Now that 2011 season is over, we are starting to see the usual plethora of speculation about which veteran free agents we would like to see the Broncos pursue, which college players Denver should draft, which players currently on the roster should be kept and which should be let go. While these are important considerations which merit a great deal of attention and analysis, I thought perhaps it might be worth thinking about the type of offense we may be seeing the Broncos run in 2012 before we become too attached to specific players.
EJRuiz recently wrote an article in which he proposed that we look at the read-option offense used by the Broncos in 2011 as not simply being a gimmick option, but in fact, as a viable possibility for the NFL. I am inclined to agree that the offense has more potential than is commonly assumed. I believe that what we saw in 2011 was the dimmest glimpse into what this offense can be. I believe that McDaniels' intention when he drafted Tebow was to install a read-option running attack which would be balanced by an effective passing attack.
This article will be a look at a possible direction for the offense in 2012. Take a jump with me.
CAN TIM TEBOW BE AN EFFECTIVE PASSER?
First, I'd like to ask that we put the "Can he throw?" questions to rest. I reviewed the college career statistics of five quarterbacks who have been among the top ten NFL quarterbacks -- in terms of yards compiled -- in four out of the last five seasons. It will probably come as no surprise that this list includes: Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning. Now, I am in no way suggesting that Tebow should be thought of as being of the same caliber of passer as these five. What I found was this:
|Rivers||N Carolina St||4/4||
* Please note: The numbers in parenthesis represent the average per season. Off = the predominate offensive style run at the school at that time. Yrs/Str = years with statistics at the school/years as primary starter. The data included is drawn only from the years wherein the QB was the primary starter.
Does college success automatically carry over into NFL success? Of course not. Is this to claim that Tebow is in the same category as these passers? Not in the NFL, at least not yet. It was presented merely to demonstrate that in the college setting, Tebow was as accurate and effective a passer -- within the offensive scheme his college was running -- as any of the others. It is not a valid to simply say "He can't pass," or "He's not accurate." Nor is the argument that he looked good because of his offense particularly compelling. I would think that any offense or offensive scheme holds the same potential to help a quarterback look good or bad, no matter who he is. The true question becomes whether or not Tebow can translate his college effectiveness as a passer into the same sort of accuracy and effectiveness within the NFL setting. Please remember, the question at hand is "Can Tebow become an effective passer," rather than can he become a prolific one. John Elway has indicated that he is planning to work with Tebow during the offseason to improve Tebow's footwork and ability to quickly read the opposing defense. In my opinion, the key to this whole discussion will lie in the offense Tebow is asked to lead. Also, in my opinion, if Tebow is asked to lead an offense ala Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, he will not be a successful NFL quarterback.
So what kind of offense could we see Denver install that makes use of Tebow's talents and gifts? This remainder of this article will focus upon my understanding of the kind of offense Tebow was running in college along with some speculation as to what the vision for a Tebow-led Broncos team was at the time he was drafted as it pertains to the 2011 season. It is my belief that the plan was to spend a season to allow Tebow to gain practice in learning to read defenses through film study, practice and specific live game participation while McDaniels and McCoy worked at installing a passing offense that included elements of a read-option running attacking operating out of a spread offense. In other words, something similar to the Urban Meyer read-option in Tebow was so successful at Florida with some wrinkles to make it workable in the NFL. The read-option offense is based on the spread option offense. Let's take a moment and review the spread option offense.
THE SPREAD OPTION OFFENSE
The spread option offense is a variation of a more traditional spread offense which has enjoyed success not only at the college level but also within the NFL. The spread option is a hybrid of a traditional, pass-oriented spread offense. The focus is on creating "defensive isolation." That is, the offense is intended to force the defense to spread out their efforts by using 3, 4 and 5 wide receiver sets. The quarterback often operates out of the shotgun formation. The spread option offense adds the wrinkle of using double and/or triple option running -- again, often out of the shotgun formation.
The read-option -- also known as the zone-read, the QB choice and the QB wrap -- is a type of double option play. It is often run out of the shotgun formation and forces the defense to account for two potential ball carriers. The play starts with the offensive line zone blocking in one direction while the quarterback makes a single read. That read focuses on the defensive end on the side the play is intended to run towards. If the defensive end is playing inside the offensive tackle after the snap, the quarterback hands the ball off to the running back who is on a dive track. If the defensive end is playing outside the tackle after the snap, the quarterback keeps the ball and runs counter to the blocking scheme.
An additional wrinkle is added to the read-option when the offense chooses to add a third potential ball carrier. This could be a second running back, a wide receiver or even a tight end. In the triple option variation, there are three potential running tracks which the defense must account for: the dive track, a "keep" track and a "pitch" track. On the dive track, as mentioned above, the running back attacks the line of scrimmage in between the offensive tackles. The goal is to make a quick attack on the center of the defense in order to do one of two things: (a)pick up yardage, or (b)freeze the interior of the defense to prevent pursuit to the outside. The quarterback's read of the defensive end lets him know whether to go ahead and release the ball to the running back, or to pull it back and keep it. The read is usually made while both the quarterback and the running back are holding the ball. If the quarterback believes the defensive end is not making a play on the running back, he releases the ball to him. If, on the other hand, the quarterback reads the defensive end as making a play on the running back, he pulls the ball back and moves opposite to the blocking scheme. At this point, the quarterback is trailed by another potential ball carrier. The quarterback makes a second read, typically on a linebacker or on a defensive back. If the read shows the key player moving to make a play on the "pitch back," the quarterback keeps the ball and moves upfield. If the read is that the key defender is going to make his play on the quarterback, the quarterback pitches the ball to the other ball carrier who then turns upfield.
THE URBAN MEYER VARIATION
Urban took the early work done on the read option spread and used it when he was the head coach at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida. It was primarily a run-first variation with a West Coast Offense style passing attack. It should be noted that Meyer would tweak his system to fit the strengths of his quarterback. At Utah, with Alex Smith, it was a run-based option. When Meyer moved to Florida, his first quarterback was Chris Leak and the offense was skewed towards drop-back passing. When Tim Tebow took the lead, the offense shifted back to a run-based option. It is interesting to note that Meyer's approach led to two national championships (Florida), a non-BCS team playing in a BCS bowl (Utah), a Heisman Trophy winner (Tebow), and a #1 overall NFL draft pick (Smith).
As mentioned above, Meyer included adaptions from a West Coast Offense. If you will remember, the West Coast Offense -- as designed by Bill Walsh -- featured short, horizontal passing routes which were used in place of running plays in order to stretch the defense out from sideline to sideline. The purpose of this was to open up running and passing lanes which would result in long runs and passes. This offense featured precisely run pass pattern for approximately 65-80% of the plays. The remaining plays would then focus on mid- to long-yardage runs and passes of fourteen or more yards. The West Coast Offense attempted to open up these running and passing lanes by forcing the defense to concentrate on shorter passes. It was intended to make the play-calling less predictable. The West Coast Offense often used an uneven alignment with five players to one side of the center and four to the other. It tended to use a 3-step drop to get the pass off more quickly to wide receivers who were running precise timing routes. Wide receivers were expected to make their own reads & adjust their routes according to those reads. If the quarterback saw nothing open after three downfield reads, then the quarterback would check down to a running back or a tight end. Some more recent West Coast Offenses have used a 5- to 7-step drop and/or the shotgun formation to offset the speed of modern defenses. While Meyer did not make extensive use of the short to intermediate range passes normally found in a West Coast Offense, he did include the longer range passes and running lanes.
Meyer based his offense on an option attack run primarily out of a shotgun formation
SB = slotback
In essence, what Meyer has seemed to do is run a West Coast type offense that features the use of the double & triple read-option running attack to open up the longer running and passing lanes, in place of the short horizontal passing attack favored by Bill Walsh's West Coast Offense.
THE OFFENSE I'D LIKE TO SEE
I would like to see the Broncos further develop this hybrid offense which combines the ball-control aspects of a run-first offense with the quick-strike capabilities that occur with a well run passing offense. I think we can safely say that Denver saw a degree of success with this kind of offensive attack. In the 2011 season, the NFL league average for points scored per game was 21.4 (per ESPN's NFL Team Total Offensive Statistics - 2011 page). Denver's average points per game was 19.3 for the season. While admittedly the Tebow-led offense averaged 17.3 points per game, it also exceeded the league average four times in thirteen games. In those four games, the Broncos were 3-1. Denver went 5-4 in the other nine games.
Those games were:
|Team/Week||Points||Result||Rush Yds||Pass Yds||Scoring Plays|
|Oakland - 9||38||W||299||124||
TD - 24 pass Tebow-Decker
TD - 26 pass Tebow-Royal
FG - 46 yds Prater
TD - 60 run McGahee
TD - 85 punt ret Royal
TD - 24 run McGahee
|Minnesota - 13||35||W||150||202||
TD - 16 int return - Haggan
TD - 21 pass Tebow-Thomas
TD - 41 pass Tebow-Thomas
TD - 24 run McGahee
FG - 46 yds Prater
FG - 23 yds Prater
|New England - 15||23||L||252||194||
TD - 9 run Tebow
TD - 32 run Ball
FG - 26 yds Prater
TD - 2 run Tebow
|Pittsburgh - Wild Card||29||W||131||316||
TD - 30 pass Tebow-Royal
TD - 8 run Tebow
FG - 28 yds Prater
FG - 35 yds Prater
TD - 80 pass Tebow-Thomas
What I found interesting in these games was that these games appear to demonstrate the possibilities of the concept: use the running game to open longer running and passing lanes. The Broncos scored fifteen touchdowns in these four games. One was an eighty-five yard punt return by Eddie Royal and another was a sixteen yard interception return by Mario Haggan. Of the remaining thirteen touchdowns, six came from passes and seven came from runs. All of the passing scores were for twenty-one or more. Three of the six went for thirty or more yards. Two went for forty or more. Of the seven runs, four were runs of twenty-four or more yards. Two went for more than thirty. One was a sixty-yard scamper by McGahee.
Consider the possibilities inherent in this kind of scenario:
Tebow brings the offense to the line of scrimmage. McGahee is lined up behind him and to his right. Thomas and Decker are flanked out to the left while Royal takes up a position on the right. Fells lines up next to RT Clady. He surveys the defense briefly from underneath center before dropping back into a shotgun formation. Royal starts in motion to the left just prior to the snap. Walton snaps the ball back to Tebow who makes a read on the defensive end lined up over Franklin as he puts the ball into McGahee's gut. He sees that the defensive end is positioned to make a strong pass rush from the outside, so he releases the ball to McGahee who plunges into the middle of the line for a decent gain.
Next play, same start. This time, however, Tebow sees that the defensive end is going to attack the dive track, so he pulls the ball back from McGahee and keeps it. Tebow sprints to his left, with Royal pacing him. Tebow makes a quick read on the linebacker to that side. Seeing the linebacker charging towards him, Tebow pulls up and flips the ball over to Royal who turns it upfield for a gain. On the third play, things start out the same, only after the fake to McGahee, Tebow pulls up and throws a pass downfield to Decker who has gained some separation from the defensive back covering him. Next play . . . well, you get the idea.
I beleve that there is the possibility of this being a dynamic and exciting offense. NFL offenses have a tendency to approach their attacks in one of two ways: (a)running a small number of core plays out of multiple formations, or (b)running a large number of core plays out a basic formation. I realize that this is most likely an overgeneralization, but there is not space here to address all of the variations. The read-option offense, in my opinion falls into the latter of those two approaches. I believe that where the Broncos may be headed looks like this:
1. The offense lines up in a spread, shotgun formation with one player going in motion.
2.At this point, a number of possibilities open up (most of which we saw at one time or another in 2011):
a. A traditional pass play is run
b. A traditional running play is run
c. The quarterback puts the ball into the gut of the running back, makes a read and
1. The quarterback releases the ball to the running back who runs a dive trace behind a pulling guard, or
2. The quarterback keeps the ball, rolls in the opposite direction from the zone blocking for the dive track as
a.The motion player positions himself for a possible pitch and/or screen pass
b. The dive track back, if not tackled, moves to become a check down receiver
c. The quarterback makes a second read and
1. The quarterback pulls up and throws a pass, or
2. The quarterback turns upfield to gain yardage by running, or
3. The quarterback pitches the ball to the motion player.
The biggest advantage of this kind of offense, as was often pointed out during the 2011 season is that it forces the defense to play 11-on-11. The defense must account for the quarterback on every play, not just the passing plays. I would not want to see the quarterback become the primary runner, but rather run just enough to force the defense to account for him on every play as a potential ball carrier. As mentioned above, this attack would allow the Broncos to run multiple plays out of the same look which should help to force the defense into a reactive role rather than allowing them to attack as aggressively as they otherwise might. If the defense cheats up to shut down the run, the quarterback can choose to pass (ala the Pittsburgh game). If the defense drops men into coverage to play the pass, the quarterback has two or three different options for running the ball (we saw in 2011 that Denver was often able to run effectively out of a shotgun formation, even when the defense knew a run was coming). In many cases, this decision would not be made until after the snap and the quarterback makes his first read. The idea would be to attempt to, at least partially, negate the speed and athleticism of the defense by: (a)spreading the field and (b)keeping the defense guessing as to what is coming.
Now, admittedly, the speed and athleticism of the defenders are the most common argument against this type of an attack. This was raised especially as a criticism during the Broncos three-game losing streak that closed out the 2011 season. In my opinion, there were two primary reasons for the defenders' success. The most important of those two reasons was the lack of a consistent passing attack. For a variety of reasons, including Tebow's inconsistent accuracy, the passing game did not accomplish as much as it needed to. The read-option running was designed to open up the passing lanes, which in turn opens up the running game. When the passes failed to be a consistent threat, the defenses were able to concentrate on the run and shut it down. The second reason is, at least in part, responsible for the first. The read-option offense was being installed in the middle of the season, between games, as opposed to having been installed during the off season. I would think that this would have put the players in the position of having to think more about what they were supposed to be doing rather than having it ingrained and simply going out and doing it. It should also be noted that turnovers, special teams and defensive struggles also contributed to the losing streaks, lest we attempt to blame it all on the offense.
KEYS TO THIS OFFENSE
Quarterback - the quarterback must be able to make quick reads and when passing, deliver the ball quickly and accurately. John Elway has commented that footwork is the quarterback's timer which lets him know when to throw the ball. Elway has talked about how he plans to work with Tebow during the off season to improve his footwork and his ability to read the defense. If Tebow can improve in this area, I would think we would see an improvement in his accuracy -- particularly on the short to intermediate passes. Something else I would like to see Tebow improve is his ability to "sell" the option. I noticed that many times, after handing the ball off to the running back, Tebow would just sort of trot to the side as if he had the ball while looking back over his shoulder to see how far the running back went. I can't imagine that defenders weren't picking up on that -- just as they picked up on the fact that when Orton backpedaled away from the center, instead of turning to run backwards, a screen pass was coming. Tebow needs to make sure the defense has to account for him as a possible runner. In connection with this, Denver needs to make sure that they have a backup quarterback who can effectively run this type of offense. Heaven forbid that the Broncos should install an offense like this, then be forced to change gears in the middle of the season because Tebow went down to injury and the backup was a stereotypical drop-back passer.
Dive Running Back - I believe Denver needs to acquire another running back in the mold of Mcgahee. I'm inclined to believe that McGahee is faster than most people give him credit for, and more powerful. He was often able to pound through the line of scrimmage and move the pile. He also demonstrated an ability to put on a burst of speed to get past the initial line of defenders. However, he did just turn 30, so durability is going to become an issue. Denver needs at least one more running back who can do the same sort of things we've seen McGahee do.
Pitch Back - this is an interesting position because you could utilize different skill players to fill it. This could be a "speed" running back. It could be a fullback -- in cases where the defense is cheating up to stop the run. The spot could be filled by a wide receiver coming across the offense in motion -- ala Eddie Royal in 2011. It could even be a tight end -- in the same mold as New England's Aaron Hernandez who ran the ball six times for seventy-seven yards against the Broncos in two games.
Offensive Line - The offensive line is a very young unit (two players with a single season of experience, one that was a rookie) that simply needs more time to gel and become adept at the offense. It cannot have been easy them to switch quickly between two quarterbacks with markedly differently styles of play. Add in the retooling of the offense in midseason and it is not surprising that they struggled some. While I liked seeing how effective they could be by pulling guard to play the role of lead blocker on the dive track runs, I would have also like to have seen more use of a fullback or tight end in that role, just to keep the defenses guessing.
Wide Receivers - I believe that we have a good core with Thomas, Decker, Royal and Willis. There are three areas that we would need to see improvement with the receiving corp. All of these are reasonably obvious. It is important that the receivers gain separation quickly for the short/intermediate passing. The wide receivers need to be effective blockers for the running plays. The receivers must improve their individual awareness and ability when it comes to adjusting their routes when the play begins to break down.
Offensive Coordinator - This discussion wouldn't be complete without addressing the position of offensive coordinator. There has been a lot of criticism of Mike McCoy. This criticism tends to revolve around the perceptions of his offensive play-calling being "vanilla" and not adjusting effectively to game-time situations. While there may well be some justification to the criticisms, Woody Paige recently offered a slightly different look at McCoy in a response to one of his Mailbag readers. The full text and article may be found here.
In his response, Paige reminds us of the timeline under which the offense operated this past season (points raised by Paige are paraphrased in the block quotes):
1)McCoy was, in essence, asked to blend the McDaniels passing playbook with the run-first philosophy of John Fox.
The strong passing component led to Kyle Orton being named the starter for 2011. The reasoning was sound -- Orton had two seasons running the passing attack and had put reasonably good numbers. He just needed a running attack to take some of the pressure off. Needless to say, this did not work.
2)McCoy had to make major adjustments to the offense when Fox chose to change starting quarterbacks in the middle of the first San Diego game.
He had to simplify the passing game to allow for a quarterback who was not as polished a passer.
3)McCoy was told to run an offense designed around a quarterback who was adept at running a read-option offense.
There were comments, I don't remember if they were from Fox, McCoy or Tebow, about how McCoy and Tebow were more or less making up the offense as they went -- that McCoy was leaning on Tebow explaining to him how it was supposed to work.
4)After an initial success, McCoy cut back on the read-option in favor of a more traditional running game.
I'm not really sure why this occurred unless McCoy was concerned that defenses had adapted to the read-option.
5)For the Steelers game, an emphasis on passing was put into the offense.
Something which often gets lost in the euphoria over Tebow's passing for 316 yards in this game is the fact that the Broncos also amassed 131 rushing yards.
Paige offered this very insightful comment about the difficulty McCoy faced in making these changes:
"During all this time, McCoy, on the run (no pun intended), is having to add plays all the time in practice and get players to learn different blocking schemes and new pass routes and all sorts of stuff when the Broncos basically had one day a week to work on it. (One day is offense, one day is defense, one day is clean-up, one day is rehearsal)."
Paige went on to say:
"You've also got to remember that McCoy wasn't the biggest proponent of dumping Orton and installing Tebow, and he wasn't the biggest fan of dumping probably 50 percent of his offense and installing 50 percent of a new offense, sprinkling in plays that he pulled out of his hat and off the Florida tapes of when Tebow was there. That's really too much to ask of an offensive coordinator. When was the last time you remember any team in the NFL blowing up its offense like the Broncos did this year?"
Paige's comments here point to a critical issue, should the Broncos attempt to install a read-option offense with elements of a West Coast offense as they offensive scheme for 2012: the buy-in on the part of the offensive coordinator. If McCoy -- and I am assuming at this point that he will be Denver's offensive coordinator in 2012 -- does not "go all in" on this kind of change, we will continue to see the offense struggle in 2012. If he does buy into this kind of approach, we just might see something new, different and creative in 2012.
Why might I have any confidence that McCoy can be creative, you might well ask? I am of the opinion that in 2009 and 2010 -- based on what I read during those seasons -- McCoy was tasked with assisting in the overall game planning and player development while Josh McDaniels shouldered the majority of the play-calling duties. In 2011, McCoy started with a traditional-style offense, became somewhat creative when the quarterback and scheme changed after the San Diego game, but fell back into a more traditional model when the offense began to struggle. Like the rest of the offense, what we got in 2011 were glimpses of what the offense might become. It will be interesting to see what happens in the preseason games after the coaches and players have had a full off season to attack the issue of what to do with the offense. I think Woody Paige summed it up best with this comment:
"You can't think conventional when you've got Tebow. You figure out what he does best, and utilize it. High risk, high reward. Despite what John Elway says, Tebow never will be a pure pocket passer. You know what? Neither was John Elway, and that made him great."