Monthly Archives: October 2012

Throw in a little defense and the Broncos look scary good

Sitting in the shadow of the media scrum around Wesley Woodyard, the linebacker who gave the Broncos’ resurgent defense a face Sunday night, veteran Keith Brooking considered the question briefly, then bent over deliberately to tie his street shoes.

The question, of course, was how a defense that had looked so ordinary through the first six games — tied for 17th in points allowed, 24th in red zone touchdown percentage, 29th in third-down percentage — could suddenly dominate one of the NFL’s best offenses, as it did Sunday night against the Saints, powering a surprisingly easy 34-14 victory that left the Broncos alone in first place in the AFC West.

“It’s a new system,” Brooking explained. “We knew it was going to be a progression to get acclimated to Jack’s system and what he wants. We were going to get better week in and week out if we just believed in the system and what the coaches were telling us to do.”

The Broncos are familiar with this process of acclimation. Jack Del Rio is their seventh defensive coordinator in seven years.

“We obviously have the talent and the ability to play dominating defense,” Brooking said. “When you’re shown the film, you see the way we play. We play with great intensity, with great energy, with great effort. When you add that to talent and a great scheme and really good coaches that put you in position to make plays, I feel really good about where we’re at and, most importantly, where we’re going.”

Talk to enough veterans who have played this game at the highest level and you finally accept that the difference between good and bad is an episode or two of brain lock in a three-hour contest, the sort of thing that happens to many of us routinely in considerably less stressful circumstances. The newer and more complicated the scheme, the more of those there are likely to be.

“It does take a while,” said veteran cornerback Champ Bailey, finally part of a Denver defense that doesn’t require him to be the only playmaker. “It’s really getting a feel for everybody around you — the people you’re playing with, the coaches. It’s a big team thing. Once you get comfortable with your team and your teammates, I mean, the sky’s the limit.

“I’ve said for a long time how important practice is, but it’s getting the younger guys to understand the importance of it. And they bought in and they continue to buy in and everybody’s getting better, which makes our team better.”

In particular, young cornerbacks Chris Harris and Tony Carter have made an impression of late with starter Tracy Porter on the shelf, which should make for an interesting coaching decision when Porter is fully recovered from seizure-related symptoms.

Before you start checking into Super Bowl reservations, keep in mind that despite their gaudy offensive statistics, the Saints are a battered football team. Two of their players — defensive end Will Smith and linebacker Jonathan Vilma — remain tied up in a contentious dispute with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell over suspensions arising out of the team’s so-called bounty scandal. More important, the scandal cost the team its head coach, Sean Payton, for the entire season.

Sunday was the first game back for his replacement, interim coach Joe Vitt, who was suspended over the same scandal for the first six games. It’s all added up to a 2-5 start for a team that went 13-3 last season.

“I just met with our football team and I certainly share in their disappointment,” Vitt said afterward. “I told them quite frankly there was probably too much hype and not enough substance about me coming back last week. I’ve got to do a better job . . . .”

Vitt admitted a more sure-footed head coach might not have had to call timeout before going for it on fourth-and-two at the Broncos’ 47-yard line with the game tied at 7 midway through the second quarter. Woodyard, the defensive star of the game, leaped and intercepted a Drew Brees pass intended for tight end Jimmy Graham. Woodyard became the first Broncos linebacker with more than one interception in a season since Al Wilson in 2004.

“They ran that play earlier in that drive and I wasn’t there to make that play, so I knew I had to come back and make something happen,” the fifth-year linebacker from the University of Kentucky explained. Woodyard, who went undrafted in 2008, also had the Broncos’ only quarterback sack of the game.

But that wasn’t the last of the Saints’ coaching issues. Vitt also acknowledged he should have gone for it on fourth-and-six at midfield in the third quarter trailing 24-7, while his team still had a chance to climb back into the game. It’s rare that an NFL team is breaking in a new head coach at this stage of the season, but that’s part of the bounty scandal’s legacy for the Saints.

The Broncos, on the other hand, are coming together just as their schedule softens up a bit. They didn’t believe they were as bad defensively as they had looked, particularly against the Falcons, Texans and Patriots, but their inability to get off the field on third down overshadowed anything good they did on earlier downs.

Coming back from their bye week fresh and rejuvenated, their mission was to shut down New Orleans on third down. Mission accomplished. The Saints converted one of 12, or eight percent, a far cry from the 46 percent conversion rate the Broncos gave up through their first six games.

“I felt like you have to give their defense credit — they played well and made some plays — but overall I believe there were things that we did to ourselves in a lot of cases that prevented us from converting those,” Brees said.

“We’ve been preparing for third downs,” said Broncos linebacker Von Miller, who chased down Darren Sproles from behind for his 14th tackle of the season behind the line of scrimmage, putting him just one back of Houston’s J.J. Watt for the league lead.

“We were ranked 29th in the league on third downs and there’s no way we should have been ranked there,” Miller said. “We’ve got all the personnel on this team. We’ve got Champ and Elvis (Dumervil) and all these guys. We just haven’t had too much success on third downs. That was our mindset coming in this week, was to get off the field on third downs, and I think that was the key to the game today.”

If you expected a shootout between two of the best quarterbacks in the game, you weren’t alone. I spent much of last week telling anyone who would listen to bet the over on an over/under of 55 1/2 total points in the game. After all, these were two of the NFL’s most prolific offenses, and two of its more pedestrian defenses.

So the performance of the Broncos’ defense — or, conversely, of the Saints’ offense — was the surprise. Averaging 29 points a game coming in, New Orleans managed only seven while the outcome was in doubt.

Denver’s offense, averaging 28, scored six more, perhaps predictably given that the Saints ranked last in defense by a number of metrics. In fact, they became the first team in NFL history to give up 400 yards or more to each of their first seven opponents. The Broncos piled up 530.

Slightly more than half of them came from the arm of Peyton Manning, who had another nearly flawless outing, completing 22 of 30 passes for 305 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 138.9. In the process, he passed Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers to become the top-rated passer in the league at 109.0 for the season.

“I’m a different player coming off the injury, I’m on a different team, and so I’m just working on kind of finding my way, and our team is finding our way,” Manning said modestly, referring to the four neck surgeries that forced him to miss all of last season.

“I keep mentioning finding our identity, and we’re starting to form it,” he said. “I still think there are some things we need to improve on, and we’re going to build off this win — build some consistency as an offense and hopefully I can just continue to make strides and be on the same page as the receivers.”

“You could just see his comfort level rising,” Bailey said of Manning. “I don’t know if he could be any better than he was, but after you see how he’s progressing and getting more comfortable with the guys around him, I don’t know how far he could go.”

Although his fondness for old friends and teammates Brandon Stokley and Jacob Tamme is undiminished, Manning’s top targets are emerging as the Broncos’ talented young duo of Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker.

Decker had two touchdowns Sunday. Thomas had seven catches for 137 yards and a touchdown, including a 41-yard catch in the first quarter that served as the centerpiece of a 98-yard touchdown drive after a New Orleans punt had backed the Broncos up on their own 2-yard line.

“I feel like stuff can always get better, but I feel like I know what he wants and he feels like he knows what I can do and knows where I’m going to be, that I’m going to be in the right spot,” Thomas said. “So I think it’s good and can only get better.”

For the rest of the NFL, that now qualifies as a scary thought. The Broncos moved up to fourth in the league in scoring at 29.1 points per game. Manning now has 17 touchdowns and four interceptions on the season. People who doubted his arm strength are stubbornly sticking to their story, but he is making all the throws and, as usual, all the right reads. He bloodied his thumb on a defensive lineman’s helmet Sunday and played through it. After missing an entire season, toughness may be Manning’s most underrated quality.

Granted, the Saints are lousy defensively and the Broncos were coming off their bye week, fresher and friskier than usual. Nevertheless, seven games into the Manning era, they look like a team with a relentless offense and an improving defense.

The version in which they play five defensive backs, a previous weakness, became a strength Sunday by doubling down on speed. Woodyard and rookie Danny Trevathan, another University of Kentucky product, manned the linebacker spots while Miller put his hand on the ground and became a defensive end. Teams usually run against the Broncos’ nickel, but that didn’t work Sunday. New Orleans gained only 51 yards rushing compared to the Broncos’ 225.

“I tell my DBs all the time, ‘If you want to play, we’ve got to stop the run in nickel. We’ve got to make sure we don’t give up big plays,'” Bailey said. “It’s those little things that cause coaches to want to put the big guys out there. We (defensive backs) feel like we’ve got the best room on the team, so we’ve got to keep proving it every week.”

The biggest threat to the Broncos now might be feeling too good about their situation. Although they are on the road the next two weeks, their opponents get markedly less challenging than the first six weeks. The Ravens are the only team remaining on the schedule with a winning record.

Not only that, but San Diego’s unsightly 7-6 loss to Cleveland on Sunday left every team in the AFC West other than the Broncos below .500. At this rate, they might be able to sleepwalk to the division crown, but if they hope to be a threat in the postseason, that’s not how they want to do it.

“That’s about as complete as we’ve looked all year,” Bailey said. “One thing we can’t do is become complacent. That can happen after big wins. We’ve had two in a row and we just got to keep it rolling.”


Bad to the ‘bone: Should Colorado pull a 1985?

Colorado suffered its fourth consecutive blowout loss to a Pac-12 opponent today in Eugene, falling to 1-7 on the season.

Three days ago, Chaparral High School tight end Mitch Parsons, one of the state’s top recruits, withdrew his verbal commitment to CU.

Parsons posted his announcement (sans punctuation) on Twitter: “Well Im no longer committed to Colorado still going to stay in contact with the coaches but I need to figure some things out #SoMuchOnMyMind”

Parsons was one of three in-state commitments for the recruiting class of 2013, along with running back Phillip Lindsay of Denver South and offensive lineman John Lisella of Columbine.

Two days before Saturday’s loss in Eugene, I asked second-year CU coach Jon Embree if he would consider a radical change in philosophy similar to the one Bill McCartney adopted in 1985 after the Buffs went 1-10 in 1984 with a conventional offense.

McCartney moved his freshman tailback, Mark Hatcher, to quarterback and installed the wishbone. In McCartney’s fourth season, the Buffs improved immediately, and dramatically, finishing 7-4 and earning an invitation to a bowl game, the Freedom Bowl, for the first time in eight years. McCartney never presided over a losing season again.

“We were 1-10,” McCartney¬†explained at the time.¬†“At that point, we were ready to sink our teeth into something new.”

As his talent improved, McCartney’s offense morphed into a variation of the wishbone he called the I-bone in 1988 and finally back to a pro set for the 1991 Blockbuster Bowl as he looked ahead to the 1992 season.

Embree, who is now 4-17 in a season and a half as CU’s coach, remembers the feeling. He was midway through his Buffs playing career at the time.

“Coach Mac went to the wishbone the spring going into my junior year,” he recalled. “When you run option-type football, whether it’s the spread (or another kind), it does help you because you don’t have to block people. You read people. It gets you in space and allows you, if they make a mistake, a chance to make a good play.

“Last week against USC I put in some spread principles and we were able to move the ball. We moved it better. And we’ll do some of that this week also.”

The Buffs managed 150 yards rushing against Oregon, small consolation next to the Ducks’ 439 yards on the ground and 618 overall.

For years, the Air Force Academy has used a run-heavy attack based on some form of option football to compensate for generally smaller linemen and a smaller pool of potential recruits given the service commitment required of Air Force cadets. Not only does it force opponents to prepare for a style of play they are likely to see only once all season, it also eats clock and deprives opponents of possessions.

The Falcons rushed for 461 yards Saturday in a win over Nevada that improved their record on the season to 5-3. They came into the weekend ranked second in the country in rushing.

In another case, Bill Snyder has Kansas State ranked among the top five teams in the country just four years after his return to the Wildcats. He’s done it behind a read-option attack built around quarterback Collin Klein of Loveland, Colorado, who is suddenly a serious candidate for the Heisman Trophy.

Without any star performers and a stable of uninspiring drop-back passers, the Buffaloes’ pro-style offense has floundered against faster, more talented Pac-12 opponents. In their last three conference games, the Buffs have given up 51 points to Arizona State, 50 to Southern Cal and 70 to Oregon, not to mention the 69 Fresno State piled up back in September.

Given these dispiriting results and their likely effect on recruiting, I asked Embree if he would consider going back to the future, as McCartney did nearly 30 years ago, and adopting some form of option offense for next year in an effort to restore the Buffs’ competitiveness. He didn’t rule it out.

“At the end of the season, we’ll sit there and evaluate everything that we’re doing on offense, defense and special teams and see what it is that we can do with the people we have and get an idea of really where we are and whether it’s wholesale changes or just implementing a little more or less, whatever it is, get those issues addressed,” Embree said.

Inevitably, seasons like this one sap strength from a program and support from a coaching staff. After going 7-25-1 in his first three seasons in Boulder, McCartney was ready to sink his teeth into something new. When this season is finally over, will Embree feel the same?


The turning point of a game, and maybe a season

If the Broncos make the playoffs this year — and given the competition in their division, that’s probably the way to bet — they may well look back at halftime in San Diego as the turning point of their season.

Trailing 24-0, they were looking at a record of 2-4 and a two-game deficit to the Chargers. More important, they were looking thoroughly unable to get out of their own way. They couldn’t field a punt or a kickoff. They couldn’t get their passer and pass receivers on the same page. They couldn’t even run unmolested to the end zone without falling to the ground for no apparent reason.

“We had the big play to (Eric) Decker and that guy made a great tackle,” Peyton Manning deadpanned afterward. “I mean, the piece of grass made the tackle, excuse me. So when those things happen, you kind of wonder, hey, golly, is it meant to be? That’s the play we have to have in order to help this comeback.

“We put that play in and thought we could get that exact result, thinking more the touchdown though, not the 50-yard completion and fall down. That was frustrating, obviously, a potential 14-point swing. We’ve got a chance to get a touchdown and then (Quentin) Jammer makes a play and they go up 17. ”

This is what makes sports more intriguing than scripted entertainment, because it is so often utterly inexplicable. The Broncos were as bad as they could be in the first half, then about as good as they could be in the second. The Chargers were the opposite. By the end, it was the biggest comeback in the history of Monday Night Football.

So, naturally, everybody wanted to know what was said in the locker room at intermission. Some sort of Knute Rockne thing?

“There’s no magical words of wisdom, that’s for sure,” coach John Fox told KOA afterward. “I think as I looked in their eyes, and I told them this, I could see they thought they could come back and win the game. The whole thing is believing. They did, and we were fortunate after digging ourselves such a big hole to be able to come back.”

They did have one thing going for them — plenty of experience fighting back from large deficits.

“There’s no speech that causes that turnaround,” Manning said. “It’s simply a matter of will. I do think offensively the fact that we had been there before, we have shown the ability to score quickly. It was nice to finally get a lead there in the fourth quarter and give our defense a chance to play with the lead and they could really peel their ears back and rush the passer.”

The litany of mistakes in the first half made the Broncos look as incompetent as they had looked since Manning’s arrival:

— In his first attempt to field a punt for the Broncos — a fair catch, no less — Trindon Holliday, signed just last week after being released by Houston, dropped the ball. The Chargers recovered and kicked a field goal three plays later.

— Rookie Omar Bolden fumbled the ensuing kickoff. The Chargers kept trying to give the Broncos the ball and the Broncos kept giving it back. The Chargers required only two plays to score a touchdown, making it 10-0.

— Following a Jim Leonhard interception, the Broncos were driving when Manning and Matt Willis miscommunicated on a sight adjustment. Instead of completing a long drive with a score and pulling themselves back into the game, the Broncos watched Jammer, the Chargers cornerback, pick off Manning’s pass and run it 80 yards the other way for a 17-0 lead.

— As if to rub it in, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers drove the ball down the Broncos’ throats in the final four minutes of the half, capping the drive with a touchdown pass to tight end Antonio Gates.

“We were really down,” said veteran receiver Brandon Stokley. “Anytime you’re down 24-0 in the first half and played like we played, we were disappointed. But we’ve got a lot of professionals in this room, a lot of guys with heart and character, and I knew we were going to come out in the second half and give everything we had, and that’s what we did.”

The Broncos emerged from the visitors’ locker room and drove the length of the field to their first touchdown, a 29-yard strike from Manning to Demaryius Thomas.

Just like that, everything changed. Now it was the Chargers making critical mistakes. When Broncos defensive end Elvis Dumervil got the first of his two quarterback sacks on San Diego’s first possession of the third quarter, Rivers fumbled the ball. Cornerback Tony Carter picked it up on the run and raced 65 yards for a touchdown. With 4:41 still to play in the third, the Broncos had pulled to within 24-14 and made it into a game again.

“DBs are taught to scoop all balls, whether it’s a fumble or not, so we were just doing something carrying from the practice field to the game field,” Carter said.

“We’ve been working on that since OTAs,” Dumervil said. “It was like a domino effect. We finally got one and they just started coming in bunches. That’s just the way it works with turnovers, man, and sacks and interceptions. They come in bunches and at this point now we’ve got to stay consistent with it.”

“We kind of unraveled after that,” Rivers said. “They scored and made it 24-7 and we were driving, just kind of moving right along down the field and they got us in a third down and they brought an all-out blitz. I was trying to just lose a little ground and lay it to Malcolm (Floyd). I was throwing it really to be incomplete or maybe get interference or anything. Malcolm’s one-on-one. We either punt or try a long field goal there. And then obviously that play happens and then we go three and out and then they score again and then we throw an interception and they score again. It kind of unraveled after that play.”

Decker, who had fallen down with nothing but green grass between him and the end zone in the first half, carried three San Diego defenders with him across the goal line early in the fourth quarter to cut the deficit to three.

On the Chargers’ next possession, the Broncos produced yet another turnover, this one an interception by Carter. Four plays later, Manning approached the line of scrimmage and spied single coverage on Stokley, his old friend, and checked off at the line of scrimmage.

Manning was so busy changing the call he almost ran out of time. Center Dan Koppen had to motion to him to get back into the shotgun to take the snap before the play clock ran out. Manning turned to his right and launched a perfect fade into the end zone. The 36-year-old Stokley went up and took the ball from cornerback Marcus Gilchrist to give the Broncos their first lead at 28-24.

“I’ve thrown that route to Stokley quite a few times,” said Manning, who played four seasons with Stokley in Indianapolis. “That’s one of those that all the years and all the practice repetitions, it sure does pay off.

“We got man-to-man coverage, got him in press coverage, and I’ll take Stokley in the slot over anybody. I love Wes Welker and some of the all-time slot greats, but he’s my favorite, he’s the best in my opinion, and he’s really hard to cover there.

“I just gave him a little fade route and the guy really had pretty good coverage. It was kind of an in-between decision whether to throw the fade or to throw that back shoulder, and I decided to give him a chance to make a play on the ball. The fact that he caught it and got the feet in bounds, it sure was an awesome play and the team sure needed it at that point in time.”

“Peyton made an audible at the last second and actually made a great throw. I guess the catch was all right,” Stokley said.

“We’ve been talking about starting fast and starting fast and starting fast and we just didn’t start fast. So that was disappointing to come out the gates like we did. But we’ve shown all year we’ve got a lot of heart. That first half was embarrassing, but we fought back.”

Cornerback Chris Harris, elevated to the No. 2 cover position with Tracy Porter home in Denver nursing an illness, ended each of the next two Chargers possessions with interceptions. He returned the second 46 yards for the clinching touchdown.

Rivers finished with a remarkable five second-half turnovers — three interceptions and two fumbles.

“Mostly just poor throws,” Rivers said. “I wasn’t fooled out there once today. The first interception, I didn’t see exactly how it ended, but I know I gave (tight end Antonio) Gates a chance down there and they ended up with it. The other ones were bad throws. There’s really no other reason for them.”

Even after adding three turnovers to their own mounting season total in the first half, the Broncos ended up winning the turnover battle.

“You get what you emphasize,” Fox said. “After that first half, I was like, I’m not sure that really worked. But it’s kind of how you finish and I was proud of the way our guys pulled together as a football team. That’s as good a second half as I’ve ever seen.”

“I think the identity is slowly starting to come,” Decker said. “I think we understand who we are and what our strengths are and what our weaknesses are. I would say offensively, if we don’t hurt ourselves, we’re an explosive team. Defensively, if we can make plays on third downs, we can stop anybody. That’s our mindset. That’s the attitude we have.”

The Broncos still aspire to play well enough early in games not to require all these big comebacks. But as a gut check and a turning point, Monday night in San Diego will do nicely. Maybe it was a halftime speech after all.

“Coach Fox just told us we’d better pick it up,” Decker said. “Otherwise it’s going to be a sad, sad bye week.”

Instead, the Broncos head into the bye week with reason to believe.


Archie Manning: ‘It’s been a big transition for Peyton’

In sports these days, as in pretty much everything else, we are all about immediate gratification, and Archie Manning knows it. He also knows a Broncos record of 2-3 going into tonight’s game at San Diego opens the door for skeptics to suggest his middle son, Peyton, is over the hill at 36.

A former NFL quarterback himself, Archie’s prescription for Broncos followers calls for a quality in short supply among sports fans these days: patience.

“I know it’s been a big transition for Peyton,” the elder Manning said on the Dave Logan Show. (You can listen to the full interview¬†here.)

“And I’m not sure what’s the bigger transition — coming back from four neck surgeries or changing to a new team, new city, new system, new players, that type of thing. You know, (after) 14 years in one place.

“I know a lot of people are disappointed at a 2-3 record, but I’ve said from the get-go when people asked me, I said I think if this group of people can stay healthy, it’ll definitely be a better team in the second half of the season than the first half of the season.

“A lot of times, you say that about a new team or a new coaching staff. And I know the coaching staff was there last year, or some of them were, but I did look at this as kind of a start-over situation. I know the system changed from last year and a lot of the players.

“Somebody asked me (two weeks ago), ‘Is Peyton excited about going to New England and playing the Patriots?’ I said, ‘I think he could think of four or five other teams he’d rather be playing.’ The schedule is brutal, guys. I mean, it’s really tough. But it’s the NFL and I think it’s a matter right now of kind of hanging in, getting better, keep coming together as a team, offense and defense.

“But back to Peyton, I think Peyton’s happy. He’s not happy with losing three games, but I think he’s happy with the guys he’s playing with and everybody working to try to make progress.”

Archie Manning is one of the few people who can relate directly to what Peyton Manning is going through. Like his son, the elder Manning missed an entire season in the midst of his NFL career, sitting out the 1976 campaign with a shoulder injury. I asked him what he found to be the biggest challenge coming back after a year off.

“I think just kind of getting the rust off,” he said. “Probably somewhat similar to Peyton in that mine was, I had biceps tendinitis and had two operations on my throwing arm. His surgery wasn’t on his throwing arm, but still the neck surgeries did affect his throwing to the point where he basically just started all over again with his rehab. He went to Duke and teamed up with his old college coach and just started from scratch.”

Duke coach David Cutcliffe was Manning’s quarterback coach and offensive coordinator at the University of Tennessee from 1994-97.

“It’s a rust situation,” Archie Manning said. “I don’t care how much you’ve played before, when you miss a whole year and you’re dealing with your arm, which is the reason you’re there as a quarterback, you’ve got to kind of prove to yourself that you can do this, you can make this throw, make that throw. So it’s been a process. He’s my son, but I’m really proud of Peyton, the way he’s dealt with everything.”

I asked if he was surprised that after an abortive free agent tour, Peyton ended up in Denver.

“I can’t say it surprised me,” he said. “That was the first visit. What was so tough for Peyton, the Indianapolis thing was hard. I think he’s a pretty loyal person and he felt like he needed to be loyal to Indianapolis, and he was going to stay. Well, it didn’t work out that way. So when he finally came to the realization he was going to be gone, it was kind of tough. There were a lot of ties there, 14 years.

“So he does that breakup one day and has got to start this tour the next day. I thought that was really hard on him. So I think the place that he made his first visit was where he knew he’d be comfortable for a visit, and that was with John Fox and John Elway and the Broncos. And then he did the rest of it.

“Now, he didn’t go on all the trips. He called and said, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ He’d been to Arizona, he’d been (to Denver), and he said, ‘They’re going to have to come to me. I just can’t make this tour.’

“And I said, ‘Well, where are you going?’

“He said, ‘I’m going home.’

“And I said, ‘Well, where’s home?’

“And he said, ‘Duke. Duke is now home.’ So that’s where he was comfortable, with his old coach and some support there.

“He was 36 years old. I did not stick my nose in it. Sure, we talked some, but the only thing I told him, and I think that’s what you tell a (son), kind of like back during recruiting: ‘Go with your heart. Go with your heart.’ And I think that’s what he did.

“And never look back. And I don’t think he ever will. I know it’s not what everybody wanted, but still there’s been some progress made here for everybody, and if everybody can stay healthy, it’s going to get better.”


This just in: Turning around a college football program is hard

Our two pre-eminent state universities, Colorado and Colorado State, both sport football teams, although only the truly committed or slightly daffy pay much attention to them these days. From the outside, both appear to be stalled on the trip back from nowhere, spinning their wheels before hopeful fans who generally find an excuse to excuse themselves from the proceedings long before the game is actually over.

Each team saw its record fall to 1-5 with its most recent loss — Colorado’s to Arizona State by the woeful score of 51-17 on national television Thursday night, and Colorado State’s to Fresno State by the less embarrassing final count of 28-7 last Saturday.

Fresno thumped Colorado by a score more common to children’s basketball games — 69-14 — a month ago, so losing to the Bulldogs by just 21 was something of an in-state victory for the Rams, their second counting their only actual victory, over Colorado, in the first game of the season, when hope still shone through the clouds of their common plight.

A year ago, Jon Embree, then CU’s first-year coach, was an emotional wreck after each of his team’s 10 losses. He was devastatingly honest about his team’s failings, enumerating them in what seemed a combination of public contrition and confession. Hired in large part because of his connection to the program’s better days — he played under Bill McCartney and coached under McCartney, Rick Neuheisel and Gary Barnett — Embree seemed to take personally his inability to get his players to perform as well as those teams of yore.

This year, in Embree’s second season in charge, the results haven’t changed much but his demeanor has. He is much more equanimous after losses, owning up to his team’s failures matter-of-factly, often with a rueful smile, as if he has come to terms with the fact that good players make good coaches, and not the other way around.

When I pointed out this change of demeanor to him following Thursday night’s loss, he smiled.

“So you’re saying I’m boring now, huh?” he replied.

I asked if his greater calm in the face of adversity reflected merely the difference between a first-year coach unaccustomed to losing and a second-year coach facing reality, or more an understanding that his players — still college kids, after all, most if not all of them destined to make a living outside the sport — were trying as hard as they could, even if that effort didn’t mean much to the scoreboard.

“I think it’s a combination of those factors,” he said. “I do believe these kids are giving me everything they have, I really do. I see the hurt. The way they come out and prepare every week, what they do in the weight room, how they are pre-game. There’s no doubt that they’re giving us all we have. Like I told them, we’re not going to let up. We’re going to keep working hard. We’re going to keep preparing just like if we were undefeated.

“You can’t let your circumstances dictate how you prepare. It’s got to be an attitude, a mindset. It’s got to be who you are as a person. Because you’re going to have times that things don’t go your way, and if you don’t have that resolve about you, then you let those circumstances dictate what you’re going to be and how successful you can be. I know these kids want to have success and they know that they’ve worked harder and they’ve put in a lot more than they have in the past.

“But what we need to understand, and what I think they do understand, is that all that does is give you an opportunity. It doesn’t guarantee you anything.

“And now we have to find a way to play four quarters. I told the team right now we’re about a three-quarter team. We play well for three quarters, when it’s all said and done. And with the level of competition that we’re playing and the situations that we’re in, we’ve got to play four quarters to have a chance. So we’ll keep grinding. We’re going to keep working.”

Frankly, this is a kind assessment, and Embree knows it. Even if you take CU’s best three quarters of each game, it’s not good enough. That’s because, harsh as it sounds, the players aren’t good enough. In particular, the quarterback play isn’t good enough, and Embree knows that, too.

When I asked him what he thought of his offense, he stopped short of a John McKay condemnation, but he didn’t sugarcoat it, either.

“I’m not happy with it,” he said. “I’m not happy where we are offensively. There’s some things that you’d like to do and there’s some guys that (will) come in that we’ve recruited that’ll help some of it, but I’m not happy at all with what we’ve done offensively. So as an offensive staff we’ll take a look at some of that tomorrow.”

Whether that last line was his oblique way of saying he would look, again, at shuffling the depth chart, wasn’t clear. What is clear is that college football, like the professional version, is all about quarterback play. And Jordan Webb, the junior transfer from Kansas, is clearly a bridge at the position until Embree finds someone better.

Asked if he knew why Webb so often misses connections with open receivers, particularly on the deep routes that might produce big plays, Embree returned to his native honesty:

“I don’t. I know he’s had a thumb issue on his throwing hand. I don’t know if that’s it. That’s something maybe you’d have to ask him. But the way we are offensively right now, we don’t have a lot of room for error. So when you create those opportunities and matchups, you’ve got to hit on almost all of them, and right now we’re hitting maybe 25 percent of them. And it has to be the other way. It has to be at least 75, 80. But I don’t know why.”

Up the road in Fort Collins, first-year coach Jim McElwain is something of a cross between the first-year Embree and the second-year Embree. He shows the emotion and reverts to the philosophizing of the first-year Embree, but rather than lapse into despondency, he tries to laugh at it.

“How miserable am I?” he asked rhetorically after Saturday’s loss, the Rams’ fifth in a row. “I am miserable! You want to know how miserable? I’m miserable, OK? But I’m not ready to jump off the cliff because I saw in that room and I saw the fight in the comeback from what they should have been just embarrassed about the week before. So there was some resolve, I think is the correct word, even though I’m not sure I can give you the dictionary definition. But there was resolve. And there was a huge disappointment because I know what they put into it. But, as they know, we come back to work and we keep moving forward. And the guys that are on board, they’ll be out there.”

A blocked punt in the final two minutes of the first half allowed Fresno to tack on a second score to what was a manageable 7-0 CSU deficit to that point. For McElwain, that symbolized everything he’s trying to excise from the program he found when he arrived.

“It’s like, ‘Now what? Here we go again.’ Right? Which is what you’re trying to bleed out of them. You know what I’m getting at? I mean, that’s what we’re trying to bleed out of the program right now. It’s not the ‘Here we go again.’ It’s not your dad’s same old Chevy, right? This is the new Rams. And we’ve got to bleed the bad taste, we’ve got to bleed the cancer, we’ve got to get rid of it.

“It’s just not how you think. To be successful, you just can’t think that way. So, you know what? Sometimes you’re going to get knocked down. My problem is I’ve probably been knocked down more than I’ve been stood up. But you know what? You keep getting up and you keep firing. And that’s what we’ll do.”

McElwain faces a challenge greater than Embree’s with respect to fan support. Colorado’s attendance is not what it would like, but Folsom Field, which holds 53,613, still draws roughly 40,000 fans for most of CU’s home games, even if the crowd tends to thin out in the second half of blowouts.

At CSU, Sonny Lubick Field at Hughes Stadium holds only 34,400 and usually draws considerably fewer. Saturday, the announced attendance was 25,814, but the stadium’s famed red-light brigade — three lines of taillights headed east, toward the only street that provides access — was in full force at halftime of a 14-0 game. McElwain goes out of his way to praise the fans who come out, trying desperately to cultivate a following for a program that hasn’t won more than three games since 2008.

This is at least part of the reason why university president Tony Frank and athletic director Jack Graham have launched a fund-raising bid to build a new stadium on campus. For students, faculty and staff, gathering at an on-campus stadium on an autumn day has an appeal that transcends the quality of the team they will see. Driving off campus to the egress nightmare and isolation of Hughes does not.

But in the meantime, they must make do with what they have, so McElwain encourages the few, the proud, the Rams loyalists.

“Very disappointed for the fans,” he said after Saturday’s loss. “I mean, this was a fantastic turnout, guys. It was the first cold night we’ve had and they were into the game. I want to really say thanks to the people who came out to the stadium because they helped on third downs and it was exciting. It’s disappointing that we’re not giving them something tangible to hang their hats on and feel good about, and, as I’ve said, I see what we’re doing and I see the guys we’re doing it with and you know what?”

He paused for a moment and frankly, I don’t know him well enough yet to know whether it was theatrical timing or actually needing a beat or two to check his emotions to keep his voice steady.

“The Rams are going to be a force to reckon with here in the future,” he said finally. “I can tell you that. And I guarantee that.”

As with Embree’s Buffaloes, the truth of the matter is disarmingly simple. CSU’s players aren’t good enough to comprise a winning team. Like Embree, McElwain found a cupboard full of holes when he arrived. His sophomore quarterback, Garrett Grayson, broke his clavicle two weeks ago, so M.J. McPeek, a senior who had never started before, got the call against Fresno. Asked how much responsibility McPeek bore for CSU’a anemic offense, McElwain went out of his way to absolve him:

“That’s a valid question, and I say none. M.J. did some good things; he’s going to want some things back. I’ll take the responsibility on that. We’re not doing what we need on offense to get it taken care of. And it’s obvious. I mean, shoot, let’s call it the way it is. And that’s my responsibility as a head ball coach. We’ve got to get a running game going, plain and simple, to be a successful football team. I mean, the team we just played, as much as they threw it, you know what, they ran the ball effectively, right? That’s where it starts and we’ve just got to get it going. And that’s not M.J. We’ve got to give him some help, all right?”

Like Embree, McElwain basically acknowledges his team’s lack of talent while honoring the effort of the kids in his charge.

“What you do is you keep working and you keep moving forward,” he said. “There are no quick fixes. I checked the waiver wire and they didn’t allow us to take any. I’m going to see if (Broncos) coach (John) Fox up in Denver might be able to throw us a couple, but you know what, I don’t want anybody else. I want these guys. I want these guys to get to where they’re going. That’s where we’re at.”

When he was finished dissecting the particulars of the latest defeat, I asked McElwain, whose last job was offensive coordinator for a national championship team at Alabama, to name his biggest challenge as coach of a 1-5 team.

“I think the biggest challenge is to keep them working every day and not stepping back,” he said. “That to me is going to be the challenge. And we’re going to be able to see the true character of a lot of individuals when you get in this situation. Everything you do in life throws you a challenge. Now, how you decide to step up and accept the challenge says a heck of a lot about who you are and what you’re all about. And there’s a lot of great lessons in that. And you know what? We’ll find out in those lessons who’s strong enough to persevere and see the things we need to make sure we get better at. And like I say, I’m not in any way, shape or form putting it on them. I’m saying, we’re going to do this together.”

It takes four years for a college coach to populate his team with his own recruits. This is the minimum timeframe required to determine if he has the wherewithal to attract players good enough to build a winning program. Whether Embree and McElwain are destined to turn around their respective programs remains a mystery. But there are no shortcuts. Both of them are learning that the hard way.


Broncos remain a work in progress

The local pro football club entered Week 5 ranked ninth in the NFL in rushing defense, surrendering an average of 87.5 yards a game on the ground. Needless to say, that ranking will tumble after the Patriots steamrolled them for 251 rushing yards Sunday on their way to a 31-21 victory.

In fact, Denver’s defense as a whole looked Charmin soft most of the afternoon, especially on third down, when the Patriots made an interminable series of big plays. New England’s three longest gainers came on third down, as did the ultimate humiliation of Denver’s defense — a third-quarter running play on third-and-17 that gained 19.

Whatever the Broncos are doing defensively on third down, they need to re-examine it. In fact, it wouldn’t hurt to do a top-to-bottom review of a defense that gave up 444 yards to the Patriots.

“You’ve got to translate things from the meeting room and practice field to the game,” cornerback Champ Bailey told KOA afterward. “Coaches can’t go out there and play for us. We’ve got to make sure we put ourselves in the position to make plays and get off the field on third downs or whatever it may be. We worked on everything they did to us. It wasn’t no surprises. They just hit us in the mouth and we didn’t hit back hard enough.”

On the bright side, if it weren’t for three killer turnovers, the offense might have kept pace with the Patriot juggernaut. When he could get on the field, Peyton Manning was excellent, completing 31 of 44 passes for 345 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. His passer rating on the day (116.2) was slightly better than Tom Brady’s (104.6).

Down 31-14 early in the fourth quarter, the Broncos were driving when running back Willis McGahee dropped an easy swing pass on fourth-and-one to end the possession. Still, after the Patriots turned the ball over on downs on their ensuing series, Manning drove the Broncos offense 43 yards in six plays and hit Brandon Stokley with a short touchdown pass to make it 31-21 with more than six minutes remaining.

Three plays later, Von Miller, who was the Broncos’ only defensive playmaker in Foxborough, stripped the ball from Patriots running back Stevan Ridley for Denver’s only takeaway of the afternoon. Manning drove the offense another 54 yards in less than two minutes to the New England 14. With 3:48 to play, the Broncos had a chance to get within one score and set up a potentially memorable comeback.

Instead, Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich stripped the ball from McGahee at the New England 11 for the Broncos’ third giveaway and that was that.

“Man enough to admit I messed the game up,” McGahee posted on Twitter soon after it was over. “Put it on my shoulders. I can handle it.”

Between the defensive softness and the offensive turnovers, the Broncos demonstrated that they are still a work in progress and not quite ready for prime time (although they’ll have a chance to dispute that assessment in prime time next Monday night, when they face off against the Chargers in San Diego).

The continuing deficits in the turnover battle are a growing concern. New England entered the game first in the AFC in turnover margin at plus 8 and improved to plus 10. The Broncos were tied for 12th at minus 4 and are now minus 6.

Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, in particular, needs a crash course in ball security. If anyone doubted Thomas’ vast potential as a playmaker, those doubts should have been erased by his nine catches for 188 yards, including a couple of sensational grabs where he looked like a man among boys. But after fumbling a ball last week while switching it from one hand to the other to short-circuit an apparent touchdown, he prevented the Broncos from getting off to a quick start Sunday by fumbling at the New England 10 on Denver’s first possession of the game.

There’s no telling how that might have changed the complexion of the game. As it was, the Patriots scored first and ultimately built a seemingly prohibitive 31-7 lead.

The Broncos’ second giveaway was a Manning fumble when Ninkovich beat right tackle Orlando Franklin on a pass rush and came up behind Manning to slap the ball out of his hand. The third was McGahee’s fatal fumble with 3:48 to play.

“They are a good team, and when you play a good team at their place, you don’t have to play perfect football, but you have to eliminate mistakes and be sound and can’t have self-inflicted wounds,” Manning said. “We had a couple of those today which kept us from having a chance to get back in the game. It’s tough when you do that against a good opponent.”

If the turnovers were maddening, the defense was mostly frustrating. The Patriots converted 11 of 17 third downs (65 percent) and the Broncos couldn’t get them off the field for long stretches of the afternoon.

New England had the ball for 35 minutes and 49 seconds of the available hour, the Broncos for the remaining 24:11. When you have two of the best quarterbacks of all time facing off, you’d like to give them roughly equal time to do their stuff. The Broncos were unable to manage that.

The Patriots’ three longest plays of the game came on third down:

— On third-and-14 from the New England 11-yard line in the second quarter, Brady’s short pass to Danny Woodhead went for 25 yards with safety Mike Adams and linebacker Joe Mays finally making the tackle.

— On third-and-12 from the New England 18 to start the fourth quarter, wide receiver Deion Branch beat cornerback Tracy Porter up the middle for another 25.

— On third-and-one from the New England 45 late in the second quarter, Brandon Bolden rumbled 24 yards to the Denver 31.

But the third down conversion everyone will remember was the third-and-17 from the New England 43 midway through the third quarter. The score was still 17-7 at that point and the Broncos had an opportunity to get the ball back with plenty of time to make up the deficit.

The Patriots seemed to concede the change of possession by calling a running play. Woodhead, their 5-foot-8-inch bowling ball, rambled around left end for 19 yards and a first down. Eleven plays later, the Patriots scored on a quarterback sneak to make it 24-7.

“They’re a good offense,” said Miller, who had two of the Broncos’ four quarterback sacks in addition to their only forced fumble. “We knew that coming into the game. We prepared for the type of offense that we knew they were going to run. I felt like we were very prepared coming into this game. We just didn’t execute. Another week we didn’t execute and we put ourselves in situations that we can’t get out of.”

Some of this is to be expected. The Broncos have a new defensive coordinator again — Jack Del Rio is their seventh in seven years — so his schemes may take some getting used to. Still, it seems clear that Del Rio and head coach John Fox, a former defensive coordinator himself, need to sit down together in a video room early this week and figure out what’s going wrong with their third-down defense.

For some time, the Broncos have had a dilemma on third down. Last year, when they went to their nickel defense in passing situations, the fifth defensive back took the place of middle linebacker Joe Mays, who plays the run a lot better than he plays the pass.

Opponents reacted by running the ball against the Broncos’ nickel, often with great success. So this year the club has experimented with keeping Mays on the field in the nickel. Opponents have responded by targeting him in the passing game.

Sunday, it didn’t seem to matter who the Broncos had on the field. The Patriots ran it down their throats at will. But the tendency to give up big plays on third down is not one that can continue if the Broncos hope to climb into contention.

Fox and Del Rio need to diagnose what went wrong and be willing to make whatever changes to their schemes or personnel that diagnosis demands. Surrendering 251 yards on the ground is an embarrassment, or should be.

“It’s a disappointing loss,” Manning said. “We’re 2-3 and we’ve got a pivotal division game (coming up). I just made a little talk to the team. We have to learn from this. It hurts. It just rips your guts out to lose a game against an AFC opponent, but we have to learn from it, have to find a way to get better from it. I think we’ll see some things on the film that were good, some guys made some big plays at some pivotal times. We just need to have more consistency throughout the 60-minute game.”

There’s a tendency to overreact to whatever has happened most recently in the NFL, but it’s worth remembering that it’s still early. A win in San Diego next week would keep the Broncos in touch with the division leaders while they wait for their schedule to lighten up, which it does on the back end.

It’s also worth remembering that the three teams they’ve lost to — Houston, Atlanta and New England — are three of the best in the league. Such losses early in the season, while you’re getting acclimated to a new quarterback and defensive coordinator, are not particularly surprising. Lots of experts figured if the Broncos could make it through a difficult first half schedule at 4-4, they’d be in good position to make some noise in the second half of the season.

But if they want to be ready to make a move following their bye week, they need to address their defensive issues now, while there’s still time.


John Smoltz: ‘Colorado has a different monster’

Bashing Rockies management may now be the second-most popular fall sport in Colorado, surpassing college football. The playoff appearances of 2007 and 2009 seem long ago and far away in the wake of consecutive seasons of 89 and 98 losses, that last one the worst in the organization’s 20-year history.

Memories are short: It is not unusual to hear a fan go uncontradicted when he declares that the Rocks have been terrible for many years.

Within the game, the view is virtually unanimous that playing 81 games at Coors Field represents a unique challenge. This year’s pitching implosion — four starters were brought in from other organizations and all four flamed out — is viewed as just the latest piece of evidence on a very large pile.

“This is the most challenging venue to coach, manage, perform at in major league baseball,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, a former Rockies manager, said during Pittsburgh’s lone visit to Coors last season. “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.”

Among fans, invoking the thin air and huge playing field is generally considered nothing more than an excuse for a front office that’s been in place since 1999. There is perhaps no issue in baseball that produces such a dramatic difference in perception between those in the game and those outside it.

When Rockies pitchers acknowlege making adjustments to pitch at Coors, they too are accused of making excuses, even if, like reliever Matt Belisle, they say specifically the need for these adjustments cannot be used as a crutch.

Perhaps a great pitcher who has nothing to gain by discussing these issues will carry more credibility. Because, frankly, if the Rocks’ fan base remains oblivious to the central challenge of operating the franchise, it will never embrace the organization’s attempts to deal with it.

John Smoltz, the only pitcher in major league history with 200 wins and 150 saves, was part of a great Atlanta Braves staff in the 1990s that hated pitching in Colorado. Greg Maddux, a certain Hall of Famer once he becomes eligible, compiled a career ERA of 3.16. At Coors Field, it was 5.19.

“I prided myself on being in really good shape,” Smoltz said recently on the Dave Logan Show. “I loved to shag. When you go to Colorado, your breathing is affected. You feel like you’re out of shape. You feel like you’re holding your breath to get three outs per inning. The sharpness on your breaking ball and the effectiveness on your pitches are not quite the same. It’s just factual; it’s not mental.

“What you end up doing, as I learned over time how to adjust, you end up throwing the ball harder, spinning it tighter, and you do things that are going to have a carryover effect to make you sore.

“When you learn how to do that on a day-in and day-out basis, you’ll probably make the adjustments, but I had to survive a 1996 Cy Young campaign in which I went in there late in the year and gave up something like 12 singles. They never hit a home run. But it’s the big part of that field that allows the hitters to dink and find the gaps.”

Smoltz’s memory of that day 16 years ago — Sept. 12, 1996 — is not exact, but it’s close enough. He pitched six innings, giving up nine runs, eight of them earned, on 12 hits. He did give up one homer, Ellis Burks’ 37th of the season. When he departed, the Rocks led 9-7. Atlanta made it 9-8 in the top of the seventh before Colorado scored seven more in two innings off five Braves relievers.

The final score was 16-8. In perhaps his best season, Smoltz saw his earned-run average swell from 2.78 to 3.02 in one nightmarish outing. Three wins later, when the season ended, it was 2.94. As the National League’s only 20-game winner (he finished 24-8), Smoltz won the Cy Young award easily over Florida’s Kevin Brown.

“I always said, ‘Someone will hit .400 in that park before someone would break, let’s say, the home run record,'” said Smoltz, now an analyst for MLB Network. “Now, I know the humidor’s come into play and that’s a whole other subject. But I think it’s one of the most exciting places to watch a game. It’s just not the most exciting place to pitch.”

From the organization’s point of view, the worst result of the extra effort Smoltz described to make pitches move in Colorado’s thin air is the long-term effect on the health of its pitchers. The extra stress on shoulders and elbows has produced, over 20 years, a remarkable lack of longevity among Colorado starters.

But Smoltz pointed out another major drawback: It’s a terrible place to develop young pitchers. Getting your brains beaten out with every mistake — and sometimes, when you haven’t even made a mistake — is not a great way to build confidence. Even some veterans — notably Mike Hampton and Jeremy Guthrie — have been unable to handle it.

“If you look around the league, there’s teams and places where you can develop pitchers — Oakland being probably No. 1 because of how big it is, the foul territory,” Smoltz said. “I think you have San Diego, Seattle. You look at those teams and they develop pitchers and the confidence in those pitchers.

“Colorado has a different monster. It’s a mental challenge to develop a young pitcher because of the changes you must make in your mind that you’re not going to have a low ERA, you’re not going to be able to do certain things. You just have to adapt. Hopefully, the offense has a surplus and you benefit from that, but it is a big difference.”

For that reason, Smoltz applauds the Rockies front office for trying experimental approaches such as this season’s paired pitching rotation, in which each starter had a limited pitch count and was paired with a “bridge” reliever to cover the middle innings. The organization has taken a lot of heat from its own fan base for this experiment.

“What I’ve always said for years, I said if I was in charge (there), it’s so unique, no one else deals with it, that I’m in favor of what they’re doing,” Smoltz said.

“I wouldn’t put necessarily a pitch limit on it, but I would have a freshness of guys, knowing that you’re going to go three, four, five innings and we’re going to use three, four, five pitchers and we’re going to make it more like spring training, shuffle it around, give guys opportunities to get potential wins. But I think it makes sense because if you don’t get the right type of pitchers there, you do have to do something outside of the box, I truly believe that.

“It’s such a big, significant chunk of the year, 81 games. On the road, I know it’s different, but you can’t (change systems) from the road to home. They just have to get past the daily questioning of reporters going, ‘Well, how can you do this, how can you buck the system?’

“That’s really why the game has changed so much. I guarantee you, you can start next year with a team and go with a four-man rotation and they’ll be great. No one wants to do it because they don’t want to deal with the ramifications of these new age theories of what is best for pitchers and how we’re going to move in this new millennium of guys throwing about 180 innings and that’s it.

“I commend Colorado and the manager or whoever came up with this idea to say, ‘You know what, it ain’t working, so let’s try something different.’ They’re in a unique situation.”