Hello MHR, I have been off of the net for a while. Although I read MHR every day, I have been in a deep malaise since we lost to Baltimore in 2009 regarding the prospects of success for our team, but the hiring of John Elway , John Fox and empowering of Brian Xanders to be a real GM have restored my hope for the future. Obviously, the running game is something that I think we need to focus on.This was a sickening season, but even the loss to the Raiders wasn’t the worst loss in the history of our beloved team. The Super Bowl losses felt far worse to me. In fact, the first football game I can remember watching is the loss to Dallas in the Super Bowl. However, I am growing very weary of the ridiculous blowouts that have become a regular feature of our recent seasons. And, the problem is clear: we can’t run the football. Everything else, IMHO, is either a symptom of the demise of our running game or secondary in comparison.
The absence of a running game means that the defense is on the field for long periods of time, which greatly increases the likelihood of injuries. Some guru could probably come up with numbers that depict an inverse correlation between a team’s time of possession and the incidence of team injuries. The prolonged time on the field also means that size doesn’t matter. Increasing our size this year somewhat reduced the extent to which the Broncos have been physically dominated in comparison to recent seasons, but size can only go so far--or should I say so long before it too wears out. Additionally, Denver’s inability to run the football means that the Broncos--as Jeff Legwold pointed out--can’t control the tempo of the game when they need to. When things go badly and the Broncos want to slow the game down or give the defense a break, they simply can’t do it. Consequently, Denver gets worse over the course of a game at an exponential rate, while the other team scores at an ever increasing frequency. This is a difficult trap to escape and largely explains why blow outs have become such as common problem for the Broncos in recent years. Simply put, once events start heading in the wrong direction the Broncos have little to no ability to regain control over the game.
Of course, the Broncos SB years also illustrate the critical importance of a running game. Two--maybe three--sports miracles occurred when Shanahan took over that enabled Denver to run the ball. First, he assembled an offensive line that came together in an amazingly short period of time to perform at a truly elite level. I am not sure how much credit Shanahan actually deserves for this, but it happened on his watch. He inherited some of the talent, and acquired some of it himself. Regardless of how it happened, we are lucky that it did because it is a difficult feat to accomplish. Teams like the Chiefs and Raiders have spent years trying to put effective offensive lines together, and now we too are on that carousel. Somehow providence smiled on our offensive line in the late 1990s, just in time for #7 to win two SBs before his retirement. The second “miracle,” of course, was drafting Terrell Davis, an elite franchise back. This ranks up there with the Patriots drafting Tom Brady as a remarkably fortuitous event in the history of a franchise. Again, I don’t want to take anything away from Shanahan, but there was a lot of luck involved when we struck this gold. The third “miracle” might have been the implementation of the zone blocking system. I think that it took teams several years to figure out how to defend this system, and the Broncos took advantage of them for a long time before they did. We all know how the story ends--as a result of these “miracles,” the Broncos could run the football better than at any time in the history of its franchise (I am not old enough to remember Floyd Little).
With their remarkable running game, Shanahan was able to put the Denver Broncos on the sports map as a contender for the first time in franchise history. Prior to the late-90s we were the team (and Elway was the QB) that “couldn’t win the big one,” certainly not against the bruiser teams on the right coast and the offensive powerhouses on the left coast. And, there had been many MNF games in which we were molested on national TV by the likes of RBs Steve Smith of the Raiders and Eric Dickerson of the Colts. All of this changed when Shanahan took over. During the SB years, we consistently ran the football, physically dominated our opponents, and experienced remarkably few injuries. Our light, fast, and talented--but not elite--defense was also able to stay healthy and play its role within its design because the offense kept them fresh by keeping them off of the field with its Kryptonite running game.
Then came agony. Denver’s ability to run the football declined in the years following the SB due to the retirement of players on the offensive line, the unfortunate loss of TD, and the failure of the organization to replenish talent that was comparable (with the exception of Portis, Lepsis also was probably elite as an RT). They tried to replenish the talent a little, but George Foster busted and forced Lepsis to move to LT. Ben Hamilton was never Mark Schlereth. Nalen must have been frustrated. RGs rotated like musical chairs. Also, NFL teams adapted and became better at defending against the zone blocking scheme. The team’s ever decreasing ability to run the football terminally undermined the bed rocks underlying Shanahan’s “philosophy.” He could no longer either establish an early lead or play keep away with his running game. Once his system was thrown out of balance post season success was out of reach. Shanahan was never again was able to restore the balance between offense and defense that he had during the SB years.
I believe McDaniels underestimated the difficulty of building an offensive line, especially when a team changes systems. However, he also inherited a line that had been steadily declining for at least five years. Shanahan seemed to be putting it back together at the end with Ryan Clady, Ryan Harris (why do we have to lose him?) and Chris Kuper, but it was too late Based on my “eye ball” test, the last time we ran the football on a somewhat consistent basis was during the 2005 season. Even during that season the Broncos were lucky to get two to three yards per carry. Mike Anderson’s power deserves more credit than the offensive line for the success of the running game during that year. Tatum Bell found space once Mike Anderson had softened them up. When Shanahan let Mike Anderson go, and failed to meaningfully upgrade either the running back position or the offensive line, it made me worry and confirmed doubts that I had about the direction of the team beginning around 2002. I do believe those who contend that Shanahan undervalued talent (especially at the RB position), and overvalued his system and coaching. It has been a long time since we put fear into another team with our running game. In my opinion, it was Portis’ last season. The Portis trade also suggested to me that Shanahan thought that his team didn’t need a star back to be able to win. Maybe not, but to be a contender, his team did need an elite running back and elite offensive line. It could probably accept risk nearly everywhere else, but it needed that running game more than any other component to be successful. By neglecting the center of gravity of his own philosophy (running game), he sealed his fate.
I am a disillusioned and disappointed fan, but I still love the Broncos. Certainly, I miss those 70-yard TD runs by TD. How fun was it to be on the 30-yard line and feel like you were in scoring range! I don’t know that we need to have the best running game in the league, but we probably need to be in the top-10 to once again become a contender. At a bare minimum, we need a running game that allows us to play complementary football. Fixing our pitiful defense has rightfully received a lot of attention, and I completely agree that the talent level on defense is way overdue for an upgrade. However, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that the offense had tremendous difficulty staying on the field, seemingly taking three or more quarters off per game (to be facetious). I believe that our inept running game probably would have broken the back of any defense, and will continue to do so regardless of what talent we add on defense. I also remain skeptical that Tim Tebow will ever possess the passing ability (like Tom Brady or Peyton Manning) to lead a one dimensional team to a SB victory. So, as we discuss ways to fix our team in the off season, restoring our ability to run the ball may be the greatest upgrade we could make to our defense, and the most important step the team can take towards future post-season success.
I am very excited about the hiring of John Fox and believe that he will is fully capable of restoring our running game.