ENGLEWOOD, Colo—The Denver Broncos finished up their three-day mandatory mini-camp yesterday. They have one more session of organized team activities, scheduled to start on Monday, before being cut loose for the next month leading up to training camp.
As hungry as the fanbase is for any nugget of news or insight, typically, not a lot is gleaned from mini-camp, as our very own Brandon Perna once opined. However, under the leadership of new head coach Gary Kubiak, we’ve learned a lot more about the 2015 Broncos than perhaps we expected to.
Compared to his predecessor, John Fox, Kubiak is a breath of fresh air for fans and media alike. Where Fox was a tight-lipped regurgitator of platitudes and cliché, Kubiak actually answers questions. Now, he’s not going to give away the farm, or let slip anything that he doesn’t want you to know, but the things he’s willing to communicate to the fanbase are significantly richer than anything Fox ever gave.
One of the biggest things we’ve learned from mini-camp, and the Broncos entire offseason training program, is that the veterans are going to get rested and the young guys are going to contribute far more than fans are used to. Kubiak and his staff are very serious about player development.
“I thought it was really good,” Kubiak said yesterday, regarding mini-camp. “We had a purpose and that purpose was to work our older players very, very hard in individual—a lot of conditioning work, individual work. We got a lot of teaching done from a walkthrough standpoint and yet, our young players got a bunch of reps late in the day. So, I think we continue to improve with our young guys. That’s our mission right now before we walk out of here next week.”
Sending 39-year-old quarterback Peyton Manning (and about 20 other vets) inside with an hour left of practice is an alien approach, because Fox leaned on and favored his veterans, to the detriment of his team. With few exceptions, the young guys at the bottom of the roster didn’t progress under Fox.
It takes reps to fully develop as a young guy, just ask Brock Osweiler, who in his own words is getting more reps that “he’s ever had”. Whether he plays much in 2015 or not, those reps will benefit the Broncos immensely. John Elway and Kubiak have been talking about resting Manning all year and giving more reps to Osweiler.
This mini-camp proved that they meant it and will stick to their guns. If the Broncos are up big, Manning is going to leave the game. Period. Even if he wants to stay on the field, Kubiak will pull him and insert Osweiler. This approach paid dividends for the 1998 Broncos and it could help keep Manning fresh down the stretch and into the playoff tournament.
“You try to get the reps that you do have [and] make them quality ones,” Manning said earlier this week. “We’re still getting reps today. They’re cutting back a little bit of the team work for us, but you’re still getting individual reps with your receivers like [WR Cody] Latimer and [TE] Owen Daniels—the first time really throwing to Owen and really the first time getting a lot of reps with Cody.”
Relinquishing reps to his backup is a foreign concept to Manning, but he’s clearly trying to toe the line and buy in completely to the Kubiak approach. The previous coaching regime was arguably too considerate of Manning’s opinions. As accomplished as he is, perhaps it’s unwise to have the inmates running the asylum.
But Manning is making the most of each rep opportunity. He is playing team ball and in his own words, is “all-in” on Kubiak’s new offense. His willingness to take a backseat so that younger players can continue their development is a sign that perhaps he knows his approach will only take the Broncos so far. It’s time for new ideas.
Kubiak’s process is one that is based on the reckoning of success. He owns three Super Bowl rings as an assistant, with two of them coming as the offensive coordinator of the Broncos back-to-back championships in ’97 and ’98. Many have surmised that Elway has always wanted Kubiak as the head coach of the Broncos and the stars finally aligned in 2015, making it possible to bring him back.
When Kubiak left Denver to be the head coach of the Houston Texans, following the 2005 season, many players said his departure was the beginning of the end and the harbinger of Mike Shanahan’s eventual unraveling. Perhaps Jake Plummer wouldn’t have been benched in favor of Jay Cutler, more than halfway through the 2006 season, with the Broncos in first place in the AFC West, had Kubiak stuck around.
We’ll never know. But that’s neither here nor there. Kubiak is back and his approach is one that Elway was thirsty for. The 2015 Broncos are going to play hard, physical and the young guys are going to play. We’re already seeing that along the offensive line.
The Broncos second round pick, Ty Sambrailo, is going to be the starting left tackle going into training camp. Kubiak and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison could have gone the “safe” route and plugged Chris Clark in at LT when Ryan Clady was lost to a torn ACL. After all, Clark started 14 regular season games at LT in 2013, including two playoff games and the Super Bowl.
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Instead, the Broncos are investing in their young rookie and asking him to protect their $16M quarterback’s blindside. Ben Garland, who has never started a game in the NFL, is the first team’s left guard going into camp. Gino Gradkowski, drafted in 2012, didn’t start a single game in 2014 with the Baltimore Ravens, is the Broncos No. 1 center.
Some fans see the starting O-line unit and their hearts fail them. Were this John Fox’s Broncos, it would be a true cause for fear. Under Kubiak and Dennsion, their track record of player development and getting the most out of their offensive line, should comfort those in Broncos Country losing sleep over it.
These are exciting times. As much as things seem to have stayed the same at Dove Valley, so much has changed and that’s a good thing. The Broncos are as talented top-to-bottom as any team in the league. They’ve lacked truly exceptional coaching and Elway’s hope is that Kubiak and company are the missing ingredients.