Game #2: A Trip to the Rockies

Early Denver Broncos action with the cartoonish helmet logo. December 8, 1963

Washington’s home opener was more of an exorcism than a great football expose.  A win is surely a win.  But, this was one few could love other than immediate family.  There were scarcely surprises except that the home team actually won a game that felt like it would lose for much of the day.  Sam Howell looks like a quarterback with great upside confined to a rookie’s body.  Young QBs drink from the fountain of knowledge via a three-inch fire hose.  It’s rarely a pretty sight.  This was no exception.  The Defense eventually took over the game.  That side of the ball is the lopsided strength of the team.  David Aldridge called the win, “Unsatisfying.”  Be that as it may, it still beat the Dickens out of losing.  This is a team facing an absolute gauntlet of a schedule.  If it wants to make hay while the sun is shining it needs to go to Denver this week and win. The following week the Buffalo Bills come to town with Super Bowl aspirations in tow.  A week later is the short hop to Philadelphia where the reigning Division Champions reside.  There’s no place to run, no place to hide.  Of the next three contests this Denver game is the peach.

The old American Football League was spawned on December 28, 1958.  That afternoon and early evening the Baltimore Colts defeated the New York Giants for the National Football League Championship in overtime 23-17.  The ratings for CBS covering the game were enormous.  Executives at rival NBC took note.  Professional football had been around for decades before being televised.  The relationship between CBS and the NFL was organically grown.  The AFL was simply made for and by NBC debuting in 1960.  Of the four original teams in the Western Conference; Dallas, Denver, Oakland, and San Diego none hosted a Major League Baseball team at the time.  It was minor league football with a distinct difference: It had a national television audience.

Denver played their home games at the Western League home of the Denver Bears.  Imagine a football game at the Bowie Baysox Park only with wooden bleachers.  The explosive growth of the game can be tracked through the modifications progressions of the 8,000 capacity Bears’ Stadium into the 80,000-seat Mile High Stadium. 

Bears Stadium in 1967 with the newly added South End-Zone Bleachers. The gridiron markings are clearly visible.
By 1968 the conversion from Bears Stadium to Mile High was well underway as sections were added like so many Lego Blocks.
By the 1990’s only an archeologist could identify the remnants of Bear Stadium in the 80,000 seat Mile High. Note the South End-Zone Bleachers originally added in 1967 that towered over the field at the time.

The two principal figures for the current Broncos team are QB Russell Wilson and Head Coach Sean Payton.  Wilson has a tangential relationship with Washington.  In 2012 the team traded First-Round picks in three successive years to sign Robert Griffin III.  Head Coach Mike Shanahan was following Dan Snyder’s orders.  But, he had doubts about Griffin’s durability.  In the third round he considered picking Wilson, but passed due to concerns about his short stature.  He picked Guard Josh LeRiebus instead.  In the fourth round he picked Kirk Cousins.  Wilson went on to Seattle and Coach Pete Carroll.  It was a good fit. 

Wilson played 10 seasons in Pete Carroll’s run-heavy system with great success.  He had 292 touchdowns versus only 87 interceptions.  There were 35 game-winning drives.  There was a Super Bowl win…and a loss.  By the end Wilson had decided there was a better way.  Tired of Carroll’s system Russell wanted to emulate Tom Brady as a pure pocket passer.  He managed to talk his way out of town.  But, the trade cost Denver three players and five draft picks including two first-rounders.  Then the Broncos extended his contract for five years.  Wilson got everything he wanted including an office on the second floor with the coaches.  The result was a disaster.

Enter Sean Payton, the former New Orleans coach.  Payton was still under obligation to the Saints.  Denver coughed up yet another first-round pick in order to hire him.  He ostensibly would fix everything.  He may well do so.  But, the Jello isn’t firm yet. 

Payton started by watching every touchdown Wilson threw in Seattle.  Over half came on “Off-Schedule” plays.  Wilson may want to impersonate Johnny Unitas in the pocket.  His meal ticket is playing street ball, however.  Sure enough both of his touchdown passes in Week 1 came with him exiting the pocket then finding a receiver in the scramble drill.  If Washington wants to win it starts with keeping Russ cemented in the pocket.  If the Edge rushers crash inside Wilson will make them pay for it.

These two teams are fairly even in many ranking areas, especially on Defense.  It’s Washington’s Offensive Line that suffers by comparison.  In a game of blocking and tackling the O-Line blocking is clearly inferior on both run and pass.  Young Howell, as youthful QBs are wont to do, holds the ball too long too often.  This week would be a good time to start losing that tendency.  There are teams coming with ferocious pass rushes, like Dallas. 

This is a winnable game.  Some coming won’t be.  Go make some hay.  

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