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Virtual offseason: More necessary for new Broncos than veteran Saints

Said Broncos' newcomer Nick Vannett: “It’s actually been better than expected. I think the meetings are very productive."
Credit: AP Photo/Jack Dempsey
Denver Broncos head coach Vic Fangio reacts along the sidelines during the first half of an NFL football game against the Oakland Raiders, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, in Denver.

DENVER — It won’t only be Drew Brees vs. Drew Lock, Cameron Jordan against Von Miller, Sean Payton matching wits against Vic Fangio.

The Broncos’ 11th game of the season on November 29 at Empower Field at Mile High will be a showdown of virtual meeting philosophies.

Payton, a 24-year NFL coach who has been head of the New Orleans Saints for going on 15 years (including his one-season Bountygate suspension in 2012), blew off the offseason virtual meetings. He told his players to stay healthy, stay in shape, and see you at training camp in late-July.

Fangio, a 34-year NFL coach going into his second season as the Broncos’ head coach, embraced the virtual teaching sessions. Veteran players finished their seven-week program Thursday, while rookies will finish their six-week program this week.

Virtual learning or a virtual waste of time? We’ll see in time but for now the Broncos coaches and players believe the Zoom meetings were beneficial.

“It’s actually been better than expected,’’ Nick Vannett, a four-year NFL tight end who signed a two-year contract with the Broncos in March, said in a Zoom interview with 9News last month. “Obviously, this is everybody’s first time  going through something like this. I don’t think any of us knew what these virtual meetings were going to be like, not being able to be at the facility.

“But actually, it seems like we’re still getting the same amount of attention, same amount of details that we would normally get if we were in the facilities. I think the meetings are very productive.’’

Vannett believes that because he’s a new player to the team, the virtual meetings were a must. And even for the returning players, learning a new offense from new Broncos’ offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur made the virtual meetings required learning.

Credit: AP
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) smiles with head coach Sean Payton after being taken out of the game in the second half of an NFL football game against the Washington Redskins in New Orleans, Monday, Oct. 8, 2018. Brees broke the NFL all-time passing yards record during the game. The Saints won 43-19. (AP Photo/Bill Feig)

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In Payton’s defense, he and Brees and the offense they’ve been operating together since 2006 made this offseason less an educational priority. How much more Xs and Os learning does Brees need when he already knows it all?

Perhaps, Payton was also influenced by the fact he had contracted coronavirus and wished to take every precaution for his players’ health.

Still. Von Miller participated in the Broncos’ virtual meetings as he was quarantined from his own bout with COVID-19. At the very least, virtual meetings couldn’t hurt.

“I remember when that news came out about Sean Payton, I don’t know, I couldn’t help but think about the new guys coming in,’’ Vannett said. “What are they doing during this time? They can’t learn this stuff until they get to training camp whereas we’re getting all this information as if we were still in the facility and everything was normal.

“But now it’s on us. They give us the information and it’s on us to study on  top of it and find ways to stay in shape. Find ways to still get our workouts in. Find ways to find a field and run some of these routes and do some of these blocking schemes. We’ve got to take a little ownership ourselves during this.”

Lock has come through. By organizing unofficial workouts and practices with his teammates at a Denver park and field near you, he has done what any team would want from its quarterback – taken ownership of a situation, taken control and taken leadership.

In the past three or four weeks, the Lock-led workouts came with Zoom meetings fresh in everyone’s minds.

Credit: KUSA
Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur.

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“I was very impressed,’’ Shurmur said of Lock during a Zoom media call last week. “He was able to keep up with the installations when he and the rest of the quarterbacks and (offensive line coach) Mike (Munchak) and I would sit down and just generally talk concepts.

“I think he’s got a really good feel for the game. He’s developing a good feel for what we want to do. If the rumor is true that he’s throwing to our players, I think he’s learning something there. We’ll just try to put it all together here come July.”

Until the Lock-led workouts began, skepticism that virtual meetings as a waste of time would have been understandable. There is learning the playbook in meetings. But what good does it do if the team can’t apply and reinforce its newfound knowledge on the practice field?

And the Broncos might discover that come the start of training camp on July 28, everyone will have to start over from scratch.

“First of all, we’re teachers. We’re not professors,’’ Ed Donatell, the Broncos’ defensive coordinator, said in his Zoom media call last week. “We want to get everybody to be an A student or at least a B student. What I can tell you is we have everybody where they’ll have all the tools they’ll need when they hit the field. We can’t tell you how it will be physically. We’ve just created ways to use film and create interaction, have them talking to each other. It’s a very big plus. This is going to help us when people are away from us in the future. It’s going to help us adapt.’’

But then Donatell finished with a qualifier. This is usually the time of year when coaches are asked, who stood out during organized team activities (OTAs)? Was there a player or two who surprised with his improvement?

There is no reason for such questions this year.

“It’s hard to put somebody ahead of somebody,’’ Donatell. “This is the game of football. Even in a normal year, everything we do to this point—there’s one other piece. It’s called when you put on the pads. You start running into each other, making tackles, avoiding tackles, breaking tackles. We don’t know that piece. There’s a lot that remains to be seen.”

Credit: AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Ed Donatell during drills at the team's NFL football training camp Friday, July 19, 2019, in Englewood, Colo

If all goes well for the Broncos, game 11 against the Saints will mark Lock’s 16th game as an NFL quarterback. One full season worth of experience. Brees would be playing in his 286th game if he stays healthy, or 18 seasons worth.

Virtual meetings or not, Brees will still have a considerable football knowledge advantage over Lock come November 29. But Lock will be more prepared than he otherwise would have been.

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