Broncos must improve last-ranked run offense in NFL season’s second half
By Dan Karpiel
When Josh McDaniels was introduced as the 12th head coach in Denver Broncos history, he explained that he wanted to assemble a tough, physical football team. That “tough, physical” mantra has been reiterated more than a few times over the last two-plus years. Yet, right now McDaniels’ Broncos have all the toughness of the cast of “Glee.”
Toughness and physicality on the football field is most often measured by a team’s ability to run the ball on offense and stop the run on defense. Halfway through the 2010 season, Broncos rank last in the league in rushing offense and next-to-last in rush defense. So it’s no coincidence that the Broncos also rank close to the bottom of the NFL in the most important stat of all – wins. The Broncos offensive and defensive lines have spent the first eight games of the season doing their best impersonation of Swiss cheese.
The Steelers, Chiefs, Giants, Jets, Falcons and Rams are each ranked in the top nine league-wide in rush defense. All six teams are in first place of their respective divisions. The Falcons, Jets, Chiefs and Giants are also among the top-eight in rush offense. You don’t need Vince Lombardi’s football acumen to see the correlation between dominating on the ground and winning football games. Yes, there is the ever-present exception to the rule; in this case the 5-3 and tied-for-first-place Indianapolis Colts. Indy is 25th in rush offense and 29th in rush defense. However, they have a guy playing quarterback named Peyton Manning. Maybe you’ve heard of him. Or seen his commercials. He’s pretty good.
Football people will tell you a team’s toughness derives from the mentality of its coaching staff. Being a tough, physical football team does not depend upon to combined weight of your five offensive linemen. For a decade and half the Broncos had the smallest, lightest o-line in the NFL yet routinely dominated in the running game. Toughness is not about how many times your outside linebackers can bench press 225 lbs. Nor is it about what kind of offensive and defensive schemes your team employs and it certainly doesn’t come from a sound bite in the Head Coach’s weekly press conference. Toughness is a mentality. Unfortunately, it’s the mentality the Broncos are sorely lacking.
So why do the Broncos lack the “tough, physical” mentality which Josh McDaniels preaches at every opportunity? Perhaps the axiom that actions speak louder than words holds true in this case. The Broncos are a pass-happy team. Their short passing game is their (only?) strength. Their most productive offensive unit is the receiving corps. Who calls the Broncos offensive plays? Josh McDaniels, and McDaniels’ offensive play calling has been downright offensive. Perhaps Coach McD’s nearly constant iteration that he wants a physical football team rings hollow when he calls 325 passing plays and only 185 running plays over the course of the first eight games.
True there have been injuries – Knowshon Moreno seems to injure his hamstring getting out of bed and Ryan Clady won’t be playing basketball anytime in the next decade – but the commitment to a ground game is sorely lacking. Sure, a team cannot remain committed to the running game when they’re down 21-0 less than 14 minutes into the game, as the Broncos were against the Raiders. But in the Broncos’ other five losses, the ground game was abandoned too early.
In his Thursday meeting with the media McDaniels said, “We didn’t get that phase of our team going (in the first half of the season).” Well why not, Coach? As Denver fans watch former-Bronco Peyton Hillis run towards the Pro Bowl while playing for former-New England assistant Eric Mangini’s Cleveland Browns, the question that begs asking is, “Why has the running game regressed by such a large extent during the McDaniels era?”
Teams take on the mentality and personality of their coach. Bill Cowher’s angry chin told fans and opponents alike all they needed to know about the Steelers. The quiet confidence of Bill Walsh could not have been more perfectly expressed by the play of his 49ers teams in the ‘80s. Bill Parcells’ teams took on the gritty determination and fear of failure that their coach possessed, and Bill Belichick’s Superbowl-winning New England teams made up for their lack of flash by playing as intelligent a brand of football as has ever been played. By the way, not all good football coaches are named “Bill.”
Upon beginning the second half of their season, the Broncos must demonstrate a commitment to the ground game. On Sunday against Kansas City the Broncos will, for the first time all season, have all five of their first-team offensive lineman in starting lineup. Moreno is “as healthy as he’s been all year” according to McDaniels. The Denver weather forecast for Sunday says a run-friendly front will be moving into the metro area. Now is the time for the Broncos to demonstrate a commitment to, even if not competence in, the running game. Josh McDaniels’ job, as well as the Sunday afternoons of a few million fans, depends on it.