Monthly Archives: December 2012

Nevermore: Broncos ditch doomsday scenario

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,

As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

`’Tis some visitor,’ I muttered, `tapping at my chamber door –

Only this, and nothing more.’

Spoiler alert: ‘Twas not a visitor. ‘Twas the Raven. And this is what the Broncos said Sunday about the Ravens’ previous dominance in the city of Edgar Allan Poe:


No single Sunday has delivered results so promising for Denver’s football squad since the Sunday in March when Peyton Manning elected to join it.

It was not merely that the Broncos expunged an ignominious losing streak in Baltimore, nor that they won their ninth consecutive game, a streak now tied for third-longest in franchise history.

It was mainly that they leapfrogged the defrocked New England Patriots in the conference standings, with a little help from the San Francisco 49ers, who blitzed the Pats on Sunday Night Football, then hung on by their fingernails in the second half.

If the Broncos win out at home against the hapless Cleveland Browns (5-9) and Kansas City Chiefs (2-12), they will finish the season as at least the AFC’s No. 2 seed. (If the Houston Texans were to lose both of their remaining games, against Minnesota and Indianapolis, the Broncos could ascend to No. 1.)

Earning one of the top two seeds not only gets them a first-round bye, meaning they would need two playoff victories to reach the Super Bowl rather than three. It also exempts them from another postseason trip to Foxboro, Mass., and you may remember how the last one of those turned out.

This was widely assumed to be the Broncos’ doomsday scenario. No matter how well they played in the regular season, if they finished with a playoff seed inferior to that of the Patriots, the season likely would end again in disappointment far from home. After all, last year’s dream ended with a 45-10 spanking at Gillette Stadium. Even with Manning on board the Broncos’ bus, the Patriots beat them at Gillette again, 31-21, earlier this season.

The combination of the Broncos’ win at Baltimore and the Patriots’ 41-34 loss to the Niners means that if the Broncos win out, any postseason meeting with Tom Brady & Co. will be in Denver, not New England.

And so, as surely as winter follows fall, here comes the Super Bowl talk. Whether you get your sports conversation from the radio, TV or social media, you will be treated to a barrage of excited Super Bowl talk for at least the next three weeks. The Broncos will do their best to ignore it.

“We’re not measuring ourselves now,” coach John Fox said after his team improved to 11-3 on the season. “We need to measure ourselves at the end to be the best. Right now, our guys have responded very well to just improving every week, and we’ve kept it as simple as that. The big challenge this week was to win the turnover battle and we were able to do that. I thought that was the biggest difference in the game. This (Ravens) team is a very good football team and we may run into them again.”

To appreciate how hard it is to do what the Broncos did — playing every phase of the game expertly with two rushing touchdowns, a passing touchdown, an interception for a touchdown, a stifling defense, two takeaways, no giveaways and a dominant time of possession — you have only to observe the frustration along the other sideline.

“The thing about football is the offense can be playing really well and then the defense is not playing really well; it’s lopsided,” said Ravens running back Ray Rice, who was held to 38 rushing yards. “Today the defense was playing really well, and we didn’t. Last week, it was the flip side. We have to find a way to come together and play as one unit. ”

For all the Broncos’ ultimate dominance, the key play in this one came at the end of the first half, with the Ravens on the verge of a touchdown that would have cut the Broncos’ lead to 10-7. The home team, which had only four first downs and 119 yards before intermission, finally got its offense moving in the last two minutes, connecting on a 43-yard pass from Joe Flacco to Jacoby Jones to begin the drive and arriving at the Broncos’ 4-yard line with a first-and-goal and barely 30 seconds showing.

Head coach John Harbaugh, new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell and Flacco, the quarterback, had two choices. They could call timeout — they had all three remaining — and set up a play, or they could run to the line of scrimmage and run a play out of the no-huddle offense in an effort to catch the Broncos off guard. They chose the latter. The Broncos were not caught off guard.

“There were 34 seconds when the ball was snapped,” Harbaugh said. “With three timeouts left that’s going to give us time to run three plays. That’s plenty of time. Throughout the course of the drive, we wanted to score, but we didn’t want to leave a lot of time on the clock. That’s a strategic call. We have a number of plays we run with no-huddle that are not kill-the-clock plays, but they are run-route plays, and that was the play we had. And we thought that gave us a great chance to score, and that’s what we ran.”

The Ravens chose a pass play with one receiver running a fade to Flacco’s left and another, Anquan Boldin, running a flat route beneath the fade. Flacco is supposed to check the fade first, then the flat. If neither is open, he’s supposed to throw it away, stop the clock, try again.

“That’s one of our plays that you kind of get a flat and a fade, and it’s kind of like going up and clocking the ball,” Flacco said. “It’s kind of like calling a timeout in that situation because it’s one of those things that you catch it and get out of bounds, you catch it in the end zone, or you throw it away, and you live for the next down. I just made a mistake, there’s no other way to put that. I made a mistake. I wanted to have the fade, and I came down to the flat, and the guy undercut it, picked it and went the whole way. It’s just a mistake on my part.”

The guy was Chris Harris, the former undrafted free agent who took over for Tracy Porter opposite Champ Bailey earlier in the season and has not permitted Porter to get back on the field. He cut in front of Boldin, caught Flacco’s pass at the 2-yard line and sprinted up the Broncos’ sideline 98 yards for a touchdown, the longest regular-season interception return for a score in franchise history. The previous record — a 93-yard return at Cleveland 32 years ago — was authored by linebacker Randy Gradishar.

“Chris did a good job kind of hanging back there, and stepped in front, right in front of our bench,” Fox said with a smile. “He had a lot of direction from the sideline on that (return).”

“A 14-point swing,” Manning said. “Baltimore has some momentum there on the drive and looks like they’re probably going to get the touchdown. Plus they get the ball the first series of the second half. So just a huge play by Chris, undercutting it. The turnover is good; the fact that he took it all the way to the house for a touchdown is even bigger. Big swing in the game, in the momentum, and I thought it kind of jump-started everything in the second half for us.”

“I didn’t really expect him to throw that out-route, but he threw it to me, and I just wanted to make sure I scored,” Harris said. “That was a long run, but once I got to the 40, I was like, ‘I just have to stride it on in.’ ”

Flacco tried to run him down, but managed only to dive at his feet as he flew into the end zone.

Asked to explain what happened on the play, Boldin, the intended receiver, replied: “I’d rather not.”

Someone asked Flacco if he changed his mind at the last moment about where to go with the ball.

“No, I was just reading it out,” he said. “The fade was just taking a little bit longer than I wanted. I was probably a little bit late on it because the sideline was squeezing with (Boldin) and all that. In hindsight, I should have just taken the ball and thrown it over Anquan’s head and lived for the next play.”

The Ravens did manage a scoring drive to start the second half, but they got only a field goal out of it. When the Broncos responded with consecutive touchdowns, it was 31-3 and all over but the excuses. The first of Denver’s two third-quarter touchdowns came on a 51-yard bomb from Manning to Eric Decker, who finished with eight catches for 133 yards in an oftense that seems to reward a different receiver each week.

“(We) were hitting some outs and some intermediate routes and we thought it was time to maybe send something down the field,” Manning said. “They had good cover guys outside, so anytime you’re playing against good cover guys you’ve got to give them the mix, you’ve got to give them the short, the intermediate and the deep stuff.

“It was a double-move by Eric, a good route, good protection. I really thought it was set up by the run game. We were running the ball well. It was off a run play we’d been running. Had a good fake. I don’t know that it necessarily froze the safety or anybody, but it just gives you that good mix of run and the play-action when you’re running the ball well.”

Ravens safety Ed Reed undercut the route, leaving Decker with single coverage, perhaps because Decker had been running comeback routes for much of the day.

The Broncos ran the ball 45 times and threw it just 28. Even subtracting the final series — two kneel-downs by backup quarterback Brock Osweiler and a no-gain run by rookie running back Ronnie Hillman — this is a heavier dose of running plays than one normally associates with Manning, who set or extended two more NFL records Sunday (most 11-win seasons, 9; most 4,000-yard passing seasons, 12).

Manning said one series where he threw it on all three downs — and went three-and-out, getting knocked down by the pass rush twice — represented probably the worst play-calling of the day. Heavy reliance on the running game was not a plan solely for the Ravens. The Broncos are coming to understand it will be a good strategy in the playoffs against higher-scoring offenses as well. If the re-emergence of Knowshon Moreno is paired with veteran Willis McGahee, who could be ready to return from injury for the AFC Championship Game, the Broncos’ ground game could be nearly as formidable as their aerial attack.

“It’s something we’re going to have to be able to do,” Manning told KOA. “Especially against teams that have these explosive offenses, you don’t want to give them the ball back.”

So let the fans and media types talk about the Super Bowl. Manning will make use of every moment of practice and game action between now and then to get in closer touch with his new teammates. They may not seem new to you anymore, but they do to him.

“You try to learn something every day,” he said. “You get a little more comfortable with something every day, but it’s still very new, there’s no question about it.

“I think the goal is to get on the same page. Obviously, the more that the receivers and I are on the same page, the better for our offense, the better for our team. I do think the more games you play, the better you’re going to be; the more practice reps you get, going against our secondary in one-on-one drills in practice.

“What are we, in Week 15 here, that’s all the time we’ve had to improve our timing. It’s not what it’s going to be if you play with guys six, seven, eight years. So it feels like a scramble and you’re trying to use every piece of practice that you have — walkthroughs, meetings, special teams periods where you might get them off to the side. We try to use all those things to talk football.

“There’s some things we’ve made strides on; there’s some things that I think you just have to have more time in order to get more on the same page. But I appreciate the work ethic. I know Decker had a good day today. DT probably didn’t have the numbers that he’s been having, but his presence, I can assure you, is a huge part of what’s going on out there. It’s a huge part of why the run game is good.

“For the most part, those runs, Baltimore had their safeties and corners apart, or removed from the line of scrimmage. That’s because the respect they have for a guy like Demaryius Thomas and Decker. So if you can run it versus those looks; when they come up, if you can throw it, that means you’re playing good offensive football.”

Winners of nine in a row, now in position to earn a first-round bye and second-round home game in the playoffs, the Broncos, according to their quarterback, remain a work in progress.

But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only,

That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.

Nothing further then he uttered – not a feather then he fluttered –

Till I scarcely more than muttered `Other friends have flown before –

On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before.’

Then the bird said, `Nevermore.’

My Heisman ballot, for all the good it will do

Can we just admit right now that the Heisman Trophy does not, in fact, reward the most outstanding player in college football, or do we have to wait until Saturday?

The Heisman Trophy rewards the most outstanding offensive player in college football, and frankly, even that is too broad because the next offensive lineman to win the award will be the first.

The Heisman Trophy rewards the most outstanding offensive skill position player in college football, and if you’re a wide receiver it’s going on twenty years since somebody with your job description won it, so good luck.

This is an award for the glory hogs, OK? Of the last thirteen winners, ten were quarterbacks and the other three were running backs. Two positions out of twenty-two, thirteen years in a row.

That’s fine. Fans love the glory hogs. Just call it what it is. Don’t pretend it’s going to the best player — most outstanding player is the language in the instructions — if it’s impossible for the vast majority of positions to win it.

Charles Woodson, you say. Right. Out of 76 winners of the annual award, one had a defensive position — cornerback — listed next to his name.

Of course, Woodson wasn’t solely a cornerback in college. He also played a little wide receiver for Michigan, and was a thrilling punt returner. Without those credits, he never would have won it. So the fact remains that no one playing exclusively on the defensive side of the ball has ever won the thing.

Not only that, Woodson beat out Peyton Manning in 1997 for the 63rd Heisman, so you can bet Heisman voters won’t make that mistake again.

Keep this in mind: Woodson won in ’97 with eight interceptions. As a defensive back.

Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o had seven interceptions this season. As a linebacker. Along with 103 tackles. For the No. 1 team in the country. The best player on the best team.

Hmm. I know I’ve heard that expression before.

But no, you say. This is not an award for the most valuable player. It’s an award for the most outstanding player.

What does that mean, exactly? It means quarterback or running back, that’s what.

Of the last eleven Heismans, ten went to quarterbacks. When Johnny Manziel becomes the first freshman winner Saturday, it will be eleven out of twelve. Manziel has to win because he has more total yards than the other quarterbacks who have won, so you can see how the diminishing eligibility criteria become self-fulfilling.

Te’o will join Hugh Green of Pittsburgh in 1980 as only the second defensive player to finish second. That will have to be enough.

Well, that and the Maxwell Award, which also purports to honor the most outstanding player in college football. The Maxwell broke with tradition to assert that a defensive player as good as Te’o deserved that honorific for the first time since 1980.

Good for the Maxwell. Even as the Heisman narrows its view of eligibility for outstandingness, maybe the Maxwell will continue to expand its view.

Oh, Te’o also won the Walter Camp Player of the Year Award. And the Bednarik Award for best defensive player.

So Manti is collecting plenty of hardware. He’ll be fine. Just don’t tell me the Heisman recognizes the most outstanding player in college football. Because that’s got to be a defender occasionally. Just by the law of averages.

Anyway, my Heisman ballot, filed on time and everything, for all the good it will do:

1. Manti Te’o, Notre Dame.

2. Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M.

3. Collin Klein (of Loveland, Colo.), Kansas State.

How about we just call it the Heisman Glory Hound Award? Would that work for everybody?

Time for a little leadership at CU

Considering how many smart people they employ, it is surprisingly difficult for universities to come up with strong institutional leaders. Nowhere is this more obvious than at the University of Colorado.

The generic problem is that academic administrators are generally academics and prone to forms of academic expression that, surveys show, put about 85 percent of the population to sleep. They are not accustomed to the public spotlight and seldom blossom there. When it comes to sports, they often have the additional handicap of knowing and caring little or nothing about them.

Confronted by skeptics who have inexplicably devoted their careers to these extracurricular activities — sports reporters, columnists, talk show hosts and so forth — this combination of pedantic generalities, topical ignorance and lack of passion often makes university administrators appear clueless when it comes to their athletic departments.

At Colorado State, they got lucky. A doctor of veterinary medicine hired to chair the pathology department and subsequently promoted up the administrative ladder happened to be a devoted sports fan. Early in his presidency, he named an athletic director from outside the university who, among other virtues, speaks plain English. Jack Graham wasted little time in firing the incumbent football coach and replacing him with Alabama’s offensive coordinator. Graham and Dr. Tony Frank are now embarked on the ambitious pursuit of a new football stadium on campus.

At CU, there hasn’t been that sort of leadership from the top since Gordon Gee was president, and that’s more than twenty years ago now. When CU hired Bruce Benson as president nearly five years ago, it appeared from the outside that it was seeking strong, non-academic leadership. Benson is an alumnus who made his money in oil and gas and once ran for governor, a man much more practiced in the art of public relations than most academics.

It turns out the reason CU hired Benson was to raise money, which he has done prodigiously. But his interminable fundraising makes him virtually invisible to the public at large. When former coach Bill McCartney essentially accused CU of institutional racism in an emotional reaction to the firing of his protege, football coach Jon Embree, all you heard from CU was the sound of crickets.

When athletic director Mike Bohn’s pursuit of Butch Jones, head coach at the University of Cincinnati, imploded following a false newspaper report that Jones had accepted, the only sound from CU was a prepared statement of pedantic generalities from chancellor Phil DiStefano. It’s not his fault. DiStefano is a career educational administrator, a professional pedant, if you will. It’s what he does.

Leaks to the media made Bohn’s pursuit of Jones much more public than it should have been and its implosion a much more public defeat than it need have been. Whether those leaks came from Jones’ side, to increase his bargaining power with Cincinnati, or from CU, to counter the bad press McCartney was generating, doesn’t really matter. They put the courtship — and the specifics of CU’s contract offer — on the public stage.

When it was reported in Denver on Wednesday that Jones had accepted the job, the president of the University of Cincinnati, Santa Ono, put in a call to his football coach. Jones denied the report, and Ono tweeted that he trusted his coach. That made it virtually impossible for Jones to turn around and accept the CU job a day later without looking disingenuous.

This is not the CU athletic department’s first public relations embarrassment in recent weeks. Its decision to hold a press conference around Embree’s firing blew up in its face when Embree came off as the emotional, genuine guy he is and Bohn came across as a bureaucratic caricature weighed down by jargon and talking points.

When Benson was hired, some academics at CU feared an oil and gas man would run their school more like a business than a respected teaching and research institution. By serving as a tireless ambassador and fundraiser, Benson has quieted those concerns.

Well, he needs to think of his job in business terms now. No business in its right mind holds a press conference with an executive it just fired, in a room full of his former charges. No business in its right mind leaks details of an executive search in order to curry favor with the media or public. No competently-run business responds to a public relations crisis by putting front and center spokesmen who are quite clearly not up to the task.

Benson is currently the only person with the power and ability to give the impression that a capable hand is on the tiller. It is time to take a break from fundraising and provide some plain speaking and truth telling. It is time for a little leadership at CU.

Broncos may not be dominating, but they are rolling

So Mitch Unrein was doing what he does on the football field, which consists mainly of hand-to-hand combat with offensive lineman, when Jamon Meredith, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ right guard, reached through his face mask and gouged both his eyes simultaneously.

Temporarily blinded, Unrein reached out to fend off Meredith and was immediately penalized for the personal foul of putting his hands in another man’s face. These are the ironies NFL players live with.

Red-eyed but unbowed, Unrein absorbed this particular injustice more easily than most because he had caught a touchdown pass from Peyton Manning just a few minutes before, a rare moment of glory for a 290-pound defensive tackle from Eaton, Colorado who went undrafted and started his career on the practice squad.

“I was just glad he caught it,” teammate Champ Bailey said afterward. “You see a lot of linemen get wide open and drop that thing.”

“I’ve never had a TD catch in my entire life,” Unrein said. “The last time I scored a touchdown was as a freshman in high school. So it feels pretty good. I mean, it’s still kind of surreal.”

It was that kind of day for the Broncos, who marched down the field the first time they had the ball, topping off the drive with a goal line formation in which Unrein lined up at fullback. When he released into the left corner of the end zone, Manning lofted a floater into his arms for the one-yard touchdown.

But the Broncos seemed to regress into confusion for the remainder of the first half. At intermission, they trailed 10-7, and the mere seven points suggested their offense was short on rocket fuel.

“Their defense does a good job of moving around,” explained tight end Jacob Tamme, who, in the absence of veteran Brandon Stokley, became Manning’s security blanket.

“They run a lot of games up front and make it tough to run the ball because they’ve got D-linemen moving everywhere and linebackers doing the same thing. It was really just kind of adjusting to how they were playing us and we were able in the third quarter to come out and put some big drives together.”

Tampa defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan might have gotten this idea from Mike Nolan, the Atlanta coordinator with whom he competes in the NFC South. Nolan’s walk-around, amoeba defense confused Manning into three interceptions and the Broncos’ first loss in the second week of the season.

In this case, Manning seemed less confused than his linemen. He connected on 11 of 15 first-half passes, but the Broncos sabotaged their own efforts with six penalties for 60 yards before intermission, including 10-yard infractions against offensive linemen Orlando Franklin and Chris Kuper that short-circuited the two drives following the touchdown.

“I really felt like there were some opportunities there,” Manning said. “We had some self-inflicted penalties, some mistakes we thought were hurting us. Believe me, they have an excellent defense, but we thought we were doing some things to make it a little tougher.”

After scoring at least 30 points in the first five wins of their current seven-game winning streak — the fourth-longest in franchise history and longest in 14 years — the Broncos managed only 17 the previous week in Kansas City. Sitting with seven at halftime against Tampa, the orange-clad denizens of Sports Authority Field at Mile High began to grow restive.

If game balls went to coordinators, which they seldom do, Mike McCoy and Jack Del Rio might have deserved them after this one. In a contest of halftime adjustments, the Broncos dominated. They won the third quarter 21-0 and the fourth became a formality.

So much so that fans began to entertain themselves by doing the wave. Unfortunately, the Broncos had the ball at the time. Manning, needing quiet so his signals could be heard in the no-huddle offense, politely shushed them.

“I’m all for excitement, but certainly, in a no-huddle offense when you’re calling something at the line, the quieter the crowd can be, it certainly is helpful,” he explained, while also paying obligatory tribute to the crowd’s enthusiastic spirit.

Meanwhile, on the defensive side, the Broncos gave up consecutive scoring drives in the first quarter, then shut out quarterback Josh Freeman and his troops until the fourth, when a couple of late scores accounted for the 31-23 final. They limited Doug Martin, one of the NFL’s leading rushers also known, unfortunately, as The Muscle Hamster, to 56 yards on 18 carries, a measly average of 3.1 yards per.

“We just settled down,” Bailey said. “You’ve got to give (Freeman) credit. He’s a good quarterback. He’s been doing that all year, making plays early in the game. We knew if we just stay with it and just keep trusting our technique, we’ll be fine.”

“The hype these guys get is well-deserved,” Freeman said of the Broncos’ defense, which is ranked in the NFL’s top 10 for the first time since 2005. “They get after it. Their front four did a good job of timing their blitzes. The Denver defense played a great game today.”

Freeman completed six of eight passes in the first quarter, when the Bucs scored 10 points, but only two of six in the second and three of 12 in the third as the Broncos took control.

Von Miller had a quarterback sack to give him 15 on the year — third in the league behind San Francisco’s Aldon Smith (17.5) and Houston’s J.J. Watt (15.5) — but he also returned an interception for a touchdown, yet another plank in his campaign for defensive player of the year.

“He’s the best player in the NFL right now on defense,” said safety Rahim Moore. “He’s unstoppable. I’m just glad to be a part of his team. He makes all of us better.”

The Broncos improved their record to 9-3, clinching the AFC West title — and the playoff berth that goes with it — with four games still to play. They tied the Raiders, whom they play Thursday night in Oakland, for most AFC West titles all time, with 12.

They remain in a battle with the AFC’s other division leaders for playoff seeding. Baltimore, which leads the North, lost to Pittsburgh on Sunday, dropping them into a three-way tie with the Broncos and Patriots at 9-3. Like the Broncos, the Patriots clinched their division Sunday.

A win at Baltimore in two weeks would leapfrog the Broncos over the Ravens, but they still need help to pass the Patriots, who beat them earlier in the season, to get one of the top two AFC seeds and the first-round bye that goes with it. New England still must play Houston, which has the inside track on the AFC’s top playoff seed at 11-1, and San Francisco.

“Winning the division, that was certainly one of our goals,” Manning said. “We still want to keep getting better throughout the season.”

So the Broncos keep rolling along, playing well enough to win each week without exactly dominating.

“A year ago we were getting critiqued if we won or lost,” club vice president John Elway said last week. “Now we’re getting critiqued on how we win. So that’s a good thing, as long as we’re winning.”

The critics of the Manning signing have disappeared. The apocalyptic talk about his age and injuries has been silenced. The Broncos rule their division once more, the first step in Elway’s plan to return to their glory days.