LoDo clubs or Jay Cutler will have to talk ish about him like he does Brandon Marshall. Replace a Bronco kicking semi-legend with a dolt like Vanderjagt. Real smart, Mastermind.

The Fall Guy

If the first crack you make after hearing that Broncos GM Ted Sundquist got the pink slip is, “I already thought they had a GM; his name is Mike Shanahan,” you’re not far off — and that’s why firing Sundquist is merely a cosmetic move, which will result in no real progress for the Broncos unless Shanahan has some form of spectacular draft that pays off.

The nagging fear I have watching this team’s personnel and front office moves is that Shanahan is simply another version of Al Davis with an enabler in Pat Bowlen: all the power in his hands and no one to tell the coach if he’s fucking it up. Sundquist could never have been that guy, and shouldn’t be considered even remotely responsible for Denver’s failings over the past two seasons with regard to making the playoffs.

How many defensive coordinators and flashy signings of would-be playmakers can you go through until the so-called Mastermind gets questioned about whether he’s gotten too set in his ways to do any sort of meaningful change to the franchise?

Someone had to fall on his sword for 2007 — or have it thrust into his chest, and that’s the GM who was just a name next to the title. Every year, Shanahan inches every bit closer to the man in football he most despises, and this is yet another demonstration of a power trip.

Sundquist out as Broncos GM [Denver Post]

The Pendulum Swing Is Complete.

If you look at the Atlanta Falcons’ offering of their head coaching job to Jaguars’ D-coordinator Mike Smith in and of itself, you’re likely to think one of several things:

  • Who the fuck is Mike Smith?
  • Has Arthur Blank gone crazy?
  • This franchise is destined to lose even more.

These are all justifiable reactions. Mike Smith is the defensive coordinator of the Jaguars in the same way that Rick Neuheisel was the offensive coordinator in Baltimore until recently — someone named to the position, but it looks like he had very little responsibility for the actual schemes despite calling the plays; that was on Jack Del Rio, a defensive specialist himself. And after the GM search landed a Patriots college scout to be the new general manager, this is the latest questionable move — never mind that the hire for a rebuilding team would not look good, especially with a bang-up defensive coordinator like Rex Ryan looking for a job.

But this would obscure an obvious trend. You hear a lot on ESPN and probably read a lot more about a GM or owner looking for a coach on the same page as they are when going through candidates. Tony Sparano is the new coach in Miami because he’s one of Bill Parcells’ boys; he knows how to work with him. John Harbaugh, despite never having coordinated anything outside of special teams in the NFL, was hired by the Ravens. Norv Turner just somewhat rehabbed his reputation in San Diego — after Chargers’ GM A.J. Smith got in such a spat with Marty Schottenheimer that Dean Spanos said he had to fire the coach. Mike Holmgren may be back for one more season, but by all appearances, that looks like it.

About 10-15 years ago, we were seeing an apex of the coach/GM phenomenon, with coaches amassing enough power and influence through victory to essentially control all aspects of football operations for pro teams; either they held GM titles or had simpatico execs as semi-figureheads/sounding boards in that spot. Mike Shanahan still has that to an extent with the Broncos; Holmgren got that when he went to Seattle, and had the GM label removed a few years back. Bill Parcells is in the front office after having that same power wherever he went post-Giants; he retired after clashing with Jerry Jones in Dallas, someone just as egotistical about the make-up of a football team as Parcells.

Bill Belichick is the only coach left who wields the kind of power that coaches held as all-knowing personnel men in the 90s (Scott Pioli is very good as a personnel guy, the Pats speak for themselves, but Coach Hobo holds the final say). What we are seeing now is the hiring of either complete newbies lacking comparative experience to former head coaches or the hiring of re-treads who are not seeking that final authority and decision making. The pendulum is now completely on the side of ownership and the front office folks they hire with regard to personnel and final say. It’s why you’ll never see Pete Carroll in the NFL again any time soon (not that he deserves that kind of power.) The old-school coaches that get mentioned every year (Bill Cowher, Schottenheimer) want and feel they have earned more say than some front office people are comfortable giving right now, never mind the money involved.

Thus, we have these complete unknowns as head coaches.