I was pondering the whole question of our outlook for 2009 and beyond, after reading all the wonderful materials and statistics that have been compiled and analyzed on this site over the past several months. But, I realized that there is one aspect of the 2008 Denver Broncos that is being largely ignored.
We did not have a consistent running game.
Many are now blaming this on the coaching, which I am sure contributed to the problem, but the reality is that the players themselves, the RBs, simply did not get it done when it mattered last year.
The lone exception to our otherwise terrible or injured RBs, Peyton Hillis, flashed across our Broncos universe for a few weeks and completely transformed the team. Our defense started playing better. Although many attribute this to the young defensive players hitting the field over the veterans, I am sure that the consistent running game greatly helped the defense. A consistent running attack does 3 crucial things
1. convert 3rd down in the red zone
2. score touchdowns
3. keep our defense off the field
Without the ability to do these things, an offense cannot be successful. And if your offense is not successful, then your defense gets worse and the the team cannot win. Jeremy Bates' schemes caught defenses off guard for a few weeks; however, once the def. coordinators realized that the 2008 version of the broncos could not, or would not, run the ball (as almost all previous Shanahan-led Broncos could), our offense ceased to be successful.
Again, the lone exception to the above was the time when Peyton Hillis was our starting RB which, btw, took the Broncos to their best record of the year, 8-5. His injury robbed the team of the necessary skills to win games, and we dropped to 8-8 and out of the playoffs.
Granted, this is a simplification, since other factors were certainly involved (changing personnel on defense, health, and the brief success of other backs on roster). However, anyone who watched the Broncos last season must agree that the team's offense fundamentally changed when Peyton Hillis was lost for the season.
My personal theory is that Shanahan's schemes are so integrated with the running game that, without it's success, he was unable to adapt and change the offense to suit the lack of personnel at RB. However, there are not many coaches, no matter what level, that can win without a high-quality defense or running game.
And here is the tough part.
Jay Cutler is often blamed for the very 3 qualities I listed above- converting 3rd down in the red zone, scoring touchdowns, and keeping our defense off the field (i.e. not throwing interceptions). In fact, without a running game or a defense, there are almost no QBs in the NFL that can succeed. Especially not QBs in their second year full year. So, although his statistics do not look great on paper, we all know that if Cutler had not been traded and McJaygate had never happened, we would be finding statistics to support that this, his 3rd full year and first with a new offensive guru, would be his time to fully blossom. We would come up with numbers comparing Cutler''s first 2 1/2 years to Hall of Fame QBs, and extrapolating to show how the running game would have impacted Cutler's numbers.
The failure of our offense last year was not the failure of Jay Cutler. It was the failure of our vaunted and long-established running game that killed our offense, and thus our season last year. We had only 1 type of back, and none (aside from Hillis) that could convert a 3rd and 1, or bang it into the end-zone
Ironically, it is Mcdaniels who has seen how much the quality of our personnel at RB hurt us last year. His first significant acts of player acquisition, in free agency, were focused largely on RBs, and at a time before McJay. And my guess is that, had we never traded Jay Cutler, we still would have drafted Knowshon at 12 (how would the MSM have liked THAT move?) instead of a defensive player. The quality of our RBs and our overall running game hurt us more than most anyone is talking about now. Kudos to Mcdaniels for recognizing this.
However, we no longer have our quarterback. And, whatever anyone says now about the coming season(s), is only conjecture. My guess is that he may still be a great QB in the NFL, and that he stood a great chance success here in Denver. But, he is no longer a part of the Broncos organization.
Some of my other personal guesses are that Mcdaniels will have success here in Denver, Cutler will have success in Chicago, and each will have at least one moment of regret about not having worked together. But those are just guesses. The future is still entirely unknown.
However, I do know that the lack of a running game cost the 2008 Denver Broncos their season. It might have even cost the 2009-20XX Denver Broncos, if Mcdaniels is not successful. Because if we had a successful running game last season, Shanahan would still be coach, Cutler would still be QB, and we would all be getting excited about training camp coming up. We might have even been very successful next season. I don't know, nor does anyone else.
So here's to an increased focus on RBs. Here's to the coach, Mcdaniels, who recognized this incredible need. And here's to the success of the Broncos in 2009 and beyond. But, it's hard not to look at this and wonder what might have been, had Shanahan found that one healthy back.