What Josh McDaniels Was Thinking

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What Josh McDaniels Was Thinking
(Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

When Mike Shanahan was fired at the beginning of 2009 he was quoted as saying that he thought any new coach coming in would be a fool to substantially change the offense. The eventual trade of Jay Cutler and revamping of the Denver Broncos has been a bone of contention for many Denver Bronco fans ever since.

The end of 2008 saw the Denver offense compared to the best offenses in the league. Jay Cutler was being widely touted as a future star, his record an aberration blamed on a very poor Denver defense. Why then, did new coach Josh McDaniels change the offense?

Comparing the offenses of the 2007 New England Patriots and 2008 Denver Broncos one striking thing is that they both averaged close to the same yardage per play. This is what most pundits point to when they tout the 2008 statistics of Jay Cutler. What they don’t point out is that the 16-0 Patriots scored 589 points while the 8-8 Broncos scored only 370. 

Just three years before that Denver scored 395 points with far fewer turnovers and went 13-3. In fact a comparison of the 2008 Scoreability Index and the 2005 Scoreability Index suggests that the Broncos were less efficient and 2007’s Scoreability Index was worse than 2008’s.  Notice the team at the top of the 2008 Scoreability Index?

Of course everyone in Denver remembers the big falloff in 2006, when Denver recorded an 8-8 record. The end of that season saw Shanahan firing defensive coordinator Larry Coyer and trade starting quarterback Jake Plummer away. 

Since 2006 the defense has been poor and is popularly blamed for Denver’s woes.  Plummer was replaced by Jay Cutler, a young player with an impressive arm. The Broncos were 7-9 in 2007 and 8-8 in 2008.

Denver’s defense certainly never recovered its efficiency. Relatively unnoticed is the fact that while Denver’s yardage soared with Jay Cutler Denver’s scoring was going down.

Cutler’s gaudy yardage statistics, impressive as they were, were accompanied by more attempts and less scoring. Hidden in the stats was a growing problem for Denver’s offense, an inability to score touchdowns.

Denver’s rushing offense was a big factor in its two Super Bowl wins. Elway may never have won a championship without TD. Over the years Denver’s rushing game was a big key because it set up play-action passing and it forced defenses to choose whether to take a chance on whether to cover a Bronco receiver one-on-one.

2005 was a fairly typical year with Denver gaining 2539 yards rushing.  Denver’s rushing yardage dropped steadily every year, Denver only had 1862 yards rushing last year even though Denver’s yards per carry was almost identical between the two years. 

In fact last years yards per carry compares favorably to the yards per carry of Denver’s last championship team in 1998 when they still had Terrell Davis.

The Broncos had never really replaced Terrell Davis with a single back. Instead Shanahan had adopted the attitude that he could always find a back to be successful in Denver’s system and he was more or less proven right.

Why didn’t Denver rush more?  The popular reason given is that Cutler was a better passer than Plummer but their yards per attempt when one compares 2005 and 2008 is identical. The only real difference between the quarterbacks statistically is that Cutler threw 620 times to Plummer’s 465.

Shanahan, like many others, had fallen in love with Cutler’s arm and abandoned the offensive balance that had been a major part of his success. The result was worse offense to go along with worse defense.

When Shanahan was fired many Denver fans assumed that nothing was wrong with the offense; that Shanahan’s failings were only on the defense. Many people expected a defensive head coach to replace Shanahan.

When Denver Broncos’ owner Pat Bowlen hired a former New England Patriots offensive coordinator to be head coach it came as a shock to many who saw Denver as having no offensive problems. Before McDaniels had any chance to do anything Cutler made it evident he wanted out and forced a trade.

McDaniels was immediately faced with a team loaded with offensive talent that had been abandoned by its quarterback and a defense that had lost confidence. One of McDaniels’ first moves was to bring in defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.

Mike Nolan has made a career as defensive coordinator of some of the best defenses in the NFL. His success on defense led to a brief stint as the head coach of the San Fransisco 49ers.

McDaniels then made some smart free agent pickups of veterans like Brian Dawkins, Andra Davis, J’Vonne Parker and Ronald Fields. Quiet acquisitions like Darryl Reid will address Denver’s questions along the defensive line while letting Bronco linemen like Elvis Dumervil and Jarvis Moss assume more natural positions.

On offense he traded disgruntled quarterback Jay Cutler and a fifth round draft pick for a more enthusiastic Kyle Orton, two first round draft picks and a third round draft pick. If we go back to the 2008 Scoreability Index the team with the best scoreability index was the Kyle Orton led Chicago Bears.

Essentially McDaniels pulled off a coup, swapping starters and getting two first round picks and a third for a fifth round pick. This is possibly the area in which McDaniels made his soundest move.

In the draft McDaniels was able to add a great running back prospect, a solid pass rusher, several good young defensive backs, depth along the offensive line and a good young quarterback prospect. Between the draft and free agency McDaniels has quietly added depth, youth and experience while simultaneously shoring up several Denver weak spots.

Critics of McDaniels focus on the Jay Cutler fiasco but McDaniels really had little he could have done with that situation. As things stand he may well have improved Denver greatly.

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