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The Good, the Bad, and the Elway: New GM, who dis?

Why didn’t the Broncos run more play action? What does their candidate list say about the GM search?

Denver Broncos v New York Jets Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

It’s been quite the year this week in Broncos Country. Vic Fangio and the 2020 Broncos couldn’t beat the Las Vegas Raiders and fell to fourth place in the AFC West. John Elway is done as general manager, but will stick around to hire his underling? replacement. Joe Ellis won’t seek an extension, which only creates a ton of questions about who will lead the Broncos in 2022 and beyond. Is it going to be the new GM? Will the Broncos be sold?

What follows is my first attempt at working through all the questions I have, as well as a few tape notes.

Offense

In many ways, the Raiders were the perfect opponent for Drew Lock to end his second season with. It was the third crack Lock had at them, so he should have been quite familiar with the matchups, tendencies, and any potential tells. It was in Vegas Lock and the Broncos offense had their worst “real” game of the year. No offense to Kendall Hinton, but I doubt I’ll watch the Saints game again. Twice is enough.

Leading up to the rematch, I went back over the Broncos meltdown in week 10 and couldn’t help but notice how much the offense evolved since. Throwing four picks to one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL will do that. What stuck out to me in the season finale is how the Pat Shurmur’s offense never really grew to where it needed to conceptually. All the normal caveats apply, of course: injuries, Covid, young players, yada yada. We still ought to talk about it.

If you’re an NBA fan, you’ll know that basketball today has changed dramatically because of the three point revolution. Analytics and players like Stephen Curry changed the way teams approach offense away from iso ball towards a space and pace. It’s impossible to ignore when you look at Kirk Goldsberry’s shot charts.

As a casual NBA fan who has watched this occur in real time, I always wondered what the NFL’s “three pointer” was. It’s became clear right around 2014 that play action is the closest comparison and the smart teams are embracing it to devastating effect.

So why aren’t the Broncos? Mile High Report’s Joe Mahoney dug into the numbers this week and found Drew Lock was one of the eight best quarterbacks in football off run fakes in 2020. Outside of Deshaun Watson, he also ran it less than any other quarterback who excelled at it. I know he missed three games, but Lock threw off play action just seven times a game.

What makes this even more bewildering is the Broncos ran a very conservative offense to protect Lock, who was consistently among the worst passers in football without play action. They ran the ball 49.1% of the time on first and second down this year, which ranked ninth in the league. It should have been pretty easy to sell a Melvin Gordon carry.

By my count, the Broncos ran play action 13 times against the Raiders. Only three of them did not call for Drew Lock to roll out of the pocket.

Down seven in the early third and facing 1st and 10 at midfield, Shurmur calls for 12 personnel. On the snap Lock fakes the handoff to Melvin Gordon going left and fakes back towards the right. He’s looking for DaeSean Hamilton who’s caught the attention of three different Raider defenders. All told, I thought Lock tried to make the best of a bad situation.

What stood out to me about this play when I came across it is that the Broncos had tried to roll Lock out four times to this point. All but one attempt came out of personnel groupings Shurmur has called more runs than passed on this year (12 and 22). On the first such call of the game, Lock hit Jeudy out of 12 personnel with the tight ends starting out on the backside of the play. On both of the incompletions, the Broncos lined up in heavy personnel with the strength of the formation towards the right. Both times, Maxx Crosby was quick to get upfield and chase the quarterback. Facing 2nd and 6 later in the third quarter, it happens again.

By the time the Broncos dialed up another rollout, there was a minute left in the third quarter and the score was within one. Facing 2nd and 11, Denver lined up in 11 personnel with DaeSean Hamilton in a nasty split beside Noah Fant. Since they were down Tim Patrick and Tyree Cleveland, they were relying on Diontae Spencer to play significant minutes on offense. Credit to Shurmur, he found a way to maximize the return specialist.

The Broncos only called traditional drop back play action passes three times: the goal line touchdown to a wide open Troy Fumagalli, a two-point conversion where Lock hit Jerry Jeudy, and a 13-yard pass to Melvin Gordon. Once time allows, it could be informative to pore over all of Lock’s dropbacks. Without it, I’m left with notes and memories. I do suspect Lock’s drop back play action numbers are closer to his “true” passing numbers than what he does on rollouts.

Defense

During the Broncos loss to the Chargers, Fangio benched DaVante Bausby for Parnell Motley. It gave the rookie a chance to survive a couple Justin Herbert heaters into the endzone as well as time to make a mistake on a drop in coverage. All told, I thought he looked good enough that it’d make sense to give him reps in a meaningless week 17 contest. When it became clear he would start and play the whole game, I knew the Broncos secondary was going to get lit up like a Christmas tree. This isn’t meant as an indictment of Michael Ojemudia, Will Parks, or Motley so much as it’s a statement of fact. Derek Carr had 13 different completions go for 10 or more yards, including a 57-yard bomb.

The injury bug didn’t take a bite out of the Broncos’ defense. It planted stakes, built a house, invited friends, and then they gnawed through each level. On one hand, this created a huge opportunity for young players to stand out with larger roles. On the other, it’s unrealistic to expect anything more than a significant falloff. Weeks after signing the rookie Motley, he was inserted into the starting lineup. This led to communication errors on top of the issues you’d expect when someone like Derrek Tuszka plays more snaps. Feel free to disagree, but I consider it difficult to make any sweeping judgements of Vic Fangio and the coaching staff when they had to try and plug so many holes.

Looking ahead to 2021 and beyond

By the time you’re reading this, we may already know who will step into John Elway’s old role. Don’t forget it was right around this time last year the Broncos made a complete swap at offensive coordinator in the time it took Houston to collapse against the Chiefs. It currently looks like the Broncos will choose between one of five candidates to be their next general manager.

  • Champ Kelly - Bears assistant director of player personnel
  • Dave Ziegler - Patriots director of player personnel
  • George Paton - Vikings assistant GM
  • Terry Fontenot - Saints director of pro scouting
  • Brian Stark - Broncos director of college scouting

In recent days, 9News’ Mike Klis has said Kelly and Paton are considered the favorites for the position. He also said the Broncos had an initial list of 30 candidates only to cut it down to the five above. Of those five, only Terry Fontenot does not appear to have a clear tie or work history with the Broncos. So while Elway and Ellis’ season ending press conferences suggested to fans they’d cast a wide net, the current list hints how the front office already knew where they were going.

Your Broncos’ News

Ownership looms over the Denver Broncos General Manager search - Mile High Report

Who will the new boss really answer to if John Elway and Joe Ellis are gone?

Owner, GM, QB all up in the air for 2021 Denver Broncos - Mile High Report

That’s not really the easiest way to start the offseason.

Mike Klis says that all indications point to Vikings assistant GM George Paton to being the front runner for the Broncos GM job - Mile High Report

Is Paton the man to beat in Denver?

How can the Denver Broncos rebuild their defense in the 2021 NFL Draft? - Mile High Report

Which defenders makes the most sense?

Denver Broncos: Drew Lock was elite on playaction passes in 2020 - Mile High Report

So now we get to the question - why did Pat Shurmur not call more PA throws for Lock?

Should the Broncos call about Deshaun Watson? - Mile High Report

Mile High Report weighs in

5 Best Fits For Potential Deshaun Watson Trade | The Draft Network

The Drew Lock experience has been just OK, to put it nicely. The 2019 second-round pick has shown flashes of being a quality NFL starter, but the inconsistencies and accuracy issues that haunted him at Mizzou have been a major issue in the NFL. Denver has struggled to find a long-term franchise quarterback really since John Elway retired in 1998. Sure, the team had some success with Jake Plummer and had a historic run with Peyton Manning for a few seasons, but the team has yet to have a young franchise difference-maker in 20-plus years. Watson could solve all of Denver’s quarterback problems and then some. Adding Watson to an offense that has Melvin Gordon and Philip Lindsay in the backfield, Cortland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy on the outside, along with Noah Fant at tight end, would be ridiculous. A division that could consist of Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, and Deshaun Watson would be a dream come true for football fans (and a nightmare for Jon Gruden and the Las Vegas Raiders).

NFL News

Deshaun Watson Reportedly Advocates for Chiefs OC Eric Bieniemy to Be Texans HC | Bleacher Report | Latest News, Videos and Highlights

From October - Eric Bieniemy will reportedly be the Houston Texans’ next head coach if Deshaun Watson gets his choice.

Deshaun Watson Reportedly Advocates for Chiefs OC Eric Bieniemy to Be Texans HC | Bleacher Report | Latest News, Videos and Highlights

From October - Eric Bieniemy will reportedly be the Houston Texans’ next head coach if Deshaun Watson gets his choice.

Nick Caserio on Deshaun Watson: He’s our quarterback - ProFootballTalk

Caserio said “the respect and admiration” he has for Watson is “significant” and referred to Watson as “our quarterback.” A followup asked if that meant Watson will not be traded, Caserio said it is “important for us to take some time” and that they would have discussions with Watson at an “appropriate” time.

Texans owner Cal McNair followed that up by saying that Watson and defensive end J.J. Watt are “valued members” of the team whose goals are in alignment with those of the organization.

Neither of those answers involved banging on the table to say that there won’t be a trade involving Watson, so there will be some eyes on the situation in Houston in the coming days.

Matt Eberflus turns down offer to interview for Texans head coach - ProFootballTalk

Although no reason has been given for why Eberflus turned the Texans down, it raises the question of whether he’s leery of the issues going on in Houston, where many people around the league have concerns about the direction the franchise has gone in since Jack Easterby, the team’s executive vice president of football operations, got owner Cal McNair’s ear.

Browns will practice on Friday afternoon - ProFootballTalk

Stefanski will not be back for Sunday night’s game in Pittsburgh. Left guard Joel Bitonio, tight end Harrison Bryant, safety Ronnie Harrison, wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge, cornerback Kevin Johnson, linebacker Malcolm Smith, and cornerback Denzel Ward remain on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

Earl Thomas’ splits with Seahawks, Ravens — What happened? – The Athletic

His NFL career might be over, and while more than a dozen former teammates, coaches and other league sources told The Athletic they saw signs of Thomas’ descent from All-Pro to unsigned free agent, its speed was breathtaking. “It’s just crazy,” a former teammate said. “Everything happened with him real fast. That downfall happened real fast.”

Seven Burning Questions Entering the NFL Playoffs - The Ringer

This year’s playoff bracket has expanded from 12 to 14 teams, as two of the four first-round byes were eliminated so that the league could have six wild-card weekend games instead of four.

Saints GM: Whether Drew Brees returns in 2021 is entirely up to him - ProFootballTalk

“When you have a quarterback that’s — I don’t like to say at his age, because that doesn’t sound right, but it’s true — it’s been year to year for him for a while. It’s up to him each year to determine: ‘Do I want to play next year or not?’ We give him his space, we give him time at the end of the season to determine that, and we’ll see what happens next year. I’m not counting him out. It’s going to be entirely up to him,” Loomis said.