One thing that has bothered me since Denver won the Peyton Manning sweepstakes, actually from when the Broncos entered the Manning sweepstakes, was the notion that Denver was going to insert a great passer on a team that already had a great running game. Maybe it was the parade of former players on AstroTurf TV sets talking about “mesh points” and fluctuating gap responsibilities, but I definitely became convinced it was the Tebow Effect that led to Denver’s great rushing totals last year.
Now all of that is well and good, but as I thought through it, it’s a totally unfair comparison. First of all, the Broncos ran the ball significantly more with Tebow as the starter. Secondly, the running attack under Tebow was far different than the one implemented at the beginning of the season in which Denver used a far more traditional scheme. So to have a sense of just what the Broncos backfield could produce we have to look at one person…Willis McGahee.
Unfortunately, to extract the Tebow effect on McGahee and the running game as a whole we have a small sample size. As Knowshon Moreno was the starter in the season opener, it’s not fair to include McGahee’s two carries for three yards. On the opposite end of the spectrum, it’s fair to assume the Week 7 game against Miami marked the true beginning of the Tebow scheme as the Broncos had come off a bye and had Tebow as the starter for the first time. So that gives us a four game sample size for McGahee. Note the San Diego game is slightly tainted as Tebow played most of the game, but at that point the offense was still operating off its more traditional schemes, albeit with a very untraditional quarterback.
In those four Tebow-less outings would you believe Willis McGahee averaged…wait for it…5.1 yards per carry.
The Broncos may still be lacking that explosive, big-play back on the roster, but when you’re averaging five yards per carry it hardly matters. It’s fair to assume the strategy around Dove Valley is to have Peyton Manning throw touchdown passes rather than just kill time with bubble screens until a back can gouge out a 60-yard touchdown run. Scoring can and should come through the air this season, but if there’s a reliable, effective ground game to go with it then all the better.
Now, what we don’t know is if McGahee’s productivity will continue on last season’s pace, or if Knowshon Moreno will make the team/stay healthy/finally show he’s not a bust, or if Ronnie Hillman is more than a swing guy who does well in space, or if Lance Ball makes the team/stays healthy/proves he’s a reliable role-player. What we can say with statistical confidence is that the Broncos offensive front is capable of producing holes in defenses with or without the uncertainty of a QB option keeper. By all accounts this Broncos team can now win with the pass and the run. It’s just up to the guys in the backfield to make it happen.