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Divining the McDaniels Way, Part 1 - Overview

Overview and Methodology

This series is the outcome of a month-long collaboration between nycbroncosfan and broncobear. In general, NYC covered the stats and Doc handled most of the writing and analysis. We hope that it sheds light on some of the questions that have arisen as to just what, exactly, Josh McDaniels has been doing with the New England offense over the past four years. It also looks at Jay Cutler's time as the primary starter in Denver over the past two years to establish where the two Patriots and Broncos do and do not match up. We thoroughly enjoyed working on this project and hope that you will take just as much pleasure in reading it. Hopefully it will answer some of your questions about what to expect of the 2009 Broncos, and we look forward to your comments and critiques. Many thanks to our esteemed colleagues styg50 and hoosierteacher for their input, and to Zappa for his invaluable aid in managing the code and the templates.

Josh McDaniels is entering his first year as Denver's Head Coach and chief play-caller. He has already announced his arrival with a clear message of change, bringing in Mike Nolan to convert the defense from a 40- to a 30-base, signing myriad free agents and of course, toting a new playbook and a different brand of offense. Like everyone else here on MHR, we have spent quite a bit of time thinking, talking and posting about the possibilities inherent with the arrival of a new system.

Josh McDaniels has promised us 'something new' on offense but as Ecclesiastes said, there is nothing new under the football sun (Solomon is rumored to have played quarterback in Rabbinical School). New systems tend to be developments and adaptations of older concepts. The past is often prelude; we can look for the roots of new approaches in the performances of the past. Quite naturally, this would suggest we look at the successes of McDaniels' previous employer and mentor - Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots. Of course, McDaniels was a large part of Belichick's and the Pats' recent feats, coaching in New England for eight seasons and earning three Super Bowl rings.


Continued inside


Much has been written and said about Bill Belichick and "The Patriot Way" over the course of the decade, much of it focused on the concepts of isolationism, secrecy, an "us against the world" mentality, and a willingness of all players to put team before self. Others have pointed towards versatility - Belichick's use of wide receiver Troy Brown as a cornerback and linebacker Mike Vrabel as a goal-line receiving threat are prime examples. During his introductory press conference in Denver, McDaniels said his Broncos would be "tough, smart and prepared to play well under pressure" and "held accountable to do their job, their piece of the puzzle to fit in." These traits all sound wonderful...a smart, selfless, versatile and unified team - as long as they win, of course. But beyond the vagaries, what exactly can we expect to see on the field come Sundays this fall?

When the question was asked about 'The Patriot Way' on Jaffe28's fine thread, Doc mentioned this:

"Is that the Patriot way? I ask this as a question, not as a given. I'd have to add that the Patriot Way is much more. Their offensive scheme includes a willingness to use the RB in committee to maximize production from the team, good TEs that have a specific role in the scheme, and an attack based in 3 and 3+ receivers, liberal use of the shotgun and passing first, including, but not limited to, the use of short RB passes. I'm sure others can add much more."

With this in mind, we set out to understand the approach that McDaniels took in New England. NYC took on a comparative analysis of the statistics of the Broncos' and Patriots' offenses over the last few years - the two with Cutler, for the Broncos, and the four with McDaniels for the Patriots. The idea wasn't see who is ‘better' - the Pats have a much better record. It was to explore the offensive tendencies in each team, statistically - and then to match them with an analysis of the film to determine possible future directions.

Let's start by going over McDaniels' background: New England Head Coach Bill Belichick and McDaniels shared the Patriots' play-calling duties during the 2005 season, following the departure of longtime offensive coordinator Charlie Weis to Notre Dame. Belichick did not reveal that McDaniels was calling plays until after that season had ended, but showed his trust by giving McDaniels the official title of Offensive Coordinator on January 20, 2006.

Some information has been passed regarding the Patriots in some way involving Urban Meyer in their offensive scheming. MHR's TedBartlett905 had what we sought:

I don't have a lot of specifics, but my general understanding is that Belichick and McDaniels consulted with Urban Meyer after losing to the Colts in the 2006 playoffs. The Patriots had struggled against the Colts' Tampa-2 in the past few meetings between the two teams. Meyer and Belichick became personally close somewhere along the way.

The 2007 offseason, remember, was where the Patriots went after Wes Welker so aggressively, and then later, traded for Randy Moss. Welker was basically the same 10 yards per catch guy he is now, but with a lot less catches. New England's willingness to pay so much for him was surprising. Moss had virtually no other interest around the league.

The scheme of the Patriots was expressly designed to do the best job possible at threatening Cover-2 zone looks. The personnel of the Patriots made it threaten every kind of defense, in record-setting fashion.. Especially in the sense of using Moss and Welker on the same side, you cause a lot of difficulty for a defense doing that, and Florida does a great deal of that, doubling up strength. Also, a lot of the creative WR screening is used by Florida too, and a lot more of that emerged with the Patriots beginning with Welker in 2007.

Florida uses its spread-out sets mostly to be creative in how they run the ball. You can't do the option stuff, or the QB running in the NFL, because you don't want the QB getting hit. The UF passing game is pretty notable for challenging defenses both horizontally (by formation) and vertically (by typical pattern scheming.) That is what really comes through to the Patriots, is the multi-dimensionality, which is a lot like a second generation of the old Run and Shoot stuff you'd see from the Oilers, Lions, and Falcons in the late 80s and early 90s.

There's no doubt that the scheme changed, but you can't really isolate the big uptick in effectiveness only to scheme. The player additions were hugely instrumental too, obviously. The point I made a couple weeks ago was that the Erhardt-Perkins methodology was dramatically altered, and that Urban Meyer is strongly believed to have had some input into the new ideas. I don't know if anybody knows quite how much, though, other than the principals involved.

During those four years in which McDaniels was directing the Patriots' offense, they produced an eye-popping 1,689 points, or 25.9% more than the 1,342 points Denver scored over that same period. Touchdowns scored on special teams or defense have been excepted, as well as safeties. Remarkably, the Patriots managed to score all those points despite only out-gaining the Broncos by 837 yards over those four seasons (23,428 for New England versus 22,591 for Denver). These numbers translate to an extremely efficient 13.87 yards per point for New England, while Denver's offense needed to gain 16.83 yards for each point they scored. Simply put, there is no denying that the Patriots have been a far more efficient and productive offensive team than the Broncos in recent years. This is especially true when looking at what truly matters in football - the scoreboard.

As you may recall, Jay Cutler made his first NFL start during his rookie season, versus the Seahawks on December 3rd, 2006 at Invesco Field and remained the starting quarterback for the balance of the season (5 games in total). Jake Plummer had started the first 11 games of the 2006 season, and his Broncos offense was a conservative one (53.8% run vs. 46.2% pass in 2005). The learning process is still in full gear for Cutler, especially so with McDaniels' arrival and his new playbook, terminology and nomenclature. Of course, Cutler's current absence from OTAs is certainly not helping to accelerate that process, but that is another matter entirely. We will examine Cutler's two full seasons as a starter - 2007 and 2008 for the purposes of showing how things have been. On the flip side, we'll consider all four years during which Josh McDaniels was calling plays in New England - 2005 to 2008.

Doc pulled together notes from watching film of the Patriots' and Broncos' offenses (without styg50's series on breaking down the various positions, he couldn't have done it) and looked for what worked for New England, and what might work for the Broncos. What we were looking for wasn't the Patriot Way, or the Belichick Way, nor did we believe that it was the McDaniels Way since he inherited the offense from Charlie Weis. It was however, what exactly was used by the offense during the three years that McDaniels was the offensive coordinator, in order to get a baseline of the Patriots' style. In addition, certain tendencies presented themselves on film, and that information was included as well.

There are certain overall patterns that emerged that we expect to see, in degree, from Josh McDaniels when the Broncos take the field in 2009. Doc mentioned before that he considers the New England offensive approach to include "a willingness to use the running back in committee to maximize production from the team, good tight ends that have a specific role in the scheme, and an attack based in 3 and 3+ receivers, liberal use of the shotgun and passing first, including but not limited to the use of short running-back passes." Those beliefs were borne out by this experience.

Doc previously noted his belief that New England tends to win because they emphasize preparation, knowledge, excellent execution of specific roles and intellect, as well as physical ability. They tend to play smarter, but do not sacrifice the ability to play very physical football at the same time. This combination of scheme, flexibility, role-specific skill and execution as well as the importance of the team over the individual is not a metaphor for an eco-political system, but it is one of the best ways to effectively maximize the contribution of its players within their football system. SlowWhiteGuy just considers it to be "what works." After seeing a lot of film, that is undoubtedly a fair assessment. Because of that, it is impossible to get specific about New England's tendencies without noting that they change greatly from game to game. It's one constant - the application of the unexpected - and we'd have to consider that a strength of their approach.

However, both teams have certain overall tendencies that can be reduced, in part, by statistical analysis and in part by looking at what they ran and how. Our feeling was that NYC's work was more extrinsic - covering the tendencies of each team over the course of multiple seasons, tracking trends and outcomes. Doc's work was more intrinsic - looking at how they game-planned, what plays they liked and how they ran them.

To achieve an overall view of the New England offensive approach in 2008, Doc chose 4 specific games as well as extensive parts of two others and tried to analyze the New England offense via the film. He wanted to watch New England play at home against both a very good team and a weaker opponent. As a weaker opponent, he chose the St Louis Rams game (a 23-16 Patriots victory on October 26th). As a very good team, he chose Miami, in the second matchup between the Patriots and Dolphins of the season (a 48-28 win on November 23rd) in order to see the adjustments they would make. Both teams improved greatly over the course of the season, and the second contest was a doozy for the Pats. He also examined parts of the game against Pittsburgh (a 33-10 loss on November 30th), also in Foxboro. He watched much of the Jets/Pats game (a 34-31 loss on November 13th) where Cassel threw for 400 yards and 3 touchdowns, just to understand the approach that they used so successfully (although coming up short at the end) that day.

Doc watched them on the road against two very good teams - Indianapolis (an 18-15 loss on November 2nd) and San Diego (a 30-10 loss on October 12th). He chose Indianapolis because they are very good at what they do against New England, and yet New England has had an excellent record against them over the past decade. He went with San Diego because Doc was very familiar with their system and players. He didn't watch the early game against Miami in Florida because both teams were still learning about themselves, but examined the later matchup to let both teams mature. Four of the games New England lost and had to throw more, but Doc didn't expect a complete season picture. We knew that the detailed statistics that NYC added would round out any rough corners. It was enlightening, to say the least, to consider the six contests.

Certainly, there are many factors that have contributed to the Patriots' offensive superiority relative to that of the Broncos in recent years. Tom Brady has proven to be one of the top quarterbacks league-wide for several years now, the Patriots have drafted exceptionally well, Bill Belichick is one of the NFL's greatest coaches in history, and New England has generally fielded an excellent defense and has gotten excellent production from the kicking game. But our point is not to waste your time and tell you that New England has been better than Denver in recent years. You probably are quite aware. Rather, we would prefer to examine the Patriots' offensive tendencies under the direction of Coach McDaniels in order to shed some light upon the mystery that is the Broncos' future. In other words, personnel changes aside, what can we expect to see differently out of the Broncos' offense in 2009 and beyond? What have the Patriots done better, what have the Broncos done better, and how will these be melded into the 2009 version of the Denver Broncos?

What We Can Hope For

Scoring and Time of Possession - Broncos '07-'08 & Patriots '05-'08
Team/Yr Q1 Pts Q2 Pts Q3 Pts Q4 Pts OT Pts Total NFL Rank T.O.P. NFL Rank
DEN '07 75 89 94 56 6 320 21 29:09 24
DEN '08 106 86 70 108 0 370 16 28:44 24
DEN Avg 90.5 87.5 82 82 3 345 18.5 28:57 24
NE '05 90 74 97 118 0 379 10 30:19 18
NE '06 74 128 73 110 0 385 7 31:35 6
NE '07 134 199 104 152 0 589 1 32:35 2
NE '08 84 123 106 97 0 410 8 32:09 3
NE Avg 95.5 131 95 119.25 0 440.75 6.5 31:40 7.25

More scoring - Although the Patriots' record-setting 2007 season skews things more than a bit, we know that the Patriots were consistently more efficient in scoring. However, while New England's offense under Josh McDaniels scored more in each quarter than Jay Cutler's Broncos, they did so most consistently in the second quarter, a massive average of 131, and even a figure of 123 for Cassel's singular year behind center. New England's dominance of scoring in each quarter is an indicator of the higher quality of their offense.

On the other hand, Cutler's Broncos produced plenty of scoring in the 1st and 4th quarters of games in 2008 - perhaps this is a nod to the quality of former Denver coach Mike Shanahan's famously scripted plays in the first quarter, and to Cutler using his pure talent and determination to put up points in crunch time. It may also be a nod to the fact that the Patriots were behind in the fourth quarter less often and may have been playing the game for field position and time of possession as much as for the score. Still, the New England offense still averaged more in the 4th quarter over the years in this study and scored more than Cutler's best in three of the four years. The Patriots' offense was also more basic during Cassel's first (and only) year, and it's not fair to judge him or them on this exclusively, especially since Cassel grew into the role as the season went on.

Better clock-control - Certainly the defense has a lot of influence here, but so does offensive balance. The Patriots have done a far superior job of controlling the time of possession; New England ranked 3rd-best in the NFL in 2008, while the Broncos were down in 24th place for each of the last two seasons, unfamiliar territory for Denver and a clear indictment of the Broncos' sparing use of the running game. Of course, Denver's lack of a healthy running back was a major factor, but play-caller Jeremy Bates' tendency to drop a successful running game (examined in detail on MHR during the 2008 season) is another point to consider.

Clock-control is complex. Calling the right plays is a large facet of that - the coaching needs to be aware of their mismatches and understand how to take advantage of them. Execution is another part - the players need to have their heads on straight, keep their cool and focus. The Broncos were playing from behind too often, especially in the last quarter, which often made the offense predictable. Each of those factors makes controlling the clock difficult.

The Broncos had grown into a good offense by the end of 2008, but not a great one. There were too many weaknesses to be great, and scoring and clock-control were two of them. In those areas, they were ranked towards the bottom of the NFL (21st in scoring, 24th in TOP). We'll examine that in our next section.

Red Zone & Goal-To-Go Success - Broncos '07-'08 & Patriots '05-'08
RZ M/A RZ % NFL Rank GtG M/A GtG % NFL Rank
DEN '07 25/51 49.0% 21 15/23 65.2% 21
DEN '08 30/55 54.6% 16 20/27 74.1% 11t
DEN Avg 27.5/53 51.9% 18.5 17.5/25 70% 16
NE '05 37/58 63.8% 4 28/33 84.9% 3
NE '06 36/60 60.0% 5 27/35 77.1% 3t
NE '07 50/72 69.4% 2 31/42 73.8% 7
NE '08 33/65 50.8% 19 20/26 76.9% 6
NE Avg 39/63.8 61.2% 7.5 26.5/34 77.9% 4.75

Red Zone / Goal-to-Goal success - New England did a much better job than Denver did of punching the ball into the end zone once they reached red-zone or goal-to-go situations. While part of this is attributable to decision-making on the quarterback's part, play-calling surely has quite an influence here. Recall the many times the Broncos have chosen to run, run, run after gaining a 1st-and-goal recently. Or don't, for sanity's sake. The first thing that stands out is that New England reached red-zone and goal-to-go situations much more often than Denver did. From 2005 to 2008, the Patriots averaged 63.8 trips to the red-zone and reached 34 goal-to-go situations per season, on average. In contrast, the Broncos achieved only 53 red-zone situations (16.9% fewer) and 25 goal-to-go situations (26.5% less). This is especially troubling given the Broncos' ability to rack up yardage between the twenty-yard lines, and gives a clear picture of their greatest weakness - however they needed to get the yards, the Broncos could get drives going, but didn't have the skills to finish them off.

The biggest problem for Denver's offense in recent years has not been with moving the ball - they've done that quite well, as evidenced by their #2 ranking in 2008 for yards gained. The Broncos' red-zone and goal-to-go failures led to their NFL rankings of 21st in 2007 and 16th in 2008 for total points - not exactly the hallmarks of an "elite" or "explosive" offense as some have liberally called Denver's.

Yards Per Play - DEN '07-'08 & NE '05-'08
Plays Yards Yds/Play
DEN '07 976 5,541 5.68
DEN '08 1,019 6,333 6.21
DEN Avg 997.5 5,937 5.95
NE '05 1,031 5,632 5.50
NE '06 1,055 5,369 5.09
NE '07 1,058 6,580 6.22
NE '08 1,095 5,847 5.34
NE Avg 1,060 5,857 5.53

The good news is that Denver had very little trouble generating yards. In fact, their 2008 yards-per-play of 6.21 was nearly identical to that of the 2007 Patriots (6.22). Yes, those Patriots. New England ran more plays per year over the course of this study - by 62.3 plays per year. That indicates that they were better at keeping drives alive. However, New England produced an average of 80 less yards per year. The Broncos were far superior in this category, by 0.42 yards per play, although they were less successful when it mattered. What the Broncos could not do was deliver those yards when they needed to. In our estimation, this can be charged to a lack of commitment to the running game, poor play-calling in the red zone, failure to execute, and the inexperience of youth. All of these were concerns.

Our hope is that Josh McDaniels will bring with him a stronger commitment to the run and more effective play-calling, while importing players with more experience will hopefully change the climate and attitude in the locker room. The Broncos built an offensive dynamo that couldn't punch the ball into the end zone or control the clock, and that was reflected clearly in their time of possession, on the scoreboard, and ultimately in their won-lost record. Certainly, their defense (or perhaps more appropriately their lack thereof) was a factor as well, but that area is outside the realm of this analysis.

Starting tomorrow, we'll begin to look more closely at just how Josh McDaniels' Patriots attained these results and how some of their strategies might be implemented in Denver to improve the Broncos and their offense. The schedule is as follows:

Friday, April 3rd - The Running Game
Tuesday, April 7th - The Passing Game
Friday, April 10th - Down/Distance Tendencies and Conclusions