An erratic but improving offensive line played a big part in Denver's championship win.
15 Feb 2010
by Bill Barnwell
The Broncos' 2-8 collapse after a 6-0 start cost them what appeared to be a guaranteed playoff spot; teams that start 6-0 have historically made the playoffs more than 96 percent of the time. The 2003 Vikings were the only team since 1990 to also start 6-0 and proceed to miss the playoffs. So what changed, and what do the Broncos need to do in 2010 to play more like the first half version?
You can start with something Denver can't control: Injuries. Denver starters missed only three games from Weeks 1-9, an absurdly low total. From Week 10 on, they missed 10; that's still way below league average, but not a historically-low total like the first half figure was. Unfortunately, injury levels almost always regress to the mean on a year-to-year basis, and the Broncos are all but guaranteed to see more injuries, not fewer, in 2010.
On the field, the biggest difference for Denver across the two halves was their rush defense. Through Week 9, Football Outsiders' advanced DVOA metric (explained here) rated the Denver run defense with -18.2% DVOA against the run, the second-best figure in football. After Week 9, though, the Broncos were miserable: their 11.3% DVOA was the second-worst in football over the final eight weeks. Teams were able to get into manageable situations by running the ball on first down, averaging 4.95 yards per first-down carry during Weeks 10-17. That's way up from 4.13 yards per first-down carry in the first two months.
So, how to fix it? Denver's already made one move, allowing defensive coordinator Mike Nolan to leave for Miami. (That's not necessarily a good move.) If you're in the camp that chalks up the second-half decline to a worn-down defensive line, the Broncos would be wise to add more big bodies up front that fit their 3-4 scheme. One spot in particular would be at nose tackle, where Ronald Fields is a situational player stretched as a starter. If the Broncos target one player in free agency, it should be 49ers nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin, who would be the perfect fit for their needs and scheme.
Wide receiver Brandon Marshall seems poised to depart; although he's a restricted free agent, Marshall is likely to be traded before the draft for picks, although it's hard to find a team that hasn't outwardly rejected the possibility of acquiring Marshall. Chicago needs a wide receiver, but doesn't have a first- or second-round pick, while mooted targets like San Francisco and Seattle don't make sense.
Elvis Dumervil and Kyle Orton are also restricted free agents, but the likelihood of either departing is roughly nil. On the unrestricted front, guards Ben Hamilton and Russ Hochstein are both free to leave, as is center Casey Wiegmann. The three combined for 34 starts this year up front.
The aforementioned Franklin would be the perfect addition, but if he's not franchised by the 49ers, he might follow Nolan to Miami. If Franklin isn't available, assuming that Vince Wilfork remains off the market, the team could splurge for Steelers NT Casey Hampton or the Packers' Ryan Pickett. The unrestricted market for guards is thin, so unless Denver finds a palatable option in restricted free agency, there's not much to be done there. With Tony Scheffler an RFA, McDaniels could make a move for his former tight end in New England, Benjamin Watson, who's unrestricted.
When Patriots general manager Scott Pioli arrived in Kansas City and hired then-Cardinals offensive coordinator Todd Haley to be his head coach, Haley brought in deposed Cardinals defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergrast to serve in the same capacity for Kansas City. As part of the move, the Chiefs moved from a 4-3 alignment to a 3-4 front, and added prototypical 3-4 end Tyson Jackson in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft.
A year later? Pendergrast has been fired and replaced by another old crony, ex-Browns head coach and Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. And although it's unfair to fully judge players after one year, Jackson made absolutely no impact as a rookie.
An even bigger concern is what happened to the rest of the roster. While former end Tamba Hali had a great under-the-radar season as a pass-rushing outside linebacker, the players with star potential in the old unit have seen their roles diminished and skills marginalized. Former "can't miss" defensive tackle prospect Glenn Dorsey is too small to play nose tackle and too slow to play defensive end in the 3-4, sparking trade rumors. Former outside linebacker Derrick Johnson, the unit's best player in 2008, was benched for the marginal Demorrio Williams after the Chiefs moved him inside. Johnson never regained his spot, requested a trade that didn't come, and could depart this offseason as a restricted free agent. Strong safety Bernard Pollard was cut in camp and revitalized Houston's defense as a run-stopper, while the Chiefs were stuck with over-the-hill Mike Brown and overmatched Jon McGraw in his place.
With Crennel's arrival confirming the Chiefs' intentions to stay with the 3-4, Pioli needs to acquire more talent that fits the scheme, and jettison players that don't. While a mid-round pick might be a huge disappointment as a return for former first-round picks, if Dorsey and Johnson aren't able to contribute in Kansas City's scheme, Pioli needs to cut bait.
Besides the players above, every one of the Chiefs' wide receivers besides Dwayne Bowe is a free agent, as is starting center Rudy Niswanger (RFA) and utility lineman Ryan O'Callaghan. O'Callaghan's likely to return, but Niswanger's as good as gone. Veteran linebacker Mike Vrabel has said he'd like to return to Kansas City, but the feeling might not be mutual.
Kansas City's still several parts away from contention, but Scott Pioli could choose to make some moves in free agency. With three prominent ex-Patriots potentially on the market in Watson, Wilfork, and Raiders end Richard Seymour, Pioli could choose to raid his old stomping grounds while acquiring players that would fill massive holes. A cheaper option could be a fourth ex-Patriot, Jarvis Green. With huge holes at safety, they could upgrade their run defense by adding Bengals unrestricted free agent Roy Williams.
It's apparent to everyone that JaMarcus Russell simply is not an NFL quarterback. That's backed up by the numbers: Russell's -57.2% DVOA rating in 2009 was the ninth-worst figure since 1994 among quarterbacks with 100 passes or more. Unfortunately for the Raiders, the quarterback with the tenth-worst figure is also on the roster: J.P. Losman, when he played for the Bills in 2008.
Neither of the other two Raiders passers should inspire much confidence either. Charlie Frye had a -23.1% DVOA in 94 attempts; six more targets and he would have finished 36th in the league amongst DVOA qualifiers. Bruce Gradkowski was the best quarterback of the four, with a merely mediocre -3.6% DVOA, but he threw three interceptions in 150 attempts after throwing three in 21 the previous season; he's not likely to keep up a 2.0 percent interception rate in 2010.
So what's a horribly mismanaged franchise to do? With an uncapped season, freeing themselves of the more than $19 million owed Russell is an obvious place to start, although the Raiders might not avail themselves of the opportunity in the hopes that new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson can work wonders. (Spoiler: He won't.) Losman is an unrestricted free agent; Gradkowski and Frye are restricted free agents, and shouldn't cost more than $4 million or so combined to lock up for 2010.
While the Raiders could use another first-round pick on a quarterback like Sam Bradford or Jimmy Clausen, they're likely to go dumpster diving in the free agent market. The only prominent unrestricted free agent is Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington, who is ill-fit for Al Davis's desired downfield passing scheme. Another go-around with Daunte Culpepper or Kerry Collins? Jon Kitna? A trade for restricted free agent Troy Smith? The possibilities aren't exactly appealing, which is why Russell might get one more shot at the worst quarterback DVOA record in 2010.
Nnamdi Asomugha joked at the Pro Bowl about leaving for New York to play across from Darrelle Revis, but the closest link between the Raiders and legitimacy isn't going anywhere. Richard Seymour is an unrestricted free agent, and while the Raiders could slap the franchise tag on him, it's likely to start a war they don't want to fight. Javon Walker is likely to retire or be released, while running back Justin Fargas is another candidate for early dismissal.
If Al Davis is willing to spend -- or sell enough shares in the franchise to get the money to spend -- there are enough disgruntled free agents out there to justify his money. Antonio Bryant and Terrell Owens are unrestricted free agents at wide receiver. Julius Peppers could play across from Seymour and give the team a dominant pass rusher, if Davis can convince him to come to Oakland and play end in the 4-3 instead of moving to a 3-4. Corner Dunta Robinson could supplant Chris Johnson across from Asomugha, or they could overpay for Darren Sharper. Hey, the section isn't entitled "Who Should Arrive".
Faced with a choice between Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson and playoff star Darren Sproles this time last year, Chargers general manager A.J. Smith chose to defer. He convinced Tomlinson to renegotiate his deal, while Sproles was designated as the team's franchise player. In all, the Chargers spent more than $13 million on their one-two punch at running back in 2009, more than any other team in football.
And in return, what did they get? The worst rushing offense in football. Although San Diego had a historically great passing offense that led the league in DVOA, their -11.2% DVOA when running the ball was dead last. They were the worst team in the league running in short-yardage power situations, 31st in second-level yards, and again worst in open field yards. (An explanation of those statistics can be found here.) They barely combined to run for 1,000 yards as a unit.
This expensive failure reinforces a lesson Smith would be wise to consider moving forward: Running backs are overvalued, often fungible properties, and the money spent on them is better invested in the guys blocking for them. The Chargers' offensive line was riddled with injuries in 2009, notably center Nick Hardwick, who missed virtually the entire season. All five starters missed at least one game. That doesn't provide an excuse for Sproles and Tomlinson, but helps clarify reality: Without a good offensive line, it doesn't matter how talented the guys running the ball are.
Smith is now left with the epic problem once more. Tomlinson has publicly said that he expects to be cut, and while the team still owes him $1 million in guaranteed money, he's as good as gone. Sproles has lost much of his leverage, and because of the CBA issues, he's actually a restricted free agent this year and will make far less than the $6.6 million he made a year ago. Smith will need to find a back to split time with Sproles, and while they could spend a draft pick on a back in April, one option is already on the roster: Mike Tolbert. Tolbert had a 33.5% DVOA on 25 carries a year ago, making him the only Chargers back with a figure better than -10%. He won't re-produce that figure over 250 carries, but if the Chargers can expand his role and spend more money on depth up front, they'll be better off than they were a year ago.
Tomlinson's about to be released, while Sproles seems likely to stick around on a smaller salary. RFAs Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeill aren't going anywhere, but disappointing right tackle Jeromey Clary could depart.
Trade rumors have swirled around RFA linebacker Shawne Merriman, who was invisible this year and has no trade value. It makes more sense to keep him around on a one-year deal and hope that he regains some of his burst off the edge. Cornerback Antonio Cromartie isn't a restricted free agent, but his middling play since a breakout 2007 season has placed him on the market. No matter where he goes, he'll be close to family.
All the prominent halfbacks on the market are restricted free agents, so the Chargers could hope for a veteran like Fargas, Larry Johnson, or Thomas Jones to become available as no-cap casualties. If the rumors about Peppers wanting to play in a 3-4 are true, he'd be a huge upgrade on Merriman and a great fit for what the Chargers need right now: An elite pass rusher.
Portions of this article originally appeared on ESPN Insider.
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