The Fall of the Denver Rushing Attack

From 1995-2008, the Denver Broncos under Mike Shanahan's leadership were known to run the ball about as well as any team in the NFL did anything. The Denver running game was on a par with the Baltimore defense, the Rams' Greatest Show on Turf, and the KC return games with Dante Hall. That is to say, Denver's rushing attack developed quite a reputation over the years, especially as Shanny turned late-rounders like Terrell Davis and Mike Anderson into stars. The word has been "anyone can run in the Denver offense," and "Mike Shanahan turns watery running backs into wine." Well, perhaps both appear to be true, but we as Broncos fans know the truth - Shanny, Bobby Turner, Alex Gibbs and later Rick Dennison put together a beautiful system to run in and found players to fit that system at relatively low prices in the draft. No, they did not turn bad running backs into great ones - they simply found the best players to feature in their one-cut, zone-block scheme. One of them happened to be an all-time great runner, perhaps the greatest in NFL Playoffs History, Hall of Fame snubs aside. But that, of course, is for another post.

However, I believe that both the media and yes, even us Broncos fans, have romanticized the Broncos running game and given it too much benefit of the doubt in recent years. We'll say "Look, Selvin Young was an un-drafted free agent and will surely be the next RB star!" or "Hey, make sure you draft Tatum Bell/Ryan Torain/Olandis Gary in your Fantasy Draft." I have certainly been guilty of both. Everyone knows that 2008 was a bad year to be a Broncos running back. Anyone with an "RB" next to their name on the depth chart would surely be placed on IR, dumped onto the Practice Squad or released and re-signed. One week, you were sitting at home or working at the Aurora Mall, the next week you were taking carries on Sunday for the Blue and Predominantly Orange. It was that bad. Many of us blamed injuries for the RB woes, and plenty have said 2008 was a mere speed bump for the storied Denver rushing attack. "We'll be fine next year - those injuries won't happen again." Others blame Jeremy Bates and believe he was responsible for moving the Broncos away from the run last year.

Unfortunately, 2008 was not an anomaly, an unexpected turn or a bumpy stretch along an otherwise smooth ride. Rather, it was the continuation of a trend - The Fall of the Denver Rushing Attack.

Mike Shanahan was the Head Coach of the Denver Broncos for 14 seasons, during which time his teams compiled 138 wins and 86 losses, good for a .616 winning percentage during the regular season. Shanny's Broncos were 8-5 in the playoffs, including seven straight victories during the 1997 and 1998 Playoffs on the way to two Super Bowl Championships. They made the playoffs a total of 7 times during Shanny's run in Denver - 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2003, 2004 and 2005. Here are some facts about the Denver Rushing Attack under Shanny's guidance from 1995 to 2008...

  1. Denver rushed for 30,993 yards, the most of any NFL franchise over that period.
  2. 6 different backs ran for 1,000 yards or more within a season - Terrell Davis, Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Clinton Portis, Rueben Droughns and Tatum Bell.
  3. 15 different backs achieved 100-yard rushing games, totalling 94 such performances - 8 of those in the postseason.
  4. Broncos backs ran for 100+ yards in a single half 31 times, including 3 times in the playoffs.
  5. Denver RB's topped 100+ yards in a single quarter on 10 separate occasions, including once in the playoffs.
  6. From 1995 to 2008, Denver was ranked in the top 5 in the NFL in rushing yardage on 9 separate occasions, including first in 1996, second in 1998, 2003 & 2005 and third in 2000.
  7. During Shanny's years, Denver never made the playoffs without a top-5 ranking in rushing yardage. The two times they ranked top-5 but failed to make the playoffs were 1995 and 2002 Now, let's take a look at some more specific numbers...

Broncos Regular Season Rushing Statistics, 1995-2008

Year Rec Att Yds Y/A TD FD 100RB 200+ 175+ 150+ 125+ TOP RA> Rec>
1995 8-8 481 1,877 3.9 7 106 5 1 1 3 8 30:09 9 8-1
1996* 13-3 525 2,362 4.5 20 134 7 4 7 9 9 33:17 11 11-0
1997* 12-4 520 2,378 4.6 18 138 10 2 4 5 12 32:33 13 12-1
1998* 14-2 525 2,468 4.7 26 135 11 4 7 10 11 32:08 14 13-1
1999 6-10 465 1,864 4.0 13 107 4 2 2 3 5 31:16 8 6-2
2000* 11-5 516 2,311 4.5 21 124 7 2 3 6 11 33:15 12 10-2
2001 8-8 481 1,877 3.9 7 106 4 0 0 2 5 31:40 10 8-2
2002 9-7 457 2,266 5.0 21 125 8 3 4 6 8 31:08 11 8-3
2003* 10-6 543 2,629 4.8 20 133 11 4 9 10 11 34:04 11 8-3
2004* 10-6 534 2,333 4.4 13 127 8 3 6 7 9 32:37 11 9-2
2005* 13-3 542 2,539 4.7 25 145 6 2 7 10 12 32:39 13 12-1
2006 9-7 488 2,152 4.4 12 106 6 1 2 6 10 30:24 10 7-3
2007 7-9 429 1,957 4.6 10 96 5 2 3 5 8 29:34 5 4-1
2008 8-8 387 1,862 4.8 15 103 2 0 1 1 6 28:43 6 5-1
AVG1 10-6 508 2,264 4.5 17 125 7.4 2.5 4.6 6.5 9.2 32:15 11.2 9.6-1.6
AVG2 8-8 435 1,990 4.6 12 102 4.3 1 2 4 8 29:34 7 5-2

First, let's go over what each column represents. In 1995 (Year), the Broncos were 8-8 (Rec), ran the ball 481 times (Att) for 1,877 yards (Yds) which was good for 3.9 yards per attempt (Y/A). They rushed for 7 touchdowns (TD) and gained 106 first downs (FD) via the run. Denver backs reached the 100-yard plateau (100RB) on 5 separate occasions. As a team, Denver rushed for more than 200 yards (200+) once, 175 yards once (175+), 150 yards (150+) 3 times, and 125 yards (125+) 8 times in 1995. The team's average time of possession (TOP) was 30:09 and the Broncos had more rushing attempts (RA>) than their opponents on 9 separate occasions. During those 9 games, Denver had an 8-1 record (Rec>). Playoff seasons are marked with an asterisk (*) next to the year.

AVG1 represents the average of Shanny's first eleven seasons (1995-2005). (AVG2) represents the average of the last three seasons of Shanny's tenure (2006-2008).

Here is what stands out to me...

  1. 500 Carries is where it was at Every time Shanny's teams reached 500 carries, they made the playoffs. Every time they did not, they failed to reach the playoffs. In fact, their lowest number of carries in a playoff year was 516 (in 2000).
  2. 10 Wins or Bust Likewise, Shanny's teams only reached 10 wins in those same years.
  3. 2300 Yards or Go Home Similarly, those playoff teams all ran for 2,311 yards or more.
  4. First Down! Shanny's playoff teams all chalked up at least 124 1st downs via the rush, and only the 2002 squad reached that number but not the playoffs.
  5. What happened in 2002? In fact, that 2002 team ran the ball quite well - they were quite comparable in almost every rushing category to the teams that made the playoffs, except what I believe to be the most important one - number of carries. I suspect the answer may be related to a certain quarterback (see Griese, Brian).
  6. Play Keepaway! Every playoff team under Shanny's direction held the ball for at least 32 minutes per game on average  - those who failed to hold the ball that long, failed to make the playoffs.
  7. The Gold Standard Interestingly, all of these plateaus are almost identical to the average results of every Broncos team from 1995 to 2005.
  8. 2005 and Kerplunk After 2005, things went straight downhill. The 2006 team fell off in almost every important category from the prior year, and to quite a large extent (the only number that did not drop was the 100+ yard rushing performances by individual backs, which remained the same). Starting in 2006, the Broncos Rushing Attack has declined in almost every category each year.
  9. No big games? Also alarming is the Broncos' inability to churn out big yards in individual games. For example, the Broncos have hit the 175-yard plateau as a team just 6 times over the past three seasons. Meanwhile, they reached the 175-yard mark at least 6 times within a single season on 5 prior occasions. Those five years resulted in, you guessed it, playoff appearances.

Most concerning to my eyes, is the precipitous drop in rushing attempts, first downs via the ground game, time of possession and number of carries relative to the opponent (RA>). While the 2006 Broncos did manage to rush for 2,152 yards, this was a drop of almost 400 yards from 2005. More importantly, the Broncos only racked up 106 first downs on the ground, a number which they have not since improved upon.

Obviously, there are many possible factors to explain why this happened - the emergence of Jay Cutler, a weaker commitment to the running game and possibly a lack of talent to truly commit to the run in the first place. My goal here is not to explain why - I don't believe statistics can achieve that end. It is simply to show that Denver's Rushing Attack has been in steady and significant decline, not just as a result of 2008 events like injuries or the ascension of Jeremy Bates to play-caller. In other words, Denver has not simply had bad luck, nor did Bates muck everything up - the Broncos' commitment to, and success in the running game have been falling steadily since their tremendous output in 2005.

Hopefully, Josh McDaniels will bring back the commitment to the run that Mike Shanahan brought to Denver in 1995. If his work in New England is any indication, he will - the 2008 Patriots ran the ball 513 times, good for fourth in the NFL. Perhaps in a year's time, I will be writing a piece called The Phoenix-like Rise of the Denver Rushing Attack. That, or The Prodigal Son of Denver (The Running Game). Either way, I'm hoping for 500+ carries and a playoff berth for the 2009 Broncos. Go Broncos!

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