Monthly Archives: November 2012

Pop’s protest began in Denver

Four years ago, I was with commissioner David Stern, but he wasn’t with me.

Now that he is, I’m no longer with him.

Back then, on Feb. 3, 2009, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich brought his team to Denver on a red-eye out of Oakland, Calif., for the second of back-to-back games, a circumstance that infuriates coaches throughout the National Basketball Association.

Between the late departure, the time change and the length of the flight, the traveling team in this situation seldom gets to bed in Denver before the sun comes up. Before Miami squeezed out a win a couple of weeks ago, visitors were 2-26 in such games dating back roughly to Pop’s 2009 protest, when he left his top stars — Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Michael Finley — on the bench throughout the game in Denver.

The circumstance that night was exacerbated by the fact that the game in Oakland had gone to overtime, meaning the Spurs departed even later than usual and their stars played even more minutes than usual — 43 for Parker, 42 for Duncan, 36 for Finley, 35 for Ginobili.

It was also the second contest of an eight-game, cross-country road trip, which might have made Popovich even more ornery than usual, if that’s possible.

The Nuggets beat the Spurs bench (just barely, 104-96). In the late, lamented Rocky Mountain News, I railed against Pop’s decision on behalf of Denver fans who had shelled out big money to see the Spurs stars only to be treated to a development league cast instead. It was enough of an issue, even then, that Sports Business Daily reviewed the available commentary.

From the fan’s point of view, this argument is still valid, and it’s purportedly the one Papa Dave, the commissioner, has quite suddenly adopted. NBA ticket prices are ridiculous as it is; the value proposition only works if fans get to see the stars they’ve paid to see.

At the time, Papa Dave did nothing. As recently as last season, NBA brass said it would be a mistake to infringe on a coach’s right to deploy his players as he saw fit. After all, coaches routinely rest star players in the spring as the playoffs approach.

Evidently, in his waning days as commissioner — Stern plans to retire Feb. 1, 2014 after 30 years on the job — it suddenly occurred to Papa Dave that this is, in effect, a rebellion against his gravy train. Everyone in the association knows it plays too many regular season games too close together. Players are much more likely to get hurt when they’re tired, and certain machinations of the schedule — four games in five nights, for example — make it almost inevitable that players will be tired.

But this is what fuels a money-making machine that Stern estimates will generate $5 billion this season. Alone among coaches, Popovich is willing to stand up on behalf of his players and call out toxic scheduling in a highly visible way.

In the latest instance, he didn’t merely hold his stars out of the game, he sent them home. Duncan, Ginobili, Parker and Danny Green were on a commercial flight to San Antonio before the Spurs and Heat tipped off in a nationally-televised game from Miami. It was the Spurs’ fourth game in five nights at the end of a six-game road trip.

Pop’s ploy could not have been entirely unexpected. He has done this on a semi-regular basis since that protest in Denver four years ago. He held his big three out of three games last season, including a game in Utah in which Duncan, Ginobili and Parker were not present.

For some reason, Stern chose this instance to change the association’s position. He issued this statement before the game:

“This was an unacceptable decision by the San Antonio Spurs and substantial sanctions will be forthcoming.”

Keep in mind that Stern’s heir apparent, deputy commissioner Adam Silver, said this just last April:

“The strategic resting of particular players on particular nights is within the discretion of the teams. And Gregg Popovich in particular is probably the last coach that I would second-guess.”

True, last season’s schedule was even more cramped than usual because of the lockout that delayed it, but this Popovich tactic goes back well beyond that and it never prompted league action before.

“If I was taking my 6-year-old son or daughter to the game, I would want them to see everybody, and if they weren’t there, I’d be disappointed,” Popovich acknowledged before Thursday’s game. “So I understand that perspective. Hopefully, people in that position will understand my perspective. My priority is the basketball team and what is best for it.”

The subtext may be what bothers Stern more than the offense to fans at a handful of games. Each time he holds out his headliners, Popovich is signaling his disdain for toxic scheduling. In truth, it is this scheduling, not Pop’s response to it, that undermines the integrity of NBA competition.

Let’s face it: The NBA regular season means next to nothing. It is almost entirely for the purpose of generating cash. Every decent team (16 out of 30) makes the playoffs, which is when the actual competition for championships begins. That’s still five months away.

What Stern is basically saying is, “How dare you interfere with our raking in the cash!”

What Pop is basically saying is, “How dare you interfere with my pursuit of a championship!”

Duncan is now 36. Ginobili is 35. Even Parker is now 30. If Popovich and the Spurs have any hope of winning a fifth NBA title before this great combination is finished, they must allocate their time on the floor wisely. Truth is, Pop could sit them for the rest of the season and San Antonio would still qualify for the playoffs.

There are those who say he should rest them one at a time so as to be less obvious about it. But the truth is that certain games pose the greatest danger because the schedule makes it inevitable a team’s big-minute players will be exhausted for those games. Popovich does not want to risk any of his main guys in those circumstances.

So I’ve come around to Pop’s point of view. I get that it’s unfortunate for the fans who buy tickets to those particular games, but that’s on the association for squeezing every dollar from them that it can.

The issue is indeed the integrity of competition, but it’s not the small picture of a single night. It’s the big picture of the integrity of NBA competition as a whole. Coaches must be able to deploy their players in the best long-term interests of their championship aspirations.

Pop is making a statement not just about rest and recovery here. He’s making a statement about the integrity of the game. And he’s right.


Winning without your fastball

No question about it, the Broncos lost valuable style points Sunday in Kansas City.

Wait, what? There is no column for style points in the standings? Oh, then never mind.

Before complaining about the Broncos’ season-low point total (17) or season-high missed field goal total (2) in their sixth straight win, keep this in mind:

In 2008, a Chiefs team that finished 2-14 beat the Broncos at Arrowhead, 33-19.

A year later, a Chiefs team that was 3-12 at the time came to Denver for the season finale and blew out the Broncos, 44-24.

In their 22 previous visits to Arrowhead, the Broncos were 7-15.

The Chiefs have been dysentery to the Broncos. No matter how bad they are, they can still ruin Denver’s day.

So winning at Arrowhead is its own reward. How the Broncos get there is all fine print. Fortunately, this is not college football. There are no voters to judge the dominance of a win or computer algorithms to assess the margin of victory. In the NFL, as Bill Parcells famously said, you are what your record says you are. The Broncos’ record says they are 8-3, six games after starting the season 2-3.

It also says they are 4-0 against division opponents with games at Oakland (3-8) and at home against Kansas City (1-10) still to play. They are already guaranteed a winning record within the AFC West for the first time since 2005.

The game? The game was like watching a power pitcher on a day he lacks command of his fastball. Can he find another way to win? Will he grind it out or flip out?

This was not the finest game Peyton Manning’s receivers have played. With the ball at their own 2-yard line and 8 minutes to play, offensive coordinator Mike McCoy was fearless, calling three consecutive pass plays. On first down, Manning put the ball on the hands of wide receiver Demaryius Thomas on a split screen. On second down, he put it on the hands of tight end Joel Dreessen on a crossing pattern. Neither made the catch.

Still, the defense did its job once more and when the Broncos got it back at their 16 with 6:24 remaining, they put together a 12-play, 68-yard drive that ended in a confidence-restoring field goal for Matt Prater, who had missed twice for the first time all year, and drained all but 14 seconds off the game clock in the process.

“This is the kind of a drive that championship teams put together,” CBS analyst Dan Dierdorf said. “This is just a demonstration of how to win football games, what Denver has done on this drive.”

Here are some reactions to the 17-9 win from Broncos players in their own words, posted on Twitter, with spelling and contractions as posted:

Tight end Jacob Tamme: “Another good team win on the road! Records mean nothing. Hard fought, man.”

Defensive lineman Derek Wolfe: “Def wasnt pretty but a wins a win and we gotta keep on rollin”

Omar Bolden: “Sometimes it’s pretty and sometimes it’s ugly. . . . I really don’t care what it is as long as its a W!!!”

Chris Harris: “Blessed to be able to play in front of my Fam & friends today. I came a long way.”

Eric Decker: “W is a W in this league! What’s better than 5 in a row, #BroncosCountry? 6 in a row!!”

A pattern has emerged in Manning’s post-game ruminations. When outsiders are piling on the praise, Manning responds with caution, emphasizing things his team could do better. When outsiders are critical, Manning defends his guys.

But after praising the work of Knowshon Moreno, who stepped in productively for injured Willis McGahee after spending most of the season on the scout team, Manning made it clear the Broncos will be working on their shortcomings in Kansas City as they prepare for Tampa Bay next week.

“I know Jack Del Rio has high expectations for the defense,” he said. “Mike McCoy has high expectations for the offense. Ultimately, it is about winning the game, but certainly we want to try to fulfill those expectations that the coaches have for us. They set goals for us. There are certain parts of the game, certain goals for the game, they want to accomplish, whether it’s ball security, red zone, third down.

“Sometimes, you won’t hit on all those goals, yet you can still win the game. So when we watch the film, the coaches are very constructive of us and the players are very accountable in wanting to hit those goals and play better. I think that’s the sign of guys that certainly have the right attitude, in my opinion.”

Manning also disclosed that Broncos players have recently added a players-only film session in which they are expected to own up to their own failings.

“Certainly, I think players being accountable is very important,” he said. “These past couple weeks we’ve been watching the game film together — just the players; the coaches aren’t in there. It’s the player’s job to speak up on what he did wrong if there was a mistake he made, and what he can do better.

“I know offensively that’s been productive for us. I know defensively Champ (Bailey) and Elvis (Dumervil) have said the same thing. Ultimately, players have to hold each other accountable. You’re certainly always trying to get better, and you want to get better late in the season. Either you get better or you get worse; you don’t stay the same. So certainly our goal is to get better every week.”

For the first time all year, the Broncos won a game in which they did not score 30 points. The hidden story of the winning streak has been their growing confidence on the defensive side of the ball. Del Rio has taken a unit that finished 20th in total defense a year ago and moved it into the league’s top 10.

Its pash rush couldn’t take over this one because the Chiefs don’t much like to pass. Even in a loss, they ran the ball more often than they threw it. Former Bronco Brady Quinn was accurate early (nine of 11 in the first half) and familiar late (four of 14 and an interception after intermission).

Despite 107 yards rushing from Jamaal Charles, Del Rio’s unit held the Chiefs to 264 yards of offense and kept them out of the end zone all day.

It may not have been a work of art, but it wasn’t an Arrowhead horror movie, either. The Broncos will take it, happily, and move on to the next one.


CU stumbles to first winless season at home in 92 years

BOULDER — The best thing you can say about Colorado’s 2012 football season is it’s over.

It ended on a beautiful autumn afternoon in which Jon Embree’s second Buffaloes team fought to the final minute to avoid becoming the first CU team since 1920 to go winless at home.

It fell just short, falling to Utah 42-35 to finish the season 1-11 and 0-6 at Folsom Field. The Buffs actually outplayed the Utes for much of the day, finishing with more first downs (25-18), total offense (418-336) and passing yards (306-128). Alas, they also had way more turnovers — five, to the Utes’ one.

CU fans showed their support 39,400 strong by the official count — not bad for a team going nowhere during Thanksgiving break on campus — and were rewarded with an entertaining game that featured back-to-back 100-yard kickoff returns and the crispest passing performance of the season from sophomore quarterback Nick Hirschman, who completed 30 of 51 throws for 306 yards and a touchdown.

Unfortunately, Hirschman also threw four interceptions. The fourth doesn’t really count. It was a desperation heave on CU’s final fourth down that would have resulted in a change of possession if it had fallen incomplete. But the others hurt, particularly the very first, an underthrown screen less than a minute into the game that set up Utah’s first touchdown.

There was a moment in the fourth quarter that seemed to symbolize many of the problems this team faced all year, from coaching to execution. Following the back-to-back kickoff returns, Utah led by the single touchdown that turned out to be its final margin of victory. CU began its subsequent possession at its 25-yard line with 8:12 remaining in the game.

The Buffs drove to their 45, where, on third-and-2, tailback Tony Jones was tackled behind the line of scrimmage for a one-yard loss. That brought up fourth-and-3 with about five and a half minutes left on the game clock.

CU had at least three options: Punt, go for it or try a little trickery with a fake punt. Embree sent out the punt team, then called timeout to think it over. Following the timeout, he replaced the punt team with the offense. Hirschman tried to hit freshman Gerald Thomas on a quick crossing pattern but the ball was batted down and Utah took over.

The change from the punt team to the offense gave the impression the coaching staff hadn’t anticipated the situation and wasn’t sure what it wanted to do. I asked Embree afterward if that was the case.

“I knew what we wanted,” he said. “I just wanted to give (offensive coordinator) Eric (Bieniemy) some more time to really think and decide, be confident, because there was a couple of things we were looking at.”

Did he consider running a fake out of the punt formation he dispatched before the timeout?

“No,” he said. “I just would rather, if we’re going to go for it, go for it with our guys, our offense.”

In any case, the Buffs got the ball back once more, with under 3 minutes to play, and turned it over on that final interception with less than a minute showing.

For CU’s nine seniors, it was a tough Senior Day.

“I would have liked for it to be a lot better, but it was still fun, to get to be in the game until the last play,” said tight end Nick Kasa, who had five catches for 51 yards in his final game. “I just wish things would have been better for us, but I think we all know better things are coming for this program.”

It wasn’t much better for the legion of freshmen who got their college football trial by fire this year. Embree entered the post-game press conference angry about what a fan had said to one of them as he walked off the field.

“I’m just mad ’cause, you know, when people say something to our kids, I got a problem,” Embree said. “Eighteen-year-old kid playing his heart out.”

Embree did not name the object of the fan’s derision, but he was seen consoling Thomas, the freshman receiver from New Orleans, as the two of them walked off of Folsom Field. Associate athletic director Dave Plati later confirmed in a facebook post that Thomas was the target of the taunt.

On both sides of the ball, CU finished the season ranked among the worst programs in Division I football. The defense, in particular, seemed helpless against Pac-12 offenses for much of the year, giving up an average of 46 points a game. I asked two senior linebackers, Jon Major and Doug Rippy, why they thought that was.

“It’s becoming a lot tougher to be a coach on the defensive side,” Major said. “We tried probably five or six different schemes just to try and slow down these teams. Whether it’s personnel or something beyond that — youth, discipline — as these guys continue to grow and get better, something’s going to stick, something’s going to work. Just unfortunately nothing good this year. But I also feel like we finished very strong as a defense.”

“Like Jon said, it was probably hardest for the defensive staff, just trying to figure out what we were going to do, because we had a lot of younger guys playing,” Rippy said. “Last year, if I can recall, we only had one freshman playing on defense, which was Greg Henderson. This year, we had a lot play. We just had to do things to make them comfortable . . . so it was hard. The younger guys, they’re going to learn from it. They’re going to be so much better at it next year.

“With us veteran guys that came back, we kind of knew what we were getting into. We lost a lot of seniors last year and we had such a small senior class. We’re not that vocal. We really show by our actions. The younger guys, they kind of picked that up. But just trying to find a scheme that fits us was kind of hard this year, especially with the personnel we went up against.”

The issues on offense are more easily diagnosed. The Buffs got poor quarterback play for most of the year. Redshirt freshman Shane Dillon is expected to compete for the starting job next year, probably with Hirschman, who showed flashes toward the end of the season amid his interceptions. And Embree has made it clear he intends to convert from what began as a standard pro set to a spread offense, which he used liberally in the finale Friday.

“I think when you look at our games, we’ve moved the ball and been more effective, or had opportunities, when we’ve been doing some of that stuff,” he said. “So I’d like to continue to move forward in that direction.”

Embree has also said for some weeks that he would reassess everything, from scheme to staff, when the season ended. I asked him how long he expected that reassessment to take.

“I don’t want to put a timetable on it, but I’ll continue down that path,” he said. “I’ll be out recruiting. I’m on the road Monday or Tuesday. I want to make sure as I go through this that we’re doing the right things and talking to the right people. But I don’t have a deadline or anything like that.

“But it’s something I’ll start thinking about, and I have been thinking about it, but continue to think on as we move forward. When I have a good idea, we’ll let you guys know, but I don’t think it’s a process that’s just going to drag out.”

As Kasa said in a rare light moment, the program has nowhere to go from here but up. Bill McCartney went 1-10 in 1984, his third season. He switched from a pro set to the wishbone the following spring, won seven games that fall, and never had another losing record. Embree was a player on both of those teams, so he’s seen it done. Whether he can replicate that turnaround remains to be seen.

On his way out the door, Hirschman recounted Embree’s message to his younger players, the ones who will be back next year.

“He just stressed that we never want to feel like this again,” Hirschman said. “This game kind of summed up our whole year. Everything that could have gone wrong did for us.”


‘Von Miller is the next Lawrence Taylor, plain and simple’

On at least one San Diego third down Sunday, a third-and-10 early on, Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio dispatched two defensive linemen, two linebackers and seven defensive backs.

If five defensive backs is a nickel defense and six is a dime, I’m guessing seven is a quarter, or possibly a JFK half-dollar, considering the effects of inflation.

As defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson pointed out afterward, Von Miller wears a linebacker’s number (58) but he’s generally rushing the passer, so maybe that was a 3-1-7 alignment rather than a 2-2-7. Either way, let’s just call it Del Rio’s freakout package.

That’s what it did to Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who was under pressure because of Miller and looked downfield to see nothing but the Broncos’ alternate blue uniforms. Symbolizing the frustration he showed much of the day, he threw the ball away into his own bench.

“I’ve never been a part of a team that’s shown this many looks,” said cornerback Champ Bailey, now in his 14th season. “It’s funny because every guy that comes out there could start. It’s not like we’ve got a bunch of guys we’re just trying to get playing time. These guys can play. I’ve got to give Jack a lot of credit for trying to utilize all the guys he has around him.”

Do all those different looks — pretty much every coin in the change machine — confuse opposing offenses?

“I sure hope so,” Bailey said. “I think it does. But I think the most important part of our defense is that front. They’ve been getting it done and that’s what’s really enabled us to play better.”

Good as the front wall has been overall, the difference maker is Miller, who took over the NFL lead in quarterback sacks Sunday, adding three to his previous 10. He became just the fourth NFL player since 1982 to record at least 11 sacks in each of his first two seasons, joining the late Reggie White, Jevon Kearse and Dwight Freeney.

“I told him today, he’s a beast, man,” Vickerson said.

“That boy works his butt off and he plays with a lot of confidence and I see him doing it for a long time,” Bailey said.

“Von Miller is the next Lawrence Taylor, plain and simple,” said safety Rahim Moore. “No lineman in the country — born, not born, past — can block him.”

With the inquiring minds, Miller takes his lead from Bailey, returning the compliment.

“I think it all starts in the secondary,” he said. “I don’t think our guys in the background get too much credit. We got Champ Bailey out there, Chris Harris, Rahim Moore’s been having a great season. I think that’s where it starts.”

The media scrum around Miller afterward was almost as deep as the Broncos’ defense. He used the word “relentless” relentlessly to describe his mindset, citing other dominant defensive players who play with that attitude, including the Cowboys’ DeMarcus Ware, a two-time league sack champion who had 19.5 a year ago and has 10 so far this year, three back of Miller’s league-leading total.

“He’s explosive, he’s fast, he’s a savvy football player,” Chargers center Nick Hardwick said of last year’s defensive rookie of the year. “He uses his hands and feet well and ties his moves together.”

“It’s probably his speed,” said San Diego guard Rex Hadnot. “He probably runs under a 4.4 (40-yard dash). He’s really fast and plays pretty physical.”

For the second week, the Broncos’ defense took the lead. The offense ended up scoring 30 points, but 17 of them came as a result of Chargers turnovers (a Wesley Woodyard interception, a fumble forced by Miller on one of his sacks, and a punt blocked by Nate Irving), giving Peyton Manning and the offense short fields.

Manning’s streak of 300-yard passing games came to an end — he managed only 270 — although he did throw for three touchdowns again, becoming the first quarterback in Broncos history to do that six times in the same season. And he still has six games to play. The previous record was five, set by John Elway in 1997. Still, the story was the defense again, and Manning knew it.

“Anytime you have a change in the defensive coordinator and you have some new players, it’s going to take time forming a little chemistry and getting on the same page,” he said. “I think they just continue to get better each week, understanding coach Del Rio’s system, and those guys are playing at a really high level right now. It sure is fun to watch.”

In fact, the offense sputtered enough that someone actually asked Manning if he felt more happiness or frustration after this one.

“Happiness,” he replied. “We won, didn’t we? Are you not happy? Strange question . . . strange question.”

The defense surrendered a couple of late drives that made the final score closer than the game actually felt, but the Broncos’ growing confidence on the defensive side is a propitious sign for the postseason.

And, yes, although they can’t talk about it, we can start talking about that now. With a record of 7-3, they lead the Chargers by three games with six to play, and effectively four since they swept the season series and own the head-to-head tie-breaker.

In the process, they stretched their string of third-down denials to 26 over three games, the longest such streak in the NFL in 10 years, before the Chargers finally converted one into a first down. San Diego finished three of 16 on third down.

“It’s the best defensive team they’ve had since we’ve been playing against them,” said Rivers, who has been playing the Broncos twice a year since taking over the starting job in San Diego in 2006. “This is definitely as good, if not the best defense they’ve had that I can remember.”

Bailey, of course, was having none of it.

“You look at the fourth quarter, they had two drives that we just can’t give up,” he said. “We’re better than that. We’ve shown we’re better than that. It’s just being consistent. We’ve just got to find a way to keep pressing on the gas throughout four quarters.

“Never become complacent. That’ll put you on your couch.”

It’s now five in a row since they came back from a 24-0 halftime deficit in San Diego on Oct. 15. On both sides of the ball, the Broncos are on a roll.


One more game until CU’s misery ends

On the bright side, the University of Colorado football team will play only one more game with its current crop of quarterbacks.

No personal offense intended to any of these young men, all of whom are trying their best, but 2012 might have seen the worst quarterback play in CU history. Are you nostalgic yet for Cody Hawkins?

OK, maybe not.

Take this to the bank: If he can walk, 6-foot-6-inch redshirt freshman Shane Dillon will be the Buffs’ signal caller next season, “a kid that we’re very excited about,” coach Jon Embree said recently.

Of the current crop, perhaps only junior-to-be Nick Hirschman will even be in the mix to compete with him for the job.

The Buffaloes lost again Saturday, 38-3, at home, to the University of Washington. They are now 1-10 for the first time since 1984, Bill McCartney’s third season. That record prompted McCartney to switch from a pro-style offense to the wishbone, which produced an immediate turnaround. The Buffs went 7-5 in 1985.

“Obviously, a poor showing offensively,” Embree said.

Asked about the quarterback play, Embree was as explicit as he could be with one game left on this season’s schedule:

“We’ve struggled at that position,” he said. “We’ve got to find a way to fix it.”

Unless CU beats Utah on Friday in the season finale, this will be the first season since 1891, when they played only five games, in which the Buffs go winless at home.

Completing his second season, Embree has offered plenty of hints about the changes he will implement after the season. Like McCartney, for whom he played, Embree plans to overhaul his pro-style offensive scheme, installing some version of the spread formation read option.

Based on his comments and the performance of the current crop of quarterbacks, last year’s prize quarterback recruit will almost certainly get the first chance to run it. Dillon redshirted this season after undergoing shoulder surgery following his final high school basketball season.

Hirschman, who gave the Buffs their best half of quarterback play last week in Arizona before suffering a concussion, has the best chance to be given a chance to compete with Dillon for the job.

“Shane has a real good arm,” Embree said recently on the Dave Logan Show. “In the summer prior to his senior year (at Christian High School in El Cajon, Calif.), he was ranked seventh in the Elite 11 quarterback camp. They take all the best quarterbacks from around the country and he came in seventh.

“He hurt his shoulder in the championship game, so he had surgery after basketball season. He’s a very good basketball player, plays on those travel teams and all that. So that tells you what kind of athlete he is. He can play point, he can shoot it, he runs the floor. As we talk about versions of the spread and the things we want to do to the offense, he’s a kid that can run. He’s got some shake to him.

“He’s a vocal leader. You watch him with the guys on the scout team, he knows when to get on ’em, he knows when to encourage ’em. He’s a kid that we’re very excited about. We do a lot of work with our young kids after practice. We’ll stay out and do things, whether it’s seven-on-seven or one-on-one. He makes some good throws. He’s shown his accuracy. That’s probably the one thing that separates him from these other guys right now is he’s an accurate kid, he’s a pretty naturally accurate kid.”

Another advantage Dillon will bring is that he’s been working on the scout team in practice with redshirt receiver Paul Richardson, the Buffs’ best offensive player.

Embree has played four quarterbacks this season — junior transfer Jordan Webb, Hirschman, sophomore transfer Connor Wood and walk-on freshman John Schrock.

Webb was consistently the best quarterback in practice, but you couldn’t tell from his play in games. He started the first nine, going 1-8. Hirschman started last week in Tucson, completing 12 of 13 passes for 123 yards and one interception before being knocked out of the game with a concussion.

With Hirschman unavailable this week, Wood started against Washington and threw two early interceptions. Webb replaced him and completed six of 16 passes for 33 yards, an average of 2.1 yards per attempt. In a sign of exasperation, Embree allowed Schrock to finish up.

Asked 10 days ago about the quarterback competition next year, Embree said this:

“For (Dillon), it’s just getting the reps. As we go through this season, we’ll figure out who he’ll be competing with, whether it’s one or two of those guys. Let those guys who aren’t going to be involved in the competition, let them know that. And then let those guys go compete.”

Based on their performances this season, I’m guessing Webb and Wood will be told they are not in the mix to start in 2013. That’s pure speculation; I could be wrong. Both have already transferred once — Webb from Kansas, Wood from Texas — so their options are limited.

But considering the hints Embree has dropped, it looks like Dillon’s job to lose. After all, he can’t be any worse than the this year’s cast.

As for the scheme he’ll run, it will almost certainly include some read option calls out of a spread formation.

“We’re in the process of trying to make that transition,” Embree said. “I’ll talk more specifics after the season but we’re going to change some things that we’re doing offensively, and how we’re doing some things. I’ve had some good discussion with some peers around the country that aren’t in our conference and a couple of them are in our conference. That’s something that I’m definitely looking to do.

“We’ve got to find a way to have an equalizer. When people load the box right now, they put one more than you can block down in the box to take away the run and they’re able to man cover you right now. That makes it hard to run the football.

“And then obviously you’ve got a find a way to help your guys on the perimeter get open and create some space for them. Generally, in a pro-style offense, a lot of that’s predicated off of play action. That helps you with protection and also allows you to push the ball down the field. But obviously when you can’t run the football, play action really doesn’t do you any good.”

So while we wait to see what other changes CU makes — and there will almost certainly be a shakeup of Embree’s staff — of this we can be reasonably certain: The Buffs will feature a new quarterback and a new offensive scheme in 2013.


Serious question: Can anybody here make a shot?

Erik Spoelstra looked like a man who’d just received an early Christmas present.

His team hadn’t won in Denver since long before he started coaching it — 10 years ago, in fact — and it arrived Thursday under circumstances known in the NBA as a fait accompli. Since the 2006-07 season, teams flying in from the west coast to play the second of back-to-back games were 2-26 against the Nuggets, largely because they seldom got to bed before the sun rose the day of the game.

This is the circumstance that so infuriated Spurs coach Gregg Popovich in 2009 that he made his top four players healthy scratches in apparent protest of the schedule makers — and nearly pulled out a win with his bench.

In this case, Spoelstra, the Miami Heat coach, had no choice but to sit one of his stars. Dwyane Wade missed the game with a foot injury. To stretch his roster further, his other starting guard, Mario Chalmers, went out in the first quarter after taking a Kenneth Faried elbow to his triceps.

So the defending NBA champions were not only exhausted, they were also short-handed. Concluding a five-game road trip that had taken them from Atlanta to Los Angeles, the Heat was riding for a fall.

The Nuggets’ plan in such games is generally as simple as it is predatory: Take advantage of the visitors’ fatigue by having the public address announcer remind them of the elevation and then run them into the ground with a turbocharged offense fueled by Ty Lawson, their jet of a point guard.

Rested and waiting for the Heat after two days off and motivated by a narrow loss in Miami less than two weeks before, Thursday night’s late TNT game at the Pepsi Center (a made-for-TV 8:45 p.m. tip) seemed scripted for payback.

Instead, the Nuggets came out lethargic, inexplicably failed to cover Miami’s myriad three-point shooters and, as has been their custom in the early going of the new season, couldn’t make a three ball or a free throw themselves. They were down eight after one quarter and 12 at the half. At some point, it occurred to the tired visitors that they might actually win the thing.

“We came too far to let that game slip away from us,” LeBron James said afterward.

The Heat controlled the pace of the game until the fourth quarter, when the Nuggets made a frantic run that was too little, too late.

“A little bit of adversity, Dwyane being out, ‘Rio having to come out in the first quarter, and then the challenge of playing to the west coast to here,” Spoelstra said.

“We didn’t want to come in with any excuses. The thing about this ball club, the one thing you can’t knock them about is rising to challenges. I could tell even from the walk-through today that it wasn’t just about showing up and laying down, but really trying to overcome the odds. Everybody was so well aware of what the record is in the last three or four years here when you’re coming from the west coast. So it shows the character of our group.”

Seriously? Winning a regular season game now demonstrates character?

Fine, whatever. But what did it show about the new-look Nuggets, other than the possibility they were blinded by their own phosphorescent new yellow uniforms?

Well, let’s see. They’re not running at anything like the pace of the past. After leading the NBA in scoring the past two seasons, they rank 10th through their first nine games. They are down from 107 and 104 points per game to 98 in the early going this year. Against a team ripe to be run into the ground, they played at a lugubrious pace that produced just 66 through three quarters, finishing with 93 after their belated rush.

“They’re a smart team,” said veteran Andre Miller, who almost willed the Nuggets to victory on his own with a brilliant fourth quarter. “They’ve got guys over there that have been to the Finals and you’ve got veterans — Mike Miller, Rashard Lewis, you got Ray Allen, you got Shane (Battier). Those guys over there are smart and know how to control the game and know how to take out a transition. And they did that.”

The Nuggets’ decline in scoring is partly a function of pace, but it’s also a natural result of the fact that they aren’t shooting well. At all.

Through their first nine games, they rank 16th in field goal percentage (.436), 25th in three-point percentage (.300) and 30th (out of 30) in free-throw percentage (.647). Thursday night they missed six of 19 foul shots, including two in a row by Faried with his team down five points and 2:19 remaining in the game.

“The one that scares me a little bit is our free throws,” coach George Karl said. “Free throws have an effect on your other shooting. There’s a confidence that comes from making free throws and if you don’t make free throws, sometimes that confidence rubs off on other shots. It’s a mental thing.”

Lawson, allegedly their emerging star, was a zero, and I mean that strictly in the arithmetic sense. He totaled zero points in 36 minutes, missing all seven of his shots, not getting to the free throw line once and failing to ignite the frenetic pace he fired up the past two seasons.

“We’ve got to start making shots,” Karl admitted. “We’ve got to make free throws and we’ve got to make threes.”

It is way too early to judge the Nuggets’ big off-season move — trading shooter Al Harrington and 2-guard Arron Afflalo for Andre Iguodala — but it is not too early to observe that their best player for the moment is Miller, a 36-year-old guard, which is not that good a sign for a team ostensibly full of budding young stars.

If the Nuggets have a big three, they are Lawson, Iguodala and Danilo Gallinari, each averaging more than 35 minutes a game. Their shooting percentages, respectively, are .383, .441 and .322.

“We need more, probably, from Ty, Gallo and Iguodola,” Karl acknowledged.

And, if I may interject a question from the cheap seats, why is Kosta Koufos starting for this team? The 7-footer spent 14 minutes on the court doing a pretty good impression of a streetlamp. In the second half, Karl subbed him out after barely three minutes.

JaVale McGee gets most of the minutes in the middle — he had 18 points, six boards and four blocked shots in 21 on Thursday — but Karl doesn’t like to play him beside Faried for too long because they both tend to gamble defensively. When they’re on the floor together, it produces unreliable defensive rotations. But against a Miami team without a center, I could only conclude that Koufos either has pictures of somebody in the organization or holds the solution to the Greek debt crisis.

I know, it’s early. At 4-5, having played only three home games, the Nuggets are in the midst of surviving an early stretch in the schedule that has them playing nine of their first 12 on the road. Still, when your best-looking outside shooter is 22-year-old Jordan Hamilton, barely a member of the playing rotation when everyone is healthy, that’s a problem.

The Nuggets are built for speed and defense. Their offense is supposed to be fired by their defense and transition game. Theoretically, they don’t have to shoot from the perimeter much because they score so much in the paint and on the break.

They do win most of the hustle categories most of the time. They beat the Heat in points in the paint (50-24), fast break points (19-6) and second-chance points (22-12). They did a nice job crowding James, holding him to 11-of-23 shooting, although this left lots of three-point shooters wide open, including young Norris Cole, who hit the dagger with 1:03 remaining and the Nuggets down by one.

Unfortunately, the home team’s crooked shooting made all their extra hustle possessions necessary just to stay close. Miami had one fewer field goal on 11 fewer attempts. The Heat outscored them 39-18 from long distance. Without Wade and Chalmers, Spoelstra surrounded LeBron with three-point shooters and dared the Nuggets to cover them. The Nuggets largely declined. Battier hit six of seven threes; Miller, four of eight.

“There’s a process,” Karl said. “Our personality is different. Andre Iguodola is different from Al and Arron and we have to learn this team’s personality of winning. I don’t think we’re that far away from getting that done.”

I wouldn’t be surprised. No one in the NBA is better than Karl at adapting to his talent. On the other hand, it’s hard to win consistently in the NBA if you can’t shoot, and it’s really hard to win playoff series if you can’t shoot.

Not long ago, TNT analyst Steve Kerr said he thought Gallinari had regressed since coming to Denver from New York. In his early days as a Knick, Kerr thought he would be a great three-point shooter. Now he’s a guy who seems to shoot mostly off-balance, fadeaway jumpers. He’s shooting .222 from long distance in the early going.

Granted, there’s plenty of time to work out the kinks of yet another chemistry experiment. But if the shooting doesn’t come around in a month or two, general manager Masai Ujiri might have to look at making another move.


Ruminations on putting the band back together

Recapturing the good old days is a wistful preoccupation, caught somewhere between tradition and nostalgia. But it’s not always as desperate and hopeless as cynics suggest, particularly in the world of sports, where tradition still matters.

The Broncos brought back John Elway, to promising results so far, and Joe Sakic is in training for a similar second act with the Avalanche. So the Rockies’ reach back into their own brief history for a new manager and hitting coach seems less like desperation than finally staking a claim to an organizational identity.

They may not have Hall of Fame legends like Elway and Sakic to call on, but the Rocks do have a cheerful band of brothers that remembers when big league baseball was new in Colorado and everybody was too thrilled to complain about its . . . uh . . . idiosyncrasies.

When I asked Dante Bichette, the old Blake Street Bomber and new hitting coach, if it felt like they were getting the band back together, he laughed.

“Absolutely, man!” he said. “Bring ’em on back. Every organization has their guys. The Rockies don’t have a long history. We don’t have Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays, but this is what we’ve got and we understand what it was like in the beginning, how special these fans are. So absolutely, I want to perform for fans there because they were so good to me. That’s a little motivation there.”

Bringing back Bichette and Walt Weiss, the Rocks’ new manager, is about more than connecting with a happier time. After all, the art of pitching, the most inscrutable and important of baseball’s secrets, was at least as mysterious then as it is now, particularly here, a mile above sea level, where breaking balls betray their name and fly balls, like field goals, fly a little bit farther.

No, it’s also about putting today’s club in the hands of people familiar with the issues unique to Colorado, people unafraid to confront them.

“I believe you’ve got to be tougher and you’ve got to be smarter to play here than just about anyplace else,” Weiss said last week as he became the Rocks’ sixth manager and their first former player to take the job.

“That could be a badge of honor, but we’ve got to be smart, too, about the grind of the game here — recovery here and all those things that there’s been a lot of research on, particularly lately. Those are all factors about how you run a club. But you’ve got to be tougher, and more than anything, mentally tougher, and smarter than most. That’s something we should take pride in and we should embrace.”

Weiss thus becomes the Rockies’ first manager to acknowledge and confront on Day One the unique challenges of playing 81 games a season at Coors Field. For most of their history, Rocks managers have believed that ignoring these issues, or at least not talking about them, was the best approach.

The theory went something like this: If you acknowledge publicly the challenges that no one inside the sport denies, you’ve given your players a ready excuse when they fail. This theory was propounded in the organization’s early days, before data piled up to confirm the message that intuition and observation had already delivered. So, in a reflexive nod to the macho culture of athletics, the Rocks’ message to their players was simple: Ignore it, be mentally tough, overcome it. Heck, maybe it will go away.

The last two seasons, and particularly this last one, the worst in franchise history, changed all that. For one thing, a management team that has been around for more than half the club’s history was as surprised as anyone by their charming ballpark’s sudden nostalgia for horror movies of the past. Mike Hampton was back, but his name was Jeremy Guthrie. Thankfully, the lesson he repeated — some pitchers just can’t handle it here — came at a much cheaper cost.

In the face of a debilitating drought across the western United States, with forest fires raging, the ball flew as it hadn’t since the humidor was installed at Coors Field in 2002. The Rocks had their own little version of climate change, quite a challenge for sports executives whose analytical skills had previously been focused principally on bullpens and batting cages.

The players, of course, have been dealing with all this stuff for years. They just didn’t talk much about it because that was against club policy. It made you weak.

Even aside from the screamingly obvious — the great Greg Maddux became thoroughly ordinary at Coors Field, as if the green seats were made of kryptonite — the symptoms were largely ignored. An ESPN blogger wrote recently that Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez is clearly not a superstar because he hits only at Coors Field, citing his .234 batting average on the road last season.

Of course, if you’ve followed the Rocks for more than about five minutes, you know this has been a pattern for 20 years. Home/road splits of more than 100 points, unheard of elsewhere, are routine here. Bichette was working on this before anybody. Back in the 1990s, he took a pitching machine on the road with him — general manager Bob Gebhard called it a curveball machine — trying to acclimate to sea-level breaking balls so his performance wouldn’t fall off a cliff each time the Rocks hit the road.

“I don’t want to give all my secrets away, but the breaking ball . . . you see ’em on the road,” he said this week. “You go on the road and they throw breaking balls. And then at home, it doesn’t quite break. There’s where the problem lies. I don’t think it’s from the light air as far as the ball traveling, it’s more in the breaking balls that are hanging up and they get hit harder. The home/road, I don’t care who you bring in there, they struggle a little bit on the road. So there’s something there and I’ve just tried to figure that out. The curveball machine’s a good idea. I’ve got some other ideas that hopefully we can get them to understand that.”

Weiss’ plan is pretty much the opposite of the organization’s approach in the past. Rather than ignore or downplay the difficulties of playing at Coors, he wants to recognize them and emphasize them in the minds of visitors — sort of the way the Nuggets remind visitors of the thin air with elevation signs before running them into exhaustion.

“I think we’ve got to understand the vulnerability of the opposing pitcher,” Weiss said. “They’re more vulnerable here than they are anywhere else. I don’t care what they say; that’s a fact. I played here as an opposing player with some of the best that have ever stepped on the mound and I know what their mindset is. So that’s got to be our mentality, that we need to exploit that.”

He was referring to the great Braves staffs that included Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, who welcomed most challenges but dreaded pitching at Coors Field. Of course, the Rocks can take advantage of opposing pitchers only if their own are far better equipped to deal than they were last season.

“That’s going to be part of this process,” Weiss said. “With some arms getting healthy, that’s going to help us. We’ve got some young arms. No doubt they’re going to have to grow up at the major league level quickly, but we’ve got some young power arms . . . .

“Learning how to pitch here, that’s something that we’ll spend a lot of time on so that we have a plan, a better plan than the opposing team is going to have, when they take the mound. Again, we’ve got to look at it as an advantage for us. That’s how we’ve got to approach all the aspects of playing here. The challenges are unique here, but so are the advantages, and that’s what we’ve got to focus on.”

Frankly, I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s clearly the attitude the club needs to take. Only a much larger swath of history will tell us if the challenges Weiss referred to can be overcome with any consistency. It was only three years ago that the Rocks had the best starting rotation in the National League when measured by advanced metrics that take into account ballpark factors. Five pitchers — Ubaldo Jimenez, Jason Marquis, Jorge De La Rosa, Jason Hammel and Aaron Cook — started all but seven of the team’s 162 games in 2009, and the Rocks went to the playoffs. Within two years, all five had either broken down physically or regressed dramatically.

Why? Twenty years of data suggested two things to Rockies management. First, pitchers generally put more strain on their shoulders and elbows here trying to make pitches bite and cut the way they do at sea level. That doesn’t have any long-term effect on visitors who pitch here only occasionally, but over time, for pitchers making half their starts here, it leads to more injuries. Second, the frustration so obvious in Hampton and Guthrie manifests itself more subtly in other psyches, producing more nibbling, more fear of throwing strikes.

So last year the front office came up with the much-maligned four-man, paired pitching rotation in which the starter was limited to roughly 75 pitches and a second pitcher was designated to replace him and carry the game to the point where the bullpen would normally take over. The pitch limit was designed to encourage strike throwing and discourage fatigue-related injuries. This was an approach that had been discussed as far back as a decade ago, when the concerns were still mostly intuitive. Bob McClure, then the pitching coach at Triple-A Colorado Springs and later pitching coach for the Royals and Red Sox, was one of the first members of the Rockies organization to think about new approaches to pitching here.

Unfortunately, the Rocks implemented the plan during a season in which they had lost virtually their entire starting rotation to injury. The kids they put in their place weren’t ready, and no system was going to compensate for starting pitching that finished with a league-worst earned-run average of 5.81.

The organization also got pushback from its own clubhouse, including manager Jim Tracy, prompting it to give assistant general manager Bill Geivett a new title — director of major league operations — along with a desk in the clubhouse. There were going to be more experiments to deal with the challenges at Coors, and GM Dan O’Dowd thought the club needed better communication and coordination between uniformed and non-uniformed personnel.

Tracy resigned at season’s end rather than honor the final year of his contract under these circumstances. The new arrangement was considered something of an overhang on the search for his replacement. As a novice, Weiss isn’t worried about it.

“To be honest, it’s not a great concern of mine,” he said. “Geivo I look at as a great resource for me. He knows the game well, he’s got a sharp mind, he knows our club really well, he’s a guy I can lean on. There’s going to be a bit of a learning curve for me. Regardless of how much time I’ve spent around the game and 21 years at the big league level, still I’ve never sat in the manager’s seat. I’m not afraid to say that. He’s a guy that I’ll lean on as well as other guys on our staff until I find a rhythm of certain aspects of the job. It’s not an issue for me; it’s not a concern.”

On the offensive side, the Rocks have bounced from one extreme to the other over the past few years. Don Baylor, their original manager, was replaced as hitting coach two years ago because he was considered too laid back. Carney Lansford was replaced this fall because he was considered too Type A, too pushy.

Bichette, the Rocks hope, will be just right. For veterans who know what they’re doing, he said, he may do little more than organize batting practice. With younger players who need instruction, he plans to be more active. One of Bichette’s greatest strengths as a player was hitting with two strikes, a skill he believes might improve the Rocks’ clutch hitting generally.

“You’ve got to let the ball get a little deeper with two strikes,” he said. “To me, two-strike hitting and hitting in the clutch go hand in hand because when you’re sitting with two strikes, that pitcher’s trying to punch you out. He’s throwing his nastiest pitch on the corner, trying to get you to chase. And it’s very similar when you get guys in scoring position. Pitchers aren’t coming to you. They’re trying to get you to chase. So those things I kind of felt like I figured out a little bit, and hopefully I can relay that to some of the younger players.”

There’s no substitute for experience. That’s a cliche because it’s true. Weiss and Bichette have no experience in their new jobs at the major league level. On the other hand, they are the first generation of leaders in uniform that also wore Rockies pinstripes as players. They have experience doing what they will now ask others to do.

Whether it actually helps remains to be seen. It is just one of the experiments the Rocks are likely to try in the coming year. But it is more than a feel-good exercise. It is more than looking back wistfully at a happier time. It is an attempt to recognize the unique challenges this club faces and to put it in the hands of men who know from personal experience exactly what they are.