What the Backfield Could Look Like
When the Bronco's disastrous 2008 campaign came to an abrupt halt in the team's season finale against the Chargers, this may have marked the end of the Bronco's regular season, but this was just the beginning of a new season to look to and one they would hope to soon forget.
2008 was filled with many ups and downs and lots of misfortune for the Bronco's backfield. This past season saw not just a couple of backs go down to injury, but seven running backs in the Denver lineup wound up on the team's injured reserve by seasons' end.
When the season began 19 weeks ago, the Broncos would open the new campaign featuring their own version of the three-headed Running-Back-By-Committee monster with Selvin Young, Andre Hall, and Michael Pittman.
The three would work in tandem and rotation that not only frustrated the fantasy football world, but often at times confused and frustrated Bronco fans.
It was a work in progress that had some success but not a whole lot of luck. The problem became apparent right away when both Young (groin) and Hall (wrist) displayed durability issues going down with injuries in Week 5 forcing the team to scramble for needed help.
For a short duration Pittman had his short at center stage, but like his predecessors, he too showed his vulnerability falling victim to a neck injury in Week Seven.
By Week 10, rookie running back Ryan Torain would get his turn, but as luck would play its' nasty hand, Torain would suffer a season ending torn ACL in his brief and only start of the season.
Through all the turmoil and turbulence that comes from playing a 16-game schedule in the NFL, the Broncos turned to two unlikely candidates to carry the load and continue the fight in 2008, rookie fullback Peyton Hillis and an outcast from Detroit (Tatum Bell).
In fairness to Bell, I was never fully disclosed of all the details relating to his incident involving his release and Rudi Johnson's arrival in Detroit, but it's safe to say his making the news was a bit of a dubious honor.
Hillis was a seventh-round draft pick out of Arkansas and signed to the team to play full-back. He spent the first half of the season laying blocks for the other running backs, but in Week 11 He got his twirl at the head of the class and quickly made his impact. Something the team will hope to see more of in 2009.
His light would only shine a few short weeks as a torn hamstring in Week 14 would send him to the showers early.
Bell was sort of an enigma. Cast aside by the Lions before the start of the season, Bell was selling cell phones when the Broncos came calling. He rejoined the team following Week 10, a desperate move by a desperate team, but one that made some sense.
This was Bell's second stint with the team, so he was completely familiar with system and understood its' terminology. In 2005 and 2006 combined Bell has rushed for nearly 2,000-yards, so he seemed like a good prospect that the Broncos hoped could prove to be productive once again.
Bell didn't see a lot of action early in his return with the team and down the stretch (in Week 14) he would only top 10 carries in a single game just once. Bell had his best game of his short season with Denver in the team's finale, rushing for 86-yards and catching four passes for 31-yards.
While the 2008 season finished in disappointing fashion, there were signs of hope for the Bronco's rushing offense in 2009. Through the laundry list of injuries to the team's running back position, it seems next year will offer a wide open competition with a wide range of options to consider.
Hillis and Bell did not get long looks at the featured position this season, but out of the mess that was the Bronco's backfield in 2008, these two were perhaps the most productive during their short stints.
Hillis finished as the team's leading rusher with 343-yards (the lowest total in team history), and Bell finished the season with a strong two touchdown performance against the Chargers.
When camp opens in 2009, it would not surprise to see the team bring back many of the same faces that frequented the backfield this past season. The two leading front-runners would appear to be Hillis and Bell. Both were productive and if the current system remains in tact, each would seem to have a well defined role.
Hillis, with his 5.0-yards per carry average, was impressive during his run as a hard-nose, between-the-tackles ball carrier who could find the extra yards. The former Razorback had a real nose for the end zone, scoring six times in his last six games. He's an obvious choice to assume the short-yardage and goal-line duties once he's healthy.
Much like he did in 2005 and 2006 when he shared the backfield, Bell has the capability of the being that change of pace runner, who can take to the house. During his first tenure with Denver (from 2004-2006), Bell had 19 runs for 20-yards or more in 481 carries (one every 25 carries). In just 44 totes this season, he's managed three runs of 20-yards or more.
Selvin Young suffered a ruptured disk in his neck toward the end of the season and is waiting to see if surgery is required to repair. He was considered a durability liability when the season began, but when healthy could be a consideration for the same role as Bell with his speed.
There's no question Young's injury proned 2008 season makes him a big question mark for 2009.
With both Bell (if he is re-signed) and Hillis likely to return in 2009, and the possibility of Young figuring into the mix, it's hard to imagine the Broncos would bring back Pittman (UFA) at age 33 or Andre Hall.
Although Pittman did rush for over 100-yards in his only start this past season, he did little else to make much of a case for his return. Hall's contributions were even less and his two fumbles in just 35 carries may have sealed his fate as a Bronco.
Ryan Torain is likely the most intriguing option of all Denver's backs. The Bronco's rookie did not have much of a stint in the team's backfield. He missed the first eight games of the season with an elbow injury and in the two games he did play in he only had 15 touches.
Torain was highly heralded leading up to his debut in Week Nine, but he was also considered a (former head coach) Mike Shanahan favorite. Now that Shanny is no longer, coming off a torn ACL, Torain will be another big question in the team's 2009 training camp.
There were other backs the donned a Bronco jersey that could return next season: P.J. Pope and Anthony Aldridge. Unfortunately for these two, neither saw any significant time and the only shot they have at making an impact in 2009 is likely as a backup or on the practice squad.
If the season were to start tomorrow and all current options to be considered were healthy, Hillis would be the leading candidate to assume the task as the team's featured back. Bell would appear to have a good shot at the No. 1 backup, looking for the eight to 10 carry role. Following the tradition of the team's current system, Young could possibly fit in as a third down pass-receiving option.
A draft pick and Torain (if he's able to come back strong) would fill in as the needed depth. Torain, who appeared to have so much promise, would be kept under close watch. Shanahan has a proven record, so you have to give him the benefit of the doubt on this one.
Certainly there won't be any shortage of options available in Denver in 2009. The good thing for Mile High fans, the Broncos are loaded with a lot of young talent. Minus an aging Pittman, Bell with five years of experience could be considered the team's new senior citizen at running back.
With all of these backs returning from injury though, it will only be prudent for the team to consider outside options as well. Names to look for in the off season are unrestricted free agents: Steven Jackson, Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward, and Fred Jackson.
While the free agent market could be a costly stretch for a team in dire need of help on the defensive side of the ball, fortunately it is not the only place to go searching. The Bronco's will likely expend their first couple of draft picks on defensive talent, but could look to the later rounds to fill the offensive backfield cupboard with more depth and possible long-term options.
With the prospect of a new head coach and possibly a new offensive system next season there will be many questions to answer. Until team owner Pat Bowlen finds a suitable replacement for Shanahan, the Bronco's backfield will remain a puzzlement for sports geeks and fans alike to ponder.
By David G. Ortega