By Zach Grove
One organization I have always admired is the Indianapolis Colts. From top to bottom, the Colts are built cohesively, from the superstar, #18, all the way down the coach’s clipboard to safeties, defensive linemen, linebackers, and reserves.
Much like a successful business, Bill Polian and the Manning-era Colts have a clear vision for their organization’s success, a vision they stick to throughout the draft and free agency when building their roster each spring.
When I think about it, this trait—we might call it “organizational cohesion”—is evident on nearly all teams that survive in the hunt for a Super Bowl come January. This trait is also the reason why John Fox may have the Broncos closer to bringing the Lombardi Trophy back to the Mile High city than diehard fans expect.
Let me explain. Indianapolis has been built deliberately to score touchdowns early, then, with the lead, attack the opposition’s hapless quarterback as he tries to rally. For the better part of the last decade (wins have been harder to come by in recent seasons), this is how the Colts have amassed twelve-win season after twelve-win season: Pass all over you until you’re forced to mount a comeback, then unleash the hounds when you try.
Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are perfect for Polian’s system of cohesive winning, precisely because they force opposing quarterbacks like Kyle Orton not only to outscore Manning, but to outscore Manning with less time in the pocket than Manning enjoys when he has the ball. Now that’s just unfair.
And if you argue that the Colts example is unfair because of the Peyton Manning factor, consider the success of a team lacking a superstar signal caller—Mark Sanchez’s New York Jets (two AFC Championship game appearances over the last two years). The Jets are built to eat up clock with long, run-heavy touchdown drives, then, when the opposition wants to run the ball and give their gassed defense a breather, Rex Ryan’s front seven eats them alive.
In the NFL, it doesn’t matter how you win, but it does matter that you have a preferred strategy for winning and that you build accordingly. While it’s usually a good idea to shore up positions of weakness in the draft and free agency, successful teams like the Colts and Jets seem to understand better than others that there has never been and will never be an unbeatable team in pro football. Maybe that’s why the Colts spent their top two choices in the draft on their already-elite offense and the Jets spent their top two choices on their already-elite defense.
So how does this apply to the Denver Broncos of 2011 and beyond? Well, I (like many Broncos’ faithful) was expecting Denver to pick defensive tackle Marcell Dareus at second overall in last week’s draft. Dareus certainly would have gone a long way towards improving the Broncos’ biggest weakness in run defense, and yet I’m not sure that Dareus would have been a choice cohesive with Fox’s plan to rebuild this team.
By choosing the intelligent and freakish quarterback killer that is Von Miller instead, Fox was sending a message to other teams: “We dare you to throw it.” His second-round selection of Rahim Moore, arguably the top safety prospect in the draft, further suggests that Fox knows what he’s doing—despite many fans’ distress at the lack of a defensive tackle taken there.
Fox has said that his goal, first and foremost, is to win the AFC West. When you take a broad look at the character of the rest of the division, as Fox must have upon assuming responsibility for the Broncos’ turnaround, would you try to build a run-and-defend-the-run team to take the crown?
For the record, Kansas City and Oakland owned the top two rushing attacks in the NFL in 2010. Is trying to out-rush these elite rushing teams to a division title, then, a good strategy for cohesive building? Behind closed doors, I have reason to believe Fox knows it is not. The Broncos’ best shot at winning the division—and winning it in the long-term, consistently—is by forcing opponents to throw it and play catch up. It would seem that the plan is well underway.
This pass-and-defend-the-pass preferred strategy of winning is the reason John Fox made it a priority to re-sign Champ Bailey. It is the reason he invested the second overall pick in Von Miller, whom, coupled with the return of Elvis Dumervil and the continued development of natural 4-3 end and former first-round pick Robert Ayers, will form the league’s most feared pass rush rotation as soon as this season.
If, despite the indications with re-signing Bailey and drafting Miller and young safeties, you are still skeptical that Fox would pursue this strategy (and let’s be honest, he has won with a conservative offense in Carolina), well, you may be right. But first, take a second to answer two questions about a forgettable 2010 season.
Do you recall which of the Broncos’ twelve losses was the most embarrassing? OK, Got it? How about the most impressive of the four wins? Pretty easy as well, right? How did the opposing offenses attack the Broncos’ defense as each of those games played out? The most glaring difference between getting pounded by the Raiders at Invesco and pounding the Chiefs at Invesco was…you guessed it, an early lead, which dictated our rivals either running (winning) or throwing (losing) against us for the rest of the game. With studs off the edge and a ballhawking secondary, Fox now just needs to figure out how to force other teams to throw it—or might we say, he needs to figure out who to force other teams to throw it. We don’t currently have the luxury of a Peyton Manning or an Aaron Rodgers to pile up points early in games. Can Tim Tebow deliver?
Despite Elway’s endorsement, the greatest quarterback in Broncos (NFL?) history has been hesitant about handing over the franchise keys to the greatest quarterback in Gators (college football?) history. While Bronco nation is giddy about Tebow, I am personally encouraged and excited that Elway is saying the truth that no opinionated scout will admit: deep down, none of us are sure if he is the real deal.
If Tim Tebow has what it takes to get the Broncos on top in the first half from the pocket, there is a good chance Bronco fans will be exiting Invesco Field in the third quarter this season often, as they did when the 2010 Chiefs came to town. If he can’t, there is a good chance Broncos fans will be exiting Invesco Field in the third quarter this season often, more like they did when the 2010 Raiders came to town.
Ultimately, Tebow’s success or failure will be played out in front of the football world; no doubt, he has adjustments to make from his style in college to the NFL game.
It appears that John Fox is ready to adapt as well, re-evaluating his conservative style in Carolina and adjusting to the character of the AFC West and the strength of these new-look Denver Broncos. Fans who understand the correlation between a team’s cohesion and its win-loss record were excited when the Broncos re-signed Champ Bailey. They were excited when John Elway looked at all the top quarterbacks in the draft with the second overall selection. They are excited that management is still unsure about Tebow, excited that the Broncos drafted Von Miller and Rahim Moore, and optimistic about the near future.
Unlike the previous regime, the Fox-Xanders-Elway triumvirate has a specific vision for this team. The 2011 season should provide them with an understanding of what pieces are already in place to execute that vision—and which they still need to acquire next offseason. As soon as 2012, with a young, explosive passer who may or may not yet be on the roster and a defense designed to harass Matt Cassel and Co., John Fox’s Denver Broncos will be built, cohesively, to contend.