Denver Broncos: Ignoring the Running Game Could Come Back to Hurt Pat Bowlen

Ryan CookFeatured ColumnistMay 19, 2011

DENVER - NOVEMBER 28:  Running back Knowshon Moreno #27 of the Denver Broncos stiff-arms linebacker Na'il Diggs #53 of the St. Louis Rams in the first quarter at INVESCO Field at Mile High on November 28, 2010 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Good cops: Tim Tebow, John Fox.

Bad cops: Kyle Orton, Pat Bowlen.

There’s a game of good vs. bad in Denver right now, and it’s intriguing to watch. Perhaps you wouldn’t know it by looking at the Broncos starting roster, but beneath the surface, it’s all fun and games until someone loses their job.

After the draft concluded nearly a month ago, owner Pat Bowlen took his turn in that game. He drafted linebacker Von Miller with the second overall pick in the first round and then proceeded to draft five other defensive players in later rounds, while fans grimaced and clinched to their armchair.

Of course, it would be unfair to say Bowlen’s roll of the dice resulted in snake eyes this year. On the other hand, he didn’t exactly wear his best pair of poker shades when he failed to draft a running back.

Yesterday, someone asked me where I felt the Broncos were headed as a team. It’s a question I’ve been asked a hundred times over, and again, I gave the same tedious answer: “Sorry, I don’t know.” They proceed to look at me as some kind of Broncomanic who is in denial, but it’s hard to buy into what Bowlen is selling.

That said, I’m not even sure Bowlen is selling anything but lemons.

Even that may be a stretch of the imagination.

Still, it’s hard to find fault with the selection of Miller in the first round. It’s even more difficult to point the finger at Rahim Moore and label him as a worthless pick. It is easy, though, to look at the Broncos on paper and notice the absent running game that will yet again haunt Denver this season.

Just as quickly as the drafting of Miller appeared to extinguish the stench looming above Mile High, the instant realization of an uncertain Knowshon Moreno quickly brought it back. The Broncos running game hasn’t been poor enough to allow teams to completely ignore John Fox’s offense, but on a scale of bad to New York Jets, the Broncos don’t match up.

So it’s time to consider this:

What seems to plague the Broncos time and time again is the offensive line. Lost in translation somewhere is the fact that Moreno is only a third year running back, and with a doughnut offensive line, expecting consecutive 1000-plus yard seasons is almost unfair.

Seemingly so, that’s why Bowlen chose to draft offensive lineman Orlando Franklin. Franklin won’t play the role of hero as soon as he arrives in Mile High, but he has the versatility to mix and match on the offensive line—although don’t expect him to be completely flawless.

A lot of Denver’s growing pains have come from the center position. Josh McDaniels had a lot riding on rookie center J.D Walton last season—perhaps even too much—as he also did with first year guard Stanley Davis.

But Moreno isn’t off the hook entirely.

And neither is the Broncos organization.

Since Josh McDaniels took over in 2009, the run game has gone over the heads of Denver’s coaching staff like a bad joke. The Broncos have hoped the problem would resolve itself, evident in Denver’s lackluster attitude toward drafting running back’s since Moreno was originally selected in 2009.

Establishing a good run game doesn’t happen overnight, though. Denver have notably been trying hard to turn the Broncos run game into a straight ahead attack, but for a team that is severely limited on the roster, there was always going to be a 50/50 chance of failure.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what’s happened.

To fix that problem, Denver took a step backwards by bringing in Laurence Maroney from New England. The coaches would disagree and say it was a positive move at the time, but the fans felt a little differently when Maroney had rushed for just 74 yards in four games.

That feeling probably came from Maroney’s performance against the Colts in Week 3. You know, when he led the Broncos with just 24 yards?

And now it’s back to square one.

The state of the Broncos backfield is by far the most pressing concern. It’s become too predictable to hardened defensive teams like the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots, and if a high profile linebacker squeezes past Denver’s wobbly offensive line, things go bust.

So it’s in Moreno’s hands to fix that. Since being drafted in 2009 he hasn’t made defenders miss, and he hasn’t been dominant enough to elevate Denver’s 26th rank rush attack. Better yet, his receiving game could also benefit from a quarterback who is capable of sharing the ball with a multitude of different players.

The Broncos haven’t helped themselves in the run department this season. Bowlen’s focus has been on the defensive side of the ball, so once again Broncomaniacs, prepare for a season of hope and pray on the ground game.

Nonetheless, the Broncos run game is calling. It’s young, but it’s present, and John Fox simply shouldn’t just abandon it.

Denver’s offense is much like the Green Bay Packers, but to a much more dumbed down extent. The Broncos are a passing team who have a running back that is yet to wake up. Denver has no Aaron Rodgers. They don’t have a Greg Jennings either. But they do have a running back somewhere on the roster.

Again, it comes down to another game: hide and seek.

If anything, there’s been too much passing and too much pressure on Kyle Orton to get the job done. That’s obviously a key fault of a below .500 team, but as easy as it is to criticize Fox’s run game, it has served as protection for the Broncos uncertain quarterback play.

Yet we can’t fault Moreno for everything. He’s hardly surrounded by competition, meaning he is hardly motivated to work hard for his starting job. And while the Broncos continue to overlook running backs in the draft, it becomes easy for Moreno to post below 1,000 yard rush seasons and get away with it.

The Broncos simply have to get back to where they were during the Mike Shanahan era with Tatum Bell and Terrell Davis to experience the joys of an exciting ground game. Easier said than done, of course.

It’s a work in progress Mile High.

There’s plenty of ground to cover—the first line in Moreno’s job description.


Follow Ryan Cook on Twitter.



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