Run Forrest Run

Fellow MHR member Lobouno recently sent me the following comment in an email:

"Back during training camp, we jousted verbally about the merits of the Hillis trade to Cleveland. We ended that match with a 'we will just have to wait and see' agreement. I predicted Hillis would become a star player if given the chance. Today, against the Patriots, he carried 29 times for 184 yards. I think the joust on this question is now over."

     Lobouno was right, Hillis is shining for Cleveland. What I have found interesting is all of the discussion about why the Hillis trade took place. In reading the various comments, I have come to this conclusion: the matter may be much simpler than any of us think. I now believe that it had nothing to do with McDaniels' "arrogance," or his inexperience. It didn't have anything to do with Hillis "not earning a spot" either. The simple solution is that it is a case of both men falling under the constraints of McDaniels' training.

I'll explain what I mean after the jump.

     During the time leading up to the 2009 draft, while the Broncos were interviewing prospective draft picks, Brian Xanders was caught on tape for an interview. In that brief moment between player interviews, Xanders commented on how the Broncos have a job description manual which details what they are looking for in players at a given position. He indicated this manual goes beyond simply looking at skill sets and includes such other criteria as height and weight. This interview came to mind as I've read the renewed debate about what Peyton Hillis might, or might not have accomplished had he remained a Bronco.

     Let's make a quick review of Hillis' career to-date. Peyton Hillis is a 6-foot 1-inch, 240 lb, running back. In 2010, he has played in 8 games. He's topped 100 yards in three of those games (22/144, 27/102, and 29/184). In the other five games in 2010, he has rushed 55 times for 214 yards. In the 2009 season, Hillis rushed 14 times for 54 yards. In 2008, Hillis only played in six games. He had one 100-yard game (22/129). He rushed 43 times for 200 yards in the other five games. One thing stands out though. When Hillis is given the opportunity to run the ball twenty or more times, he is likely to gain 100 or more yards. By the same token, when he falls under that number of carries, his production goes down rather markedly. The question becomes, then, "Why didn't McDaniels give Hillis the ball twenty times a game?" This is where I believe McDaniels' training and experiences in New England come into play.

     First, let's look at the physical stature of the running backs the Patriots used during McDaniels' tenure with the team. The lead runner for both the Broncos and the Patriots during the McDaniels years have been:
Year Team Player Height Weight McDaniels' Position
2009 Broncos K. Moreno 5-11 210 Head Coach
2008 Patriots S. Morris 6-0 220 Offensive Coordinator
2007 Patriots L. Maroney 5-11 210 Offensive Coordinator
2006 Patriots C. Dillon 6-0 225 Offensive Coordinator
2005 Patriots C. Dillon 6-0 225 QB Coach
2004 Patriots C. Dillon 6-0 225 QB Coach
2003 Patriots A. Smith 6-2 232 Def. Coach Ass't
2002 Patriots A. Smith 6-2 232 Def. Coach Ass't
2001 Patriots A. Smith 6-2 232 Personnel Ass't


     Let's take a moment at look at the rest of the running back corps that McDaniels was working with:

Year Players
2009 C. Buckhalter 6-0/223 L. Jordan 5-10/230 P. Hillis 6-1/240
2008 K. Faulk 5-8/202 L. Jordan 5-10/230 B. Green-Ellis 5-11/215 L. Maroney 5-11/220
2007 S. Morris 6-0/220 K. Faulk 5-8/202
2006 L. Maroney 5-11/220 K. Faulk 5-8/202
2005 K. Faulk 5-8/202 M. Cloud 5-10/205 A. Zereoue 5-8/211
2004 K. Faulk 5-8/202 C. Cobbs 6-1/225 R. Abdullah 6-0/220
2003 K. Faulk 5-8/202 M. Cloud 5-10/205
2002 K. Faulk 5-8/202 R J Redmond 5-11/215
2001 K. Faulk 5-8/202 R J Redmond 5-11/215


     We can see that the Patriots, and by extension McDaniels favored slightly smaller running backs. The closest any of the Patriots backs have come to Hillis during McDaniels' time with the team was Antowain Smith (6-2/232). Corey Dillon was basically the same height, but gave up fifteen pounds to Hillis. It would seem that the first thing that held Hillis back in McDaniels' eyes may have been his body size. The McDaniels plan appears to favor smaller backs.

     A second point has to do with the fact that Hillis runs best when he gets twenty or more carries in a game. This too, is not a primary characteristic of the running game that McDaniels was taught to use in New England and brought to Denver. Consider the following data about running back carries during McDaniels' years as a coach:

Year # of 20+ carries in single game
2009 5
2008 4
2007 4
2006 2
2005 5
2004 10
2003 3
2002 2
2001 9

      The approach to running, with the exceptions of 2001 and 2004, has not relied on a back being able to carry the ball twenty or more times per game. We'll speak to that a little bit more further down.

     A third point is the relative lack of 100-yard games by Denver and New England running backs as McDaniels was learning his trade (please note, yard represent only yards gained by players listed as running backs):

Year Total RB Rushing Yds # 100+ Yd Performances Yds from 100+ Performances
2009 1729 0 0
2008 1965 3 360
2007 1484 5 582
2006 1680 1 125
2005 951 2 208
2004 1953 9 1101
2003 1398 1 121
2002 1255 1 111
2001 1445 4 484


     As with the relative lack of games in which a back carried the ball twenty times or more, we also see a relative lack of dependence upon the need for a 100-yard rusher. Both of these points reflect the Patriots tendency to use a running back rotation as opposed to one featured back. Take a look at the following data:

Year Tot Yds Player Yds Player Yds Player Yds Player Yds Player Yds
2009 1729 Moreno 947 Buckhalter 642 Jordan 86 Hillis 54
2008 1965 Morris 727 Faulk 507 Jordan 363 Green-Ellis 275 Maroney 93
2007 1484 Maroney 835 Morris 384 Faulk 265
2006 1680 Dillon 812 Maroney 745 Faulk 123
2005 951 Dillon 733 Faulk 145 Cloud 59 Zereoue 14
2004 1953 Dillon 1635 Faulk 255 Cobbs 50 Abdullah 13
2003 1398 Smith 642 Faulk 638 Cloud 118
2002 1255 Smith 982 Faulk 271 Redmond 2
2001 1445 Smith 1157 Faulk 169 Redmond 119


     As with some of the other data, with the exception of 2001 and 2004, the Patriots have relied on two, sometimes three running backs to share the load. No single back was getting a huge number of carries nor yards, for the most part. There were very few 20-carries-a-game, 100-yard rushers as McDaniels was learning his craft. In point of fact, just under one-third of the times that a Patriots running back did reach 100 yards in a game, that runner used less than twenty carries to get there:

Year Player # 100+ Games Rushes/Yards
2008 Morris 2 16/138, 14/117
2008 Green-Ellis 1 26/105
2007 Maroney 3 19/103, 26/104, 14/156
2007 Morris 2 21/117, 21/102
2006 Maroney 1 15/125
2005 Dillon 2 23/106, 22/102
2004 Dillon 9 32/158, 23/105, 22/115, 25/112, 26/151
30/123, 18/100, 26/121, 14/116
2003 Smith 1 18/121
2002 Smith 1 29/111
2001 Smith 4 23/117, 20/100, 24/11, 26/156


    So, consider the environment in which McDaniels was being trained as an NFL coach -- use multiple, relatively small backs to create your rushing production, and for the most part, don't worry about getting one back twenty or more carries per game, likewise don't worry about whether or not you have a 100-yard rusher.

     McDaniels has chosen to implement a running system that relies on two to three backs to produce the yardage. It worked for him in New England as the Offensive Coordinator: 2008 - Morris/Faulk/Jordan 1597 yards, 2007 - Maroney/Morris/Faulk 1484 yards, 2006 - Dillon/Maroney/Faulk 1680 yards. It started to work in Denver in 2009 -- Moreno/Buckhalter/Jordan 1675 yards -- before the wheels fell off in 2010 with Moreno and Buckhalter both going down to injuries and the offensive line having three veterans trying to fight back from injury and starting two rookies.

     Is it any wonder then, that Peyton Hillis found himself being the odd-man-out when McDaniels was hired as the Broncos' head coach? He was larger than the "ideal" that McDaniels learned under Belichick -- remember, during McDaniels' three years as the Offensive Coordinator, the running backs ranged from 5-8 to 6-0 and weighed 202 to 230 pounds. Hillis also runs best when he gets the chance to carry the ball twenty or more times. When running the ball less than twenty times, his best production, in terms of yards, was a 74-yard game against Oakland in 2008. His best production, in terms of yards per carry, was a 7.3 ypc (8 rushes for 58 yards) against Kansas City in 2008. The McDaniels system does not lend itself to the twenty-carries-per-game style of running back.

     The sad truth is that had he remained with the Broncos, Hillis most likely would have sat behind the smaller Moreno, Buckhalter and Jordan/White/Maroney group on the depth chart, not had the opportunity to run the ball twenty times in a game, and thus would not have been able to put up the numbers he has in Cleveland.

     So, be happy for Hillis -- that he's been given the opportunity to shine that he most likely would not have gotten in Denver, and cross your fingers that as our running backs and offensive linemen return to full health that the woes of the running game will begin to fade into the past.

Go Broncos!!!

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