One of the top story lines heading into last week’s NFC Championship Game was the hindered development of San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback Alex Smith. Coming out of college at Utah, he was the first pick of the NFL draft and was shouldered with high exceptions that he would return their franchise to the glory days of Joe Montana and Steve Young. Seven years and seven offensive coordinators later, Smith had finally led his squad to the brink of the Super Bowl.
Is it any wonder that it took him so long to fulfill the expectations of a first round draft pick? Every year a new offensive coordinator would come in and change what had been established the year prior. What could a bit of consistency do for his development?
"“Each man had a new idea of how an NFL offense should look and how Smith fit into their system. Some liked Smith more than others. Every spring meant a new playbook.” –Gregg Rosenthal, NBC Sports"
This spring will mean a new defensive playbook for the Denver Broncos. Actually, like for Smith, it will be the seventh playbook in seven springs. Two stalwart veterans of the Broncos’ defense, Champ Bailey and D.J. Williams will be in the same position the 49ers’ quarterback was in as the Broncos look to bring in their seventh defensive coordinator in seven years.
Before we look forward to what the Broncos should look for in a defensive coordinator, let’s take a look back at the last six men to lead the Broncos’ defense:
Larry Coyer (2000-2006): Coyer benefited greatly from an exceptional combination of savvy veterans (Champ Bailey, John Lynch, and Trevor Pryce) and overachieving young players (D.J. Williams, Darrent Williams, and Elvis Dumervil) to have at times one of the better defenses in the NFL. Early in 2006, the Broncos’ defense didn’t allow a touchdown for the first 11 quarters of the season and only allowed 2 touchdowns total after 6 games. Coyer was ultimately let go because of the (seemingly) annual shredding against the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Wild Card games and a 2006 team that collapsed from a 7-2 start to finish 9-7 and miss the playoffs.
Jim Bates (2007) and Bob Slowik (2008): Both of these coordinators saw their units struggle and both were relieved of their duties after just one year. Bates’ defense allowed the 28th most points per game (25.6) and was consistently gashed by the run (145.9 yards per game) to finish 30th in that category. Slowik’s defense stayed mostly at status quo in 2008 as the Broncos’ high powered offense buoyed the team, but the historic collapse at the season’s end led to the upheaval of almost the entire coaching staff following the season.
Mike Nolan (2009): Nolan was considered an excellent architect to transition the Broncos’ defense from a 4-3 to the 3-4. Despite the personnel difficulties created by switching schemes, Nolan’s defense was exceptional for the Broncos’ 6-0 start that year allowing just 11 points per game during that stretch. Again, however, the Broncos collapsed to finish 8-8 and a mutual decision by Nolan and head coach Josh McDaniels led to another change at defensive coordinator.
Don Martindale (2010): Oh my. Where to begin? The defense looked outmatched in their personnel during their second year in the 3-4. The Broncos were 25th in pass defense (236.2 yards per game), 31st in rush defense (154.6 yards per game), 32nd in points per game (29.4), and 32nd in scoring defense (2 touchdowns and 1 safety). Yikes.
Dennis Allen (2011): This defense was certainly flawed, namely in that it lacked consistency. No other team allowed more 40+ point games than this defense (5 including the playoffs), but then again, this unit held teams to 17 points per game during the team’s 6-game winning streak. When things were clicking, they looked aggressive, disciplined, and smart. Allen is the first of these coaches to leave as a result of his accomplishments which speak volumes of the turnaround he helped orchestrate.
Here are three thoughts for next defensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos:
Build on the changes Allen was able to make. There has to be consistency in the style of defense. Nothing would suit the Broncos less at this point than to have a total overhaul of the defensive scheme. This is why it could make sense for the Broncos to hire from within.
The collapse must be avoided. This word has been used quite a bit in this post, and it’s unfortunate that late season swoons have been such a part of recent Broncos’ history. The next coordinator needs to be able keep players executing at a high level for an entire season, not just three-quarters of it.
Create turnovers. Allen cultivated an aggressive style of play that paid off with clutch tackles and lots of pressure for opposing quarterbacks. One area that didn’t improve from 2010 was the amount of takeaways (though many turnovers did come at clutch times). The Broncos defense needs to be better at creating turnovers and capitalizing on mistakes of their opponents.