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Denver’s offense is going under center in 2019 - and that’s a good thing

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John Elway has a vision for the offense that mirrors what some of the best offenses in football are doing.

Baltimore Ravens v Denver Broncos Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

John Elway caught some flack this past week after an interview where he described his vision for the Broncos offense.

When introducing Joe Flacco at the team’s introductory press conference for the new Denver quarterback, Elway said this about their approach: “we’ll try to run the football, play-action and throw the ball down the field.”

Seems harmless enough, and makes sense after the Broncos boasted a top five rushing offense in yards per carry last year, led by electric rookie, Philip Lindsay.

However, it was how the team planned to run the ball, play action, and throw the ball down the field that had Twitter and the media abuzz.

In an interview on NFL Network with James Palmer, John Elway stated that one of the things that was attractive to them about Joe Flacco was that he had played under center. Not only played under center, but played well under center while with Gary Kubiak as the Ravens offensive coordinator.

Elway then went on to say that evaluating some of the quarterbacks coming out of the draft is a little more difficult because most of them play from the shotgun and don’t do as much under center anymore.

Mike Klis on 1st & 10 at 10 on Orange and Blue 760 spoke to that as well on the show today (starting around the 6:30 mark). Klis confirmed that “his (Flacco’s) success with Kubiak is a big reason why he’s here,” and also his ability to operate the offense from under center.

While Flacco hasn’t been under center much over the last few years, his splits while under center under Gary Kubiak in 2014 are drastically better than his shotgun numbers.

Joe Flacco Shotgun/Under Center Splits - 2014

Snap Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD 1D Int Rate Sk Y/A
Snap Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD 1D Int Rate Sk Y/A
Shotgun 124 207 59.9 1462 8 73 4 86.3 14 7.1
Under Center 220 347 63.4 2524 19 121 8 93.9 5 7.3

(Data courtesy of profootballreference.com)

So naturally, the tweets and takes began pouring in from across the web about how Elway was stuck in the 1980s, and the majority of the league plays in shotgun now, and “doesn’t Elway know what year it is?”

I mean what is Elway thinking? Who runs an offense from under center anymore in 2019?

No seriously, who actually does run their offense from under center? I’m so glad you asked.

Here are the teams that ran the most plays from under center in 2018. (Data courtesy of SharpFootballStats.com)

Los Angeles Rams - 63%

San Francisco 49ers - 56%

New England Patriots - 55%

New Orleans Saints - 51%

Atlanta Falcons - 50%

Now, I’m not quite sure, but aren’t the head coaches from those first two teams considered two of the most brilliant young offensive minds in football today. Two of the teams on that list just played for the Super Bowl, and the Saints were a blown call from getting there themselves.

Does this mean that running your offense from under center is the only way to go or guarantees success? Absolutely not. Kansas City ran shotgun for whopping 80% of their plays and set the league on fire, so there are definitely plenty of ways to have an innovative, successful offense.

The point is, Elway is following a model that has worked in the past under Mike Shanahan and Gary Kubiak, and continues to work in the modern NFL with some adaptions; which is where new offensive coordinator, Rich Scangarello comes in.

When he was hired, Scangarello was asked about the balance between being under center or in shotgun as an offense.

“It’s interesting you say that because I think the offense requires both. No question. Wheat we do in our play pass, in our keeper. How we tie things together and what we do the first and second down offense. That’s generated under center, predominantly. And then again, you have to adapt to the type of quarterback that you have. Sometimes that puts you in the shotgun more. [49ers QB] Jimmy [Garoppolo], it was early in his career, he wasn’t under center a lot. So, early on, we felt it was easier to maybe put him in the gun. That’s our job, to put players in the situation to do what they do best. But I’d hope that it would be balanced.”

In addition to balance, he also talked about innovation and evolution of the offense.

“Kind of what we were talking about with evolving as an offense. Staying ahead in this league. I think you’ve seen it with the misdirection. A big thing that’s in vogue is the fly sweep and the action that comes off of it. Creating different ways to attack a defense and with that can come innovative ways to run the ball as well. That doesn’t always mean run outside zone. That could mean run different types of schemes. I think it’s the same in the pass game and the variety of protections that you have to handle what you’re going to see in and out with defensive coordinators in this league. I’m excited to take on that challenge. But that, to me, is how you stay ahead, and you’re innovative and balanced. Keep people off balance and doing a good job of hiding your tendencies.”

This is exactly what guys like Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay are doing right now in this league; but they are using principles that are older than they are.

The link above is an amazing article from The Ringer that I can’t recommend highly enough. It details the importance of the play action pass, the evolution of the under center, play action, bootleg passing game, and how guys like McVay and Kyle Shanahan are using these concepts that some would laugh off as “archaic”, and are taking the league by storm with them.

Stay tuned over the next few weeks and months as I’ll be doing a deep dive into what this offense could look like, but for now, don’t buy the group think and the myth that playing under center can’t be successful in today’s NFL.

Some of the top offenses in the league are proving that to be untrue. Hopefully, Denver will too.