Wednesday, November 29, 2006

benching plummer a mistake

In the span of five short days, the Denver Broncos season veered from a promising course toward a potential wasteland.

The team entered Week 11 of the NFL's calendar with a 7-2 record and sat atop the AFC West Division. Then its staunch defense got blown to smithereens by LaDainian Tomlinson, and the team lost to San Diego, 35-27, at home. Four days later on Thanksgiving, Denver's offense tanked against Kansas City in a 19-10 defeat.

Before they could scarf down a turkey leg, the Broncos went from contending for home-field advantage in the postseason to hangers-on of the last AFC playoff spot.

Casual observers could find any number of scapegoats for the short slide. An unfriendly schedule that left them tired. A defensive tendency to look mortal against the likes of Chargers greatness.

Broncos coach Mike Shanahan blamed an easy target, quarterback Jake Plummer.

Plummer has been benched in favor of rookie Jay Cutler, who will make his NFL debut Sunday against Seattle. It seems like a popular fix. But it's wrong. It's a mistake. It's a move that will cost the Broncos their season.

Plummer is being, ahem, unfairly crucified.

He was no doubt part of the problem and not the solution in those two losses. He completed 25 of 39 for 216 yards against Kansas City. One touchdown, one interception. Against San Diego, he was a little worse, completing 46 percent of his passes, zero touchdowns and one interception. But his flat performances weren't worthy of a benching.

Those stats are pretty much the going rate for the guy. Nine years into his career, you know what you are going to get.

When the Broncos signed him prior to the '04 season, they knew he wasn't a reclamation project in the mold of a Trent Dilfer or Rich Gannon, quarterbacks who toiled for years and suddenly had the proverbial light bulb flash above their heads. Plummer is what he's always been -- at his core, a gambler.

Sometimes it works. Last year, he enjoyed a 90.2 QB rating, threw 18 touchdowns to 7 interceptions and led the team to within a whiff of the Super Bowl. Sometimes it doesn't. He committed four turnovers in that AFC Championship Game and has more INTs than TDs so far this season.

But what cannot be derived from recent numbers is the sorry bunch of clowns surrounding him on offense.

Shanahan has done an admirable job of maintaining an elite offense for the last 10 years, tweaking the roster at all the right times. Until now. The last remnants from the Super Bowl teams have finally crumbled, and the replacements are not even mediocre.

The offensive line is in tatters with the season-ending injury to left tackle Matt Lepsis, last year's retirement of Dan Neil and Tom Nalen's aging. Rod Smith is an old receiver who can't take any pressure off Javon Walker. Smith is relying on savvy and experience, not physical strength. Denver can't find a reliable third receiver -- a problem for at least a decade that has now metatisized in severity.

Once upon a time, the tight end was essentially the team's third receiver. Even beyond the heyday of Shannon Sharpe, you would expect to find the likes of Dwayne Carswell and Jeb Putzier fixtures of the game plan. Not anymore.

The running game frightens no defense any longer. Maybe it's a product of the problems on the line, but maybe it's that Shanahan seems to be equally displeased with Tatum Bell and Mike Bell, who are seemingly shuffled from starter to the inactive list back to starter on a weekly basis.

Or maybe the transition from long-time offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, now in Houston, to Mike Heimerdinger has been less seamless than we thought.

Bottom line, blaming Plummer for the shortcomings of the offense is a little like blaming the deckhand for not diving in and saving Leon Klinghoffer on the Achille Lauro.

But the switch has been made, and Mastermind Mike is placing all bets on his prized rookie, Cutler, whom Shanahan traded ahead in the draft to pluck with the 11th overall selection. His crowning was originally scheduled for summer '07. But now it's arrived prematurely, and the timing is unfair to Culter.

Thoughout recent NFL history, the midseason switch to a rookie quarterback is the quintessential white flag, a signal that a team has declared its current season unsalvageable and one that sprouts hope for the years ahead.

But the Broncos aren't that team. They're 7-4. If the season ended today, they'd be headed into the playoffs (toward another creaming in Indianapolis, we can only hope). They've still got a powerful defense, typically a key ingredient for a deep playoff run. It's late November. There's five regular-season games remaining.

Right now seems like precisely the wrong time to bring the rookie into the huddle. This kid could be the second coming of John Elway -- I'm not knocking Cutler.

But either way, he's going to encounter growing pains that will take more than one month to straighten out. Either way, the Broncos can ill afford to experience those during the middle of their playoff stretch.

This is their last shot at a playoff run before they lose a year or two to rebuilding the offense. Smith and Nalen are about done. Next year, it's time for a wholesale revamping of the offense. Those two will need to be replaced. Neither of the Bells is a viable option at running back. Cutler will need some time to grow.

It would seem Plummer would be the best short-term option if the team has any hope of making the most of this last chance.

Instead, Shanahan seems intent to scuttle the season by pushing the panic button way too soon.


Tuesday, November 28, 2006

An airline gripe

I have a proposal that might revolutionize airline travel, making it a much more comfortable experience for the vast majority of passengers.

Let's eliminate reclining seats. From now on, all seats stay in their upright positions not only for takeoff and landing, but for the duration of flight. End of story.

Listen, I understand the seats possess the reclining function. In an ideal world, we'd all kick back and put our feet up on an ottoman while we gallavant across the country at 35,000 feet eating truffles and filet mignon.

But the financial reality of the situation is the airlines now treat us like cattle, allotting us no more space than sheep get in the trucks on the way to the slaughterhouse and feeding us peanuts, if we are lucky.

You would think passengers would treat each other with just an ounce of respect and/or dignity. We're all in this together.

Unfortunately, there are too many people out there flying coach who deign themselves more important than the rest of us. They refuse to adapt to the era of reduced leg room and are adamant about claiming more room for themselves, even at the expense of fellow travelers.

These are the same people who logjam the boarding with their futile attempts to cram overstuffed suitcases into the overhead bins. They couldn't fit them using hydraulic jacks, but they just don't get it. They sit their pushing and pushing with dumbfounded looks on their faces.

So they get into their oversized arses into their undersized seats and immediately thrust themselves into my lap.

It should be noted: I am an average-shaped fellow. At 6-foot-1, 180 pounds, I probably represent the average male traveler. And when that seat swings back, you might as well opt to crush my kneecaps with a vise.

Seats can land crippling blows.

I love when their seat actually balances on my knees. The unruly passenger often becomes agitated that their seat cannot reach the fully reclined position, and they push back with all their might, as if they are rodeo performers trying to stay on the bull.

There's no hope of unfolding my tray table with the yahoo in front of me riding in the lap of coach-class luxury, no shot at reading a newspaper or magazine. On United, the quarters are so cramped, it is difficult to read even a book in such conditions.

My only recourse is to repeatedly kick the offending seat and make the flight as miserable for the Pig Vomit in 4A as he/she has made it for me.

I think I could be elected to public office by a wide margin if I ran on a platform of this lone issue.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Saturday trifecta

Pardon the absence.

Squawking VFR has been on hiatus, as the human resources folks here mandated I take an allotted amount of time off from blogging for a "life-changing event."

As many of you know, that event occurred the first Saturday of November. My ladyfriend officially became Mrs. VFR. It was a fantastic weekend. We had an absolute blast, and are so glad many of you were there.

There are a lot of photos circulating of the schtick that occurred including a smiling photo of a certain comedian posing with a Sonic waitress, only one day before he embroiled himself in a fiasco with a pimple-faced member of the same waitstaff.

Photos exist of the husband of a certain member of the D.C. media rocking out to Pat Benatar's "Heartbreaker" while climbing atop the pool table at Vinny's Bar in Morrison. And also photographic evidence of my brother-in-law in the clutches of a 40-year-old Cougar.

Good times, good times.

If you'll forgive a rare moment of sappiness, the entire weekend was even better than I could have ever envisioned. I wouldn't change a single second of the day.

We celebrated our one-week anniversary by going to see Roger Clyne and The Peacemakers at the Gothic Theater in Denver. Clyne, nee of The Refreshments, puts on a rollicking show full of schtick and energy. A great live act.

I must also say that his opening act, As Fast As, rocked even harder. These clowns were such an odd blend of jam band, metal and keyboards that I couldn't help but order one of their albums. You can hear a couple of their tunes on that Web site. They sound a little more polished online, which is a shame, because their meandering, spontaneous live style was a big plus.

It is worth noting these guys hail from Portland, Ore., which absolutely must be the hottest hotbed of indie rock in the country right now.

Off the top of my head, I can think of The Shins, The Decemberists and Modest Mouse (whom I don't particularly care for) of groups that call PDX home, in addition to the newly discovered As Fast As. Perhaps one of our astute Portland readers will chime in and lend some insight into this new phenomenon.

The trifect of great Saturdays was completed last week with the glorious Game of the Century.

Mrs. VFR and I hustled down to Denver to a bar where the Ohio State Alumni Club meets. We got there an hour before kickoff. The joint was sold out, and the line of people waiting to get in stretched around the block.

A bar underneath that establishment handled some of the overflow, but was also jammed past capacity. That's where we watched a man in a sweater-vest continue his domination of Lloyd Carr and company.

What a game. Ohio State never could quite put the Wolverines away. It was sloppily played, but riveting, just enough to leave me at the edge of my seat the entire game.

Michigan is clearly the No. 2 team in the country. But they absolutely should not get a chance to play the Buckeyes again. Such a matchup creates too many problems. What if the Wolverines win by three points? Who wins the championship then?

No, the Wolverines had their shot. They lost. So someone else should get a chance to prove their dominance over the Buckeyes. (Not that it will happen).

Anyway, I digress. On successive Saturdays, we enjoyed our wedding, Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers and an Ohio State victory. It doesn't get much better than that.

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