It's 8:50 a.m on a day in late May, and quarterback class is in session. In fact, this is already the second quarterbacks meeting of the morning at the Broncos' training facility in Englewood. Coaches and passers huddled at 8, followed by a full-team get-together at 8:30. The offense would meet afterward, at 9:15, followed by a third quarterbacks session at 9:55, a walkthrough at 10:30, then practice, lunch, film review and meetings in the afternoon. Dizzying.
Josh McDaniels, the Broncos' 34-year-old coach, stands at the whiteboard. Seated at an L-shaped table in the cramped meeting room are quarterbacks coach Ben McDaniels, Josh's 30-year-old brother, and the four signal-callers on the spring roster: Kyle Orton, the 2009 starter; challenger Brady Quinn, who was acquired in March from the Browns; Tom Brandstater, a second-year project out of Fresno State; and the No. 25 pick in the April draft, a Florida lefthander and the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner, Tim Tebow.
The four students had their white binders open to follow the installation of some red zone concepts. They took notes in thin, loose-leaf notebooks. "You're going to have 50 passes in the game plan every week where you'll have one player open," McDaniels tells them. "I guarantee it. And you gotta find that one player. Quickly. You got to see it right away."
These quarterbacks have to know what McDaniels knows and to see what he sees. Too often last year, when Denver was 20th in scoring and finished 8--8, one or two players would be out of place or run the wrong route. So even if a smart quarterback like Orton knew exactly where he was supposed to throw the pass, he couldn't complete it because of his teammates' mistakes. But McDaniels is feeling free to add to his encyclopedic playbook because he has more confidence in his troops; nine prospective starters on offense are in their second year, as is the coach.
"All right, we've loaded the gun this year—we've given you Hoffa, Smoke, Smack, and now we've got Sleet," McDaniels says, rattling play calls. Tebow, the new kid, stares at the board, then back at McDaniels. His look says, Another one? Can I please get a grip on the first 539 concepts before you give me the 540th?
McDaniels doesn't pause. He draws up Sleet in black marker, with two receivers on the left and lines to indicate how one of them would, in essence, set a pick for the other to create an open man 10 yards downfield.
"Quarterbacks, you better be ready," he says. "We've got a blitz period today, and this blitz period is gonna test everything you know. Got it?"
"Yessir," the 22-year-old Tebow responds as the others nod. The quarterbacks put their notebooks away and head out to the next meeting. Asked later what was going through his mind when McDaniels drew up Sleet, Tebow says, "I'm very young. Right now, in this offense, I'm in elementary school. I'm understanding the concepts, but now I have to get comfortable with every one. I know I'll get them down. I know it."
In the NFL, teams install their offenses and defenses twice: once during organized team activities (OTAs) and minicamps in May and June, and again as a review during training camp in July and August. At the time of the late-May OTAs, Tebow was in his fifth week in McDaniels's system. During the offense's morning meeting veteran guard Russ Hochstein, who was with the Patriots for seven seasons when McDaniels was a New England assistant and an offensive coordinator, suggested that the coach set up blocking assignments in a more advanced manner, rather than relying on the quarterback to identify where the middle linebacker was and shift blockers accordingly. McDaniels said, in essence: Let's get the basics down first, then move on to a more sophisticated scheme. Hochstein persisted. "Look," McDaniels said, his blood pressure appearing to rise, "that's Calculus 5, what you're talking about. We're in pre-algebra right now. Just do what the quarterback tells you to do. Block your man."
The vibe in the quarterbacks room was also intense. "A year ago," said Orton afterward, "[2009 backup] Chris Simms and I were swimming the same way Tim is right now. This offense is tough. I feel great to be in the second year, knowing what I'm doing."