View Full Version : Armstrong: Broncos Special-teams ineptitude becoming tradition

Bob Dole
12-20-2004, 07:19 AM
Look on the bright side.... You only had to kick to Dante 3 times.

Kansas City, Mo. - Mike Shanahan said he "really felt good" going into the game. Ah, but if there's anything that can ruin a good feeling, a good time or a good season, it's the Broncos' kickoff-coverage team.

Not that the punt-coverage team is much better. This is the Broncos we're talking about. They cover kicks like snow covers Ecuador.

What, we're supposed to be surprised Dante Hall returned Sunday's opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown? By now, we've come to expect the worst from the Broncos' special teams. It has become a rich tradition in Denver, much like Stock Show cold fronts, the holiday lights on the City and County Building and the Rockies crying poverty.

When it comes to special teams, few, if any, NFL franchises are as consistently dreadful as the Broncos, who ranked 28th in the league in kickoff coverage before Hall's touchdown trek. Nothing unusual there. A year ago, they were 26th.

Before anyone accuses me of piling on, let me point out the Broncos' special teams have improved on some fronts. The punt-coverage team, for instance. It ranked 28th in the league last season but has zoomed up the charts to No. 19. Whoa. If this keeps up, some of these guys may have jobs by training camp.

It was Hall this time, just as it was the last time the Broncos ventured to Arrowhead Stadium.

But it hasn't been any one opponent or one play. It hasn't been a botched return here or a missed tackle there. No, it's every weekend in every city in every conceivable way.

Lousy special-teams play has been the Broncos' common thread, their recurring nightmare, their never-ending story. It's enough to make a man start swinging at something.

"You don't want to laugh, but you smile at it as though it's one of those 'Are you kidding me?' type of things," Broncos safety Nick Ferguson said. "If you're any type of competitor, that's something that would frustrate you. I'm frustrated, but I guess I've learned to handle it. It's just heartbreaking. You want to punch a hole in the wall, but what's that going to accomplish?"

It might cheer him up a little. And if anybody could use a little cheering up at the holidays, it's the Broncos' special-teams captain. Ferguson happens to own that distinction along with one other: He was among the 11 Broncos who didn't so much as lay a glove on Hall, the best kick returner in the business.

"Obviously, we talked about him all week," he said. "We knew we had to get people around him.

"Somebody might not have been where they needed to be. I could sit here and make excuses, but it boils down to whoever is out there trying to get the job done.

"That's what it is, 11 men versus 11 men, and you have to try to beat your guy."

The Broncos have consistently come out on the wrong end of that particular matchup, and it's hardly a recent development. To the contrary. It's becoming a hallmark of the Shanahan era. And what's worse, he all but asked for it.

Make no doubt, the special teams' shoddy play is on Shanahan. He constantly talks about all three phases of the game. But as he likes to say, talk is cheap. When it comes to special teams, he hasn't put his money where his mouth is.

The Broncos' special teams were awful last year, prompting Shanahan to get rid of kickoff returner Chris Cole and punt returner Deltha O'Neal. It should have been an opportunity for the Broncos to get better. Instead, Shanahan handed both jobs to a sixth-rounder, Triandos Luke, who never had returned a punt in college, much less the NFL.

Not only that, last year's special-teams coach, Frank Bush, resigned to become the linebackers coach at Arizona. So who replaces him? Ronnie Bradford, whose résumé included one year as the Broncos' assistant special-teams coach.

Then there's Micah Knorr. Shanahan should have shown him the door before training camp. Instead, it took him until December, after Knorr had put the defense in harm's way countless times.

How many yards did Knorr cost the Broncos in field position? Consider this: They've started 43 drives inside their 20-yard line, 15 more than their opponents.

But it's nothing new, Shanahan firing his punter during the season. Tom Rouen, the punter Knorr replaced, was dumped during the bye week in 2002.

And so it goes for the Broncos' special teams. No, they haven't cost this team its once-promising season, but they've contributed more than their share.

"We've got a lot of young guys playing special teams for the first time," Ferguson said. "They really don't have a knack for it yet. But still, at the same time, it's the NFL. After that first game, you ain't a rookie anymore. You have to learn how to do things a little different. It's disappointing. I'm the special-teams captain. I feel bad about it."

The changes are coming. At this point, Shanahan doesn't have any choice. When free agency rolls around, he has to sign a punter, preferably one who can kick off.

Trouble is, no matter what he does or who he signs, it's too late to save this season.