Friday, May 27, 2011

Chargers-Broncs: Kickin' It AFL-School

In the days of the old AFL, no true rivalry was more one-sided than the Chargers and the Broncos. The Chargers were good and the Broncos were bad for as long as the AFL was the AFL; almost as soon as the ink was dry on the merger papers the Chargers began careening into the Dickie Post/Steve Tensi era, while the Broncos rode Floyd Little, Bill Thompson, Charley Johnson, and Haven Moses up and over the .500 mark. The teams drew even towards the end of the decade, as the Chargers retooled behind Dan Fouts and Air Coryell, only to see the Broncos pull away again in the ‘80s.

The ‘90s was more give-and-take – Ground Marty vs. Team Elway – but always with the edge to Denver. And by and large, the 21st century has been more of the same.

In fact, if the Chargers-Broncos rivalry was a classic rock album, it’d be Houses of the Holy. Its basic riffs just keep getting recycled.

So looking at the two teams involved, who has the better riffs? Is it Jimmy Page through a Supro Thunderbolt or Bonzo Bonham bashing out the bottom end?

My first thought was to go with Bonzo … er, the Broncos. However, upon further review the edge goes to the Chargers.

The answer is in the lines. One of the mantras of this project is: Lines win games. Over time, teams with dominant offensive and defensive lines win more games than teams with top-notch skill players, or linebackers, or D-backs.

Neither team’s lines are brimming over with HOFers. Both teams have a HOFer in the O-line (Ron Mix, Gary Zimmerman); the only D-line HOFer is Fred Dean, and he made his reputation in San Fran. But San Diego’s lines are deeper. San Diego could run out a second team in both lines almost as good as its first team. Denver can’t.

Everything else – everything else – is a wash between the first teams. Denver’s secondary is better, but San Diego’s wide receivers are much better. Running backs are even. Linebackers are even. Both teams have HOFers at QB and tight end. Punters and kickers are nondescript. Returners are even. Coaches are HOFers.

So let’s take this game through to a conclusion. Sid Gillman has a high-octane game plan (devised with the help of his offensive coordinator, Don Coryell) and comes out firing, attacking the Broncos’ secondary and stripping the Broncs of their ability to run a ball-control game. Turnovers let the Broncos back in the game, as the ballhawking Denver secondary capitalizes on Dan Fouts’ miscues. However, despite being the home team and ostensibly used to the mile-high air up there, the Broncos’ lack of depth in the D-line and at skill positions catches up with them. San Diego runs out most of the fourth quarter and triumphs 31-24.

Individually, Fouts has a big day, completing 21 of 34 for 347 yards, three picks and three scores, two to Lance Alworth and one to second tight end (!) Antonio Gates. Ladanian Tomlinson runs for 87, but the big news is what everyone else does: Natrone Means rumbles for 55, Marion Butts goes for 45 and a score, and even Chuck Muncie gets into the act.

John Elway has a so-so game, going 17-for-37 for 236 yards and a touchdown, with two sacks and a pick. Terrell Davis and Floyd Little are a potent one-two punch, combining for 184 yards on 31 carries and a score. Bill Thompson returns an interception for a TD for the Broncs’ final score.

The postmortem for this game is pretty straightforward: Don’t expect to win with just your starters. If your all-time team doesn’t have depth, it’s not going very far. Think of the modern game, and place these all-time teams into that context. Fourth wide receiver? The Chargers send out Anthony Miller. The Broncos trot out Brandon Marshall. (Conversely, the Broncos’ sixth D-back is John Lynch, so advantage there.) Situational pass rusher? Ernie Ladd and Earl Faison versus Trevor Pryce and Elvis Dumervil. Second tight end? The aforementioned Mr. Gates vs. Riley Odoms.

Without question it’s arbitrary and borderline unfair to place all-time teams in a modern context where specialization rules. Bobby Bell is a great linebacker, but is he a better situational pass rusher than Clay Matthews III? Is Dick LeBeau a nickel back? The people most affected by specialization are the really good generalists. Being an all-arounder doesn’t count for near as much as it used to.

Thankfully the non-scientific nature of this exercise wins the day. Good generalists are not punished in these games. Ray Nitschke is not a liability in pass coverage. Red Grange can catch the ball out of the backfield. Don Hutson can beat anyone down the field. Johnny Unitas runs neck-and-neck with Peyton Manning.

But here’s a spoiler alert that trumps all of the above: Deep teams with good lines do well in this competition. Get used to it.

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