Midweek Musings: Broncos Philosophy Isn’t The Problem

In recent days, there’s been plenty of discussion about what the Broncos need to do down the stretch and whether or not Gary Kubiak isn’t being flexible enough with his offensive schemes.

Some of this seems to go back to the thought process surrounding coaches who strongly believe in their schemes but didn’t have success in recent years and that this must mean that a “scheme trumps talent” mindset doesn’t work. Then we hear about coaches who “adjust their schemes to fit talent” and see them win and we think that’s the answer to the Broncos’ problems.

I know somebody brought up a couple of weeks ago an article that our good friend Ted Bartlett wrote about differences between coaching philosophies, with those who believe “talent trumps scheme” and those who believe “scheme trumps talent.” I know Bartlett used the former to describe John Fox and the latter to describe Mike Shanahan and Josh McDaniels. It’s easy to say that because the latter two did not succeed in their most recent years as head coaches that “talent trumps scheme” doesn’t work, but I don’t believe that was Bartlett’s point. If it was, the likes of Bill Belichick and Andy Reid wouldn’t be having success.

Now, I know what some will say about Belichick and Reid, but the truth is they do subscribe to the “scheme trumps talent” philosophy. They are willing to adapt, but not in the ways you think they do. In order to understand the two philosophies, you need to take a deeper look at what they are really about and what they really require.

A coach who believes that “scheme trumps talent” has a basic scheme in mind with his own wrinkles thrown in. The best coaches will adapt the schemes over time, but they do that in the course of the offseason as they examine how the game itself evolves. They prefer not to adapt during the course of a season, but will do so if he has no other choice. This is how to accurately describe Belichick and Reid: They have a set scheme with their own wrinkles, but will make changes in the offseason based on those trends and only change up during the season if their hand is forced.

A coach who believes that “talent trumps scheme” has a basic scheme in mind, too, but is more likely to adjust those schemes, or let others do it, based on what the available talent is able to do. These are the coaches more likely to adjust during the course of a season, trying to figure out what works best. In the AFC West, this is how you would describe Jack Del Rio and Mike McCoy. Outside the division, Jason Garrett of the Dallas Cowboys is a good example.

Each philosophy can work, but both are dependent on three things: Player evaluation, lack of injuries and good cap management.

Regarding player evaluation, you have to understand which players have succeeded based on talent or based on scheme, regardless of whether or not the success comes quickly or developed over time. In the draft, you need to understand which players succeeded because of the talent they had or developed and which players succeeded more because of scheme, then draft accordingly. (Keep in mind that college coaches will subscribe to one or the other in “talent vs. scheme” philosophies, just as NFL coaches do.) In free agency and trades, you need to know the same thing, then pay accordingly in free agency or set what you will offer in a trade accordingly.

A coach who believes in “talent over scheme” needs to be more discerning in terms of evaluating the talent level of the player. The same applies to anyone else who is part of the evaluation process (scouts, general managers, etc.). If the coach gives input to a front office executive (as most coaches do), he needs to make sure the executive understands what he sees from a talent standpoint. He needs to identify players who excelled mostly because of scheme and advise executives to be cautious about them, while steering the executives toward players who either excel in any scheme or became a top player in one scheme but can easily adapt to another.

A coach who believes in “scheme over talent” doesn’t have to worry as much about the talent level (though he shouldn’t ignore it), but does need to worry about how well the player will fit the scheme. With that said, the coach needs to be careful how much they value players who fit the scheme and not chase after them. Again, if he’s not the person with final say on personnel, he needs to advise executives who would be a good fit for his scheme and how much adjustment the player may or may not need, while steering them clear of players whose success is dependent on a scheme the coach doesn’t run.

The downside of the former philosophy is that if you don’t properly evaluate the talent level of a player, you’ll have mediocre teams at best regardless of the scheme you implement. The downside of the latter is that if you don’t properly evaluate how well the player fits a scheme, your team will struggle in certain areas regardless of the talent level elsewhere.

Going back to the likes of Shanahan and McDaniels, a key reason each failed in their recent years was because of their player evaluation. Shanahan’s final years in Denver saw several failed draft picks and, more importantly, a lot of failed free agents and trades. McDaniels did a poor job of drafting his first year, either with players who didn’t fit the schemes, needed too much development at the pick they were taken or weren’t good to begin with. In his second year, his free agent class was mostly a bust and a couple of his early draft picks weren’t good enough.

Now, if you do a good job of player evaluation overall, you aren’t going to be immune to struggles if other things don’t fall into place. This brings us to the second point: Injuries.

All teams are impacted by injuries, but the ones who have the most success tend to be those with the fewest injury issues. Those who overcome injuries the best are those who have the most depth at a position where the injury issues are. This applies regardless of philosophy.

As it pertains to past Broncos team, we know about the running back injuries Shanahan went through in his final season. With McDaniels, losing Elvis Dumervil in his second season was a major blow because Dumervil was the primary pass rusher and there was nobody behind him who was good enough to compensate for his absence. There are other injury examples that each coach went through and, while they are not the No. 1 reason for their dismissals, they are part of the puzzle as to their teams’ struggles.

Then comes the third one: Cap management. In years when cap space is tight, it’s difficult to sign free agents who can help you or you may have to move on from certain players when you may prefer to keep them. Shanahan didn’t do a good job managing the cap – it wasn’t the top reason for his dismissal, but it didn’t help his cause. Cap issues didn’t really affect McDaniels, though the Broncos did have to release a lot of players and carry a lot of dead money in his first year.

If you look at the bulk of the playoff contenders this season, they have people in place who did a good job in recent years of evaluating talent, regardless of whether the coach believes in talent first or scheme first. Those who aren’t going to the playoffs have not done as good of a job in recent years, regardless of coaching philosophy.

All this being said, the Broncos’ struggles as of late aren’t really tied to player evaluation. That’s not to say all player evaluation has been spot-on (it hasn’t been), but it’s not dragging the team down to the point that they are already out of the playoff hunt. The Broncos are still in the playoff race, even as they are in a tough division, so player evaluation isn’t the biggest problem. So that brings us to the second and third issues: Injuries and cap management.

We’ll get the cap management part out of the way first. The Broncos were tight on cap space, mostly because they had certain players they wanted to keep because they still had the talent to contribute to some degree. The most notable players who were cut, Louis Vasquez and Owen Daniels, were let go because their play was declining. The Broncos did trade Ryan Clady, but they couldn’t come to terms with him on a salary reduction and traded him after signing Russell Okung. But they had little incentive to part ways with older players who were still playing at a high level or to forget about extending all players who played at a high level. What that meant, though, was less cap space to commit to players who could have helped out at positions of need.

Then comes injuries This has been the biggest reason for the Broncos’ recent struggles, though player evaluation is tied in to a certain degree. Let’s look at those positions.

Running back: Losing CJ Anderson not only cost the Broncos their best running back, it cost them one of their better pass protectors. The same thing was true of fullback Andy Janovich. Devontae Booker is still learning how to properly pass protect. On one hand, this should be expected because he was a fourth-round pick and those players are expected to be depth players who might become starters and will need development. (Yes, people will say “but he had second-round talent, but that’s coming from scouts who didn’t take a closer look at areas in which Booker needed to improve.) On top of that, Booker’s vision and ability to find the open lane isn’t where it needs to be yet (that’s something scouts probably needed to consider before calling him a “second-round talent”) and we’ve seen the results on the field. I think Booker can develop into a solid player but it will take time. But when you ask such a player to handle the load when others go down, you’re going to notice his struggle more than you would if he wasn’t asked to handle it.

Right tackle: Some of this may go back to player evaluation, but injuries play a role, too. Donald Stephenson might not be starting material, so it’s fair to bring up the player evaluation part. But there are two things to keep in mind. First, the Broncos were tight on cap space and had to be careful how much they committed to the right tackle position. Second, Stephenson got injured early in the season just when he was getting into a groove.

The Broncos might have allowed him more time to get healthy, had it not been for the many struggles of Ty Sambrailo. That was a player who was drafted with the idea that he was a good scheme fit. However, after he was drafted, he was first put into a position the Broncos didn’t expect him to play (left tackle). Then he got injured and was eventually placed on IR. Injuries not only denied him a chance to play, but a chance to practice, and you can’t focus on improving your techniques when you are spending time rehabbing an injury. Sambrailo was tried out at guard, but got injured before the first preseason game, thus missing on more development time. He then got thrust into the right tackle spot out of necessity when he still needed that development time. His struggles were inevitable and forced the Broncos to put Stephenson in perhaps before he was ready to return. When the Broncos decided to start Sambrailo in a game, it was clear Sambrailo still trailed in his development. And while it’s fair to wonder about the player evaluation with Sambrailo, the injuries he suffered have not helped him improve his chances to progress as a player.

But even as Stephenson seems to be settling down as of late, the issues at right tackle have impacted pass protection overall this season. Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch have each been forced to do more at times than they probably should have. And with right tackle having been an issue, more pressure is put on the other linemen and they haven’t always been able to pick up the slack. Russell Okung, a lineman who we know is better at run blocking than pass protection, has had the worst of it.

Tight end: Jeff Heuerman missed his entire rookie season because of a torn ACL. He couldn’t practice at all so all he could do was study the playbook. But every player needs to get out into a practice or a preseason game to run those plays. Additionally, Heuerman needed some development to make the transition to the pros. Thus he’s a year behind in his development. There really wasn’t a way to overcome that, especially because third-round picks will often take a year or two to develop. Just ask Michael Schofield about that. At any rate, the need to get a tight end who could help as soon as possible has played a role in the Broncos’ offensive struggles. Virgil Green hasn’t developed as expected, but at least his contract is in line with what you expect for a rotational player. A.J. Derby is still developing, but his fumble against the Titans aside, he is at least headed in the right direction.

Defensive end: The plan going in was to have Vance Walker start at defensive end with Jared Crick part of the rotation. Walker did some good things as a run defender and pass rusher last season and could move to defensive tackle if need be. His season-ending ACL injury meant Crick had to start, and while Crick is a good pass rusher, he struggles with run defense. Run defense isn’t exactly something that Billy Winn is good at, either. Additionally, neither player is an ideal candidate to rotate to defensive tackle and Adam Gotsis still needs development. Gotsis is seeing more snaps as the season progresses, so at least he’s trending upward. Still, it’s a far cry from what Walker might have brought to the table. We’ve seen the end result: The Broncos haven’t been good at stopping the run.

Inside linebacker: Brandon Marshall has missed some time with injuries and that takes away the Broncos’ best pass defender among the ILBs. Todd Davis has gotten better at run defense but it took him a while to step up his game. With that said, his early-season struggles didn’t help, and things weren’t helped when Marshall had to miss time and Davis had to take on a bigger role.

Changing up the game plan to inject more passing into the scheme isn’t going to solve the Broncos’ problems on offense because the Broncos have pass protection issues, which go back to both injuries and some improper player evaluation. The latter hasn’t kept the Broncos out of the playoff race, so it’s not a major concern, but it is something the Broncos will have to keep in mind. But the injuries are more difficult to overcome, because they happened at positions at which the Broncos didn’t have the depth to overcome it. And while it’s true the Broncos have more success running to the left side than to the right, they can’t just run to the left all the time because it’s too easy for other teams to adjust. The same is true if they throw the ball a lot, because the good teams adjust, especially by exploiting the areas in which you struggle. Because pass protection is an issue the Broncos have, it’s not that hard for teams to adjust if the Broncos throw more often.

The Broncos are not unusual in this aspect. Every team goes through years in which injuries affect them to a point that they have struggles at a certain position. But the teams that remain playoff contenders in most seasons don’t panic and try to switch things up on a whim – they do their best to ride them out during the course of a season, then step back after the season, evaluate their approach and make corrections as needed. The teams that keep missing the playoffs either don’t adjust or trip over themselves to adjust, all while not properly evaluating players.

It’s fine to ask if Gary Kubiak should look at tweaks in his game plans, but we need to remember that he can do that and still see things not work out because of injuries at a certain position. As for player evaluation, you do want Kubiak to advise John Elway well about players, but Elway has the final say. And with that said, Kubiak has shown he can advise Elway about players. After all, he’s the guy who pushed for Trevor Siemian, who may not be an elite player, but as shown he can do a lot of things well. (Oh yeah, Siemian is another player who has been dealing with injuries.)

To sum up, play calling really isn’t the problem here. The problem is injuries at positions that affect certain areas of the game which have been difficult to overcome, with player evaluation to some extent and tightness under the cap limiting the Broncos in free agency this past offseason. The Broncos are really at the point where they have to ride things out and hope for the best.

And, no, the Broncos don’t need a “talent trumps scheme” coaching philosophy. That won’t guarantee success on its own. What’s needed to ensure more success in the future is for Elway and Kubiak to make sure they continue to properly evaluate players and adjust their methods as needed. As for injuries, there’s not as much that you can control there, so you may have to cross your fingers and hope for the best.

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Bob Morris

I'm a sports writer in real life, though I've always focused on smaller communities, but that hasn't stopped me from learning more about some of the ins and outs of the NFL. You can follow me on Twitter @BobMorrisSports if you can put up with updates on the high school sports teams I cover.