Denver hasn’t had a run game to speak about since we switched to a scheme that was supposed to bring back shades of Terrell Davis. The blame game could take a page, so let’s focus instead on the future, by looking at the Atlanta Falcons and the Broncos 2012. Yes, look back to look ahead.
Why the Falcons? For two reasons: they used two running backs and a full back, and because their stats last season as the #1 offense were quite close to Denver’s #1 in 2012 when Mike McCoy was the OC.
Here’s something to note: Last season, Atlanta threw 57.7% of the time. For Denver in 2012, that number was 55.9%. ATL ran 42.3%, 2012 Denver, 44.1%. 2013 is there for a reason, which will be explained below.
In 2016, Atlanta used two running backs, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, whose snap count total was for 92.1% of their offensive plays. Freeman was in on 58.1% and Coleman, 34.0%. Their third back had a handful of garbage time snaps. 98.5% of the time, they had at least one back on the field, often two.
They used fullback, Patrick DiMarco, in every game. For eight games, they started with both he and Freeman. He played 31.2% snaps on offense. Combine Freeman, Coleman and DiMarco and that’s a lot of run power. (Power they didn’t use when the SB was on the line.)
The Falcons rushed for 1,928 rushing yards, 20 TDs. Matt Ryan had 4,944 passing and 38 TDs.
In 2012, Denver had 1,832 rushing, 12 TDs. Peyton Manning had 4,659 yards, 37 TDs.
Minus the efficiency of the Atlanta RBs, pretty dang close for two teams with polar opposite offensive backgrounds. One based in a west coast offense and the other a Coryell. It’s also intriguing when you factor in that Denver actually attempted to run the ball more.
In 2013, Denver had 1,873 rushing, 16 TDs. Manning had 5,477 yards and 55 TDs. Only 55 yards and 4 rushing TDs less than 2016 Atlanta. In a pass happy, spread offense with Manning in the shotgun.
Does the run really set up the pass? Manning’s 2013 numbers would say, no. Or, is it that a good offensive plan with a good QB, can do whatever they want? I’d say the latter. However, new and poor QBs absolutely need a run game to survive. 60-40 pass to run ratio isn’t a recipe for success for the weaker QB.
While new QBs need lots of passing time to learn, they also require a run game to let them breath, slow the game down, and lessen the amount of plays that their arm is needed. Most QBs can throw well enough to win a game if the pieces around them are intact, but keeping the amount of passes they throw to a limited number also decreases the chances of screwing up.
When new QBs have to throw 40 or more times in a game, they lose. Not just because it means added pressure for them to perform, but it usually indicates the run game isn’t happening.
That’s why Denver brought in veteran Jamaal Charles and also drafted Henderson, plus kept FB Andy Janovich. By all accounts, Denver is going to be a pass heavy offense; however, neither of our quarterbacks have yet to prove they can carry a game. That means be why the team wins, not the placeholder for the other parts. Win even if some of the other pieces have a bad day.
Because of that, Denver could very well carry five back to lessen his lode. Injuries forced Manning/McCoy to need five, over the course of 2012. They could do what Atlanta did, have one RB starter, but use the second one for more than a 1/3 of the time, plus the FB. RB/FB by committee. They can dress three, keep four on the 53 and two on the Practice Squad for insurance.
In 2012, up until the point Willis McGahee was injured, he had 67% (167/249) of Denver’s rushing attempts by running backs. Following the McGahee injury, Knowshon Moreno accounted for 65% (130/200) of Denver’s rushing attempts from the running back position. Neither of those are what is called workhorse territory. A safe number for that would be 80%-85%+ of a team’s RB carries, IF you’re looking to have a bell cow and not RB by committee.
Why could Denver keep so many? Especially in a perceived pass happy system? Because they haven’t traded FB Andy Janovich, indicating the run will still be important. In addition, Charles and Anderson are both coming back from knee surgeries and both are on the wrong side of 27 when RBs drop off a cliff. Not to mention, Anderson is injury plagued.
Devontae Booker has yet to show he is more than a bulldozer runner. Nor does he have the experience to read defenses or the luxury of having a QB who can teach him.
From a financial/salary cap perspective, if either Charles or Anderson aren’t up to expecations, the team can cut them during training camp without any salary cap penalties. Cutting Charles would save $1,134,375 assuming his $100,000 has already been earned/paid. Cutting Anderson would save $2,900,000, again assuming he has already earned his $100,000 workout bonus which is generally tied to the the off-season program. If either is on the week 1 regular season roster, their contract then becomes guaranteed for 2017.
De’Angelo Henderson is an unknown. Based on Denver’s recent poor track record* of drafting good running backs, the odds aren’t great that he’s the next Terrell Davis. Andy Janovich was the top ranked FB until he, too, got hurt. So, here we are, five backs and all are questionable.
Based on above, if Denver keeps five backs on the 53, two need to be on Special Teams earning their keep, like ATL did with their extra backs (and Denver in 2012). Only Freeman and Coleman didn’t play ST. If this is the scenario they use, what offensive player is getting the boot? It would point to a WR.
In a pass happy offensive that would be ok as long as the TEs can catch and stay healthy. If they decide to go WR heavy and gamble on four backs on the 53, that puts more onus on the quarterback being able to run if we see the same mediocrity as last season. We saw a plethora of wasted third downs with only a yard needed.
It’s doubtful we get 37 passing TDs; however, if the backs can contribute, 28 is feasible and would be an enormous improvement. My guess is it all depends on the QB. If during the preseason, he can move the ball and score in the red zone with his arm and legs, they keep four backs. If he can’t, they keep five because none appear to be a sure thing.
What is also likely, is seeing a mix between 2012 Denver and 2016 Atlanta. Some WCO tossed in with some Coryell. A balance between the pass and rush. 55-45 is considered a balanced attack in today’s pass happy NFL. Which would also dictate the necessity of a dependable run game. McCoy and Kyle Shannahan have both proven track records using what works to win. It all rides on the arm and/or legs of the QB.
As mentioned above, if the number is 5 (4RB, 1 FB), then it is likely due to special teams contributions and health questions. What’s best for Denver is if Charles is 100% healthy, QB1 can score in the RZ and only four total backs are kept. What is least likely, is only three are needed and used throughout the season.
As an aside, this is why the TE is so important. His blocking and catching skills are needed to fill any holes that may occur because the more balanced the offense, the easier it’ll be for the quarterback.
*Denver has drafted the following backs: Floyd Little, Otis Armstrong, Bobby Humphrey, Terrell Davis, Clinton Portis and Knowshon Moreno. Under Elway: Ronnie Hillman, Montee Ball, Devontae Booker…plus, Henderson.