Monthly Archives: July 2012

Do the Broncos have enough weapons for Peyton Manning?

It’s not that fewer people had opinions in the old days. It’s just that before Twitter and Facebook, we didn’t experience the pleasure of hearing every single one of them.

Today, in order to stand out from the technologically-enhanced peanut gallery, your opinion has to be different, or at least loud, which is why any unexpressed view, no matter how inane, is just a vacuum waiting to be filled.

So we had the original reaction to the Broncos’ signing of Peyton Manning, natural and reasonable, that any team quarterbacked by a four-time Most Valuable Player should likely be included on any list of prospective championship contenders. That’s why there are nearly as many national media types at Dove Valley this week as there are players on the Broncos’ training camp roster.

Then came the first wave of blowback — the harbingers of wait just a minute. They wonder about the defense, they wonder about Manning’s health and even his prodigal perspicacity after a year off and multiple neck surgeries. But mostly, they wonder about Manning’s weapons.

Demaryius Thomas may have been a first-round draft pick, they allow, but through his first two pro campaigns, his high-water mark for catches in a season is 32. Eric Decker strikes a similar national profile — big, fast and athletic, granted, but also a similarly modest career high in receptions of 44.

Certain facts tend to go unmentioned in these revisionist bits of analysis. For example, the fact that each is entering just his third season. Or the fact that Kyle Orton threw nearly all of his passes to Brandon Lloyd during their rookie season. Or the fact that the Broncos reverted to a single wing offense last season, producing the 31st-ranked passing game in a 32-team league.

Mere details. Those who now differentiate themselves from the crowd argue Manning won’t be Manning without the crew of Hall of Fame-bound receivers he enjoyed in Indianapolis.

Of course, Manning had a little something to do with the pending Canton reservations of Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. Good receivers make a good quarterback better, but a great quarterback makes good receivers better, too.

Anyway, we turn to someone who knows a little something about quarterbacking championship teams for an expert view on this dispute.

John Elway might be a tad biased — he’s the architect of the Broncos’ roster — but he’s also a guy who helped make famous largely unknown young receivers named Shannon Sharpe, Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey.

“As a former quarterback, I like the targets,” Elway said when he stopped by the KOA broadcast tent at Dove Valley.

“When I look at Demaryius Thomas going into his third year and the way he played the last half of (last) year and the confidence that he’s going to come back into this year with, and the OTAs, I mean, he improved immensely in the OTAs. He had a great day (Thursday). Eric Decker I really like. Those are big, fast wide receivers that I always liked.

“Brandon Stokley’s going to come in and add some experience. Bubba Caldwell from Cincinnati has got some experience in the league and has great speed, has the ability to make the big play. And then we’ve got some young guys that we’re excited about — D’Andre Goodwin, Mark Dell, who got hurt in the preseason last year.

“Plus we feel really good about the tight ends (Joel Dreessen, Jacob Tamme, Virgil Green, Julius Thomas). We’ve got (Ronnie) Hillman in the backfield with Willis (McGahee) and so I believe we’ve got a lot of good things going on on the offensive side also.”

Elway was convinced last season that the Broncos’ biggest weakness was not the receiving corps but the defensive backfield. Aside from the courtship of Manning, that’s where he concentrated his attention during the offseason.

“Other than the quarterback position, that’s probably where we’ve improved the most,” he said. “If you look at the football team last year, when we got exposed is when people spread us out — Detroit, New England, even San Diego, although we did a good job against San Diego.

“When we got spread out, we struggled. But Tracy Porter coming in with the experience he has, Drayton Florence has great experience, and then Omar Bolden, who we drafted in the fourth round. Chris Harris, the year he had last year. We bring Mike Adams in at safety and then Rahim Moore and Quinton Carter are going to have a year under their belts. So I’m excited about what we’ve got back there.”

Elway isn’t afraid to talk about championship contention — he thinks the potential is there if fortune smiles — but he knows from experience that predictions in July are subject to the vicissitudes of November and December.

“If you look at where we started a year and a half ago (when Elway took over the front office) and where we are right now, we’re really excited about it,” he said.

“Like any season, you have to get lucky. Injuries can always kill you. The unknown is always there and that’s why I always kind of temper my enthusiasm and excitement, because you never know what can happen. But I think with the people that we’ve got on this football field, we have an opportunity to compete for a world championship. There’s a lot of things that have to fall in line. But we’re excited about where we are.”

As Manning era begins, Broncos welcome great expectations

When John Fox arrived as the Broncos’ new head coach last year, nobody expected much. The team he was taking over had gone 4-12 in 2010, and few experts thought it would do much better in 2011.

A year later, as Fox enters his second season in Colorado, his team has the top national story of training camp — the comeback of Peyton Manning — and many analysts are picking it to win the AFC West.

“I would hope the longer you’re in an organization that the expectations increase,” Fox said Wednesday after players reported for training camp.

“I don’t think that hurts anything. I would hope that everybody in that locker room or in that 4 o’clock meeting today has got great expectations. I think if you look around at the other 31 cities in the National Football League, I would say that everybody’s goal is to win that world championship. That’s kind of what I think everybody’s expectations are.”

The overflow media crowd at Dove Valley on Wednesday reflected intense national interest in Manning’s comeback after the four-time Most Valuable Player missed all of last season rehabilitating from neck surgery. Sports Illustrated’s Peter King listed it as the NFL’s top summer story line as he embarked on his annual tour of training camps.

Reporters and analysts will be watching Manning’s passing in camp, trying to gauge his arm strength and endurance. Dove Valley insiders say he has brought an unparalleled work ethic since signing with the Broncos as a free agent in March.

“Obviously, we’re very excited,” Fox said. “Peyton’s done everything humanly possible, both physically and mentally, to get ready for this. I know he’s excited, the rest of our team’s excited, but he’s a tremendous competitor and we’re very blessed to have him.

“I think physically he’s made tremendous improvement. I’m not sure I’ve ever been around a player with as intense work ethic as him, both physically and mentally. So he’s worked very hard. He didn’t take the last five weeks off by any stretch. By all indications he’s made great progress and we’re happy with where he is.”

Fox and his staff are hopeful that Manning’s perfectionism will rub off on his teammates as camp goes on.

“Peyton’s going to be himself,” Fox said. “What (that’s) been is a tremendous leader, a great student of the game. When you’ve won the MVP that many times and you’ve had the accomplishments on the field he has, he can’t help but have some swagger to him, and I think that’s contagious.

“We said early on that he’s the type of player that raises all boats, from how they practice, how they approach practice. I’m talking about his teammates. He’s a very unselfish guy, a great teammate, and that should be a very positive influence on our team.”

Like every NFL team, the Broncos have plenty of questions going into camp. Elvis Dumervil spoke with reporters Wednesday but declined comment on his arrest in Florida last week, saying he would await the results of the ongoing investigation by Florida law enforcement authorities. Fox said the club would do the same. Dumervil was initially charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon following an incident described as a traffic confrontation in Miami Beach.

With linebacker D.J. Williams suspended for at least the first six games of the season after failing a league drug test, Fox acknowledged that the veteran linebacker is unlikely to line up with the first-team defense in camp.

Williams tweeted earlier that he had been moved from his weak-side linebacker position during the offseason, prompting speculation that Von Miller, last year’s NFL defensive rookie of the year, might move to the weak side to accentuate his pass rushing abilities. Joe Mays is the incumbent middle linebacker on run downs. With Williams out, Wesley Woodyard may be the leading candidate to join the starting lineup entering camp.

Fox also said he has no specific “pitch count” for Manning — a limit on the number of throws he makes per practice or per day as he regains arm strength following a season on the injured list — but said he will monitor how his arm is feeling as camp progresses.

Between the expectations that come with Manning and the opening of a new season, spirits were high Wednesday, the manicured practice fields ready for the first workout Thursday morning.

“With each season, what’s great about the NFL, it’s new,” Fox said. “It’s 32 teams all 0-0. It’s a new race, so to speak. It’s always good getting the guys back. They all look good, they have smiles on their faces and they’re excited about getting this training camp started.”

How to pitch at Coors Field

Jeremy Guthrie might be this season’s highest-profile meltdown of a pitcher new to Coors Field, but he’s not exactly the lone ranger:

Guillermo Moscoso had an earned-run average of 3.38 last season for Oakland, mostly as a starter. Obtained by the Rockies with Josh Outman in exchange for outfielder Seth Smith, his ERA was 8.23 in two big league stints before being returned to the minor leagues. It was 11.21 at Coors; 2.79 elsewhere.

Outman had a 3.70 ERA for the A’s last season. In his first year with the Rocks, that number is 9.00. He, too, has been returned to the minors.

Tyler Chatwood, obtained from the Angels for catcher Chris Iannetta, had an ERA of 4.75 in the American League as a 21-year-old. At 22, for the Rocks, his ERA is 7.62. Like the others, he is now a minor leaguer.

So it seems worth getting some insight into the specific difficulties pitchers face making their pitches in the less-dense air a mile above sea level. Unfortunately, when you go looking for big league hurlers who found a way to succeed at Coors and are willing to talk about it, you find it’s a pretty small group.

No one has taken the mound more often for the Rockies over the past three seasons than reliever Matt Belisle. He led the team in appearances two years ago with 76 and again last year with 74. This season he leads with 45 through 88 games, one back of the league leader, Shawn Camp of the Cubs. In a year in which the Rocks were determined to get Belisle’s appearances below 70, he’s on a pace for 83.

He also leads the club in earned-run average at 2.25, a number that was 1.88 before he was charged with two runs Saturday night against the Phillies. The previous two seasons he compiled ERAs of 2.93 (2010) and 3.25 (2011) — microscopic by Rockies standards. His splits this year are 2.92 at Coors and 1.54 elsewhere.

He wasn’t feeling great Saturday night after giving up two extra-base hits down the right field line in the ninth, but he was accommodating, as always. I started by asking if there are pitches he eliminates from his repertoire at altitude or pitches he relies on more at sea level.

“I guess the answer to that question is yes,” he said. “Do I eliminate? No. I know what happens to the spin or the bite, so to speak, on my off-speed pitches here compared to other places. The break size is going to be different. Sometimes the speed is different. So I’ve had to learn how to adapt my sights, my vision of where I’m releasing the ball, to make sure that I compensate for the lack of bite. So I guess what I’m trying to say is when we leave here, my rotation seems a little tighter and I get better snap on my pitches.

“All that means is I have to adapt and focus more on locating here and when I do mix speeds, to make sure that the arm speed’s there and the approach is extremely aggressive. When you’re feeling good with your spin, sometimes you can get away with sort of flipping one in there. You can’t do that here. That kind of got me in trouble tonight, actually.

“So I think it’s just an adaptability of focus. Is it a change? Yes. How significant it is I think is up to the person.”

Although Rockies pitchers tend to avoid talking about the effects of altitude publicly for fear of sounding like they’re making excuses, they do discuss it frequently among themselves. Complicating those discussions is the fact that altitude seems to act differently on each pitcher and each pitch. There are few rules that work for everybody.

“We’ve all talked about it in here,” Belisle said. “Some people have their arsenal change in similar fashions and some are a little different. So I think it’s up to the individual to really acknowledge what you have and what’s going on and just really focus on (keeping the ball) lower and understanding that the break will be a little different.

“Five out of seven of the guys in the bullpen may say their curve ball suffers, but two of them may say, ‘Actually my curve ball’s great; it’s my slider that has problems.’

“But that’s the same phenomenon as one guy can throw the exact same baseball and it feels like a bowling ball and the other guy, it feels light. It’s what he can do with the snap. So there is a change. It’s just something you have to adapt to.”

The modern emphasis on radar guns and computerized strike zones on television may give fans the impression that pitching is science, but it’s much more art. From one outing to another, a pitcher’s feel of his pitches may change dramatically. Altitude adds yet another variable.

Breaking pitches are more vulnerable because, lacking the velocity of the fastball, they sit up begging to be crushed if they lack their customary snap. But the lighter air can also affect the downward plane of the sinker, or two-seam fastball, leaving it, like the breaking ball, sitting up too high in the strike zone.

“It could be all of them, but I think everybody’s more affected with the breaking balls, the off-speed pitches,” Belisle said. “The fastball/sinker does change a little bit as well. Sometimes it may run instead of really corkscrew down.

“Then when you go on the road, you’ve got to kind of make sure and re-set because all of a sudden the bite’s a little more, so the same pitch that was a strike for my curve ball may be a ball if I’m throwing it at the exact same release point, so I’ve got to kind of change that.”

So you have a different release point at altitude than you do at sea level?

“Yeah, because my sight has to change. We’re talking very small.”

Is that a mechanical adjustment?

“Well, not so much a mechanical adjustment as it is the timing of when I release the pitch, when I say it’s a different release point.”

So it’s the same arm slot, but you may have to release the ball a little earlier or a little later?

“Correct. I may have to get rid of the ball a little later in Colorado and not even think about it so much on the road. But if I’m here for a week and then go on the road, while I’m playing catch, I’ll get a feel of, OK, that one was a strike in Colorado but now it’s a ball because it bit a lot more.”

So the pitch that was a strike in Colorado ends up in the dirt at sea level because of the added break?

“Right. But my biggest thing is, it’s not a crutch. It’s not an excuse. It’s just, it is what it is. It’s a condition that we have to work with. The same thing if you get a ball that the rub is really bad or if you’ve got a wet ball that day.

“There’s plenty of things that are thrown at us to try to gain inconsistency in this game. I don’t think we need to allow any of this to be an excuse or a crutch because we’re here long enough to where we can adapt to it. It’s significant, it is something there, but you just have to really be on top of yourself to work on it every day, understand what you need to do.”

I asked if Belisle has noticed fellow pitchers who have trouble dealing psychologically with these constant adjustments.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I know we all talk about it. I know anybody who’s new that comes over here in the past four years that I’ve been here, we talk about it and address it. But that’s up to the individual. We as teammates need to make sure we’re not using anything as an excuse, but whatever cards you’re dealt, whatever you feel that day, you’ve got to figure out and adapt how you’re going to get the guy out because you sure as heck can.

“Maybe some people can use it as a negative, but I try to look at it as an opportunity. If I can become so adept at understanding what my pitches are doing, make those adjustments here and then go on the road and feel like I’ve got even more snap with better, nasty, slow-speed pitches, and then we come here and I can adapt to that again, where a visiting team comes in and really has a tough time because they don’t play here, I feel like that’s an opportunity for me to learn myself better and really take it as a mental challenge to be tougher, because I will not allow excuses. So I look at it more as an opportunity. It’s a fight, but it’s an opportunity.”

I pointed out the dramatic deterioration in the numbers of all four potential starters — Guthrie, Moscoso, Outman and Chatwood — brought in from other organizations this year. These were adequate major league pitchers last season who suddenly can’t get anybody out, I said.

“Yeah. I don’t know what to tell you,” Belisle said. “I mean, pitching’s not easy, period. But all I can say is acknowledge that with most people there is a change in your stuff. And we all have to adapt and be on top of that. You have to do that to the best of your ability and look at it as an opportunity and do not use it as an excuse.”

You can see where the need for constant adjustments in release point would seem like a nightmare from an organizational point of view. The goal of many pitching coaches is to get their charges to find the right delivery mechanics and then repeat them over and over until they become second nature. If you’re constantly fiddling with your release point depending on where you’re pitching, that consistency of repetition is impossible to achieve.

Many fans point to opposing pitchers who come to Colorado and dominate in a single outing — say, C.J. Wilson of the Angels before the All-Star break or Cole Hamels of the Phillies on Sunday. But pitching at Coors once a year is very different from pitching there on a regular basis. Mike Hampton succeeded for half a season before crashing. Ubaldo Jimenez had a sensational first half in 2010 (15-1, 2.20), wilted in the second half (4-7, 3.80) and has not been the same since. It’s not clear if the wear is more mental or physical.

At the All-Star game, Wilson said he basically eliminated his two-seam fastball in his lone start here because he had more confidence in the lateral movement of his cutter than the downward movement of his sinker at altitude. But in a park that puts such a premium on keeping the ball down, the Rocks as an organization can hardly afford to eliminate the two-seamer from the staff repertoire.

Still, as Guthrie demonstrated Saturday night, it can take an inning to get a feel for the release point that keeps the ball down and one bad inning at Coors can be all it takes to ruin a start.

It’s also probably easier for relievers such as Belisle to make those constant adjustments since each outing is so much shorter than it is for starters. This is one of the reasons for the Rockies’ recent pitch limits on starters — to make their focus more like that of a reliever.

It’s not clear whether the failure of any Rockies starter to sustain success over a career is a function of the extra physical effort required to make balls move at altitude, the potential for injury created by constantly changing release points or the mental strain of the battle.

But Belisle’s description of his mental approach suggests that perhaps the most important attribute of a pitcher donning a Rockies uniform is mental discipline — the ability to view pitching at altitude as a challenge rather than a conspiracy to ruin his numbers. Consciously or subconsciously, the pitchers who have failed here most spectacularly seemed to blame altitude, not themselves, for their issues. Belisle, by contrast, has been a better pitcher here than he was during his previous stint in Cincinnati.

This remains the essential dilemma of big-league baseball a mile high. The effects of altitude are real; any honest pitcher will tell you that. To succeed here, a pitcher has to adjust for those effects and adjust back at sea level without resorting to the defense mechanism of blaming all those changes when things go wrong. It’s a tough psychological line to walk, and it’s tougher still to predict how any particular pitcher will deal with it before he gets here. Twenty years in, the Rocks remain a long way from a solution.

The latest Coors Field casualty

If you happened to be among the 35,151 people who paid (or managed a ticket from someone who had) to see the Rockies play the Phillies on Saturday night, you saw the most recent version of the species of baseball player known as the Coors Field casualty.

Jeremy Guthrie has joined a small but distinguished group of pitchers (and one manager) who were driven to distraction and ultimately defeated by Coors Field, or by the altitude at which it sits. Each retreated into his own defensive bubble, refusing to acknowledge the elephant in the ballpark because they couldn’t accept their inability to overcome it.

Keep in mind Guthrie was acquired over the offseason to be the veteran leader of the pitching staff. Looking over his previous three seasons, Rockies management saw a horse who never missed a start, threw 200 or more innings every year, pitched for lousy teams in Baltimore and never complained. What they got was the opposite — a head case who can’t show leadership to the Rocks’ young pitchers because he can’t get out of his own way.

One sarcastic gesture — tipping his cap to the crowd as one of his early exits was accompanied by a symphony of boos — offered all the insight necessary into the psychological shield he has raised to protect himself from what no doubt seem like the slings and arrows of some strange and foreign planet.

Following his ninth loss in 12 decisions Saturday night, when he gave up four runs, all in the first inning, and came out in the fifth, this was Guthrie’s post-game session with the inquiring minds:

Q: So what’s your diagnosis? What happened in the first inning?

A: Just a, you know, got behind to (Carlos) Ruiz and he took a good hack and, you know, a three-run homer.

Q: That’s it? What about the hits that led up to that?

A: You know, the fastball away, 1-0 count, off the plate a little bit, (Chase Utley) did a nice job to punch in (Shane) Victorino. Victorino was a fastball up in the zone, 0-2, tried to elevate it, got it at his letters but he did a nice job and hit it into the gap. I walked (Ryan) Howard, I think it was on five pitches, got behind him. I think that’s all the hits. I think that’s all the results of the first inning.

Q: Especially after the first inning, you were able to keep it under control after that, do you feel like you have a pretty good pattern, at least here at home?

A: I think so. I mean, I’ve got the longest scoreless streak of my career at Coors, so there’s a lot of positives to build on. It’s a career low in runs allowed in a start as well. So there’s positives to build on and you’ve got to take what you can and go for it.

Q: At this point is it trying to just build on something like that, considering how it’s gone so far?

A: Yeah. You always find the positives and try to build on ’em. That’s what I try to do. That’s the kind of person I am and if it works out I’m pleased; if it doesn’t, I’ll keep that same attitude in baseball and in life.

Q: Jeremy, was it self-evident to you from the first inning what you needed to adjust or did anybody have a chat with you between the first and second?

A: No, no chat. It came down to one pitch, really. Three-one. The Utley pitch wasn’t a mistake. It was where I was trying to go. The Victorino pitch was where I was trying to throw it. The walk is not what I was trying to do. I look at it every at-bat, every pitch. You look at four runs and you just think the world’s coming to an end, but it really came down to one big pitch, to Ruiz, to one of the best hitters in the league right now.

When the brief group session was over, I asked Guthrie if I could ask him a couple of further questions, one-on-one.

“No,” he said. “Thank you.” And then he hightailed it out of the clubhouse.

Now, granted, this refusal could well be because of my personal charm. Guthrie would not be the first athlete who, given a choice, declined an opportunity to spend any more time than necessary answering my questions. But he also gave me a flashback to the most famous Coors Field casualty of the Rockies’ first 20 years, who gave me a similar response when I tried to talk to him one-on-one about pitching here.

In 2001, Mike Hampton got the biggest contract ever given to a pitcher at the time — eight years, $121 million. He’s the poster boy of Coors Field casualties. The Rockies broke the bank to sign him after coming off consecutive (pre-humidor) seasons in which their starters pitched to earned-run averages of 6.19 and 5.59, numbers that might sound familiar if you’ve followed this year’s team, whose starters are currently at 6.06.

Hampton had gone 37-12 over the previous two seasons for the Astros and Mets. He was a power sinker ball pitcher, exactly what their home launch pad seemed to demand. So the Rocks overpaid in a big way to snare the top free agent pitcher of the year.

His first start was awe-inspiring. He threw 8 1/3 innings of five-hit, shutout ball at Coors Field against the Cardinals. On June 10, when he beat the Cardinals again, he was 9-2 with a 2.98 ERA and a National League All-Star for the second time.

From there, it went downhill in a hurry. By the end of July, he had lost six of his previous seven decisions and the ERA had swelled to 4.97. His jaw tightened in post-game interviews. He retreated to formulaic answers, just as Guthrie has, reciting his pitches in a bland monotone the way a golfer recites his shots. This pitch missed, that pitch got too much of the plate. He denied any larger issues. The competitor in him would not allow him to acknowledge them, at least not publicly.

He finished the season with a record of 14-13 and an ERA of 5.41. For a pitcher who had put up ERAs of 2.90 and 3.14 the two previous seasons, it was impossible to accept. He couldn’t have suddenly forgotten how to pitch. It had to be the park. The park or the altitude; either way, this $%&* place!

By his second year, Hampton was such a mess that his road ERA exceeded his Coors Field ERA, which is not the case for Guthrie. At sea level, Guthrie has been the guy the Rocks traded for — actually a little better than the guy they traded for — pitching to an ERA of 3.67. True, he’s only 2-4, but he’s used to pitching pretty well and losing; it happened all the time with the Orioles.

But in Colorado he’s now 1-5 with an ERA of 9.23. In body language and impassive post-game postmortems, he seems to be all but shouting, Get me outta here!

For Hampton, the splits didn’t matter as much as the general deterioration. The harder he gripped the ball, the more he tried to force it to do what he wanted, the less it did. Again, this was pre-humidor, when many pitchers attributed the absence of break in their pitches to the feel of the baseball, which they said was slick as a billiard ball.

Relatively successful hurlers at Coors — the few, the proud — adjust to the reduced movement of their pitches in the less-dense air at altitude, and then adjust back when they go to sea level. By the end of his second and final season with the Rockies — he went 7-15 with a 6.15 ERA — Hampton wanted nothing but to follow Bob Seger’s advice and get out of Denver. The Rocks obliged, but the financial burden of his fully guaranteed contract — and those they took on in exchange for it — haunted them for years.

The original Coors Field casualty was Greg Harris, a breaking ball specialist, and he didn’t even pitch at Coors Field. The Rocks were playing at Mile High Stadium during their inaugural season when they traded for two Padres starters — Harris and Bruce Hurst. Harris had burst on the scene as a reliever in his early years in San Diego, his out pitch a devastating 12-to-6 curve ball.

The Padres converted him into a starter in 1991. He was 10-9 with a 3.67 ERA when the Rocks traded for him on July 26, 1993. After his arrival, he went 1-8 with a 6.50 ERA. His curve no longer broke; it just spun up to the plate with a little sign on it that said, “Hit me!”

The following season, 1994, he went 3-12 with a 6.55 ERA. When the season was over, the Rocks released him. He was 30 and he was done. The Twins gave him a shot the following year. He went 0-5, 8.82 and called it a career.

Another Coors Field casualty was not a pitcher at all. Manager Jim Leyland quit on the Rocks in 1999, walking away from the final two years of his contract. The club lost 90 games that year and Leyland decided he couldn’t manage in a place where he didn’t recognize the game.

We now add Guthrie to the list. Jason Hammel, the starter for whom he was traded, is 8-6 for the Orioles with a 3.54 ERA. Indignant fans want general manager Dan O’Dowd fired for making such a terrible trade. Of course, Hammel was 7-13 with a 4.76 ERA last season for Colorado. If you don’t think altitude has a lot to do with both Hammel’s sudden improvement and Guthrie’s sudden deterioration, you haven’t been tracking this thing as long as the Rockies have.

For most of the past 20 years, Rocks management has declined to discuss the challenges of pitching at altitude in any detail. Acknowledge it, they figure, and you’ve given your pitchers a built-in excuse if they perform poorly. This year, they have acknowledged it in perhaps the most explicit way yet, switching to a four-man starting rotation with a limited pitch count.

O’Dowd admitted to season-ticket holders that the organization still hasn’t solved the riddle of pitching here. He also told them that starters who pitch a normal workload for three years at altitude tend to suffer debilitating injuries. The limited pitch count is an effort to prevent their pitchers from destroying themselves.

On the bright side, pitching successfully here is not impossible. In the next post on this blog, a conversation with someone who’s done it.

Roger Staubach: Great quarterbacks make their teammates believe

For a moment, Roger Staubach pretended not to remember. Ever the gentleman, the Hall of Fame quarterback and Naval Academy graduate was in Denver last month on business, but he was not looking to remind Broncos fans that he destroyed their dreams thirty-four years ago.

“I don’t even remember that game,” he said with a smile when I asked about Super Bowl XII. “That was a long time ago. In Denver, I don’t like to talk about it.”

The nostalgia that surrounds the Broncos’ first trip to the Super Bowl tends to skip quickly over the final game. Up until then, 1977 was a magical year. The Orange Crush defense gave up the third-fewest points in the 28-team NFL and led the Broncos to a 12-2 record.

Veteran Craig Morton, in his first season in Colorado after being acquired from the New York Giants, provided stability, if not brilliance, at quarterback. He was named the Associated Press comeback player of the year after starting all 14 games at age 34. He had gone 2-10 as a starter for the Giants the season before, prompting widespread speculation that he was finished.

In Denver, his offense was built on a four-headed running game consisting of Otis Armstrong, Lonnie Perrin, Rob Lytle and Jon Keyworth. But Morton also threw for 14 touchdowns and just eight interceptions, improving his passer rating from 55.6 the year before to 82.0.

When the Broncos reached their first Super Bowl in New Orleans on Jan. 15, 1978, they met Staubach’s Cowboys in a championship matchup of quarterbacks who had been rivals for the Dallas starting job several years before.

“Playing against Craig, I was really uncomfortable,” Staubach said. “We came out of college together. We actually played in the College All-Star Game. Four years later, I joined the Cowboys. Don Meredith retired and Craig took over. He was good to me. He had some injuries, we battled back and forth and I got a chance to start. He was a starting quarterback too, so it could have gone either way.

“I got the chance to stay in Dallas. He went to the Giants and then went to Denver and had an MVP(-type) season. They were a great team with the Orange Crush. We were in that crazy dome. It was the first indoor Super Bowl, in New Orleans, in that dome, and it was loud. In the first quarter, we fumbled a punt on the 1-yard line. If Denver recovers . . . .

“So we actually got some turnovers from Denver. Our turnovers, it seemed like, we recovered. So the first quarter, even I — I mean, coach (Tom) Landry said, ‘Get these guys under control,’ and I said, ‘Hey coach, I gotta get under control. I can’t hear anything.'”

The game was a mess. Unaccustomed to the noise level of the Superdome, both teams played as if the ball was dipped in butter. Cowboys receiver Butch Johnson fumbled on the game’s first play, a double reverse, but recovered his own miscue.

As Staubach mentioned, wide receiver Tony Hill fumbled a Broncos punt at his own 1-yard line later in the first quarter, but he, too, fell on it before the Broncos could recover. Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett fumbled on his own 19 a few plays later, but center John Fitzgerald recovered.

The Broncos were not so lucky. Morton threw two early interceptions that led to Dallas scores and an early 10-0 lead. It could have been worse. Two more Morton interceptions led to failed field goal attempts by Cowboys kicker Efren Herrera.

Morton threw half as many picks in the first half as he had all season. Add three fumbles and the Broncos, who had been plus 12 in turnovers during the regular season, had an incredible seven giveaways by halftime on their way to a 27-10 loss. After nearly throwing his fifth interception early in the second half, Morton was replaced by Norris Weese.

“It just was our day and our defense played great,” Staubach said. “People love Craig Morton in Dallas. He’s a really good guy and he was a great player. Obviously, they were pulling for me, too, but it was a weird time in my life because I’m playing against a guy that left Dallas, so if we would have lost, it would have been even a double whammy for me. But we won and it was a good win for us. I mean, the Orange Crush had a great year that year.

“It was our second Super Bowl win. I’ve learned to be humble. I won two and lost two. (Terry) Bradshaw and the Steelers are a bunch of Taliban, actually. You’ve got to stay humble. But we had a really good team in ’77.”

Now 70, Staubach sold his real estate firm, The Staubach Company, to Jones Lang LaSalle four years ago. But he remains active in the business. It was a JLL event that brought him to Denver, where he and Peyton Manning regaled some of the firm’s clients with football talk and one-liners.

A year after their victory over the Broncos, the Cowboys went back to the Super Bowl with arguably an even better team. But they met the Steelers in the first Super Bowl rematch and lost to them for the second time, 35-31.

“I think about that a lot,” Staubach said. “It kind of determined the team of the ’70s. We were in five Super Bowls in the ’70s. I quarterbacked four of them. Actually, Craig was hurt a lot in that (first) game (Super Bowl V) when we lost to Baltimore on that field goal, 16-13.

“Pittsburgh was really a good team, and so were we. We were the only NFC team in the ’70s to win a Super Bowl. We won two of ’em. The AFC dominated, and then in the ’80s it changed with New York and San Francisco.

“There were a lot of key plays in the game, things that happened. One of the tough calls was that Lynn Swann interference call.”

Early in the fourth quarter, Cowboys defensive back Bennie Barnes was called for pass interference after he and Swann collided. Replays showed Swann ran into him. The Cowboys thought it should have been ruled incidental contact. The penalty gave the Steelers a first down at the Cowboys’ 23-yard line. Pittsburgh converted the opportunity into a touchdown, stretching its lead to 28-17.

“You can’t blame anything on the referees, by the way,” Staubach said with a smile. “But at that time we were kind of in charge. We had the momentum in the third quarter. It was 21-17. I threw kind of a low pass to Jackie Smith that would have tied the game.”

That turned into one of the more famous plays in Super Bowl history. Smith was a veteran tight end who had been named to five Pro Bowls earlier in his career as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals. By Super Bowl XIII, he was a month from his 39th birthday. Wide open in the back of the end zone, his feet went out from under him as he dropped Staubach’s throw. A touchdown would have tied the game at 21. Instead, the Cowboys settled for a field goal and never got closer.

Staubach explained that when the play came in from the sideline he thought it was a mistake. The call was a goal-line play featuring three tight ends but the Cowboys had the ball at the 11-yard line. Staubach called timeout and walked to the sideline. Landry admitted the mistake, Staubach said. But, barred from changing personnel on the field without running a play, he decided to stick with the call.

From the goal line, the play called for Smith to run an 11-yard route to the back of the end zone. Had Smith run that route from the 11, he would have ended up right at the goal line and “the ball would have been right there,” Staubach said.

But with Steelers linebacker Jack Lambert blitzing, Staubach had to release the ball in anticipation of Smith’s move. Instead of turning at the goal line, Smith drifted toward the back of the end zone, closer to the position where he was supposed to end up when the play was run from the goal line. “He was all alone, nobody was anywhere near him,” Staubach recalled.

By the time Smith turned, the ball was on him, lower than he expected. His feet went out from under him and he dropped it. The play could have tied the game at 21. Instead, the Cowboys settled for a Rafael Septien field goal and never got closer.

“He just got killed for that,” Staubach said of Smith. “It was just a good game and it was a tough loss. The Steelers were a really good team. That was our best team. We had Dorsett. Besides Drew Pearson, we had Tony Hill and Butch Johnson, Billy Joe (DuPree). We had a great offense that year. We led the NFL in offense.

“So that really gave the Steelers the ’70s. Kind of put us into a ‘Really good team of the ’70s,’ but if you voted for the team of the ’70s, it was . . . what was the name of that team again? Oh, yeah, Pittsburgh.”

Staubach laughed. “No, they were really good. They beat us and it was a heck of a game.”

Long before head injuries became a serious legal liability for the NFL, Staubach’s career ended with his retirement after the 1979 season. He was still near the top of his game, having led the Cowboys to an 11-5 record with 27 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. But he had suffered multiple concussions and decided discretion was the better part of valor.

More than 30 years later, Staubach is mentally sharp with a dry sense of humor. I asked what he thought of all the lawsuits that have been filed against the league claiming inadequate treatment of and attention to head injuries.

“Well, I don’t think they did anything intentionally, to be honest with you,” he said. “I’m not involved in any of these lawsuits. There’s like 80 of them or something like that in the NFL. It’s a serious issue with the litigation right now.

“I really didn’t have a thorough CAT scan until my last year, and I had eight concussions. They would test you out. I never went back into a game when I was knocked out. I’m talking about concussions where I’m knocked out. But I played the next week.

“Fortunately, I didn’t have them real close (together). My last year I had two, but they were like four games apart. That’s where you really worry. Sometimes it’s not just getting knocked out, it’s just slapping your head and knocking things around.

“The helmet-to-helmet, some of the rule things, using your helmet as a weapon, at least two of my concussions, with Dave Robinson and L.C. Greenwood, were helmet-to-helmet. L.C.’s, I actually had a lump under my helmet when I woke up.

“So they’re doing some good things and they still maintain the integrity of the game. They definitely are protecting the quarterback more. I don’t even remember having a roughing-the-passer penalty. A lot of these guys average two a game. These quarterbacks are a little more wussy than we were.”

Just so there’s no misunderstanding, this last was a wisecrack, said with a smile.

“But they’re doing the right things and it’s going down to college and into the high schools and kids,” he said. “My first concussion — I had one in high school, one in college and with the Cowboys I had about eight of ’em. They’re studying if they lead into other problems and there probably are some things they’re doing that are showing that . . . .

“Concussions definitely aren’t good and they are trying to benchmark them and keep you out of the game and make sure you’re back. They’re doing the right things, I think, now, versus — and I don’t think it was intentional in the past, I just think it was, ‘Hey, it’s just a concussion, no big deal.'”

Before Staubach’s visit to KOA ended, Dave Logan asked about the quarterbacks he liked to watch most after he retired.

“I think watching the game you just have that feeling when a guy steps on the field that he’s going to make things happen,” Staubach said. “If they’re behind, that some way he’s going to win that game. That’s when I feel real strong about a quarterback.

“I saw that when Dallas got (Troy) Aikman back in the ’90s. I think he was fantastic. But now, you watch Peyton Manning get out there, or Tom Brady. John Elway. I mean, John’s going to figure out a way to win the game.

“There’s a lot of quarterbacks that have that confidence. You’ve got to have the physical talent. You’ve got to throw with a little velocity because there’s not a weak guy on defense. But the big thing is having your teammates believe in you because you can’t do it by yourself. If you can transfer your ability to your teammates, getting their confidence, that’s the differentiator in the Elways and the Peyton Mannings and the Bradys.

“I think I was able to transfer my confidence to my teammates. The quarterback is more than just the physical. It’s the confidence, it’s the leadership, it’s being able to get your teammates to believe, ‘Hey, we’re going to figure out how to win this game.'”

Roger the Dodger ought to know.