Continuing Football Education: Playing To Win The Game.

Hello.  My name is Greg, and I am a diehard U.C.L.A. fan and a diehard Denver Broncos fan.  Yes, it's been rough lately.

(in case there are any doubts where my ultimate loyalties are: Bruins Nation entries, 7546; Mile High Report - not even a member)

I saw something at the end of the Denver Broncos - Tennessee Titans game on Sunday that made me think about the current and future states of U.C.L.A. football and Denver Broncos football, and it gave me a lot more faith in the Broncos' future than in the Bruins'.

To reset, the Broncos were on the road in Tennessee, and were leading the Titans 14-10 in the 4thquarter.  The Broncos had the ball at the Titans' one foot line and it was 4thdown.  The "smart" play was to kick the FG, go up by a touchdown, and trust the defense which had held Tennessee to just 10 points.  In fact, the Broncos initially sent the FGunit out on the field.  But then the Broncos'Head Coach John Fox had a change of heart.  He called time out, spoke withhis team, then sent the offense back out.  Gain a foot, make it a 2 score game in the 4th, and the Broncos are 2-1.  So long, Andrew Luck.  The Broncos made the bold move and played to win the game.

Football has caused me a lot of anguish over the last decade.  To compound the recent misery of Bruin football, I am a life long Denver Broncos fan.  My grandparents moved here to CO in 1969, and they sent me t-shirts and pajamas and other paraphernalia from infancy on through my high school years.  As a result, Iwas appropriately brainwashed when I was young, and it stuck.  It worked out.  The Bronco fan card played well when I met my wife-to-be who grew up in Colorado and was a diehardBronco fan herself.  When we moved to Denver, we got on the list and have had season tickets now for 14 years.

It has been interesting comparing the Bruins' course and the Broncos' course over the last decade and a half, because the parallels between the two teams have been uncanny.

During the 1997-98 and 1998-99 seasons, the Bruins were winning 20 straight and were on the verge of a national championship and the Broncos won 2 glorious Super Bowls.  Well, we know what happened withour Bruins since.  Here in Denver, it has been pretty much the same.  The Broncos went from dominant to average to downright god-awful horrible the last 2 years (thanks for nothing, Josh McDaniels).  Both the Bruins and the Broncos were extremely successful when they had Hall of Fame Quarterbacks (McNown and Elway) surrounded by great offensive weapons, and the Broncos had the advantage of some great defensive players as well.  But when those QB's left, both teams fell on hard times.  Coaches Toledo and Shanahan saw their teams become average and the players tuned them out.  Misses in recruiting and in the draft and key injuries depleted bothrosters of talent.  Uninspired coaching (Karl Dorrell, ironically a former Broncos assistant, and Rick Neuheisel, and the end of Shanahan's run) or absolutely horrible coaching (you, McDaniels) further destroyed chemistry and fan support.  Luckily, the Bruins have never had a coach as arrogant and destructive and disastrous as we did in Denver (that's you, Hoodie Jr, YOU!!), but it is fair to say that both programs are about as low now as they have been at any time in the last 30 years.

And during that time I've watched it all. I've watched both of my teams suffer a parallel fall from the pinnacles of success to the basements of failure. And I have suffered along with them.  Doubly so.

The Broncos are starting over again this year witha new coach, John Fox.  Fox was billed as a no nonsense, focus-on-the-basics, old-school kind of guy who would be ideal to rebuild this franchise.  I look at this year for the Broncos as pretty similar to Neuheisel's first year in Westwood.  Fox is taking over a team with a recent history of losing, a lack of talent and depth, a reputation for being soft, no clear leader and no identity, and a frustrated fan base who is desperate to see a competitive team again.  Sound familiar, Bruins?

Things like building talent take some time. The Broncos took a step in the right direction with the draft this year, including selecting our very own Rahim Moore.  Fox now will have to develop a team full of youngsters and newcomers.  But something Fox can begin right now is to establish an identity for his team. For a bunch of newcomers and some returning veterans who haven't seen any success here in Denver, he can teach them how he expects football to be played and he can lay the foundation of a culture of a winning team. 

Lots of us work in industries where we are required to do continuing education.  But if we limit our CE to just the didactic classroom component, we are missing a lot of chances to improve.  It is an important concept to see every aspect of a task as an educational experience and to take advantage of every opportunity to become better prepared.  In school, I always hated when teachers would not return graded tests.  I needed to know what I missed so I could learn from it. correct it, and be better prepared next time I faced that problem.  In work, I have to think beyond lectures and slide shows and consider each day on the job as a learning opportunity.  Football is the same thing.  The games are not just tests.  When the players look at game tape to see what went right and what needs fixing they are continuing to learn and develop.  And if the opportunity presents, a game is a great time to try things that may be needed down the road.

Most experts do not expect the Broncos to win many games this year.  So in a sense, every time the Broncos take the field, they really have nothing to lose.  This gives Coach Fox a unique opportunity.  He has the chance to use this entire year, including games, as one giant practice for his team, to teach them how to play hard nosed football and how to be winners, witha lesser risk of criticism if the final score doesn't favor his team.  That's why I was glad to see the Broncos make the bold move and go for it on the goal line.  He's instilling the culture and the identity right now and usinga game situation to do it.  Fox's decision to pass on the FGand go for the touchdown, in effect, told his team that we are not going to settle for the easy or safe route.  We are going to take the hard road, we are going to dare the opponent to stop us, and we are going to play to win.

What if Rick Neuheisel had said the same thing to the Bruins 3 years ago, when W's and L's didn't matter like they do now?  What if he taught his players that punting was losing, and that ramming the ball down the opponent's throat was winning?  And daring the opponent to stop us on 4th and short was winning?  And that playing mature disciplined football was winning?  And being bold with play calls and schemes was winning?  And playing the most talented playersregardless of seniority was winning.  Well, with the disadvantage in talent on that first Bruins team under Neu, maybe they would have lost another game or two during the year.  But losses were already expected.  Maybe the record that year wouldn't change much, but you can bet the attitude and expectations of the players would change.  There would be a swagger, a confidence, a daring, and an identity.  And think how this U.C.L.A. team would look today if that sort of killer attitude took root and grew, and then was bolstered with the much higher level of talent we have now.  What if this team played to win, to run up the score on offense, to refuse to give up a single yard on defense, to destroy the will of the opponent?  If Rick had done that, do you think we would be seeing lazy routes and dropped balls, or celebrations after stopping a player after a 7 yard gain, or players yelling at coaches, or consecutive time outs followed by 12 players in a huddle, or the numerous other high school mistakes we see on a regular basis?  Unfortunately, that opportunity for some consequence-free learning has passed, and it is clear that instilling this sort of mentality from the outset, and then testing it under live fire on the field wasn't in Rick's character.  And because of that, we lost a golden opportunity to teach our kids some confidence and daring.  We lost a chance to teach our kids how to play to win the game.

I'm sure many of you know that the Broncos didn't convert that 4th and goal.  They ran into the middle of the line and were stuffed by the Titan DL and turned the ball over on downs.  Tennessee scored a touchdown later in the quarter and won the game when the Broncos last drive failed.  Naysayers (pessimists) will criticize the decision, saying that the FG was the "smart" play and passing on it cost us a game.  Maybe, from a limited view. But from a long term view of developing a winning mindset, it was exactly the right call.  So what if Denver has one fewer W at the end of this year?  Teaching the team what it takes to win was the smart play, and will be worth many W's in the future.  Running the 2 minute offense with just 30 seconds left before half instead of taking a knee is teaching this team how to win.  Throwing from deep in their territory instead of running a safe draw play is teaching this team how to win.  Blitzing a QB facing a 3rd an long instead of dropping 8 into coverage is teaching this team how to win.  It may not be successful this year, but it will pay off in the long run.  Because in a year or two, as these young players become veterans and the talent improves, the Broncos will face some similar situation.  And maybe next time it won't just be an early season game in a rebuilding year on the line.  It could come in a division rivalry game.  Maybe the AFC West title will be on the line.  Or it could be in a playoff game with the winner moving on and the loser going home.  And think how much better prepared, mentally and physically, the Broncos will be for having tried that 4th and goal.  They will have the benefit of having been in that situation before, and they will know exactly what it takes, mentally and physically, to get the job done.  Had Fox settled for the FG, his OL wouldn't know what it takes to get that last foot, on the road, with a chance to seal a game.  They would never have learned what that situation is like.  Now they have.  The Broncos are learning on the fly.  Continuing Football Education: Playing to win the game.

The Bruins are a year or two ahead of the Broncos right now, in that we are playing meaningful games with the goal of competing for the conference title and getting to a bowl.  W's and L's matter now.  That first season free pass is long gone.  As a result, Rick does not have the luxury of sacrificing the "smart" play and risking a loss for the opportunity to teach the players, to test them in a game situation, to make the daring play, and to instill that culture of winning.  Our players were brought up on Rick's lessons of punts and field position and vanilla schemes and simple playbooks and conservative strategy, and it shows in the results. 

Think about how many winnable games the Bruins have lost this year and last.  Think how the Bruins struggled to separate from inferior teams.   Have our Bruins scored any major upsets against teams who proved to be truly better than us?  Have we been a team that finds a way to win, or have been exactly the opposite?  Now consider our remaining games.  Only Stanford will be heavily favored over us, but every single game on our schedule is winnable.  Does anyone think we are going to win all of them?  Or will we play conservatively, make silly mistakes, and not take advantage of opportunities to put opponents away?  Will we play not to lose, and keep these winnable games close, or will we play to win and establish this program as a force again?

Do you remember how it felt to take a test and suddenly wish you had studied harder and been better prepared?  I bet Neu feels that way, too.  Unfortunately, the time for free learning has passed.  It is test time for Bruin football and for Coach Neuheisel.  So far, the grades have been poor, and Neu is running out of time to bring his test scores up.

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