Entering the 2012 season, fans don't quite know what to expect from the Denver Broncos running back situation.
Heck, I don't think the Broncos themselves know.
As training camp nears and the preseason opener on August 9th edges closer, the Broncos have a myriad of questions.
- How will Peyton Manning return from numerous neck surgeries over the last couple of years?
- How will the interior of the defensive line look with the departure of Brodrick Bunkley?
- Will Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker emerge as a true one-two punch duo?
- Will the safeties perform adequately enough with the retirement of Brian Dawkins?
- And finally, who will emerge as Denver's running back in 2012?
The Broncos had the league's best rushing attack in 2011, spearheaded by Tim Tebow and Willis McGahee. With the option offense out of the equation with Manning now in town, McGahee and the Bronco running backs will likely have a harder time rushing for the kind of yardage that they ran for with a dual-threat quarterback under center.
As is the case with most NFL teams, expect the Broncos to keep three running backs on the roster throughout the season. It's a given that rookie draft pick Ronnie Hillman will remain on the roster.
Willis McGahee, considering the rebound season he had in 2011, should make the roster. That leaves the third running back slot open to players on the bubble such as former first-round pick Knowshon Moreno, Lance Ball, Jeremiah Johnson and Xavier Omon.
Having said that, Peyton Manning has a well-known penchant for being able to carry teams. When I say carry teams, I'm talking about the definition of carrying teams. There may be no quarterback in the NFL, perhaps NFL history, who has been able to lead his teams to success despite terrible defenses and terrible running games.
In 2010, the Colts had the 23rd-best defense and 29th-ranked running game. They finished with a 10-6 record and won the AFC South for the eighth time in the previous nine years. In 2006 during their Super Bowl-winning season, they had the 23rd-ranked defense and the 18th-ranked running game.
The point is, Manning has proven in the past that he can carry teams on his back. He's done it at different times throughout his entire career.
But how can one expect this season to not at least be a little different than Manning's previous seasons?
The fact is, Manning is 36 years of age, missed one entire season of football, has undergone neck surgery four times over the past two years and the Broncos have the second-toughest schedule in the entire league.
Is it plausible Manning can still be an MVP candidate, remain one of the best quarterbacks in the game and have stats that parallel the stats that he put up in Indianapolis? Of course. He's Peyton Manning.
However, the Broncos are a good team, talent-wise. They're not a great team. This is a team that went 8-8 last year, backed into the playoffs, and outside of Manning and Ryan Clady, don't have any true franchise players on offense yet.
The defense is a huge question mark, and although they performed amazingly during a stretch of the season last year, they were still the 24th-best defense in all of the NFL in 2011. With DJ Williams' six-game suspension, the departure of Brodrick Bunkley and the retirement of Brian Dawkins, it remains to be seen if this defense can take a true leap into being an upper-echelon defense.
The offense is full of potential. Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker could surely emerge as the next Rod Smith and Eddie Mac. They also might not live up to that potential in 2012.
The point is that this defense is a question mark. The offense is a question mark. Hell, Peyton Manning is a question mark. The Denver Broncos are a huge question mark.
If the running game emerges as a threat, the pressure will be relieved off not only Manning, but the defense itself. We saw what a dominant running game, despite an anemic passing game, can do for not only the win-loss record, but the defense in 2011. It helps them stay fresh.
If Manning takes less hits and doesn't have to drop back as much as he did in Indianapolis and the defense gets a decent amount of rest on the sidelines due to the running game eating up clock, it would do wonders for Manning's well being and provide balance.
The Broncos shouldn't want to be purely a Peyton Manning team in 2012. They should be aiming to be a complete team in Manning's inaugural season in the orange and blue.