Over the course of this long, miserable offseason, I’ve occasionally indulged in checking out various rankings articles, team projections, fantasy football forecasts, and various and sundry other bits of offseason filler. Many of you probably do the same. But as I did, something kept jumping out at me: An assumption, repeated time and again no matter the name on the byline, that just seemed... wrong.
First, I’ve got to hand it to “neutral” or national analysts. Those men and women put a ton of work into evaluating and covering literally thousands of players every year. They’re spreading themselves out over 32 teams, 32 front offices, 32 head coaches, 96 coordinators, over 300 games of film, and a legion of other factors that are in play. Given the sheer amount of content to digest, the insights that they do bring are admirable.
But it’s also pretty much impossible for such analysts to really know individual teams very well. Assumptions get made, based on prior observations of players, coaches, and teams, and then those assumptions get repeated. Sometimes, they become narratives.
The thing is, sometimes they’re wrong.
The assumption that’s bugging me? That the Denver Broncos will feature a conservative, run-heavy offense in 2020.
It’s not an assumption without any supporting evidence, of course. It’s mainly driven by the idea that Vic Fangio comes from a defensive coaching background, and defense-minded head coaches usually prefer conservative, complimentary-ball offenses. There’s a reason for that stereotype- it’s often true. And a few analysts go a step further and point out that the Broncos only passed 57.13% of the time in 2019, only the 24th highest rate in the NFL. Some also point to the signing of Melvin Gordon, a well known power rusher, as supporting evidence. More on that later.
I think there are some major flaws in that analysis. Let’s walk through the counter-points:
On the Other Hand
The Broncos’ head coach, despite his defensive background, has gone on record multiple times stating that he wants an offense that puts stress on opposing defenses. Don’t believe me? Here it is, straight from the man himself, after hiring Pat Shurmur back in early February, “Contrary to the stereotype that’s always out there, you know, defensive head coach, you know, wants to ground and pound, considers the pitch to the halfback a pass — that’s not me. I like to be aggressive.”
That’s easy to say, but requires some doing to back it up. Fangio showed some of that last year in several instances.
Faced with a decision on what to do after Emmanuel Sanders hauled in a Joe Flacco pass to make the score 12-13 against the Chicago Bears last September, Fangio made the very un-conservative call to go for two- and it should have won the Broncos the game. “Analytics [are] good and stats are good,” Fangio said of the decision, “But you just have to go with your gut sometimes. My gut told me to go for two there.”
One might also point to the late-season controversy last year, when Fangio overrode OC Rich Scangarello’s call to take a knee and attempt a historically long field goal. Fangio wanted to take a deep shot instead. And the resulting DPI against the Chargers set the Broncos up with a significantly better shot at what became the game-winning field goal.
The apparent difference in risk appetite behind that little scene came to fruition in the offseason, leading to the next point:
Let’s talk about that 57.13% passing percentage. Yep, 24th is a pretty low ranking. It’s barely out of the bottom quarter of the league, in fact. It also belongs to former offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello, now an offensive assistant for the Eagles. He’s been replaced- replaced specifically because his play-calling was too conservative. So why is the 2020 offense being judged on his 2019 scheme?
Now let’s talk about his replacement. Pat Shurmur spent the last two seasons as the head coach of the New York Giants. In 2018, his Giants passed on 64.02% of their plays, the 5th highest rate in the NFL. In 2019, they passed on 64.23% of their plays, the 2nd highest rate in the league last year.
Mind you, this is the team (and coach) that drafted Saquon Barkley 2nd overall in 2018. If Barkley’s presence didn’t prevent Shurmur from calling a pass-heavy offense, do you really think Melvin Gordon’s will?
Vic Fangio wanted a faster, higher volume passing game, and he proved it by hiring a coordinator who brings exactly that offense with him- no matter the RB.
Jerry Jeudy & KJ Hamler
Do you know how hard it was to not make the title of this section a pun about Judge Jeudy slamming down the Hamler?
Well, I guess I have now. Regardless- it’s at least as hard to imagine selecting the 2019 NFL Draft’s best overall wide receiver 15th overall, and then taking a deep-threat speedster wide receiver 46th, and already having Courtland Sutton and Noah Fant and then NOT running an up-tempo, pass-heavy offense with them.
Seriously. If nothing else, this should have made national analysts sit up and pay attention. You don’t invest that kind of draft capital in high quality wide receivers if you’re going to turn around and operate a run-centric offense. The fact that 4th round tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, himself a standout for his speed and red zone prowess, is a relative afterthought in that setup only drives the nail in deeper.
You’ve got to love a sword that cuts both ways, right?
Melvin Gordon is absolutely the kind of back you’d want to bring in if you want to run right over teams, especially in short yardage situations. That’s an easy line of logic to follow.
But he’s also one of the more dependable check-down receiving backs in the NFL. And that’s something the Broncos were specifically looking for after a wrist injury limited Phillip Lindsay in that regard last year. It doesn’t hurt that his ability to power a run up the middle will help keep defenses honest by punishing them for running particularly DB-heavy looks.
Gordon’s kind of a neutral factor when you sum up what he brings. He helps with a run-heavy narrative, but helps with a pass-heavy narrative quite a bit too. Throw in Lindsay’s efforts in camp to show that he can catch just as well, and RB is looking pretty dynamic.
Sum It All Up
You’ve got a young, confident QB with a lot of ability to make plays downfield, particularly when the play breaks down and its time to improvise.
You’ve got an offensive coordinator who wants to pass early and often, even when he’s got premier talent at RB on the roster.
You’ve got an incredibly talented, if young, WR group specifically designed to stress defenses in multiple ways simultaneously.
You’ve got even more track stars at TE, in case you’ve gotta go even faster, bringing an additional element of physical mismatch and huge catch radius's into play.
You’ve got multiple RBs who not only complement each others’ skillsets, but both of whom can catch reliably out of the backfield.
Exactly what part of this offense really looks like its built to grind out games down on the turf?
Maybe I’m crazy. Maybe I’m wrong.
But maybe the Denver Broncos offense will pass 50-80 more times in 2020 than it did in 2019. Maybe it will be top 10 in the NFL this year in passing percentage. Maybe guys like Jerry Jeudy and Noah Fant, currently getting dinged in fantasy football analysis as guys who will suffer from a lack of targets amid a crowded receiving group in a conservative offense, will blow past shortsighted expectations and help win a few leagues.
I don’t know if it will happen. But I certainly think it can. And I think there’s a ton of evidence that points at the Broncos at least attempting it. What do you think?
Where will the Broncos pass percentage end up in 2020?
This poll is closed
Low End: 45% - 55%
Middle of the Pack: 56% - 61%
High End: 62% - 67%