I have read several post that are asking/begging/pleading management to pick-up a superstar running back in FA or a stud back in the draft. Fox-Ball is after all about running the ball, controlling the clock, and playing good defense. But do we really need a prolific running back to have an efficient running game? With household names like Benjarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead, and Stevan Ridley the Patriots backfield will probably only earn a trip to Hawaii if they cash in their frequent flyer miles. But this tandem could be one of the most efficient and undervalued backfields in the entire league.
Before I get started a couple of points I'd like to make.
1. I am not completely crazy.
2. I am a bit of a Danny Woodhead homer. I followed his college career as several family members and friends went to Chadron State and both my brother-in-law and cousin played football there. Plus, to paraphrase Rudy, the dude's five foot nothin' and hundred and nothin' and is hanging in there with the best football players in the land.
3. That being said I hate the Evil Empire
4. I am not a stat guy. I believe they are too often used to "Prove" a claim instead of being used as a tool to build a cohesive, well thought out argument. And why the hell are yards listed first on stat sheets? I don't have the attention span (and apparently neither do most Analyst and Armchair GMs) to actively search for the TD totals in the middle of the stat sheet. Isn't scoring the most points still the best way to win a football game?
I believe that the Patriots backfield do a lot more to help Mr. Bundchen (not an insult...I'd want everyone to know if I was him) and the rest of the Pats offense roll than their stats would indicate. These players may not get the praise they deserve but their selfless and effective style of play is pivotal for their team's success. They rarely lose yards, open up the middle of the field for the passing game, pick up blitzers, are dependable outlets with big play ability, closeout touchdown drives, and they hardly ever turn the ball over. Below I will generalize what they do well and what the Broncos could incorporate into their rushing game to help out the offense as a whole.
On paper, and according to most, the Broncos had the #1 rush offense in the league this year with an impressive 164.5 yds/gm while the lowly Patriots were #20 with a measly 110.3 yrds/game. But, what's this...a few lines down the stat sheet says the Patriots were 3rd in the league with 18 rushing TDs while the Broncos were 19th with 11 TDs on the year. (Don't even get me started on the Pats "historically worst" defense that was still in the top half of the league in points allowed, and to that effect ranked about 3 points per contest better than the Broncos.) See...I have deep seated issues with general statistical analysis.
The true value of the Patriots running game isn't in the points it produces; it is the way the scheme opens up the pass.
The first and most important part of any successful running scheme to open up the pass is having running backs that can get the tough yards, especially in short yardage situations. Despite New England's running backs seeming to only come in "fun size" they do a good job of getting those tough yards to keep drives going. Having backs that have the ability to crash the line of scrimmage between the tackles may not be the most effective way to drive up yard totals, but it means that linebackers and defensive backs have to respect the run which opens up the play action pass. Also, when opposing teams have to respect the run, zones open up on the back end of the defense for slot receivers and tight ends to break off a big play in the middle of the field and up the seams.
I believe that this is the most under-utilized part of Denver's offense. Willis McGahee is the perfect running back to open up the play action pass. I hope that with OTAs and a full offseason Denver will be able to scheme and develop a quick-read, low risk-high reward, play action game to our young TEs and whoever they decide to line up in the slot. I think adding anything resembling an adequate form of the play action pass will improve the offense as a whole by leaps and bounds.
Another aspect that the New England running backs do extremely well is helping keep Tom Brady's jersey clean. They do this two fold. The first way they do this is by blocking. They are selfless in blocking oncoming blitzers and chipping rushers before going on their pass routs. The New England backs also have great pass catching ability and open field running skills. This keeps any defenders keying in on them honest in the short passing game and in general keeps Defensive Coordinators from calling blitzes for fear of the big play on an underneath route.
Again, Denver under-utilizes this part of the run game. Without going back and re-watching film I can only remember few pass plays that weren't from an empty set. The pass plays that had a running back, if memory serves, usually involved the back working their way through or around the line of scrimmage to try to find an open zone to sit down in. With the first read usually being a deep route by the time a running back came open Tebow was usually running for his life or picking grass out of his face mask. Also, called passes to the flats to Mereno/Johnson/Fannin would keep CBs and LBs spying the backfield and open up the deep pass and seam routes.
I believe that the Broncos running game is crucial to the overall success next year. The backfield just like the rest of the team must improve if they want continued success. Game plans and offensive schemes must be developed in the offseason to make the running game more diversified and efficient and optimize our teams potential. While upgrading talent are always a priority I believe that a TEAM of unselfish, fundamentally sound players have more staying power than super-stars who wear the same colored jersey on Sudays.