Can Peyton Manning, Broncos Offense Actually Improve in 2014?

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Can Peyton Manning, Broncos Offense Actually Improve in 2014?
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

After a 2014 season in which the Denver Broncos and quarterback Peyton Manning made history on offense, everyone is wondering how they will fare against a tougher schedule. The assumption is that the Broncos and Manning can’t put up the same kind of offensive production they did last year.

Of course, assuming too much in the NFL can be dangerous. The numbers sometimes back up the consensus but not always to the degree we think.

As we also know, not all numbers in football are created equal. A yard at your own 20-yard line is not nearly as valuable as a yard facing 1st-and-goal with one yard to go. This fact is the essence driving the advanced-statistic craze in the NFL.

The reality is the Broncos and Manning can improve offensively in 2014. The Broncos can do so by the numbers, even if they don’t surpass the 606 points and 7,317 yards they put up last year.

 

The Numbers Argument

We know the Broncos put up 37.9 points per game in 2013, but, in all fairness, these numbers need to be adjusted for strength of competition. That’s the aim behind many advanced stats such DVOA at Football Outsiders and the Simple Rating System (SRS) of Pro Football Reference.

Both DVOA and SRS attempt to consider opponent quality in statistical measurements. By these metrics, the Broncos did not have the best offensive season in history in 2013. It was certainly a historic season, but the soft schedule meant they didn't score enough to be considered the best ever.

Advanced vs. Traditional Metrics 2013
Metric DVOA SRS Points Yards
Stat 33.5% 11.4 606 7317
Rank 1 2 1 1

FootballOusiders.com, Pro-Football-Reference.com

The other factor to consider is that the defense made scoring more points a requirement on many occasions. The Broncos likely would have gotten more conservative as games wore on had they had more big leads.

Even considering all these factors, the Broncos only need to improve by roughly 1.7 points per game in 2014 to be better than they were in 2013, assuming the teams they play do not improve or decline defensively. Last season, the Broncos scored 14.7 points per game over what their opponents allowed in their other 15 games.

If we use this as a baseline against their 2014 schedule, the Broncos only need to score 578 points to equal last year’s production. That’s still 133 more points (8.3 points per game) than any other team scored last year. It’s also 28 fewer points than the Broncos scored last year.

Essentially, the Broncos can score less and be a better offense in 2014 than they were in 2013. This is obviously too simplistic, because teams tend to regress toward the mean, even if only a little bit each year. For the same reason many people don't think the Broncos can repeat their offensive performance in 2014, many think the Seattle Seahawks will not be quite as dominant on defense.

The other problem with this method is that the Broncos didn't beat up on every team proportionately. The Broncos scored 47.3 points per game against the four teams in the NFC East and another 39.0 points per game against the AFC South. Combined, the NFC West and the AFC East allowed 9.9 fewer points per game than their AFC South and NFC East counterparts did last season.

2013 vs. 2014 Schedule Differences
2013 Opponents NFC East AFC South Other 8
2013 PPG Allowed 26.2 24.9 22.7
2013 vs. Broncos 47.3 39.0 32.6
Difference +21.1 +14.1 +9.9
2014 Opponents NFC West AFC East Common Opponents
2013 PPG Allowed 18.6 22.6 22.5
2014 vs. Broncos ? ? 30.1
Difference - - +7.6

Pro-Football-Reference.com

The NFC West and the AFC East comprise half of Denver’s schedule in 2014. Unlike the first calculation we did, which gave the Broncos credit for big wins against the NFC East and the AFC South, we need to remove common opponents from last year’s schedule and then discount the remaining seven games (the Indianapolis Colts are a common opponent) by about 9.9 points per game to account for the strength-of-schedule difference.

That leaves us with just the game against the Cincinnati Bengals and a projection of around 461 points for the other 15 games. The Broncos scored 31 against the Bengals two years ago, so something in the range of 490 to 500 points on the year seems reasonable.

Again, that would still be enough points to lead the league in most years. In the neighborhood of 500 points scored would be nothing to scoff at, especially against a tough schedule. A case can even be made that 500 points scored against their 2014 schedule is more impressive than 606 points scored against their 2013 schedule.

There isn’t a perfect method to measure an offense’s future performance, but it’s not impossible to see that the Broncos could be just as good next year if we adjust for the quality of the opponent. They likely will not get anywhere near their 2013 production as far as total points, and it stands to reason that will come at the expense of Manning’s touchdown totals.  

 

The Non-Numbers Argument

If there is one thing you can count on in the NFL, it’s the season being unpredictable. We don’t know if all the defenses are going to be as good or as bad as they were last year, so we really can’t say to what degree the schedule will be more difficult.

The non-numbers argument is that the Broncos have improved their offensive personnel and will therefore improve over last season. This is a much easier concept to grasp, but it is also far more subjective.

For example, some people may consider losing Eric Decker in free agency a loss, but his replacement, Emmanuel Sanders, is no pushover. According to Cecil Lammey of ESPN Denver, via Team Stream Now, one top Broncos executive said Sanders “is simply better than Eric Decker.”

Key Offseason Additions vs. Subtractions
Position Addition Substraction (Replaces)
DE DeMarcus Ware Shaun Phillips
SS T.J. Ward (Duke Ihenacho)
CB Aqib Talib Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
WR Emmanuel Sanders Eric Decker

B/R

If that’s true, the passing offense shouldn't miss a beat in 2014. The Broncos also used their second-round draft pick to select wide receiver Cody Latimer, giving them another young and talented receiver they didn’t have last season.

Of course, the weapons at Manning’s disposal are only part of it. The Broncos will also get back Ryan Clady at left tackle, which will strengthen the entire offensive line because it will allow Chris Clark to start on the right side and Orlando Franklin, last year’s right tackle, to move inside to left guard.

The strength of the offensive line should also help running back Montee Ball. The Broncos will hand the reins to Ball full time in 2014, which should be a positive for the entire offense. As good as Knowshon Moreno was for the Broncos, Ball still averaged over a half-yard more per carry last season.

Elsa/Getty Images
The Broncos need Montee Ball to carry the running load in 2014.

A more productive ground game should help the Broncos perform better against some of the tough defenses on their schedule. Those same teams tend to like to grind out victories, and the Broncos struggled on occasion with ground-heavy attacks last year.

Then there’s the defense, which could hurt or help the offense. There’s little doubt the Broncos got better defensively in the offseason by signing pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware and safety T.J. Ward. The Broncos will also get linebacker Von Miller back from injury in 2014 after a disappointing and injury-plagued 2013 campaign.

If the defense is good, the offense will not need to score as many points to win games. However, a better defense means getting the ball back for the offense more frequently, which was something they sometimes struggled to do last season.

With the additions the Broncos made on offense, there is reason to believe they can be just as prolific as they were a season ago. Maybe that isn’t reflected in the points total, but it should be reflected in the team’s win total. Manning will not put up the same video game numbers, but as long as the team is winning, he won’t care.

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