ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — When Bill Belichick talks, the league listens. When he moves, they watch. When he acts, they follow.
In the copycat league that is the NFL—or a “thievery league” as Mike McCoy would say— if a new idea in any facet of the game works for one team it’s only a matter of time until the rest of the league follows suit. Much like a popular kid in high school picking up a new style, successful ideas in the NFL are likely to spread like wildfire around the league as no organization wants to miss out on the new hot “thing.”
When the trend is set by a five-time Super Bowl champion, such as Belichick, the New England Patriots head coach, the league is quick to follow.
This is exactly what happened with the coin toss at the beginning of the game. In 2008, the NFL added the option for the team who won the coin toss to “defer” their decision until the start of the second half, essentially letting the other team choose whether they want the ball to start the game.
In it’s inaugural year, only 7.8 percent of team’s chose this option, while the Patriots chose it 75 percent of the time.
Fast forward to the 2015 season and the number of teams deferring had jumped to 82.5 percent. Teams were essentially choosing to kick the ball to their opponent and start the game on defense in order to receive the ball at the start of the second half.
The Denver Broncos, led by Gary Kubiak the previous two seasons, fell right in line with the trend.
Under new head coach Vance Joseph, there have been many small changes within the organization, including not deferring the coin toss, but instead receiving. While it is a relatively small decision in itself, the differing mindset, and attitude, toward the game is drastic.
“I want to be attacking defenses,” Joseph said in his decision to receive the ball to start Week 1 against the Los Angeles Chargers. “The best time to attack a defense is in your first 15 plays. That is the best plays that you’ve watched all week that are available for you to make plays. Why not get them off the sheet early?”
The logic in the past with the Broncos has been to let their great defense get off to a hot start, thus kicking to start the game seemed like a good idea. Unfortunately, in 2016, Denver’s defense typically got off to a slow start, giving up the fifth-most first quarter points last year, not giving credence to the tactic of deferring.
Additionally, with the defense designed to defend the passing game—Von Miller rushing the passer and the vaunted “No Fly Zone” in the secondary—Denver’s defense is ideally built to play with a lead, so waiting until the start of the second half to do that doesn’t fit the Broncos identity.
“In my opinion, with our defense, playing at home, taking the ball and getting that early score, that makes our team better,” Joseph said. “Let’s get a return off, let’s go score points and let’s go hunt the quarterback. That is my mindset.”
In Week 1, when Joseph strayed from this attack and hunt mindset, there was a drastic shift in Denver’s output. Against the Chargers, the aggressive game plan from both the offense and defense was in place until early in the fourth quarter. Through the first three quarters, the Broncos had built a 24-7 lead and just needed to close out the game. When Denver shifting the mindset from “attack” to “close it out,” the results on the field shifted, too.
“I would say this, we were in firm control of that game. I didn’t want to have any negative plays,” Joseph said. “The clock was in our favor in my opinion, so burning the clock, getting two short third downs, that was my goal there. I didn’t think it was conservative, I thought it was just playing smart football.”
When Joseph played to not turn the ball over, the Broncos did just that, twice. Denver had two negative plays—an interception and a fumble—in back-to-back series. Fortunately for the Broncos, specifically the “stressed out” Joseph, the Broncos 17-point lead proved to be three points too many for the Chargers, thanks in large part to Shelby Harris’ last-second blocked field goal.
While Joseph’s “smart football” down the stretch certainly made sense, the results were drastically different then when the Broncos were in attack mode.
Under Kubiak last year, Denver’s mindset for the entirety of the season revolved around Joseph’s fourth quarter mindset of avoiding negative plays, not making them. Kubiak knew that the reigning Super Bowl championship defense would keep him in most games if the offense didn’t make mistakes, thus, the offense had the fourth-most three-and-outs in 2016.
That philosophy came one game short of the playoffs for the 2016 team and almost blew the sizable lead in the first game of 2017. We’ll see ff Joseph stays in hunting mode from here on out.