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Is play calling or execution to blame for Broncos’ woes on offense?

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Did Joe Flacco have a point, or is he part of the problem?

NFL: OCT 27 Broncos at Colts Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Broncos fans are up in arms (rightly so) about the game on Sunday. Joe Flacco is calling out the coaching staff for not being aggressive enough, while the offense is playing poorly regardless of what’s called.

I had some strong feelings about the whole play calling/aggression narrative, so I wanted to team up with some folks who could balance my takes a little bit. The two Joes and I had an informal debate/discussion around the topic and are hoping ya’ll will join us.

Our conversation follows and is edited slightly for clarity.

Joe Rowles

So before we get too into it, I’m probably wussing out by admitting I reserve any right to change my mind on things once I have the All-22 to review and obsess over.

With that in mind, the way the offense dried up after the Royce Freeman drop on third-and-short seemed scared. In the heat of the game, I laid that primarily at Rich Scangarello and the two-minute call on Vic Fangio. I think they had little confidence in Joe Flacco to do much and tried to call the game around him.

Unfortunately, I think every single person in Lucas Oil Stadium expected it.

Jeff Essary

I would agree the offense played scared, but my big thing since the game has been that they played scared with good reason, given what happened against Kansas City and what we’ve seen from the Broncos’ offense the past few weeks.

Which leads me to:

Does Denver have an aggressiveness problem? Did Flacco have a point?

Joe Rowles
Yes and no. I think Rich Scangarello has been a conservative play caller for most of his tenure with the Broncos. You can see part of that in how often Denver runs the ball o second-and-medium+, which is something the analytics community really frowns upon. Heck, it wasn’t too long ago Royce Freeman carried the ball on 3rd-and-long.

I also think Scangarello is justified in calling plays to protect his biggest weaknesses. It’s no secret that both Flacco and the tackles were huge liabilities through the first 8 weeks. How do you play to the strengths of the unit while hiding two bad tackles and a quarterback who holds the ball too long, drops too deeply in the pocket, and processes the field at a snails pace? You run. Even in sub par situations.

What do you think about it?

Jeff Essary
I think it’s a fair point about the conservative play calling overall, but you know who else is run-heavy at the same rates or more as Denver? San Fransisco and Kyle Shanahan.

The 49ers are even more conservative or run-heavy than Denver is currently, especially on first down and second-and-long, but the difference is the Niners convert 45 percent of their third downs, which is good for eighth in the league.

My mantra moving forward is going to be Denver needs effectiveness over aggression.

Joe Mahoney
Scangerello is playing the game of chess minus a knight, a rook and his queen. Hard to win like that.

Two-subpar tackles, arguably the worst OT duo in the league, and a QB who moves very slowly both mentally and physically - that’s a recipe for the 27th-ranked scoring offense in the league.

Denver is currently converting 3rd downs at 28.9 percent, which is the worst for a Broncos team in the entire PFR time frame (1991-today).

Jeff Essary
Oof.

But, I do agree with your eval of Scangarello from a macro perspective, and I think that’s where we have to keep the conversation. Evaluating play calls on an individual basis based on the result is something I have a huge problem with.

Joe Rowles
Judging play calling on result is a fools errand.

It’s the talk radio approach.

Joe Rowles
One question I have about Kyle Shanahan is how things looked as far as play calling during the Atlanta Falcons years? I haven’t studied this year’s 49ers anywhere near as closely as I watched them over the summer, but I wonder if Shanny is calling with an average QB in mind compared to when he had Matt Ryan. Put another way - I wonder how much both Shanahan and Scangarello play to their personnel versus how much is just a run-heavy throwback sort of approach.

Jeff Essary
Ah, that’s a great point. I’m going to start digging into the 49ers and his offense this season soon and that’s definitely something to look at.

Joe Mahoney
That would make a lot of sense if we had a great run blocking OL (and TEs), but Garett Bolles is as bad of a run blocker as he is as a pass blocker.

So everyone is up in arms about the 3rd-and-5 call at the end of the game. I have been vehemently against those who are against it. What’s ya’lls thoughts?

Joe Rowles
I didn’t like the call.

Jeff
Ah, a fight! Perfect!

Lol, jk.

Joe Mahoney
I think you run your best play in that situation. If Scang’s thinks that was our best play, who am I to disagree?

Joe Rowles
I’m nowhere near the play caller Scangarello will ever be, even if I like to think my Madden offense is pretty legit.

Jeff
That’s a good perspective. Even though I’m OK with the call, looking at it with that filter gives me pause. I definitely don’t think it was our best play. Darn-it, you’re swaying me with that take, Joe!

Joe Mahoney
PFR goes back to 1991. There have been 48 instances of a team in that exact situation (up by 1 or 2, two minutes or less to play, 3rd-and-5 or less). Run or pass, the team with the ball there is 43-5.

Joe Rowles
But I think you have to zag a little there. If you were going to run, and I think you probably had to if a 4th-down play was a possibility, you need to call a play that isn’t risking and stuff.

Joe Mahoney
Going ultra-conservative was still playing the odds the right way. Vic Fangio had a quote where he indicated they had planned to go for it on 4th down if the Broncos had gained 3 or 4 on the third-down run. But they gained nothing.

Jeff
That’s where I’m at with it. Maybe it’s objectively not the right call the majority of the time, but given the situation and all the factors, I think it was the right call.

Ya, Fangio said they were planning to go for it if it was only 1 or 2 yards away. Which signals aggression to me, just in a different way.

Joe Mahoney
My gut says you throw there. Preferably to Sutton, unless he’s doubled tightly. But that could have backfired terribly.

Joe Rowles
Honestly Sutton’s lack of action is a whole other complaint I had. But it’s hard to say if that was play calling or Flacco ‘til I see more.

My big gripe on the play call is you’re running off Leary/Wilkinson.

Joe Mahoney
Incomplete stops the clock and INDY still has a timeout

Jeff
What’s the box count, 6? That’s a solid call to me.

Joe Mahoney
Maybe 8 if you count the cornerbacks.

Joe Rowles
One of the Broncos’ best shotgun run calls if you’re going to run to the right is the HB Base call with Risner pulling to lead. I would have preferred that.

Jeff
I mean, I like getting an extra man essentially by bringing in Winfree to block inside of Fant. That’s a cool wrinkle.

Joe Rowles
Again, I’m picking nits here. Scangarello has studied this more than me. But I believe there’s a higher chance at success running in a situation where an opponent knows you will do so if you run behind your best player.

Heck, I knew they were going to run, so why not just go under center and let Risner and Jano lead the way?

Joe Mahoney
McGovern releases off the double team but is way too slow to get Leonard. Leary gets driven one yard deep - really killed the play.

Jeff
See, now we’re down into the execution of it, which is why it’s so hard to evaluate a play call separate from the results. If they block this up, and Lindsay gets the first or gets close and they go for it on 4th-and-inches, we’d be talking about how ballsy the staff is.

Joe Rowles
I wouldn’t have, but I may have been alone there. This last play call is the call that earned the narrative.

But, some of the calls previously were pretty iffy too. I didn’t like the Fant screen out of 4 X 1.

Jeff Essary
I’m just saying, every call looks like a bad one when it doesn’t work.

Joe Rowles
Oh I agree. It’s not a process versus result thing for me. I didn’t like the call itself because I don’t trust Leary and Wilk to consistently beat their man without help through scheme.

Jeff Essary
I liked the Fant screen when it scored a TD Scangarello shoulda called the touchdown version instead of the lose-yardage version. I’m giving you a hard time intentionally, but I hear you.

Joe Rowles
The Fant screen I didn’t like because screens tend to be a chance at a chunk play. When you’re on the outskirts of field goal range, do something that gives you a high probability at positive yardage.

Joe Rowles
The Colts were running a lot of man, but not necessarily sending a lot of extra rushers - i.e., not a situation where the screen is going to really bust someone.

Jeff Essary
Again, I think that goes to the coaching with your hands tied, or calling plays to protect your QB/OTs.

But you’re right, the beauty of the screen is calling it at just the right time, and it feels like Scangs hasn’t found that yet. Andy Reid is the master of it.

Joe Rowles
That screen is an area where the whole thing with Sutton really comes up in my mind - it would have been a good opportunity to go at No. 14 since he was isolated on the right if I remember correctly.

Joe Mahoney

They appeared to be doubling Sutton.

Jeff Essary

I think that’s the piece that’ll be interesting to see with Shanahan when I dig in. He and Scangarello are calling similar schemes and plays, but the beauty of Shanahan’s offense is the sequencing of those plays. Calling that play action or screen that looks just like your running play at just the right time. That’s the nuance and finesse that I feel like Scangarello is missing currently.

But it certainly isn’t something he can’t learn with more experience. The “fire Scangarello” talk is absolutely bonkers, in my opinion.

Joe Mahoney

The entire offensive line got driven back on that play.

Notice where the LOS is and where all of our blockers are. If we were trying to fool them by running, we failed.

Risner and McGovern are supposed to push the DT back so that McGovern can come off on the LB. Instead they both get driven a yard deep. That’s getting flat-out whipped.

Jeff Essary
Poor execution makes any playcaller look like garbage.

Joe Mahoney
Nevermind, it was a draw. The OL is stepping back to feign pass pro. That’s why there is no push. Hard to believe that was our best play, though.

Jeff Essary
Was that a draw? It didn’t look like it to me.

The only one pass blocking was Bolles; I think he may have just screwed up. Risner fired off the ball it looked like.

Joe Mahoney

No doubt it was a draw. Look at this still of the offensive line’s first steps.

Leary is pass setting. So is Bolles and Risner. Wilkinson is slow out of his stance, only McGovern looks to be run blocking. No one is firing off into the man as you would on a run play.

Jeff Essary
You know Oline better than I do, so I’ll trust you. It was a poorly executed draw if it was.

Joe Rowles
Only sort of related but damn if that had been a play action pop pass.

Joe Mahoney
You’re hoping for the LB to blitz there and take himself out of the play, which didn’t happen. Play-action there with a quick pass to the TE over the LBs would have been beautiful, if we had a TE with sure hands - a healthy TE with sure hands.

Draws don’t work when the D is expecting them, and they were expecting that. I’m convinced we have a tell somewhere on the OL or in the backfield on screen plays. They can’t be THAT bad, but over the last three or four games every screen has been blown up and either lost yardage or gained nothing.

Jeff Essary
Ya, they looked like they were trying to show pass as much as possible and catch the defense off guard.

Joe Rowles

The idea of sequencing brings up a question I’d love to ask....

Do you guys believe play callers can improve over time or is it an innate skill, a feel if you will?

Jeff Essary
I don’t think there is anything that’s just innate in someone. Excellence at anything is the product of a ton of trial and error and a sh!t ton of work, even if that work takes place behind the scenes to where it just looks “natural” to us plebeians.

That said, I think if you’re counting on anyone to grow this year, I’d bet on Scangarello. Which is why it’s crazy to me people are already ready to throw him overboard. He’s eight games into his first play calling gig ever. He’s got a ton of room to grow, particularly in that area

If he hadn’t shown promise in his designs and scheming guys open, etc, I wouldn’t be as optimistic, but the dudes putting some really good stuff on tape. If you’re just box score scouting, you miss it, though.

Joe Mahoney
I think it develops over time. There is a feel to it that I think Scang is still developing.

But like I said, he’s not working with a full set of pieces. We don’t have a deep threat that scares DCs right now (assuming Emmanuel Sanders was still scary). We don’t have a TE who is a vertical threat, or at least that has hands that scare DCs. We have two RBs who are good receivers but have had some drops this year.

I agree. If we had a moderately competent QB, we’d be a mediocre offense, instead of a terrible one. Scang is trying to make chicken salad out of chicken $%&* right now. That overthrow to Fant in the end zone is case in point - 25 out of 32 NFL QBs make that throw where the TE can catch it.

Flacco has regressed to the point where he can’t even do what he did well last season.

Joe Rowles
I think play calling is both art and science. The very best do have a sort of anticipation and sixth sense that really pushes them. Part of that comes from the prep and knowing what the opponent likes to use. Part of it is certainly trial, error, and growth though.

Kyle Shanahan blew a Super Bowl with the offense up 28-3. Sean McVay couldn’t score in last year’s championship. Andy Reid has taken a ton of heat for his situational play calling over the years. All three are among the very best play callers in the league. I would pay a media member to ask Fangio for his thoughts on it.

We went into this season with huge questions about everything on offense but the running backs. Fans forget that.

Now it’s your turn, Broncos Country - how much is play calling, how much is execution?

Poll

Who bears the majority of the blame for the offensive failures?

This poll is closed

  • 25%
    Offensive Line
    (180 votes)
  • 13%
    Quarterback
    (93 votes)
  • 3%
    Playcalling/Coaching
    (22 votes)
  • 36%
    Some combo but weighted towards execution
    (251 votes)
  • 6%
    Some combo but weighted towards playcalling
    (43 votes)
  • 15%
    Everyone sucks across the board equally
    (104 votes)
693 votes total Vote Now