Last year, the Denver Broncos had a terrible season, earned the second pick in the draft, and fired their coach. This year, the Broncos won their division, won a home playoff game, and now will go to New England with a chance to play for the AFC championship on the line.
How did Denver do it? Here are five pointers for the Rams as they use the Broncos as a model.
1. Hire an experienced, winning head coach. As we’ve seen with John Fox in Denver, a winning coach just knows how to win. Fox has adapted to his available talent, built a great defense, and utilized quarterback Tim Tebow’s skill set to its fullest. Fox has instilled a level of toughness in the Broncos that wasn’t there under Josh McDaniels. They do the basic things like run the ball, stop the run, get after the opposing quarterback and protect their own quarterback. When they win, they win the turnover battle, and when they lose, they don’t. The Broncos aren’t a finished product, but Fox has them headed in the right direction. An experienced head coach with a good staff will get back to basics and will drill a team to not beat itself. If the Rams get Jeff Fisher, he’ll be the perfect fit. His philosophy is remarkably similar to Fox’s, and it’s the best way to quickly turn around a franchise on the field.
2. Get your injured guys back. Last year, the Broncos lost pass-rusher deluxe Elvis Dumervil before the season even started, and then defensive end Robert Ayers, safety Brian Dawkins and linebacker D.J. Williams got banged up at various times during the season. While the Broncos haven’t been immune from the injury bug this year, getting their key guys back for most of the season has been a big benefit. If the Rams can get Danny Amendola, Rodger Saffold, Ron Bartell and Sam Bradford back and mostly healthy next season, it’ll make a big difference.
3. Get good production out of last year’s high picks. For the Broncos, Tebow has been, for lack of a better word, a revelation. He and wide receiver Demaryius Thomas hooked up for the 80-yard winning touchdown against Pittsburgh on Sunday, but they’ve been more than that. Tebow speaks for himself with his leadership. A team that started 1-4 without him has gone 8-4 since. Thomas averaged 12 yards a catch on 22 catches in 2010. His numbers aren’t staggering in 2011, just 32 grabs, but his 17 yards per reception is a key. His ability to get deep opens up Denver’s running game, and he scored four regular-season touchdowns. If the Rams can get double-digit sacks from Robert Quinn and if Lance Kendricks can become a productive NFL tight end next year, that will be a huge step.
4. Nail the second pick in the draft with a star. The Broncos took Von Miller over Marcell Dareus last year, and Miller should be the NFL’s defensive rookie of the year. He was a major difference-maker, with 64 combined tackles and 14.5 sacks as a rookie. That second pick needs to deliver instant impact to turn a team from second pick in the draft to playoff game winner. The Rams need whomever they pick to be a big-time player next season.
5. Bring in a difference-making free agent or two. Willis McGahee was an overlooked pickup during training camp, but he gave Denver almost 1,200 yards on the ground, and brought some of that knowledge and toughness he picked up during his time in Baltimore. Denver also got good work out of tight end Daniel Fells, who came over from the Rams. They didn’t go crazy in free agency, but they added some seasoning that helped them win games and influence young players.
We see these sorts of turnarounds all the time. In the last few years Fox, Jim Harbaugh, Pete Carroll, Rex Ryan, Tony Sparano, John Harbaugh and Mike Smith have taken over teams that had losing records the year before and went to the playoffs in their inaugural season. The Rams are in a disastrous state, but history has shown us that with the right leadership, this situation can be turned around, and quickly. Denver is just the latest example.