Monthly Archives: August 2012

Broncos’ first 2012 depth chart written in pencil

The Broncos released their first depth chart of the season this morning, but at some positions it doesn’t necessarily reflect the way they’ve been practicing.

A depth chart is required the week of the first preseason game and the Broncos play at Chicago on Thursday night.

With most of the starters set, the most interesting choices are on the second team. For example, Caleb Hanie is listed as Peyton Manning’s backup at quarterback, with rookie Brock Osweiler listed as third string and Adam Weber fourth. But during the first 10 days of training camp, Hanie and Osweiler have been splitting second-team reps, with Osweiler seeming to get the better of the comparison in the early going.

At Saturday’s summer scrimmage, Osweiler was the fourth quarterback in, but that may have been a nod to his rookie status. Asked about the order afterward, coach John Fox said they were 2a, 2b and 2c — in other words, he’s keeping an open mind until he gets to see them in preseason game action.

Similarly, rookie Ronnie Hillman is listed as third string at running back, behind Willis McGahee and Lance Ball. Hillman, a third-round draft pick out of San Diego State, is likely to be the No. 2 running back as soon as he gets healthy (hamstring).

More significant is Knowshon Moreno, a first-round pick (12th overall) in 2009 by former coach Josh McDaniels, being listed as fourth string. Moreno does not appear fully recovered from the torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered last November. He might be eligible for the injured list exemption approved as part of the new collective bargaining agreement — one player can return from the list during the season — but he would have to be on the 53-man roster in Week 1.

Other rookies who appear to be listed lower on the depth chart than they’ve been practicing include center Philip Blake, who has shared second-team snaps with C.J. Davis; defensive lineman Derek Wolfe, who has shared first-team snaps at left defensive end with Jason Hunter; and linebacker Jerry Franklin, who has shared second team snaps at strong-side linebacker with Nate Irving.

A year ago, in the first depth chart of 2011, Irving was listed at middle linebacker and fellow 2011 draft pick Mike Mohamed at strong-side linebacker. In the first depth chart of 2012, those positions are reversed. Mohamed is now listed as Joe Mays’ backup at middle backer.

The signing of veteran Keith Brooking on Monday may affect the chart here. A five-time Pro Bowl selection, Brooking is 36.

Robert Ayers, like Moreno a first-round pick in 2009, was demoted from starting left defensive end at the end of last season to second-team right defensive end, behind Elvis Dumervil.

The weak-side linebackers are also listed too low on the depth chart because D.J. Williams is listed as the starter, even though he’ll miss at least the first six games of the season for failing a league drug test. Wesley Woodyard, listed as second team, and sixth-round draft pick Danny Trevathan, listed third, have both gotten work with there with the first team in practice.

Veteran Mike Adams is listed as the second-string strong safety, although he was getting as many reps as nominal starter Quinton Carter before Carter injured his knee and has gotten nearly all of them since.

The top four cornerbacks are listed accurately — Champ Bailey and Tracy Porter with the first team; Drayton Florence and Chris Harris with the second. Rookie Omar Bolden and veteran Tony Carter are listed with the third team, which means returning 2010 draft pick Syd’Quan Thompson may have to win the punt returner competition to make the squad.

No electronics no problem for Manning

You don’t necessarily expect the electronic communication system between coaches and the quarterback to go down in the first scrimmage of the year, but when it happened Saturday during the Broncos’ summer scrimmage, it left Peyton Manning doing what he does so often anyway — calling his own play.

Not surprisingly, it turned into the only touchdown of the sun-splashed afternoon.

“I thought (Eric) Decker’s back-shoulder touchdown catch was awesome,” Manning said of the play.

“It was excellent coverage by (Drayton) Florence, but Decker did a good job kind of holding his eyes until the last minute. Back-shoulder fades are a hard route to cover. That was something he and I had been working on, so it was good to kind of put that in play today.”

I mentioned that Manning checked off on the third-down red-zone play and appeared to leave only one second on the play clock.

“The headphones went down, actually,” he said. “Sometimes those do, on occasion. So instead of burning the timeout, coach (offensive coordinator Mike) McCoy just told me, ‘Hey, if the phones go down, just call something that you like.’

“The defense was blitzing, kind of showing man-to-man. Obviously, one-on-one on the outside, Decker and (Demaryius) Thomas have to win. So that was a good play to see out of that guy today.”

When I asked head coach John Fox if he expects to get accustomed to seeing one second on the play clock when the ball is snapped, he laughed.

“I think 18 does a pretty good job of managing the game and the offense,” he said.

The day before, Manning stopped by the KOA tent at Dove Valley and talked about what he’s looking for out of his new receiving corps.

“I think what you want to see is a guy who’s got an excellent work ethic who really wants to get better, who truly wants to master his craft,” Manning said. “I’ve been fortunate to play with a lot of guys who just wanted to get better every day.

“I had a receiver in Marvin Harrison who never missed a practice (and) only would go against the starting corner. If he were here, he would not go unless Champ (Bailey) was going to cover him. He wanted to get better every day. Those are the kind of guys I like playing with and that’s the kind of work ethic I’m seeing so far in these guys.

“Eric and Demaryius, they’re young guys but boy, they really take care of their bodies, they work hard in the weight room, they’re into it in meetings and in practice. I just have a real appreciation for that, being a veteran player seeing a young player with that kind of work ethic, and both of them have a ton of ability.

“To me it is a process, though. You can’t say you’re on the exact same page with a guy after four months. You could argue it might take two seasons to master everything. But you try to get it as good as you can. We do spend a lot of time talking in these walk-throughs, talking on the sideline.

“To me, in practice there’s never a time that you can’t do something to get better. Talk to the guy after the route on the sideline. Whether it’s a completion or an incompletion: ‘Hey, that was exactly what we’re looking for there.’ Or, ‘Here, you might have to cut that route off at 10 yards instead of 12.’ Just the little things because you want to just try to get it right. Because the game’s happening so fast out there, the more you can be on the same page, the better chance you have.”

Being able to count on a receiver being exactly where he’s supposed to be is critical, Manning explained, because on many pass plays, he never sees his intended target.

“As a quarterback, you’ve got guys in front of you, you’ve got rush, you’ve got hands up,” he said. “Dropping back, very rarely do you actually see the receiver. You’re throwing to a spot. Maybe now and then in man-to-man you might lock in on a guy and see, but on these zone coverages, you’re throwing it 18 yards on the hash, on the fifth step of the drop, whatever it may be.

“He’s got to be there. If he’s at 16, it’s not going to be complete. You’re throwing to the spot. That’s where the reps in practice and routes versus air, they’re so important, because they’ve got to be in that spot and you’ve got to trust the guy that he’s going to be there.”

With fans screaming his name and offering jerseys, programs and hats, Manning spent 10 or 15 minutes signing autographs when the scrimmage was over. The Broncos reported 41,304 fans were in attendance at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, a record for the Broncos’ summer scrimmage. Most of the lower deck and club level were filled. A few fans even dotted the upper deck.

“It was a great crowd,” Manning said. “No question the fans were into it. A beautiful day here in Denver. The players were excited. It was a little change in the routine to get out here into the stadium and play in front of the crowd. It really felt like a game atmosphere with the crowd and our pre-game routine. So I knew it was good for me and for a lot of the players going into the game against Chicago on Thursday.”

Should the Broncos consider moving Champ Bailey to safety?

With each passing year, the question comes up more often: At what point do the Broncos consider moving Champ Bailey, their incomparable defensive back, from corner to safety?

Rod Woodson was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a defensive back in 2009. The 10th overall pick of the 1987 draft out of Purdue, Woodson played 15 seasons in the NFL, the first 10 as a cornerback. He was named to seven Pro Bowls in that role.

In 1999, the year he turned 34, Woodson transitioned to safety, extending his career another five years. He was named to four more Pro Bowls in that role. After intercepting 47 passes in 10 seasons at cornerback, Woodson picked off 24 more in five seasons at safety.

Charles Woodson (no relation) is another elite defensive back. He was the fourth overall selection of the 1998 draft out of Michigan. After 14 seasons at cornerback, including eight Pro Bowls, the Packers moved him to safety in training camp this summer. Woodson is 35.

“They said, ‘Hey, you’re playing safety. Get back there,'”Woodson told the Chicago Tribune. “That’s what I did.”

Part of the reason is that Woodson has lost a step, which is more evident when he’s matched up in man coverage on the outside with the game’s elite pass receivers, many of them much younger than he is.

But the Packers, who struggled on defense last season, also want to give one of their best defenders more freedom to roam. This is a player with 54 career interceptions, including seven last season at age 34.

“I think something that’s been very evident for Charles, number one throughout his career, he’s been a playmaker, whether he’s played the corner or the inside position,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy told the Tribune.

“In our particular defense, we feel that he is a lot more valuable to us the closer he is to the ball because of the different positions he can play, the number of different things that we’re able to do with him. So that’s really part of the thinking of trying to get him closer to the ball and more involved because of his instincts. He plays the game a lot like a quarterback does from the defensive side.”

At least in training camp’s early days, Woodson says he’s enjoying the switch.

“It’s different from corner, where you’re usually worried about a particular receiver and how he can threaten you as a corner,” Charles Woodson said. “As a safety, you get to move around a little bit more and show different looks and not have that responsibility of just having one guy. It will be fun to play more safety. I’m getting a lot more of the calls as a safety. I’m used to being out at corner and seeing plays from that angle. To be able to play at safety and really, really, really understand the play even more, I think will play to my advantage.”

Bailey entered the league one year after Charles Woodson and, coincidentally, the same year Rod Woodson moved from corner to safety. He was the seventh overall pick of the 1999 draft out of Georgia. He turned 34 in June.

Bailey has played 13 seasons at cornerback for the Redskins and Broncos and been named to a record 11 Pro Bowls. He is arguably as good a cover corner as the league has ever seen.

He is not only the best player on the Broncos defense, he is also the smartest. Unfortunately, that means he gets few opportunities to add to his career total of 50 interceptions. Opposing quarterbacks generally choose to throw to receivers not being covered by Champ Bailey.

That’s one argument for eventually moving him to safety: He might see more balls there. And, for the first time in his nine years in Denver, the Broncos might have enough cover guys to be able to spare him. With newly-acquired veterans Tracy Porter and Drayton Florence to go with youngsters Chris Harris, Omar Bolden and Syd’Quan Thompson, they have reasonable depth at cornerback.

Of course, with veteran Mike Adams joining Rahim Moore, Quinton Carter and David Bruton, they are reasonably deep at safety, too, at least before the games — and injuries — begin.

So I mentioned to Bailey that we get the corner/safety question quite a bit on the radio show and asked if he’s thought much about it.

“This is my take on it,” he said. “Don’t move me until I can’t do it anymore, or it makes sense for our defense.

“There’s no reason for me to move if I’m still locking up on the No. 1 guy every week or I’m still making sure nobody’s making big plays on me. I don’t see any sense in me moving. It doesn’t make sense to me. So I’m going to keep playing corner until I can’t anymore.”

Bailey may have lost a step over the years, but he’s made up for it with knowledge and experience, reading receivers and anticipating where they’re going. One day it might be time for him to make the switch the two Woodsons made before him. But watching him take on young receiver Demaryius Thomas in training camp with the enthusiasm of a kid, it looks as though that time has not yet arrived.

Dick Monfort rejected Dan O’Dowd’s proposal to fire Dan O’Dowd

In the midst of the most disappointing season in Rockies history, general manager Dan O’Dowd offered owner Dick Monfort the solution many fans desire: Fire the GM.

“I sat with Dick and said, ‘Hey, listen, it would make it easier on you, just throw me under the bus here. In some ways, I’ll be better off for it, too,'” O’Dowd told me after the club announced its latest organizational shakeup this week.

“But he won’t do that and I can’t leave him because no one knows more about this place than I do. You bring another GM here and it will take him years just to get up to speed on the issues we have here, how different it is. I don’t have all the answers, but the only way you find answers is you’ve got to try different things. You can’t think traditionally.”

This is the crux of the difference in perception inside and outside the organization. Many fans believe playing at altitude is a minor or negligible issue, just another variable like the short porch at Yankee Stadium or the wind at Wrigley Field. Even mentioning it is just an excuse for poor performance, they believe.

Within the organization, it is considered the central challenge of operating the ball club. O’Dowd calls it the Rockies’ “Goliath.” The reason they don’t talk about it more publicly is it’s already next to impossible to get free agent pitchers to come to Colorado. Emphasizing the difficulty of succeeding here as a pitcher will only make that situation worse.

But the challenge of pitching at altitude has never been clearer than this year, when O’Dowd acquired four starters from other teams — Jeremy Guthrie, Guillermo Moscoso, Josh Outman and Tyler Chatwood — and not one of them proved able to survive at Coors Field.

We have nearly 20 years worth of major league data now, and the numbers are revealing.

Try this exercise: Imagine an average major league ballclub. Over a 20-year span, how many starting pitchers on this team would put up at least three seasons of 100 or more innings pitched with an earned-run average below 4.75? Pretty low bar, right? There should be plenty.

Over the past 20 years, the average National League club has had eight such pitchers. The average club in the NL West, the Rockies’ division, has had 10.

In their entire history, the Rocks have had two: Aaron Cook and Ubaldo Jimenez.

“We worked as hard as anybody trying to find pitchers,” said Bob Gebhard, the Rocks’ general manager from 1993-99. “Our first pick in the expansion draft was David Nied, who did a nice job for us but unfortunately he got hurt. So you do the best you can in trying to add pitchers but it was extremely difficult to convince free agent pitchers to come to Denver and pitch.”

“I’ll put it this way,” said Clint Hurdle, the Rockies’ longest-serving manager, from 2002 to 2009. “This is the most challenging venue to coach, manage, perform at in major league baseball. 5280 (feet above sea level) 81 times a year, there’s nothing like it anywhere else. There are dramatic changes you’ve got to make to things.”

Hence the latest attempt to think outside the box in seeking a solution to the high-altitude riddle. Six weeks ago, O’Dowd implemented a four-man starting rotation with pitch limits on those starters, an attempt to address the Rockies’ 20-year history of injury and/or rapid deterioration among their pitchers. This week it was installing a front office executive — Bill Geivett, O’Dowd’s right-hand man — in the clubhouse, in part because the first experiment got such a lukewarm response there.

“I understand how some people are going to look at this,” O’Dowd said. “But you tell me how you look at anything traditionally in this place. What may work anywhere else is just not going to work here. If anybody knows that, I do. So I’ve got two choices. Hell, I could resign and move on. I’ll get another job. But I’ve got an owner that embraces change. He loves to look and try to do things differently. He’s not a traditional thinker.”

Many fans point to anecdotal evidence that altitude really isn’t such a big deal. C.J. Wilson comes in and throws eight innings of five-hit ball for the Angels. Cole Hamels throws eight innings of six-hit ball for the Phillies. Everybody’s pitching in the same conditions, right? Why can’t Rockies starters do that?

Of course, some of them have. That’s the problem relying on anecdotal evidence. You notice what you want to notice and ignore what you want to ignore.

Few remember that Mike Hampton was terrific in his first half-season in Colorado, going 9-2 with a 2.98 ERA through his first 13 starts in 2001. He was never the same pitcher after that. Ubaldo Jimenez was 15-1 with a 2.20 ERA through 18 starts in 2010. He’s not been the same since.

“It’s a lot different coming here and starting one time per season or two times per season or even three times per season, which is the max someone will have, than starting 16, 17, or 18 times per season,” O’Dowd said.

Fans don’t tend to notice when opposing pitchers blow up. In fact, hard as it may be to believe given the current staff’s woes, the Rocks have a better ERA at Coors Field than visiting teams since 2006.

The Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, has a career ERA of 2.89. His ERA at Coors Field is 5.91. Greg Maddux had a Coors Field ERA of 5.19. Curt Schilling’s was 5.51.

The Rocks have had one year in which they were able to deploy a consistent, traditional five-man rotation all season: 2009, the last time they went to the playoffs. Jimenez and Jason Marquis each started 33 times; Jorge De La Rosa, 32; Jason Hammel, 30; Cook, 27. With the exception of Hammel, each has suffered a major injury or a massive deterioration in performance since then.

“The purpose of limiting the pitch counts is that through the studies I’ve done with our trainers, Steadman-Hawkins and all of our medical people, we believe that injuries happen with load,” O’Dowd said. “When you pile on load and you are throwing pitches at the point of fatigue, that’s when the muscle tears and the tendons begin to get stretched, and that’s what causes injuries.

“This was a lost year. I wasn’t trying to develop a model to save this season. I’m trying to develop a model that has a chance to work here long after I’m gone. Because the environmental parts of this aren’t going to change.”

But experimenting with baseball orthodoxy requires an experimental mindset that baseball players, coaches and managers don’t often have. Playing every day for six months, baseball is a game of routine, of doing the same thing over and over and over again.

“My conclusion is we have to do it differently,” O’Dowd said. “We can’t do it traditionally the same way. That doesn’t mean we don’t get back to that at some point in time, but right now where we’re at, with the inexperience we have,  we are going to have to pitch differently. We are going to have to have a different concept and it’s going to have to be an ever-changing one.

“This is a ballpark about adaptability. I did not anticipate the ballpark was going to play the way it did this year because it hadn’t for the last four years. Why it is? Hell, I don’t know. There are other things that come up in this ballpark that I’ll never be able to truly understand but we’re going to have to be able to adapt to it a hell of a lot quicker than we did this year without fighting so many battles to be able to try something different and unique.

“We have to have a thought process of adaptability. We cannot think traditionally if we’re ever going to have any kind of sustained success here. If we do nothing, every ten years we’ll win twice, guarantee you. Every ten years, everything will fall into place and we’ll win twice. I’d like to have something that stands for a little more than that.”

They call the NFL a copycat league but no sport worships conformity more than baseball. In the early 1970s, most teams used four-man starting rotations. When the conversion to five-man rotations began, every single team fell rapidly in line. So when O’Dowd began tinkering with accepted norms, beginning with the four-man rotation and pitch limits, he found resistance not only among the chattering class, but also in his own clubhouse. That’s why Geivett is now taking up residence there — to help sell the experimental approaches the Rocks expect to try.

O’Dowd recognized that he needed a diplomat in this role. He also recognized that diplomacy is not his forte.

“The bottom line is we have to come up with a different model,” he said. “The altitude’s not going to change. Do you realize that even if we dome this place, we could not create enough barometric pressure to come close to normalizing the environment indoors? You couldn’t pump enough air in here to make that happen. You could bring it down some, but we’re at 5,183 feet above sea level. The next closest club is the Diamondbacks at 1,040 feet. Do you see how well we play every spring (in Arizona)?”

Strange but true: The elevations of other NL stadiums are minuscule compared to Coors Field, but the Rocks persistently play better at the stadiums that are relatively higher and worse at those comparatively lower. While most of the focus is on their pitching, their hitters consistently struggle with the transition from altitude to sea level at the end of each home stand, adjusting each time to the greater break of the pitches they face.

“We were certainly aware of the splits in the averages,” Gebhard said of the Rockies’ early days. “The great hitters, the Larry Walkers and the Andres Galarragas, at times would have as much as a 100-point spread between home and away.

“Dante Bichette, way back when, had his own little pitching machine. It was a curve ball machine that he would take with him on the road trip and get into a batting tunnel at the stadium and have it throw nothing but curve balls.

“That was a very true issue because playing at Coors Field, you’d see a curve ball and it would be a spinner and it might be good one time and not so good the next time. And all of a sudden the next day you’re playing in Chicago or you’re playing in Atlanta and that same curve ball is a quality pitch. We struggled with that. I can’t say that we came up with a sound solution but we were well aware of that and hitters were frustrated because they would go on the road and the first couple days we didn’t hit very good.”

Many outsiders, clearly, don’t buy any of it. In some cases, this is because they haven’t studied it. Nobody in the game thinks it is an insignificant factor. They just don’t have any idea what to do about it. Most of them are glad to play here only occasionally.

“We’ve only got to be here three days and we’re getting out of town,” Hurdle said with a laugh when he visited Coors last month with his current team, the Pirates. “We don’t have to worry about it.”

If he can find the right candidate, O’Dowd plans to create another new position in the organization when the season is over: director of pitching operations. He wants someone to supervise the way the Rocks develop pitchers throughout their system rather than having a different pitching coach doing his own thing at every level.

He knows that all of this will be seen as an excuse or worse by many who don’t walk in his shoes.

“Hey, listen: At 52, turning 53, I realize I’m on the back end of my career. I’m just at a point in time where I want to do what I think is right and I’m not all that concerned what people say about me.

“I know I’m throwing myself under the bus from a perception standpoint. I know what I’m doing. But I also think it’s the right thing to do. So what do you do? You talk the talk or you walk the walk. Whatever everybody’s going to say, they’re going to say. The only thing that matters is if we find something here that works better than what’s working right now, and has ever worked.

“A market our size, and our payroll, you win more than you lose every 2.7 years. The goal of this thing for me is not winning defined that way. The goal for me is to find something that has a chance to have sustainable success so the peaks aren’t so high and the valleys aren’t so low. That has nothing to do with our personnel model. That has everything to do with the Goliath we face every single day.”