Monday, October 25, 2010

Josh McDaniels: the 2010 version of Lou Saban

In watching the Denver Broncos this year in my 42nd year of owning season tickets I've had a strange sense of deja vu. Today it hit me - Josh McDaniels was the 2010 version of Lou Saban!

Saban was the Broncos head coach from 1967 to 1971. Both were known for:

Poor drafting

Saban drafted infamous players like cornerback Grady Cavness, a 2nd rounder who never panned out. Josh McDaniels, despite a boatload of early round picks, made a number of questionable draft selections (Richard Quinn, Knowshon Moreno with pick #12, Alphonso Smith, and more).

Draft pick giveaway

Both Saban and McDaniels didn't seem to value draft picks and didn't hesitate to trade them away. Saban's worst trade was two number ones for quarterback Steve Tensi. McDaniels worst move was a future #1 for a 2nd rounder so he could draft cornerback Alphonso Smith. McDaniels also had a habit of trading picks away to move up in the draft to make questionable selections.

Sideline demeanor

Saban and McDaniels were known for their sideline blowups. Saban "fired" star Floyd Little in one game. McDaniels famous "just win the ***** game" comment on national TV last Thanksgiving was the talk of the NFL, and this season he chewed out Richard Quinn in the opener in front of teammates.

Unrecognized talent

Both Saban and McDaniels didn't use the talent already on the roster. Saban tried to convert Curly Culp to the offensive line, gave up on Culp, and dealt him to Kansas City where Culp became an all pro. Saban also gave up on Marlin Briscoe, his best quarterback. Briscoe later switched positions to wide receiver and made the pro bowl with Miami. McDaniels worst blunder was dealing running back Peyton Hillis, who is now starring with the Cleveland Browns. I won't even mention the Cutler trade.

Trading draft picks for old vets

Both Saban and McDaniels wasted draft picks, trading them for short term veteran nfl help. Saban once traded a #2 pick for San Diego running back Dickie Post. McDaniels made trades with New England for questionable veteran talent, like LeKevin Smith (later waived) and Lawrence Maroney.

Saban was not all bad, and there were also positives to the McDaniels regime. The Broncos were a minor league operation before Saban arrived. I remember going to games as a kid in the mid 60's and seeing the Broncos practice field in the parking lot of the old Bears Stadium. Saban changed all that. He established Bronco offices and a practice field on north I-25, separate from the stadium. These facilities pale in comparison to present day Dove Valley, but they were a big upgrade from the shoestring budget Bronco operation before that. Saban did draft "the franchise" Floyd Little #1, and had some big wins in his Denver tenure (including home wins in back to back years of the defending Super Bowl Champion). Josh McDaniels brought his quarterback coaching skills to the Broncos, and he has worked wonders with previous journeyman Kyle Orton. McDaniels also got the most out of wide receiver Brandon Lloyd.

When the Broncos fired Lou Saban they eventually replaced him with John Ralston (after interim coach Jerry Smith). Ralston was a terrific judge of talent and drafter, who stocked the team with players that eventually contributed to the 1977 Super Bowl team. The 2010 Broncos need the same thing - a solid GM who can make better draft picks and trades than McDaniels. Here's hoping that Broncos owner Pat Bowlen hires a strong GM first, and then let the GM pick the coach.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Raiders Week! Remembering Oct 23, 1973

Last week I reminisced about a classic 1969 Broncos/Jets game in Denver - the Broncos victory that day served notice to a National TV audience that Denver was a very difficult place to play for visiting teams. As I get ready to attend this week's game against the Oakland, I think back to another classic game in Bronco history - the team's first ever Monday Night game on October 23, 1973 against the hated Raiders.

When Monday Night Football debuted in September, 1970 it was an instant success. The NFL gambled a solo prime time game would be the perfect end to a football weekend, and they were right. TV Ratings soared in the early years of Monday night football. For the first three years of the telecasts, though, you wouldn't know there was a franchise in Denver!

The Broncos not only failed to make an appearance on Monday night football in 1970-1972, they were also rarely mentioned on the popular "halftime highlights" segment with Howard Cosell. I remember tuning in to Monday night football after a big Bronco win (like the upset of the KC Chiefs to go to 3-0 in Sept 1970), but no highlights were ever shown. Letters flooded into ABC saying "why no broncos???!!!" Howard Cosell finally during one broadcast said "logistical problems with games played in Denver prevent us from showing Monday night highlights of the Bronco games." That made the Bronco fans even angrier - a popular activity at a Denver bar at the time was throwing a brick through a tv set when Howard's face appeared!

This all changed in 1973 when the Monday night crew FINALLY came to Denver. I was a teenager sitting in the South Stands on October 23, 1973. The city treated Howard, Dandy Don, and Frank Gifford like royalty that day, with a special lunch. Denver is known to get big snow storms in October (as it did years later in a home Monday night game against Green Bay) but that evening the weather was perfect - like a warm summer night. The Raiders had not lost in Denver since 1962 and were heavy favorites. I remember one sign hung on the fence in front of the East Stands, "We were going to give out 1,000 Copies Of The Book Cosell, But Logistical Problems Prevented It"

The game itself was memorable, with Billy Thompson returning a fumble for a touchdown in the first quarter. Oakland took a late 23-20 lead before the Broncos tied it with a Jim Turner field goal at the end. Never had a tie been so satisfying!

I think back and wonder why was the approval of Howard Cosell and the Monday night crew so important to the city? I was as guilty as the rest of the Bronco fans, tuning into Monday night highlights for a mere mention of the Broncos, only to be disappointed time and time again. The Broncos excellent performance that night was a sweet redemption from the three previous years of no Monday night appearances.

That 1973 Bronco team reminds me of the 2010 team. If I had to pick one quarterback in Bronco history to compare to Kyle Orton, it would be the 73 Broncos Charlie Johnson. Like Orton, Johnson didn't have the strongest arm and he wasn't very mobile, but he was a smart and accurate passer who distributed the ball well to a variety of weapons. The 73 Broncos also got a slow start to the season, two games under .500 after four games compared with the current team's 2 - 4 record after six games. Despite the slow start, the 73 team came on and became the first winning team in Bronco history, even playing for the division title in the last game at Oakland (they lost the rematch to the Raiders 21-17). The 73 team was fun to watch, and had some players who turned out to be key members of the 77 Super Bowl team (Haven Moses, Billy Thompson, Riley Odoms, and others).

I'm thinking better days are ahead for this 2010 Bronco team, starting with a win this week against Oakland. Demaryius Thomas touchdown catch last week over the best cornerback in the NFL was an indication of the immense potential of the Bronco #1 draft choice. Tim Tebow scored his first touchdown and looks to get more involved in future games. The patched up offensive line and defense were significantly improved. Like 1973, maybe this Bronco team still has a chance to win the division despite the slow start.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Jets/Broncos 41 years ago

As I am excited about going to the Broncos/Jets game tomorrow I think back to one of the most memorable Broncos/Jets games played in Denver - September 21, 1969.

It was my 2nd year of having Bronco season tickets. I was 13 years old, sitting in the South Stands for the game. The Broncos had won handily over the Patriots in the first game that season (35-7), but the Jets would be a much stiffer test. Joe Namath's team was coming off a stunning Super Bowl winning season, and the Jets had easily defeated the Bills 33-19 in their opener. This Bronco/Jets game in week 2 of the AFL season was to be televised across the country on NBC, one of the first ever national games featuring the lowly Broncos. The draw of course was Broadway Joe and the Jets, not the Broncos.

This game featured 3 memorable plays:

1. The Hit - Dave Costa's helmet to the gut hit on Joe Namath (pictured above) is one of the best sports photographs ever and captures what AFL football was like in the late 60's. No doubt Costa would be suspended for weeks if he made such a hit in the sanitized NFL of 2010 - back in 1969 there were no such restrictions. The grizzly old vet Costa had a clear shot at Namath and he took full advantage of it.

2. The Catch - The Broncos had quickly fallen behind the Jets 13-0 after the 1st quarter and it looked like it would be a long day for the home team. Floyd Little scored to make it 13-7, then later in the quarter Mike Haffner made one of the greatest catches in Bronco history to give Denver a 14-13 lead. Haffner was wide open in the end zone, but Bronco quarterback Pete Liske overthrew him. Haffner dived and caught the ball with his fingertips in the back of the South end zone. I wish I had an old video clip to show you how great a catch this was. Haffner's catch made all the football highlights shows that week, including a showing on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

3. The Perfect Punt - This one comes from the Jets. With New York backed up to its 1 yard line Steve O'Neill pulled off the greatest punt in AFL/NFL history. I was sitting in the South Stands watching the punt come towards me from the shadow of the North goal posts. The punt came off O'Neill's leg like a low rocket. Not much height - just a line drive. Bronco returner Billy Thompson misjudged the ball and jumped up trying to catch it, but it sailed over Thompson's head. When it hit the ground the ball rolled and rolled and rolled before resting on the Broncos 1 yard line - a 98 yard punt! To this day that punt has never been equaled, and what made it more amazing was that it went from the 1 yard line to the other 1 yard line. Truly the perfect punt!

More than these three plays, the best thrill of the day was watching the Broncos upset the Jets 21-19 on a national stage. For one day the Broncos upset was the talk of the pro football world.

Would the 2-0 Broncos finally be contenders? It was not to be, as Denver went on to a disappointing 5-8-1 season, while the Jets again made the playoffs with a 10 win 4 loss record.

Tomorrow the injury plagued Broncos are again the underdogs with the Jets coming to town. New York is rated the 2nd best team in the NFL by Sports Illustrated and ESPN coming into the game, very much like that powerhouse Jets team of the late 60's. Will the Broncos win? I don't know, but one thing I have learned over the years is never count the Broncos out at home. Maybe, just maybe, like that Denver team of the late 60's, the Broncos have a Mile Hi surprise waiting for the visitors from New York!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Tennessee win was HUGE for the Broncos

My 4-12 prediction if the Broncos lost their opening game to Jacksonville is looking shaky thanks to a great win last week vs Tennessee. I'd much rather be wrong and have the Broncos win!

What I was afraid of in my 4-12 prediction was the difficult opening schedule for the Broncos. I figured a 1-2 start would quickly turn into 1-4 with tough road games at Tennessee and at Baltimore, followed by a home matchup vs the 2009 AFC runnerup Jets. A 1-5 start after the Jets game could have caused a negative spiral just like last year when the Broncos lost to the hapless Raiders and Chiefs at home in their 2-8 finish.

The win at Tennessee changes all of that. This week's game at Baltimore will still be very tough to win (Sport Illustrated's Peter King rates the Ravens as the best team in the NFL right now). Even with a loss in Baltimore the Broncos have a good chance to beat the Jets and finish the tough early part of their schedule with a 3-3 record.

What has impressed me with the Broncos so far? I expected Kyle Orton to have a good year, but he's showing much better mobility in the pocket and accuracy on deep passes than what we saw from him in 2009. Orton says he was hobbled by an ankle injury last year - this year is the first time he's been completely healthy in 3 seasons. Last season we rarely saw the Broncos throw deep - this year the long ball is back in the game plan. The 48 yard td pass from Orton to Brandon Lloyd in the Colts game traveled over 60 yards in the air and could not have been placed any better, settling into Lloyd's hands in the back of the end zone. Last week the key pass interference penalty on Jabar Gaffney was a result of another accurate long pass that traveled over 50 yards in the air.

The Broncos defense has also been impressive. Josh McDaniels made shoring up the run defense the #1 priority in the offseason and so far the results have been good (ranking 12th in the nfl vs the run this year compared to 26th vs the run in 2009). Linebacker Robert Ayers had his best game as a Bronco last week vs the Titans and has shed his "1st round bust" tag in the eyes of many fans to "future star".

There are still problems, most notably with the anemic rushing attack and Knowshon Moreno's inability to stay healthy, but last week's week gives me hope. This week's Baltimore game will be a good test on how much the team has improved over last year. The Ravens had the Broncos well scouted last year in handing Denver its first loss after a 6-0 start. The Ravens have an impressive run defense, but a shaky secondary. Give Orton time to throw and I am confident the Broncos will score points this week.