Join Date: Apr 2006
Pasquarelli: Broncos Run/Pass article
Over the past dozen seasons of Denver Broncos franchise history, there have pretty much been two constants: Coach Mike Shanahan, and a running offense that never dropped out of the top 12 in the league's statistical rankings.
In fact, not once during Shanahan's tenure in the Rocky Mountains has the Denver rushing game ever ranked statistically below the club's passing attack.
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As is the case with many noted offensive schemers, Shanahan is often mischaracterized as a mad scientist who spends nearly every waking minute doodling away at the dry-erase board, conjuring up frighteningly squiggly pass patterns.
But the numbers, which show a Broncos' team that has ranked among the top 10 in overall offense during Shanahan's time in Denver, certainly don't fit that perception.
Indeed, the Broncos' passing attack has been out of the top 10 six times since Shanahan became the coach in 1995. Four times over the past six seasons, and thrice in the last four years, Denver has been 18th or lower in passing statistics. Last year, the Broncos were 25th, the worst-ever under Shanahan, and a rating that prompted the benching of quarterback Jake Plummer and his subsequent departure. On the flip side, nine times under the stewardship of Shanahan, the Denver rushing attack has rated among the league's top five, and five times it's been in the top three.
There have even been four seasons, including three of the last four years, in which the Broncos logged more rushing than passing plays. In the only season they didn't during that stretch, 2004, the Broncos had only two more passing plays than rushing plays.
So, what do all of those numbers translate into for the 2007 season for the Broncos' offense, which ranked 21st overall in the league in 2006? Given some of the news that emanated from the Denver minicamp this week, and the fact the Broncos' No. 1 quarterback, Jay Cutler, enters 2007 with just five career starts, expect the emphasis on the running game to continue for another year.
"Even from the outside looking in, if you've been around the league and you look at the offense here, you definitely think run first and foremost," said tailback Travis Henry, the eight-year veteran signed away from the Tennessee Titans as an unrestricted free agent, and likely to become the Broncos' fifth different leading rusher in five years. "It's what this [offense] is about, its calling card. I mean, that isn't just suddenly going to change overnight, you know?"
If things do change, which is highly unlikely, it won't necessarily be reflective of Cutler's relative lack of experience.
The last time Shanahan went into a season with such a callow and untested quarterback as his starter -- in 1999, with Brian Griese, who had zero regular-season starts on his résumé at the outset of the year -- the Denver offense actually went the other way. The offensive split got lopsided toward the pass, with Denver throwing the ball on 55.8 percent of its snaps, one of the most unbalanced seasons of Shanahan's long tour with the franchise. The Broncos had 123 more pass plays than running plays that season. The team's average in the 11 other years of Shanahan's tenure is a differential of only 40.5 more pass plays than run plays.
So it's not as if Shanahan hasn't, in the past, permitted a young quarterback to cut it loose. And last year, in Cutler's starts, the running-game ratio (51.6 percent) wasn't demonstrably increased over what it was (49.8 percent) in the 11 contests that Plummer started. Plus, what the Broncos' minicamp revealed is that there might be even more concerns about the players who are supposed to be catching the ball for the Broncos in 2007 than concerns over the youngster who will be throwing it.
There is still an entire summer and four preseason games to set the depth chart, and eight weeks before Denver opens the season at Buffalo on Sept. 9. But for now at least, it appears their depth chart is deficient, particularly at wide receiver. For all of the attention the Broncos have paid their defense, adding superb cornerback Dre' Bly and some bigger bodies upfront, their offseason acquisition of most consequence is inarguably Henry, the next guy up in the long lineage of 1,000-yard rushers in Denver.
For most of Shanahan's tenure, the problem has been the absence of a reliable third wide receiver. In the past 12 seasons, the No. 3 wide receivers in Denver averaged an anemic 19.4 catches per year, a remarkably puny amount, even in a passing game that featured the tight end so ambitiously. But this season, the question marks at wide receiver could trickle even below the No. 3 spot.
With the lengthy recovery of stalwart Rod Smith, who continues to rehabilitate from Feb. 23 surgery to his left hip and who acknowledged this week he might not be ready for the start of camp, there could be concerns about the viability of the starter opposite Javon Walker in the lineup.
"It's all about patience right now," noted the remarkably durable Smith, a former undrafted college free agent who has carved out a brilliant 12-year career that has included two Super Bowl rings and three Pro Bowl appearances. "If I can't do it, I'm not going to go out there and try to do it."
But even before the hip operation, in which surgeons addressed a torn labrum, ligament damage and general degeneration, there were some signs that Smith, 37, might not be able to do it at the same levels he reached earlier in his career. In his first nine seasons as a starter, Smith averaged 13.5 yards per catch, 14.6 reception of 20 yards or more and 2.1 catches of 40-plus yards. In 2006, his average per catch plummeted to a career-worst 9.8 yards, with one reception of 20 yards, and none longer.
Still, with 52 receptions for 512 yards and three touchdowns in 2006, Smith's numbers are glittering compared to those rung up by the group of receivers who would challenge for his starting job if he isn't ready for the beginning of the season. Without a complementary wide receiver, Walker is going to face a lot of double-teams and secondaries that consistently roll toward him.
Consider this bunch: Second-year veteran Brandon Marshall had 20 catches for the Broncos as the No. 3 wideout in 2006, but has struggled with a left thigh injury much of the spring and summer. Brandon Stokley, signed from Indianapolis as an unrestricted free agent, is one of the NFL's premier slot receivers when healthy. But Stokley is trying to come back from a torn Achilles. In 2004, Stokley had 68 catches for 1,077 yards and 10 touchdowns. In his seven other seasons, however, he averaged just 18.7 receptions, and has only 49 grabs since his big 2004 performance. David Kircus has totaled 15 receptions in three seasons. Quincy Morgan, another free agent addition, averaged 38.6 receptions his first four seasons in the league, but has only nine catches the past two years. David Terrell, a first-round choice of the Chicago Bears in 2001, has played in one regular-season game the past two years.
Matched against such a dubious collection, even on just one good leg, Smith looks pretty good. But probably not nearly as good as Henry, a classic, one-cut runner whose style is a terrific fit with Denver's traditional zone-blocking scheme, will look to Shanahan and to Cutler when they are searching for a safety net.
The tailbacks certainly aren't a constant in Denver, as each of the last four players to lead the franchise in rushing yards -- Clinton Portis (2003), Reuben Droughns (2004), Mike Anderson (2005) and Tatum Bell (2006) -- was traded or released the following spring. The running game and the commitment to it, though, are unwavering.
And almost certainly will be again in 2007.
So while the Broncos begin a new chapter of their history in 2007, with Cutler opening the year as the starter, it's clear that the Denver offense will be reading from the same playbook it always has since Shanahan arrived.