When Vic Fangio addressed the media earlier this week, it was hard not to think about the scene in “A Few Good Men” when Jack Nicholson’s character sternly delivers a message about the importance of following orders.
The Broncos head coach was answering a question about punt returner Diontae Spencer repeatedly fielding punts inside his team’s 10-yard line, a bad habit that keeps putting the offense in the shadow of their own goalposts.
“He’s not doing what he’s been coached to do there,” Fangio explained.
In other words, Tom McMahon is telling Spencer not to catch the ball inside the 10, but the special teams coordinator’s direction is being ignored. That’s cause for concern.
Why is the punt returner deciding to go rogue? How is Spencer not doing what McMahon is asking him to do?
Cue the exchange between Colonel Nathan Jessup (Nicholson) and Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise).
“A moment ago, you said that you ordered Kendrick to order his men not to touch Santiago,” Kaffee says while questioning Jessep in court.
“That’s right,” Jessup answered while on the witness stand.
“And Kendrick was clear on what you wanted?”
“Any chance Kendrick ignored the order?”
“Ignored the order?”
“Any chance he just forgot about it?”
“Any chance Kendrick left your office and said, ‘The old man’s wrong?’”
“When Kendrick spoke to the platoon and ordered them not to touch Santiago, any chance they ignored him?”
“Have you ever spent time in an infantry unit, son?”
“Ever served in a forward area?”
“Ever put your life in another man’s hands, ask him to put his life in yours?”
“We follow orders, son. We follow orders or people die. It’s that simple. Are we clear?”
“Are we clear?”
It’s a dramatic moment, a part of one of the most-iconic scenes in movie history. And the message behind it applies to any hierarchical organization – following orders is the key to success.
Granted, the military angle makes it more serious, bringing a life-and-death element to the equation. But the moral remains the same.
People need to follow directions. They have to do what their bosses ask them to do. If they don’t, things unravel. If they don’t, chaos ensues.
In the situation with McMahon and Spencer, this translates to the Broncos offense getting saddled with bad field position. Down the road if it continues, it’s bound to result in a fumble or muffed punt that gives the opposition the ball in point-blank range or even a gift touchdown.
For any football team, those results would be bad. For Denver, a team that has struggled scoring and can’t overcome many negative plays in one game, they’ll be disastrous.
That’s why it’s unconscionable that Fangio is allowing it to happen.
If Spencer ignored McMahon’s coaching once, perhaps it’s excusable. After all, the heat of battle can sometimes lead to lapses in judgment.
But repeatedly making the same mistake isn’t a brain cramp. It’s insubordination.
If one of Jessup’s soldiers failed to follow orders, they’d be disciplined immediately. If they repeatedly made the same mistakes, they’d be court martialed or discharged. There would be no wiggle room. There would be no free passes.
In the NFL version of that world, the same swift justice would apply. If a punt returner in New England didn’t do what his special teams coach instructed, he’d be out of a job. Bill Belichick would send him packing. Immediately.
But the Broncos aren’t doing that with Spencer. They aren’t implementing a zero-tolerance policy.
It’s certainly not because Spencer has been so dynamic on the field that they can’t imagine getting by without him. Through five games, he’s returned 10 punts for 70 yards, an average of 7.0 yards per return. His lone kick return was a doozy, resulting in a 60-yard scamper against the Packers. But overall, Spencer has been fairly mediocre this season.
Yet the Broncos continue to accept his risky play. They keep allowing him to ignore the direction of his coach.
Maybe it’s because Denver had such a hard time finding a punt returner during training camp and the preseason. Multiple players auditioned for the job during the summer, with no one seizing the opportunity.
Perhaps it’s because Spencer is a good value. At a base salary of only $495,000 this season, the former Canadian Football League star fills a role at a bargain-basement price.
Or it’s conceivable that it’s because Spencer is a nice kid who plays hard and has a good attitude. It’s entirely possible that he gets away with his mistakes because the coaching staff likes him.
Whatever the reason, it shouldn’t matter. The Broncos are setting a bad precedent. Fangio is setting the wrong tone.
Moving forward, the policy has to change. In Denver, players need to follow the orders given by their coaches or they need to catch the first flight out of town.
Nobody should be above that rule, certainly not a pedestrian punt returner with five weeks of total service in a Broncos uniform. Establishing that line is vital.
Moving forward, Fangio needs to make that clear to Spencer and his teammates. One more punt fielded within the 10-yard line will be his last in orange and blue.
That’s what Belichick would do. That’s what Jessup would do. And it’s what Fangio should do.
“We follow orders, son. It’s that simple. Are we clear?”
If that conversation doesn’t happen this week between the Broncos head coach and his rogue punt returner, something is amiss at Dove Valley. And if the notion isn’t enforced when another brain freeze occurs, things are off the rails in Denver.
The Diontae Spencer situation shouldn’t be acceptable. It’s time for Vic Fangio to make that message clear. Crystal.
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