Ronnie Hillman (left) and Montee Ball (right) are competing for the starting running back spot in Denver.
Since the start of training camp, there has been competition for the starting running back spot between Ronnie Hillman and rookie second-round pick Montee Ball. For a Denver Broncos team without many holes, the competition for a starting position on offense has been an intriguing one.
Hillman seems to be winning the competition and was the starter for the first preseason game, but does it even matter who the starter is if both running backs get roughly the equal number of snaps? Does it matter on a team with Peyton Manning and three excellent receivers?
It would be easy to make a case that the competition doesn’t matter if the Broncos hadn’t selected Ball with a premium pick. If it didn’t matter to the team, the Broncos could’ve gone with Hillman and Knowshon Moreno as they did when Willis McGahee missed time last season. The Broncos could have also gone with any number of scheme fits that were available.
With Manning at quarterback, you would think that the running game isn’t that important. If the running game isn’t doing the job, Manning just picks up the slack. In fact, Manning’s teams have won more games when the running game averages 3.8 yards per carry or below.
Why would the Broncos spend such a high pick on a running back when they can be more successful by putting the ball in Manning’s hands? It doesn’t make sense unless there is some benefit to having a starter—AKA a true No. 1 running back that can stay on the field for three downs.
If you have a hard time buying that it’s better for Manning to have an average running game with a clear No.1 running back than a good running game with two players sharing the load, so do I. It’s certainly counter-intuitive, but it would explain why the Broncos didn’t split the carries between Hillman and Moreno when McGahee was hurt last year and why they would draft Ball.
Of course, a much easier explanation is that Moreno was as productive as the Broncos needed him to be and Hillman was producing too many negative plays. As for Ball, it just made sense to get a good running back to pair with Hillman in the absence of other team needs.
However, the winning percentage of Manning’s teams have gone up and down depending on the productivity of the top running back regardless of how many total yards the running game had as a whole. This makes sense because the best runner would pile up more yards when the team is leading late in the game, but it could support the idea that having a No. 1 is important to Manning.
Early in Manning’s career, the running game seemed to impact him more, but not always in the ways you would expect. Way back in 2001, Dominic Rhodes averaged 4.7 yards per carry after Edgerrin James tore his ACL, Manning threw 23 interceptions and the team won only six games.
In 2002, James averaged 3.6 yards per carry coming off the injury. As a result, James accounted for just 63 percent of the rushing yards and James Mungro had 97 carries. The Colts won just 10 games that year and got blown out 41-0 in the first round of the playoffs. Manning also threw 19 interceptions, five more than his career average.
James left in free agency in 2006 and the Colts selected running back Joseph Addai—starting a period in which Manning’s teams were still productive even though he didn’t have a No. 1 running back. Manning won a Super Bowl and lost another one during the span.
The bottom line is that Manning and his teams have been good with or without a top running back or a decent running game for the most part. Manning doesn’t need a top back to be the star, he just needs consistent production overall.
Manning’s performance has been so consistently good, his production doesn’t seem to make a huge difference in his team’s winning percentage. Even though Manning is perhaps the greatest quarterback to ever play, a case could be made that he’s actually powerless to elevate his team beyond a certain point.
Does the starter at running back matter as long as Manning is the quarterback?
That's not a knock on Manning at all, he's actually so good that he maximizes the talent of most of the players. Even though winning percentage seemed to go up and down with the level of involvement of the top running back, a good one wasn’t required to win a lot of games or go to the playoffs.
The competition for the starting running back job simply doesn’t matter that much as long as Manning is under center. For this reason, it’s surprising the Broncos drafted Ball. Even a significant jump in the performance of the running game isn’t going to yield more victories or even a more productive overall offense.
At most, a better running game takes some of the pressure off of Manning. At worst, a productive running game causes the team to take the ball out of Manning’s hands more often than it should.
Just based on the available information, I’d be surprised if it wasn’t fantasy football driving interest in the competition. It wouldn’t be the first time fantasy sports have skewed perceptions about players incorrectly.
In real football, the Broncos just need a modestly productive running game. It doesn’t matter if that production comes from Hillman, Ball or a combination of multiple running backs.