Balancing Act: Peyton Manning and the NFL's Most Run-Heavy Offense in Denver
In the 1995 film Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, Christopher Walken played a character known as “The Man with the Plan,” a big-time crime boss.
For 13 seasons in Indianapolis, Peyton Manning was the boss, the man with the plan for the Colts’ offense. You knew year after year what you were going to get from that offense, which played to Manning’s strengths with the no-huddle and calling his own shots at the line.
When the Colts had an effective running game, he knew when to use it, but it was still a pass-first mindset. A record 11 seasons with at least 4,000 yards passing can attest to that.
But what will happen when the 36-year-old quarterback returns in an offense that was the most run-oriented in the league in 2011? Denver ran the ball on a league-high 53.7 percent of their plays last season.
Only one Manning-led offense has even gone over 45.0 percent on the ground, and that was in 2005 (46.5 percent), the last time Manning did not throw for over 4,000 yards. He, of course, sat out about seven quarters in the season’s final two games.
Denver hopes to have him for all 16 games this year (and beyond), but what kind of Manning can they realistically expect to have?
Adjustment will be the key word. A quarterback looks to adjust to a new surrounding after not playing a NFL game since January 8, 2011, while the team must adjust from the run-heavy Tim Tebow offense to something more…modern.
This is a meshing of polar opposites in offensive philosophy, though both parties had to know this when they signed the big contract together in March. Perhaps they are just hoping to meet halfway, which means balance.
The Manning with the plan must have something new in mind, because neither he nor the Broncos can rely on past success.
History of the Most Run-Heavy Offenses
A team can lead the league in carries, but that does not mean they are the most run-heavy offense. Teams do not run the same number of plays, so it comes back to percentages. The most run-heavy offense is defined here as the team with the highest run ratio, which is simply the percentage of total plays that were runs.
Run/pass ratios are always a tad misleading, as scrambling quarterbacks will turn designed passes into carries, and those pesky kneel downs are always there to distort the numbers as well. When in doubt, assume the pass ratio is actually higher than the numbers suggest.
With that out of the way, I looked at the 42 teams since the 1970 merger that led the league with the highest run ratio each season, which can also be considered the lowest pass ratio.
Then I compared these 41 teams (1970-2010) to what they did the following year offensively to see if it was realistic to turn into an efficient, high-volume passing offense in just one year. Let’s call these the “next-year” teams.
The results of the 41 teams do not bode well for Manning turning Denver into the AFC West version of Indianapolis in 2012. There is a decline in completion percentage (though marginal), yards per attempt, touchdown percentage and passer rating. Only the interception percentage improved.
The run-heavy offenses threw the ball 6.25 percent more often the following year. On average, they moved down 7.4 spots in terms of run ratio ranking (so about 8.4 in the league).
They also won fewer games the following year, dropping an average of 1.33 wins. Three run-heavy teams won a Super Bowl, while the 35 unique next-year teams never even made it to the big game.
Peyton Manning is known to give you at least 4,000 yards and 26 touchdown passes a season. The only two next-year teams to throw for 4,000 yards were the 2002 and 2006 versions of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The 2002 team moved from Kordell Stewart to one-year wonder Tommy Maddox, while the 2006 team saw Ben Roethlisberger struggle with injuries and interceptions. Both teams only grossed 4,000 yards passing collectively, rather than individually.
Only the 2002 Steelers (4,036 yards, 26 TD) hit both passing milestones. The only other team out of the 41 to even throw at least 24 touchdowns was the 1975 Buffalo Bills. They had 28 as the league’s highest scoring team.
While Manning is known for his volume, he’s a four-time MVP because of his efficiency. The Broncos would gladly sacrifice some yards and touchdowns through the air for more points on the board under Manning’s guidance.
Manning had eight straight seasons with a passer rating of at least 91.9, which is higher than any Denver quarterback since Brian Griese in 2000 (102.9). To be successful in 2012, Denver would like to see at least a 90.0 from Manning. That puts him in the above league-average territory.
But that type of passing efficiency is also rarely seen from our ground-loving next-year teams. Out of 41 teams, only nine teams were above 80.0, and only the 1990 Chiefs (94.9) and 1995 Colts (91.1) had a team passer rating over 90.0.
In both cases, that was a veteran quarterback having a career year.
The Chiefs led the league in run ratio in 1989, which was Marty Schottenheimer’s first season as head coach there. Steve DeBerg threw an interception on 4.9 percent of his passes that year, but he threw just four total in 1990 (0.9 percent) for Kansas City. It was the best season of his long career, and the Chiefs were still running it 51.7 percent of the time (25th in pass ratio).
In Indianapolis, Jim Harbaugh was once again on the league’s most run-heavy offense, but he led the league in 1995 in passer rating (100.7), lowest interception percentage (1.6 percent) and yards per attempt (8.20).
Before dooming the 2012 Broncos, let’s get to know some of our run-heavy offenses in better detail.
The Repeat Runners
There were six total incidents of five teams repeating as the league’s run ratio leader:
With O.J. Simpson and rookie quarterback Joe Ferguson, the 1973-74 Buffalo Bills ran the ball at record rates under Lou Saban. In 1973, it was 71.3 percent of the time, which is the highest of any team since 1970.
A year later Ferguson averaged a few more passes, the run ratio dropped to 65.7 percent, which still led the league and is the ninth highest since 1970. In 1975, Buffalo had the league’s No. 1 offense, but a bad defense kept them at 8-6.
Mike Ditka’s 1984-86 Chicago Bears led the league in run ratio in three straight seasons. The 1985 Super Bowl-winning team actually had the lowest ratio of the three at 56.2 percent. That was the only season of the three where the Bears did not have to start four or five different quarterbacks.
In Walter Payton’s final season in 1987, the Bears fell to 16th in run ratio but still went 11-4. They still started four quarterbacks too.
Before there was Peyton Manning, the 1994-95 Indianapolis Colts brought in Jim Harbaugh and the league’s most run-heavy offense, which helped Marshall Faulk and Ted Marchibroda’s team to an AFC Championship appearance in 1995.
The following year they put the ball in Harbaugh’s hands more, ranking 21st in run ratio, but he failed to repeat his success, and the Colts averaged just 3.45 yards per carry.
As Tony Dungy found success as a head coach, he did it with the 1998-99 Tampa Bay Buccaneers by feeding the ball to young backs Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott.
Trent Dilfer made 26 of the 32 starts in these seasons, but it was rookie Shaun King behind center late in the 1999 season and through the playoffs. King started every game in 2000, and the Buccaneers were still running over half the time. They ranked No. 4 in run ratio in 2000.
Bill Cowher’s 2004-05 Pittsburgh Steelers did a great job of utilizing the young Ben Roethlisberger’s vertical passing game to get an early lead, and no one puts a team away on the ground like Cowher did in Pittsburgh.
It led to a Super Bowl championship and makes the 2005 Steelers just one of three teams to lead the league in run ratio and win a Super Bowl (1985 Chicago Bears, 1991 Washington Redskins). The title defense was not successful, as the Steelers threw the ball 12.14 percent more often in 2006 but had 23 interceptions and 49 sacks.
Two Extreme Cases
No run ratio leader flipped their philosophy in one season more than the 1988-89 New England Patriots under coach Raymond Berry.
In 1988, the Patriots started four different quarterbacks, had a 50.0 cumulative passer rating and still went 9-7. Good thing they only let them throw 389 passes.
The Patriots ran the ball 58.8 percent of the time, and Doug Flutie started nine of the games at quarterback. Their 588 team carries led the league.
A year later, the team again started four quarterbacks, but this time it was 36-year-old Steve Grogan getting a team-high six starts. The team passer rating only increased to 61.3, but this team went 5-11.
This all-too-familiar stable of bad quarterbacks combined to throw a league-high 610 passes this season, and their 485 carries put them right in the middle of the league (14th).
The run ratio falling to 43.0 percent in 1989 represents the biggest decrease (15.8 percent) out of any team in the study.
No run ratio leader experienced a bigger one-year shift in ranking towards the pass than the 2006-07 Atlanta Falcons. They went from 46.3 percent pass ratio to a 61.0 percent in 2007. The 14.7 percent increase is the second largest for any team in the study. Their fall from No. 1 in run ratio to 28th is easily the biggest drop.
But when you get rid of Mora and offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, and Vick is out of the league in light of the dog fighting participation, you have a whole new offense with snake—or coach—Bobby Petrino in 2007.
Before giving up on the Falcons late in the season, Petrino did bring a passing game to Atlanta that at least saw major production out of third-year receiver Roddy White (1,202 yards). Don’t say Petrino never did anything good for you, Falcons fans. The bad 4-12 season also led to the acquisitions of coach Mike Smith and Matt Ryan in the draft.
Chris Redman did a decent job in 2007, posting a 90.4 passer rating with four starts. The Falcons’ stable of quarterbacks also included Joey Harrington and Byron Leftwich, so maybe their collective efforts of 3,573 yards, 18 TD and a 78.9 passer rating do not look so bad.
Without Vick, the running game was lost, only ranking 29th in carries, 26th in yards, and 20th in yards per carry.
Here are the summaries of the other teams not mentioned already.
2003-04 and 2008-09 Baltimore Ravens: Twice, the Baltimore Ravens (2003-04 with Kyle Boller, 2008-09 with Joe Flacco) eased in their rookie quarterback with a run-heavy offense, only to drop to the 7-8 range the following year.
1972-73 Chicago Bears: Bobby Douglass, the 1970s version of Tim Tebow, ran the ball a QB-record 141 times in 1972 and stuck around in Chicago in 1973 with another 94 carries.
1983-84 Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts: The Colts changed cities, but not primary quarterbacks (Mike Pagel) or head coach (Frank Kush). Twelve touchdowns and 22 interceptions in 1983 became 13 touchdowns and 23 interceptions in 1984.
1970-71 Detroit Lions: A great team statistically in 1970, Joe Schmidt’s Lions split QB duties between Greg Landry and Bill Munson. Landry, the better passer, started all 14 games in 1971 and made the Pro Bowl, though the team missed the playoffs.
1971-72 Green Bay Packers: The Packers had Bart Starr in his final season in 1971, and rookie Scott Hunter started 10 games. A year later, Hunter was 10-4 as a starter despite leading one of the league’s worst passing offenses. The Packers still finished No. 3 in run ratio to protect the young quarterback, who only won seven games the remainder of his career.
1978-79 Kansas City Chiefs: In Marv Levy’s first year as a head coach, the 1978 Chiefs ran it 62.9 percent of the time but were 4-12. It is tied for the second worst record of any run ratio leader since the merger. The Chiefs moved from Mike Livingston to Steve Fuller at quarterback in 1979, but the results were still poor, with the passer rating even dropping five points to 54.2 in 1979.
1981-82 Kansas City Chiefs: With Levy still there, now it was Bill Kenney at quarterback. He struggled in 1981 despite all the run support but did improve in the nine-game strike season in 1982. One year later, Kenney became the fourth quarterback to throw for over 4,000 yards in a season.
2010-11 Kansas City Chiefs: Todd Haley’s team had a lot fall into place two years ago, ending up with a 10-6 record and division title. Last year they switched their offensive ratio around, with a 47.7 pass ratio in 2010 to a 47.7 run ratio in 2011. The team went 7-9, Matt Cassel regressed and got injured, and Haley was fired in December.
1975-76 Miami Dolphins: Don Shula’s run-heavy Dolphins of the 70s were up to their old tricks in 1975, but after Mercury Morris left for San Diego in 1976, Miami’s running game fell apart. Fullback Don Nottingham had 718 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns in 1975, but just 185 yards and three touchdowns in 1976. Bob Griese also threw more interceptions than touchdowns for the first time in six years, and Miami finished 6-8.
2002-03 Miami Dolphins: Little changed for Dave Wannstedt’s Dolphins in these two seasons. They were still run-first, Ricky Williams was getting a ton of carries (383 in 2002, 392 in 2003), and Jay Fiedler was nothing special. They were 9-7 in 2002 and 10-6 in 2003, missing the playoffs each time.
1987-88 New Orleans Saints: Jim Mora brought New Orleans to uncharted territory with a 12-3 record in 1987, built on great defense and the most run-centric offense. Bobby Hebert was at quarterback both seasons but handled the less-responsibility offense better than when he started every game in 1988 and the Saints threw it 6.88 percent more often.
1980-83 New England Patriots: Ron Erhardt saw a decline of eight wins from 1980 (10-6) to 1981 (2-14). In 1980, with a run ratio of 57.3 percent, the Patriots scored the second most points in the league behind quarterback Steve Grogan. A year later, the Patriots had a run ratio of 48.6 percent (16th), threw a league-worst 34 interceptions and were average at scoring, and Matt Cavanaugh started half the season.
In 1982 it was Ron Meyer as new head coach of the Patriots. They got Grogan back on track in the league’s most run-heavy offense again (61.6 percent). They went 5-4 and made the playoffs. The following season, Grogan played well, but young Tony Eason went 2-2 in four starts with a 48.4 passer rating, and the Patriots finished 8-8. They were still No. 6 in run ratio.
1993-94 New York Giants: In Dan Reeves’ first year in New York, he got a Pro Bowl season out of 39-year-old Phil Simms. The Giants ran it 54.7 percent of the time and were 11-5. Simms retired, forcing Reeves to go with third-year quarterback Dave Brown. They still ran it 53.8 percent of the time (ranked No. 3), but the drop in passing efficiency mixed with the defense falling from the top spot led to a 9-7 finish and no postseason.
1979-80 New York Jets: Richard Todd was in his fourth season with the Jets, and coach Walt Michaels was in his third. They ran it 61.3 percent of the time, and finished 8-8. The following year, Todd would struggle and throw 30 interceptions, and the Jets were only running it 47.3 percent of the time. They finished 4-12.
2009-10 New York Jets: The beginning of the Rex Ryan/Mark Sanchez era, and it was all about “ground and pound” football, as the Jets ran it 58.9 percent of the time with the rookie. They made it to the AFC Championship but could not stop Manning’s Colts. The next year, Sanchez got to throw the ball more, and the run ratio was down to 49.1 percent. The Jets still reached the AFC Championship but again lost on the road.
1976-77 Pittsburgh Steelers: You just knew there were going to be several Pittsburgh teams on the list. The 1976 team’s ratio is probably misleading because of how the team hid the passing game with rookie Mike Kruczek in his six starts as he replaced Terry Bradshaw. The Steelers ran it 68.2 percent of the time. With Bradshaw starting every game in 1977, the run ratio was down to 61.2 percent, which still ranked No. 7 in the league. One year later and the passing game would change forever with the new rules named after Pittsburgh’s Mel Blount.
1992-93 Pittsburgh Steelers: Rookie head coach Bill Cowher ran Barry Foster into the ground (390 carries) with the first opportunity he got. The Steelers went 11-5, and got solid play out of Neil O’Donnell. Foster missed nine games in 1993, O’Donnell regressed a little, and the Steelers finished 9-7. They ran the ball 6.9 percent more in 1993.
1996-97 Pittsburgh Steelers: With Mike Tomczak at quarterback in 1996, the Steelers relied on newly acquired via trade Jerome Bettis to carry the offense, which he did to a 10-6 record. The Steelers ran the ball 52.4 percent of the time, and that number increased to 54.1 percent in 1997, though that ranked second in the league. In 1997, Kordell Stewart was the new quarterback, and his mobility was a factor in keeping the run ratio high, though he also was an improvement in the passing game over Tomczak.
2001-02 Pittsburgh Steelers: Stewart’s other good season was in 2001 when he led the team to a 13-3 record and another AFC Championship appearance. The Steelers ran it 54.5 percent of the time, but that number shrunk to 46.7 percent in 2002 when the Steelers benched Stewart for Tommy Maddox’s short passing game. They made the playoffs in that style though still were No. 7 in the league in run ratio.
1977-78 Oakland Raiders: The Raiders had 681 carries in 1977, which was probably the last hurrah for the league-wide favoritism of the running game. Ken Stabler only missed one game, but just had a decent season. A year later John Madden’s team was more balanced on offense, but Stabler struggled and threw 30 interceptions in an offense that called 11.1 percent more passes than they did in 1977.
1990-91 Los Angeles Raiders: In Art Shell’s first full season as head coach, the Raiders were 12-4 and ran the ball 57.6 percent of the time with Jay Schroeder at quarterback. Schroeder was efficient (90.8 passer rating), but he did not sustain his success into 1991 when he threw 15 TD, 16 INT, and had a 71.4 passer rating. Out of all 77 teams in the study, no one had a closer 50/50 ratio than the 1991 Raiders (49.94 run, 50.06 pass).
1997-98 Tennessee Titans: Now it’s time for some Jeff Fisher teams. Steve McNair was drafted in 1995, but did not become the full-time starter until 1997, and they helped him with a 54.5 run ratio. McNair added to the numbers greatly with 101 carries himself. He had second-year back Eddie George with 357 carries. A year later McNair threw more and ran less, with the run ratio going down to 45.5 percent.
2000-01 Tennessee Titans: After a Super Bowl loss in 1999, the Titans had the best record in the league at 13-3 in 2000. They ran it 52.8 percent of the time, and Eddie George had 403 carries. In 2001, they only ran it 45.6 percent of the time, which ranked 11th in the league. That team finished 7-9.
2007-08 Tennessee Titans: With Vince Young in 2007, the Titans again had another mobile quarterback, and Young carried it 93 times. The Titans ran the ball 52.4 percent of the time. In 2008, Young was injured early and replaced by the pocket passer Kerry Collins. The Titans still ran it 52.2 percent of the time, which was fourth in the league, and their 13-3 record was the best in football. Chris Johnson was a rookie sensation, gaining 1,228 yards. Collins improved the passing game, though he was still very much a game manager and threw for 2,676 yards and 12 touchdowns.
1991-92 Washington Redskins: Mark Rypien had a dream season in Joe Gibbs’ offense in 1991, leading the Redskins to their third Super Bowl title. He had 28 touchdown passes and a 97.9 passer rating. A fairly dominant team, the Redskins ran the ball on 54.2 percent of their plays.
But in 1992, Rypien would only throw 13 touchdowns against 17 interceptions for a 71.7 passer rating, and Washington went 9-7. The running game ranked 25th in yards per carry (3.58), though that was not far removed from the 3.79 in 1991. Washington ran it 48.7 percent of the time in 1992 (10th).
Manning’s Unique Case
That was every other team since the merger, but none really fit this unique situation with a quarterback like Manning going to a new team. Many of the past run ratio leaders had quarterbacks that were either young and they tried to help them with a lot of runs, or the quarterback was mobile, which inflates the ratio.
Quarterback changes were rare here. You really did not see any team that focused on the run go out and get themselves a better quarterback. The 2007 Falcons turning to Harrington/Leftwich/Redman in the absence of Vick, the 1979 Chiefs drafting Steve Fuller No. 23 overall, the 1997 Steelers handing the offense over to Kordell Stewart, and then five years later to Tommy Maddox are the closest examples.
In that case, there really is nothing to compare the Manning situation to.
The 2011 Denver Broncos were one unique team themselves, with the young and mobile Tebow taking off 122 times. Some were scrambles, but many were also by design. Needless to say, the Broncos will not be designing any plays that will end with Manning taking contact outside of maybe a desperate quarterback sneak.
History says Manning won’t make the Broncos an elite passing team in 2012, but Manning has made a career out of making history. However, we have to look at what the Broncos’ roster says about his chances.
While familiar faces like Jacob Tamme and Brandon Stokley should be there to help Manning, these are not primary targets, though Manning did find Tamme 72 times in 11 games together in 2010.
Every season he was in Indianapolis, Manning completed at least 80 passes to at least one receiver. His top receivers in Denver, Eric Decker (50) and Demaryius Thomas (54) do not even have 60 career receptions.
Fortunately, they have youth (both were drafted in 2010), and they also have something Manning is not familiar with from his wide receivers: height (each player is listed at 6’3”). Both should provide Manning with a favorable matchup downfield and in the red zone, and they could be prime candidates for a third-year breakout season.
They will have to if the Broncos are going to field a passing attack that Manning is accustomed to. But after four neck operations, is it even wise for Peyton to be the old Manning in Denver?
It was at this age in Denver when Manning’s boss, John Elway, began deferring to Terrell Davis and the running game in 1996. The Broncos went 39-9 in Elway’s last three seasons and won two Super Bowls. More rings are what Manning is risking a return for.
This Denver team is nowhere near as talented as the teams Elway won with at this age. Remember, the 2011 Broncos are statistically the worst 8-8 team in NFL history.
But if they can provide Manning with some semblance of a running game, which he lacked his last three-and-a-half seasons with the Colts, then you can bet he will use it.
Manning led the league in pass attempts as a rookie and then had to carry the offense on his back (and neck) in recent years, but there is that long stretch in between from 1999 to most of 2007 when the Colts were as balanced as you can get in this league.
No one knows for sure what we are going to see in Denver this year, but it’s a safe bet you will not see the more recent Peyton Manning, who had to throw and throw for the Colts to be successful.
That’s not smart for the Broncos or for Manning to try and repeat that type of one-dimensional offense in this new setting. Perhaps 500 attempts will be on the high end for Manning in 2012. If he only throws for 3,750 yards and 24 touchdowns, then so be it.
The days of “high volume, high efficiency” Manning may be over, but for this to be a success, he must still be efficient. That’s what the Broncos need. Compared to what they got from Tim Tebow last year, the volume should be more than enough. Just don’t expect the numbers to be what they used to be.
At least not in 2012.
Scott Kacsmar is a football writer and researcher who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.
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