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.

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1 Comments:

At 2:34 PM, Blogger EAB said...

Seriously. Please post something new. I'm sick of Jake Plummer and Jesus. And nobody wants to be sick of Jesus at Christmas. It ain't right.

Good day.

 

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