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Divining the McDaniels Way, Part 4 - Propensities and Conclusions

 Down/Distance Play Propensities  and Conclusions

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 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.

Today is our final installment in the series. Previously, we have looked at the rushing and passing games of the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots in order to predict what we might see out of the 2009 Broncos on offense under the tutelage of Josh McDaniels. Now, let's take a look at how each franchise has performed at each down and distance - rush/pass propensity, production and success rates in converting to first downs. Finally, we'll spend a little time on drawing conclusions from all we have seen.

Here are the links to our previous installments:

Part 1 -Overview

Part 2 - The Running Game

Part 3 - The Passing Game

 On 1st Down and 6-10 yards

Tendency and Success on 1st & 6-10 - Broncos '07-'08 and Patriots '05-'08
Plays Rush YPA Rush% Pass YPA Pass% Conversion %
DEN '07-'08 844 4.51 46.0% 7.16 54.0% 23.0%
NE '05-'08 1,754 4.51 48.4% 7.07 51.6% 20.3%

Unfortunately, we could not get statistics for each and every yardage, but it's pretty safe to say that there are very few times you'll see a 1st and 6, and even more rarely a 1st and 8. So, we're generally talking here about what Denver will do on 1st and 10. We've already established that New England has shown a stronger run/pass balance, but here we see how true that is at the beginning of each fresh set of downs.

The Broncos converted more of these 1st and 10 plays into more first downs, which is probably attributable to their heavier reliance on passing plays, which naturally produce a higher yardage per attempt.  Oddly, the Broncos and Pats have rushed for the exact same YPA on 1st and 10. It may be just a quirk of statistics, so maybe it's more funny than interesting until you look at the trend in YPA.


On 2nd and short (1 to 5 yards)
Tendency and Success on 2nd & Short - Broncos '07-'08 and Patriots '05-'08
Plays Rush YPA Rush% Pass YPA Pass% Conversion %
DEN '07-'08 203 5.69 47.3% 4.81 52.7% 53.7%
NE '05-'08 455 4.15 65.5% 7.06 34.5% 58.0%

Here is a remarkable difference. Josh McDaniels has strongly favored running the ball on 2nd and short (65.5% of the time), while the Broncos have shown a slight preference toward throwing the ball from a similar down-and-distance (52.7% pass). Their yards per rush and reception indicate perhaps that teams knew what to expect - Denver gained a lot more on each carry than New England did, but the reverse is true for passes. Yardage aside, New England fared better where it counted - in the first-down conversion rate.   It's also important to note that in different games, the Patriots would use different strategies on each down and distance, throwing in one game and rushing in the next. Since we know that Cassel was quick to pull down the ball and run, with 74 carries,  that may also have influenced the stats as well.

We'd put this down to a difference in temperament and theory. Bates, in particular, would pass in every option. He used this as a chance to have a 'free play' - thinking that he could get the yards on the next play if needed. McDaniels went the other way, methodically making sure that his offense got the 1st down. While both Doc and NYC lean heavily toward the latter approach, both are legitimate options.


On 2nd and 6, or longer
Tendency and Success on 2nd & Long - Broncos '07-'08 and Patriots '05-'08
Plays Rush YPA Rush% Pass YPA Pass% Conversion %
DEN '07-'08 457 4.61 34.6% 7.41 65.4% 26.9%
NE '05-'08 959 3.72 35.7% 6.92 64.3% 23.6%

On second-and-long situations, the Broncos have actually been more successful (26.9% success rate) than the Pats in recent years (23.6% conversion). Interestingly, their tendencies are almost identical - their run/pass balances are within 1.1% of each other. However, Denver has both rushed and passed for more yards per attempt on their way to a better first-down conversion rate within this statistic.   This can be attributed, at least in great part, to two factors.

The first major factor is in rushing. Denver's much better O-Line, especially as the season progressed, was a huge factor in their running success. Seriously - does anyone believe that Tatum Bell, out of shape and filling in as a last-ditch effort, could have gotten his numbers if the line was still at its early-season level? The line was a big, big key to the Broncos' success as the season went on. Bobby Turner was probably Denver's most valuable factor in getting practice-squad and role players ready, but the line was a close second. To be honest, the backs themselves were a distant third, especially after Hillis went down.  

The second major factor was Cutler's arm. That's one area where his strength as a quarterback really made a difference. In the new system, the emphasis that we can expect on the shorter throws will suit the  arm strength  of Simms or Orton.

If there is a third factor, it may be that Denver passed so much that teams at times seemed off-guard when they ran, and that may have produced some additional yardage and therefore more success on this and on other downs. It certainly shocked us when they ran.

On 3rd and short (1-2 yards)
Tendency and Success on 3rd & Short - Broncos '07-'08 and Patriots '05-'08
Plays Rush YPA Rush% Pass YPA Pass% Conversion %
DEN '07-'08 86 4.94 60.5% 6.21 39.5% 66.3%
NE '05-'08 178 3.39 65.7% 6.31 34.3% 69.7%

Again, we see a heavier reliance on the run by McDaniels in short-yardage situations, this time on 3rd down. The Patriots also managed a better conversion rate on 3rd and short with McDaniels calling plays despite their lesser YPA. It's a good example of their offensive efficiency. It's also important to note the small sample-size for Denver on these two charts (3rd and short/medium), as we are looking at only two seasons with Jay Cutler at the helm versus four years of Josh McDaniels' play-calling, and one season where the attrition at RB was enormous. Still, there should be enough here to show a trend.  

This is yet another area that we can place the blame upon Bates' play-calling. As mentioned above, it is fair to say that the run-blocking wasn't that strong in the first few games of the 2008 season. As the season went on, however, and the O-Line meshed, the running game took off, but Bates inexplicably took it off the menu. It was bizarre.

It doesn't matter what kind of blocking scheme you use. If you don't know, with all your heart, that your O-Line and backs can pick up the yards you need on third and short (and even more so on 4th and short), you have a huge problem. If you have a back like Hillis or Pittman, whether you use him as a fullback or a halfback, and you don't use him driving behind your line to pick up this down, you're going to have serious problems as the season wears on.

On 3rd and medium (3-5 yards)

Tendency and Success on 3rd & Medium - Broncos '07-'08 and Patriots '05-'08
Plays Rush YPA Rush% Pass YPA Pass% Conversion %
DEN '07-'08 92 4.44 19.6% 4.19 80.4% 42.4%
NE '05-'08 216 3.92 22.7% 4.39 77.3% 45.8%

Once more, we see similar numbers, with a slightly more balanced attack from McDaniels and the Patriots to go along with a better conversion rate. The Patriots' rushing YPA continues to be lower, but they still have better production in terms of effective outcomes - achieving first downs. This is a another good example of the greater level of efficiency of the Patriots' attack under McDaniels.That's a coming change which suits Denver's players and needs. It's also another place where numbers can fool you. Yes, the Broncos had a better YPA with their overall rushing game - but did they use it enough, or at the proper times?

Combining the more appropriate use of the rushing attack with the efficiency of the short pass which New England has been noted for is going to be an exciting change in the Broncos'  offense in years to come.


3rd and long (6+ yards)
Tendency and Success on 3rd & Long - Broncos '07-'08 and Patriots '05-'08
Plays Rush YPA Rush% Pass YPA Pass% Conversion %
DEN '07-'08 222 5.22 10.4% 7.82 89.6% 36.0%
NE '05-'08 468 4.36 16.5% 7.18 83.5% 33.8%

Again still, we see McDaniels calling for running plays far more frequently than the Broncos have in recent years, although in these 3rd-and-long situations this strategy was a bit less successful. This is another indicator of the unpredictable play-calling of the Pats. However, Denver is better in every category - yards per rush, yards per pass and first-down conversion rate.

This is a great example of the amoeba offense. They were constantly unpredictable. It's worth noting that they weren't as successful as the Broncos on this down and distance. However, over the course of the game, being unpredictable has notable advantages.

Here is another area where the arm of Jay Cutler probably made the difference. His 20 turnovers may have cost the team a lot, and he may have certain issues of professional maturity (focusing his eyes to much on his primary target, etc) but his arm, the effectiveness of his O-Line and the skill of the Broncos receivers combined to make the difference in this stat. Denver fans may take heart in remembering that two-thirds of the passing attack is coming back for the 2009 season.

On 4th Down

4th-down Success, DEN '07-'08 & NE '05-'08
4th Dn M/A 4th Down %
DEN '07 7/22 31.8%
DEN '08 4/10 40.0%
DEN Avg 5.5/16 34.4%
NE '05 13/17 76.5%
NE '06 16/20 80.0%
NE '07 15/21 71.4%
NE '08 17/22 77.3%
NE Avg 15.3/20 76.3%

Aggression and success on 4th down - While Bill Belichick made the decision whether or not to go for it on 4th down, it was Josh McDaniels' play calls that made the Patriots remarkably successful on such attempts. Their 76.3% conversion rate over the past four seasons is nothing short of staggering. David Romer's Cal-Berkeley study on NFL coaches' decisions showed that coaches tend to make the wrong decision on 4th down, lowering their chances of winning by kicking rather than going for it.

The Broncos' sorry success rate is frustrating. They had an offensive line that wore out the superlatives and, for most of the season, a couple of good, big backs in Hillis and  Pittman (to a lesser degree). What was the problem? There is no easy answer, but the tendency to pass, pass, pass too often led to fail, fail, fail.

Granted, Belichick has an awful lot of currency in New England and maybe he can afford to take these chances, eschewing the easy three points for the shot at a more decisive touchdown. Josh McDaniels may not have earned that same cachet, but hopefully he's got the guts to go for it when the math is in his favor. Belichick understood this, and he himself read Romer's study. Let's hope that he made it required reading for his entire offensive staff. Of course, sometimes going for it on 4th down is so exciting that the refs start to block.


So, given all of this, what conclusions can we draw? Some are simple, some are not. In a recent interview, McDaniels refused to answer some questions on the running game, saying that it was "secret." We don't know what the secret desire he hinted at with the running game is, but what do we know?

First, we know that McDaniels loves his gap blocking, using a pulling guard. Since we also know that Denver's guards have happy feet and nasty dispositions, that one is elementary. Denver will increase the rate of gap blocking. We'll also continue to see lots of zone blocking, and we love that Dennison and Turner are staying on. The entire offensive line is returning, and that alone is cause for serious joy. If the Broncos have a secret, or not-so-secret weapon, the O-Line is it.

The Running Game

We can expect a few changes on the halfback-side of the running game. McDaniels so far has made extensive use of the draw and of running between the tackles. Will that continue? It remains likely. Since his tackles in New England weren't great blockers, that could still change as he gets comfortable driving the tank that is the Broncos Front Five but only, we believe, in degree. As fine as Denver's tackles are, they will still be running more up the middle more next year. There is a long precedent.

In kenjutsu, the Japanese art of sword fighting, there is a principle - attack the center! It involves using your hara, your own energetic center, and dominating your opponent to the point that anything he does will fail. This principle is related to something called aiki - it is said that when a general who has mastered aiki mounts his horse, the opposing army will surrender. For the Broncos to apply this principle and break the will of the opposing defense, they need to be able to attack the center of that defense, combining a talented O-Line with effective inside running. It's a common principle in attacking the 3-4, which San Diego runs very well and Kansas City is changing to. The Broncos need to be able to run the ball well up the middle. The New England offense mastered that well. The Broncos' line is exceptional and they have the running backs to do so (although one more wouldn't hurt). Look for more runs up the middle this year.

One thing that the current halfback corps should love is that there will be an increased emphasis on passes to the backs. Correll Buckhalter, LaMont Jordan and J.J. Arrington are all skilled here - so are Peyton Hillis and Selvin Young, while Ryan Torain seems to have some potential as well. More on that in a bit. Blocking skills will also be greatly appreciated. Hillis and Arrington, in particular, should benefit from that. All the others have at least some skills there to contribute.

The Injury Game

Will the running game depend upon a committee? Almost certainly. McDaniels made a comment to that effect on his radio interview on 104.3 The Fan. In Doc's opinion, that's a smart decision. Why?

The modern NFL player is bigger, stronger and faster than a decade ago. It wasn't long ago that a 300-pound offensive or defensive lineman was a matter for comment. Now, having one smaller than the 300-mark garners more conversation. In proportion, that extends to nearly every player on the field. That means a lot of young, stronger and faster players. One equation for force is mass times velocity squared (F = M x V²). The increase in mass is one factor. The modern increase in speed is even more of a problem for those on the receiving end of hits.

Modern training techniques (when employed) are producing young men who are stronger and faster at younger ages. The system that moves the best of the best from high school, to college, to the combine and on to the NFL will probably continue. Combined with modern nutrition, this will carry forward to produce the players who hit harder. This portends that injuries will continue to be a constant or rising problem.

Last year, a lot of folks pointed to Adrian Petersen, before the season, as a model of how you could use a back in the traditional system of a single workhorse back. But by the end of the year, he was battered, bruised,  exhausted, and his production was lacking. He's as good a back as there is in the game, but he's now working on gaining muscular weight, a belated attempt to put a bigger layer of protection around his body. Drafting him a more skilled change-of-pace back or three would do even more for him. If he isn't platooned, at least in part, his productive career will be shortened.

In San Diego, LaDanian Tomlinson is facing some of the realities of life as a running back. He's spent much of the past two seasons injured, his production is down, and he's just turned thirty. Platooning with Darren Sproles will help, assuming Sproles chooses to sign his tender.

It's a tough game, and it won't get easier. The platooning system is one way of minimizing injuries, maximizing team production and increasing the life-span of your running backs. Doc believes that it's here to stay.

There may have been an over-emphasis on the role that injuries played in the Broncos' 2008 season. When the injury bug hit New England, they responded by bringing BenJarvus Green-Ellis up from the practice squad. In two games, as the primary ball-carrier, he produced 162 yards rushing with 2 touchdowns on 41 carries. In fact, the Patriots' balance actually increased from a 46.1%/53.9% rush/pass split to 75 rushes and 70 passes in those two games (51.7% rush). They responded by tossing the norms aside and rushing the damned ball. Although the Patriots split the two games (losing a heart-breaker in Indy and beating Buffalo), they dominated the clock with an average TOP of 36:02.

The Passing Game

The passing game should see a lot of changes, and we believed that Cutler would benefit from it. Since he's gone, could Simms and Orton also look for better numbers? Almost certainly. Not bigger - better. We felt like the Broncos lost the difference. The Patriots' emphasis on accuracy, consistency and taking what you are given instead of forcing in an effort to get the big play will help them maximize their natural gifts. The use of the running-back pass will also help, placing an emphasis on other check-down receiving options.

Keep in mind that as of right now, the Broncos have kept Brandon Marshall, Eddie Royal,  Brandon Stokley and Chad Jackson (for now), added Jabar Gaffney and have Scheffler and Graham as well as lesser luminaries. With the return of  the entire offensive line, Denver has kept far more of its passing game then it has lost. The quarterbacks will show different skills, but both are talented young men. Given Coach McDaniels' level of knowledge and skill, it's not difficult to see that the Broncos' offense is in very good shape entering 2009.

Last season, Doc felt that Jeremy Bates had lost his way in the passing game by Week Four, particularly in one area. Do you remember the incredible stutter route with which Royal destroyed DeAngelo Hall in the Monday Night opener? Royal's early double-fake routes? Many of the innovations that thrilled us as fans in the first quarter of the season seemed to get lost as the season progressed. We've put it down to immaturity in coaching. The Broncos didn't make good adjustments and they left pieces that worked in a box, kicked under the bench.

This is another area where McDaniels' background could be a tremendous fit with the current Denver team. His maturity as a play-caller is undeniable. Those who question his professional intelligence need to spend some time with the Patriots' 2007 offensive stats. Even a team with the best of players needs the best of coaching to succeed.

New England has a player with great talent at receiver but who had a reputation for letting his emotional nature interfere with his personal life and professional career in Randy Moss (although he seems to have cleaned that up).  Now, McDaniels has Brandon Marshall to mentor. The Patriots' passing attack also featured the great route-running of Wes Welker. Now Eddie Royal's abilities can be honed, developed and maximized in the same way, a thought that has to bother opposing defensive coordinators. And then there is Jabar Gaffney, already familiar with McDaniels' terminology and scheme and a solid, productive receiver in his own right. If you add Stokley, whose slot running is at times similar to Welker's, perhaps Chad Jackson and potentially, we believe, a receiver or tight end from the draft, you have a fantastic fit, merging old with new.

Tight Ends

Don't expect for a minute that Denver wants to trade Tony Scheffler unless the contracts have been  signed. McDaniels used tight ends extensively in 2005 and even in 2006, but three things happened - Randy Moss, Wes Welker and the exit of Daniel Graham.

Although Graham has always wanted to be used more as a receiver, he's too valuable as a two-way threat. Graham was lauded by McDaniels when the two worked together, and with the preference for the pass and for multiple receivers including a tight end, Scheffler will be likely to get his catches if he stays healthy.


The H-back Role

Consider, for a moment, the possible role of the player that we like to call an H-back. As those of you who have read Doc's article The H-Back: Using the Magic Option know, he's always a little leery of this term, because it's often used without context or specific meaning. However, for right now, let's consider it as a running back who can play near the line and receive, but who can function in the running game as well - carrying, blocking in addition to his position as a back/receiver.

Doc: I know that I've mentioned Peyton Hillis in this role, and it's impossible to ignore his potential effectiveness as an H-back. But to pigeon-hole him in that position is to ignore how New England employed their running backs at times.

McDaniels employed a shotgun-spread formation with two or three wideouts, one tight end and a back, all spread out across the field near the line. At times he would do this with only four players - two wideouts, one tight end and one back, but he could and did substitute an extra WR or TE into the play. The running back was simply used as a receiver. Could Hillis be effective in this role? Heck Yes! He could do some serious damage.

But, so could Buckhalter, Arrington or Jordan. Many people have questioned McDaniels' acquisition of these players without carefully considering the context of his play-calling. Taken in the context of adding weapons to the arsenal whose tactics match those McDaniels employed in New England, they make perfect sense - and Young and Torain, if they can stay healthy, could certainly flourish here as well.

In one sense of this all-too-often loose term, any and all of these players can move into the H-back role. We often limit our thinking to a back/tight end who plays near the line in addition to the tight ends. That's one way to talk about it - perhaps the closest to what HoosierTeacher spoke of in his seminal piece, Football University - The Coming Storm (Magic 3).  But whatever the terminology, New England played a running back in a wideout role in addition to the tight end(s) commonly, and that's a potent weapon that all of Denver's current backs can provide.


Since the Patriots' version of the spread formation tried to expand the field horizontally as well as vertically, look for increased use of routes that employ unusual angles, as New England did with Welker, bringing him across the field to that low crossing-route. Expect to see the tight end to drop into a halfback slot, multiple tight-end sets that will often look familiar and a lot of motion from the tight ends. Anticipate more receivers on the field: wide receivers, tight ends and running backs. Unless there is a major reason, look for the fullback (whoever it is), to have a limited, but essential role - keeping the blitzers off the quarterback. And expect McDaniels to thank his karma for permitting him to use the Denver O-Line.

We believe that the new season will see an increase in the Broncos' scoring. The problems that the Broncos had were generally ones in which the coaching played a big role. The discomfort with running effectively at the goal line was sad to see. Next year, the play calling will be quite different. If history is any judge, it will be much better.

And finally - expect the plays to change each week, and to see the Broncos finally make offensive and defensive adjustments during the games and during the season. It will take time to establish the new offensive and defensive approaches. This is not a small thing that Denver has decided to do. But in the end, we believe that all signs point to a good outcome, and a steady development of the Broncos' players and team over the next two years. McDaniels understands how to win now and build for the future concurrently. His words and