DENVER, CO - AUGUST 20: Running back Willis McGahee #23 of the Denver Broncos beats linebacker Reggie Torbor #53 of the Buffalo Bills to the end zone for a touchdown in the second quarter at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on August 20, 2011 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
Now I mostly avoid the frightening world of sharing my opinion, but with OTA's begun and rumors flying around, I thought I'd do some research and give my thoughts based on this research while covering a few of these rumors. Feel free to disagree with me, I'm just looking at the research and history and drawing a conclusion, I'm in no way saying that I'm 100% and you better agree with me or else. These ideas are drawn from posts on Mile High Report as well as around the internet.
Here are the topics I'll be looking at today:
- FB Chris Gronkowski's strengths and his role in the offense
- The deep ball and Peyton Manning
- Willis McGahee and whether he will be able to sustain his 2011 play
- The quality of our defense in 2011
- Our wide receivers had drop problems last season
We've heard talk from a variety of sources ranging from the Denver Post to John Fox about what role Chris Gronk will play this upcoming season. Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy said this:
He fits what we do, and what we’ve done in the past, whether its here or what we did in Carolina when we were more of a two-back offense. He’s that fullback you’re looking for. He’ll do a nice job of getting in the two-back, he’s athletic enough to expand the formations and has some position flexibility with him if don’t just want to line up in that I formation all day long, we can move him around.
Well this raises some questions about whether this is coach speak or not. There are a few reasons I question this thinking. The first is that Peyton Manning has never had a pure fullback on his roster. He had Jim Finn for a few years but he almost never saw action and was more of a running back than fullback. Pure, blocking fullbacks that Chris Gronk is modeled after really don't fit Manning's style of offense. After studying the Colts offense of the past decade, what Manning seems to want in the backfield is a versatile player who is a strong pass blocker and receiver. Nearly every back he's had fits this bill, Chris Gronk doesn't. He's a run blocker, pure and simple. He isn't good in pass blocking, he isn't a good runner or receiver. This brings us to the question, might we be moving away from Manning's offense in Indy, I don't believe so, I think Fox just brought him in as security. You don't bring in a talent like Manning and make him fit into your system, you wouldn't ask Brady to do it or Brees or Rodgers, just doesn't happen, no matter what they say in the front office.
Chris Gronkowski will see the field, but likely only on run downs. The Broncos had a versatile fullback who was a good pass blocker and receiver in Spencer Larsen, they let him leave. They signed Chris Gronk instead. Now as a talent, I don't believe he's on Larsen's level. Larsen was better with the ball in his hand, he was also just a better blocker in general, especially pass blocking. Chris Gronk struggles to pick up blitzers and tends to not read and react quickly as the play progresses. Chris Gronk is a better run blocker though, he tends to punish linebackers at the second level and plays hard. In terms of trying to help the run game succeed, swapping Chris Gronk in to replace Larsen was a smart move and if that was the goal, I believe they succeeded, but overall I believe that Larsen was the more complete fullback, but that may not have been what they wanted, I will say, only getting 34 snaps on a team as bad as the 2011 Colts isn't a good sign, even moreso when you surrendered a pressure.
The Deep Ball and Peyton Manning:
I tried to deal with this earlier this off-season, but it seems the mainstream media and the Denver Post didn't read it. Many fans are concerned about the deep ball and whether Manning can make the deep passes, well FEAR NOT! Not because Manning's arm looks like my grandmother's but because it really doesn't matter. ESPN recently said that Manning is 3rd overall for touchdowns of 30+ yards as a way to suggest he passed deep a lot. While this is true, it's largely because he's also 4th in total attempts in his career. What really matters is deep passes per attempt. Now for most records, deep passes are actually 20 yards or more, not sure why ESPN chose 30 yards. Also what needs to be pointed out is that not all deep passes are recorded the same, a 1 yard pass that the wide receiver runs for 98 yards is recorded as a 99 yard PASS despite it really only being a 1 yard pass. What really matters is yards in air (YIA). So we can look at this in two ways:
- 20+ yards in the air attempts as a percentage of the total attempts
- Yards in air per attempt
So let's look at this for Manning's career and include rankings for that period as well so we can see how he stacked up to the league numbers:
- 20+ yards in the air attempts as a percentage of the total attempts: 13.5% (11th)
- Yards in air per attempt: 4.28 (6th)
Manning isn't a deep passer, he was never known for a big arm, whether it was in college, the draft or in the NFL. Heck the past three seasons the Broncos had one of the most successful deep passing games in the NFL with Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow, we won't be going nearly as deep as we did these past few seasons.
The deep isn't big in Manning's offense or Fox's so I'm not concerned at all, but I will say I wish Manning would tone up those triceps I mean those things look nasty.
We have heard a lot recently that McGahee's success was tied to Tebow and the option game, and that might be partly true. But the main reason for this is because people often misunderstand when they say we had the #1 rushing attack last season, the only reason we had that last season was because of Tebow's yards and the shear number of attempts, not because of yards per attempt or the system. Let's just look at it this way, if Tebow was the reason for McGahee's success, his number should be better under him than Orton, let's look at this:
|Att per Game||Yards per Game||Yards per Att||Rec per Game||Rec Yards per Game||Tot Yards per Game||100 Yard Games|
Overall McGahee wasn't that much more effective under Tebow. Actually he was much more active in the passing game considering he only had one reception once Tebow started. He also only had one more 100 yard game despite playing 10 games compared to 5. He actually was more likely to rip off a big run (20 or more yards) under Orton (3.53%) than with Tebow under center (3.05%). Overall don't expect McGahee to struggle just because he has a pocket passer back there. Just a projection of if Orton had stayed at QB, McGahee would have had 1228 yards rushing and 1385 total yards with nine 100 yard games. Not bad if you ask me. Overall the fact that the Broncos say more 7 and 8 man boxes than any other team did hurt McGahee's ability to make big plays, while it did give him more room for shorter runs, it stunted his ability to make big runs. We also saw this with the other backs, not just McGahee, this was a running back trend that changed based on who was at quarterback. After rewatching last season and looking at the run game, the benefits Tebow brought to the running backs also brought negative things along with it. Overall look for more big runs and a slightly lower YPC from all our backs with Manning under center.
Next let's look at whether running backs start to decline based on age or attempts in career. Often times we hear that once a running back hits 30 it's down hill, let's try this out. We'll start by looking to see if McGahee is on the right side or wrong side of the mark. He 30 and has 1790 rushing attempts to his name, let's see the average age of a running back with around that number of attempts. The average NFL running back gets to 1790 rushing attempts at the age of 28. The average NFL running back also begins his falloff at around attempt 2050. Actually the correlation is much stronger between 2050 attempts and the age 30. Running backs under 2050 attempts at the age of 30-32 show little to no drop off in production or efficiency. Overall age has little factor in running back production but is often used because it's tied to what does matter, attempts, and if we are measuring that, McGahee is a younger back than many expect.
Overall I can't think of a reason McGahee can't have another 800-1,000 yard season, outside of injury. As I discussed before, it's not rare for a Manning offense, or Fox offense, to have a 1,000 yard rusher, age shouldn't be an issue and he is productive no matter who is at quarterback. I'm not saying he'll top 1,200 yards again, but we shouldn't be shocked if he's productive and does top 900 yards.
The 2011 Broncos Defense:
When I reviewed the 2011 season I made one major point, a key factor that decided Kyle Orton's benching and also why the Broncos won and lost under Tebow, turnovers. We've heard recently that the defense wasn't very good because it lost to good teams, and it's true the Broncos lost to a lot of good teams, heck under Tebow the Broncos didn't beat an opponent with a winning record. But one theme held true throughout last season, the team won and lost on offensive turnovers.
When the Broncos started off rough under Orton, it wasn't because the Broncos weren't scoring enough (the Broncos offense was the 7th best scoring offense in the league at the time) it was that Orton and offense had far too many turnovers. They averaged 2.4 turnovers per game during that stretch. Enter Tebow and during weeks 7 though 12 the Broncos only had 0.8 turnovers per game on offense and went 5-1. As we began the last part of the season, weeks 13-17, the Broncos averaged 2.4 turnovers per game again and went 2-3 to finish the season.
If we just look at it in terms of turnovers, the Broncos record when they had 1 or less turnover? 4-1. When they averaged 2 or less turnovers? 8-3. Let's look at it this way, want to know the average turnovers when we won? Just 1. How about when we lost? 2.6 on average. The Broncos had 4 turnovers against the Packers, 3 against the Lions, 3 more against the Patriots. It's hard for any defense and team to win when the offense turns the ball over.
Could our defense have been better last season, you bet, but saying they couldn't play against good teams is a misnomer. The defense actually played at the same level as they did as every other team if you remove the turnovers, but when we look at the turnovers, that lead to additional points for opposing teams. Overall the defense ranked among the best in areas unaffected by turnovers like 3 and outs (6th in the league), 3rd down percentage (11th in league) and scoring efficiency (10th).
Wide Receivers and Drops:
I think the biggest issue here is when we look at the season as a whole without looking at factors, like a change at quarterback. Let's just get to the point right away, the drops began the week Tebow started, they should be gone with Manning. When Orton started last season, the Broncos WR’s dropped 5.8% of passes, 6th best in the league, but under Tebow they dropped 7.4% of passes. I excluded Lloyd from that equation so it would be balanced. Even in the 2010 season the Broncos were the 9th best team in drops when under Orton but for the last three weeks under Tebow drops increased quite a bit. The fact that the drops changed completely by who was QB says we should be fine with Manning under center.
We've also added Andre Caldwell, a sure handed wide receiver, who should add depth and speed to the wide receiver group. Overall, drops are something I'm not concerned about at all, and even if the wideouts do drop the ball, Manning will be in their face more than Tebow was.
Well I hope this was informative. Like I said in the beginning, feel free to disagree with me, since most of this is predictive work (outside of reviewing the 2011 defense) none of this is set in stone. I'm merely going on what the games and history show me, it doesn't make me right until we actual get to games, then we'll know what really is going on. Thanks for going along with me.