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Will the Broncos' Passing Stats Go in the Tank Under Gary Kubiak?

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJune 2, 2015

Chris Humphreys/USA Today

Emmanuel Sanders didn't make the kind of comments that end up in a season-ticket renewal letter.

"It's definitely different," Sanders said of the new Gary Kubiak-Rick Dennison offense. "You talk about going from a no-huddle offense to an offense that's huddling up, to an offense that is predicated off running a football and then throwing it." 

Sanders sounded downright pessimistic about even approaching last year's production: 101 catches for 1,404 yards for himself, and over 3,000 combined yards for him and Demaryius Thomas.

"Of course obviously it's not going to be one of those offenses—well, I'm praying that it is—but obviously it's not going to be one of those offenses where you catch it and you're going to have two receivers catching over 100 passes," he said. "Hopefully, my goal is really to try to get 1,000 yards to just help this team win ballgames."

Sanders wasn't being that negative. He said he has bought into the Kubiak system and is excited about his new role in the scheme. But receivers are rarely enthusiastic about large production drops. And Sanders' remarks appeared on an official team website, where articles are usually as soothing and optimistic as an antidepressant commercial. Sanders was hoping and praying to achieve 71 percent of last year's production, and that was before left tackle Ryan Clady tore his ACL.

Ladies and gentlemen, your slower-moving, less innovative, less exciting 2015 Broncos!

Joe Mahoney/Associated Press

OK, maybe that's taking things too far. Everyone knows the Broncos offense is going to look different with Kubiak and Dennison calling the plays. But does "different" automatically mean slower? Less productive? More run-oriented?

To find out, I compiled data about the 2012 Texans offense and 2014 Ravens offense from the Football Outsiders Game Charting Project, then compared those numbers to data for the 2012 and 2014 Broncos. The data shows that Sanders is probably right: His numbers are likely to drop a little bit.

But that doesn't mean the Broncos offense is going to be a pokey slog of zone-stretch runs and play-action bootlegs. Kubiak's offense and the scheme Peyton Manning is familiar with have more in common than meets even Sanders' trained eye.

(Quick housecleaning notes: 1. The 2013 season was omitted because it was a lost season for Kubiak's Texans: the coach was hospitalized, then fired, with some appearances by quarterback Case Keenum in between. The 2013 data would tell us little about what the 2015 Broncos will look like. 2. Unless otherwise specified, all data in this study is taken only from the first halves of games. Second-half data is much more likely to be situational, which creates all kinds of distortions when teams play catch-up or sit on leads. First-half data gives a better sense of a coach's situation-independent preferences and tendencies.)

The Fullback Cometh

Let's start with one obvious superficial difference between a traditional Manning offense and a traditional Kubiak offense: the existence of a fullback. The table below shows some of the basic personnel and formation tendencies for Kubiak's teams, and for the 2012 and 2014 Broncos:

Formation Tendencies: Broncos and Kubiak Teams
Team2 RBs3 WRsShotgun
2014 Broncos0.6%73.3%73.1%
2012 Broncos2.7%70.9%59.0%
2014 Ravens43.9%30.4%19.6%
2012 Texans27.9%25.2%23.7%
Football Outsiders

Kubiak and Dennison (who was Kubiak's offensive coordinator in 2012 and quarterbacks coach in 2014) use a base two-back, two-receiver offense. That back may be a hybrid fullback/H-back like James Casey, but he is definitely a large part of the offense.

Manning's offenses—whether coached by Adam Gase, Mike McCoy or any of his Indianapolis coordinators—have been base three-receiver packages for many years. A second tight end often serves as a slot receiver, but if there is a fullback in the backfield, chances are that it's 3rd-and-goal at the 1-yard line.

The table also shows the huge difference in shotgun usage between the Broncos and Kubiak's former teams. The Broncos have been a base shotgun offense in the Manning era. Kubiak uses the shotgun more as a passing-down formation.

The difference is most extreme when examining shotgun running plays. The Broncos rushed 110 times from the shotgun formation in first halves last year. There was nothing unusual about a handoff to C.J. Anderson or Montee Ball from the shotgun on any given down. The Ravens ran only twice from the shotgun last season, and the Texans ran just 15 times from the shotgun in 2012. Kubiak's shotgun runs tend to be draw plays to fool the defense (or surrender) on passing downs.

These are differences even a casual fan can recognize. The differences have an obvious impact on the stat sheets. If the No. 3 receiver is on the bench, he cannot be targeted for a pass. A look at the targeting patterns by Manning's Broncos and the Kubiak-Dennison teams shows a definite shift in receiving opportunities away from secondary receivers and toward tight ends and those "fullback" types Manning may have to familiarize himself with.

Receiver Targeting Tendencies: Broncos and Kubiak Teams
Team#1 WR#2 WR#3 WRRBs#1 TE#2 TEFB
2014 Broncos184141709876200
2012 Broncos141122598284580
2014 Ravens134925775882727
2012 Texans1638833741044044
NFLGSIS.com

The target totals in the table are adjusted on a game-by-game basis to reflect injuries and availability issues. When Wes Welker was unavailable, Andre Caldwell was considered the Broncos' No. 3 receiver, and similar adjustments were made for players like Julius Thomas and Dennis Pitta. The Ravens rotated a bunch of players as their third and fourth receivers last year, which is why their target total is deceptively low: lots of Michael Campanaro types received a target here and a target there.

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

The trends are pretty clear: Kubiak teams throw about 2-3 fewer passes per game than Manning teams. The No. 2 receiver gets about 50 fewer targets per season in Kubiak's system than what guys like Sanders and Doug Baldwin were used to. Some of those opportunities go to tight end Owen Daniels, who followed Kubiak from Houston to Baltimore to Denver and will be happy to repeat his role this year. Some targets go to fullbacks; Casey is back in Kubiak Land to gobble up a few short passes to the flat. A few targets simply evaporate because two or three fewer pass attempts mean two or three fewer potential receptions.

But there seems to be much more at stake than 10 fewer passes per month and the occasional toss to an H-back when comparing the Kubiak passing game to vintage Manning. Sanders spoke of huddling more and emphasizing the run. That certainly jibes with our impression of the Kubiak offense: methodical zone-stretch handoffs and play-action rollouts.

Kubiak's teams are not quite as pokey and run-oriented as his reputation—or Sanders' remarks—might suggest. Under the hood, the Broncos' Kubiak adjustment may not quite be as extreme as it now seems.

Huddle Quickly

The Broncos use a no-huddle offense about as often as any team outside of Philadelphia, where the no-huddle is almost a religion. The official NFL play-by-play lists 183 no-huddle snaps for the Broncos in first halves last season, meaning that Manning ran a no-huddle about 33 percent of the time early in games. The Ravens were credited with just 10 no-huddle first-half plays, all of them on two-minute drills or in short-yardage situations (rush to the line for a quarterback sneak before the defense is set!).

There are two things to keep in mind as we examine no-huddle and pace statistics. First, official play-by-play sheets don't do a great job of listing no-huddle plays, and it can be hard to determine whether a team huddled when reviewing game tape or All-22 footage. So the counts listed in the last paragraph may not be as accurate as the stats found elsewhere in this article. Second, "no-huddle" and "up-tempo" are not interchangeable terms. Sometimes, a Kubiak team huddles, lines up and snaps in the time it takes Manning to wiggle his arms and shout "Omaha" over and over again.

The table below gives the Football Outsiders pace statistics for the 2014 Ravens and Broncos, plus the league averages. "Situation neutral" basically means that the game is close and neither team has any reason to hurry or stall; the more formal definition is after the link.

2014 Offensive Pace Stats (Seconds Per Play)
First-Half PaceSituation-Neutral PacePace When Trailing by 7+Pace When Leading by 7+
Broncos26.87 (9th)29.28 (10th)24.22 (1st)27.71 (10th)
Ravens26.02 (3rd)28.63 (5th)22.81 (3rd)29.91 (25th)
NFL Average27.5830.1025.0828.58
Football Outsiders

It turns out that the Ravens operated at a quicker pace in 2014 than the Broncos, both in neutral situations and in the first halves of games. The Broncos were the fastest team in the NFL when trailing by a touchdown or more, but the Ravens were a respectable third, with the go-go Eagles in between. The big difference in pace came when each team was nursing a lead: The Ravens slowed their tempo down to below NFL average, while the Broncos still played at a brisk, above-average pace.

So the 2015 Broncos aren't likely to play at that much slower a pace than the 2014 Broncos did. Also, Kubiak is not a no-huddle extremist: Like coaches and coordinators before him, he will probably make some changes to accommodate Manning.

But what about run-pass ratios and Kubiak's fascination with play-action passing? Will Manning be handing off to Anderson or bootlegging in search of Daniels and Casey when he would be better served flicking quick passes to playmakers like Sanders?

The next table shows the first-half play-calling tendencies of the Broncos and Kubiak's Texans and Ravens. The tables are fascinating because of what they don't show:

Run-Pass Tendencies: Broncos and Kubiak Teams
TeamRunsShort PassesLong PassesPlay ActionPasses Outside PocketFirst Down Run %
2014 Broncos38.0%47.5%12.6%14.1%32 passes50.8%
2012 Broncos37.9%47.8%11.3%15.4%3550.6%
2014 Ravens40.6%46.5%9.6%11.0%7252.1%
2012 Texans39.8%46.2%10.8%17.5%7144.8%
Football Outsiders

Let's unpack:

  • Kubiak's teams are more run-oriented than Manning's teams, but the difference of a percentage point or two would be almost unnoticeable if it weren't underscored by so many other factors, such as the fact that Kubiak likes fullbacks and Manning is the all-time NFL passing leader. In terms of raw data, the Broncos rushed 412 times in 2012 and 2014 combined. Kubiak's teams combined for 413 rushes. That's not a very extreme difference.
  • Manning's teams throw more short passes than Kubiak's teams, but again, the real differences are not all that noticeable. The raw totals are 517 short passes for the 2012 and 2014 Broncos, and 476 for the Texans and Ravens. That's about five more passes every four games.
  • Kubiak's Texans threw deep far more often than Kubiak's Ravens, despite the fact that Matt Schaub had a reputation as an accurate short passer before his game went kablooey and Joe Flacco is thought of as a trebuchet. Manning's teams throw deep slightly more often than Kubiak's teams, though a "deep" pass according to the play-by-play travels 15 or more yards downfield, so the definition can be a little misleading.
  • Kubiak's Texans relied much more on play action than Kubiak's Ravens. The change was probably caused by several factors: the differences between Schaub and Flacco, the differences between Arian Foster and Justin Forsett, the differences in line quality and some coaching adjustments after Richard Sherman made it clear that he knew Kubiak's tendencies as well as Kubiak did in 2013. At any rate, Manning's teams also used a lot of play action. The play fakes will look different this year—more seven-step drops, fewer quick jabs into the running back's belly from the shotgun—but the frequency will be about the same.
  • First-down run-pass ratios are often a good indicator of whether a coach is particularly run- or pass-oriented; the Cowboys ran the ball on 69 percent of first downs last season, for example. The Broncos are almost perfectly balanced on first downs (in first halves) under Peyton Manning. Kubiak was slightly pass-oriented in 2012 and slightly run-oriented in 2014, but the fluctuations are within range of a 50-50 split.

Kubiak's quarterbacks are definitely more likely to throw outside the pocket than Manning is accustomed to. (Note: The "Outside the Pocket Passes" category includes all four quarters and does not distinguish scrambles from rollouts. None of these guys really scramble much.) That said, the difference amounts to roughly two passes per game and will probably be the first element of the game plan to disappear if Manning wants it to disappear.

A little sifting through the data reveals that the Broncos' pace, run-pass tendencies and use of play action won't change much under Kubiak. The data also suggests that Kubiak has tweaked his system in recent years: less play action, less deep passing, a little more shotgun running, perhaps an uptick in tempo. His system, in other words, has become a little less Kubiak-like.

The Manning-Kubiak Illusion

Some of the differences between the old Broncos system and the one Kubiak and Dennison will run are an optical illusion. Ever see the trick where two circles are exactly the same size, but one is surrounded by tiny circles and the other is surrounded by huge circles? The circle surrounded by bigger ones looks smaller.

When Kubiak sends the offense onto the field to huddle before lining up in an I formation, his system looks extremely run-oriented. When Manning hurries to the line with a spread formation and hollers a bunch of gibberish, his system looks extremely pass-oriented. But many of the differences are superficial: Play ratios are about the same, use of play action is about the same, even the style of the running plays is not that different once you get past the formation shift.

The Manning offenses don't even run that many more plays than the Kubiak offenses. In 2012, both the Broncos and Texans executed exactly 1,090 plays. The 2014 Broncos ran 1,067 plays to the Ravens' 1,021 plays.

Some of the differences between the Broncos' 2012 and 2014 passing statistics and the numbers produced by Kubiak's teams can be accounted for by slight changes in run-pass ratio, which produce that 2-3 pass-per-game discrepancy. Some differences come from the presence of the fullback and a slightly greater emphasis on the tight end. But there is one major factor that probably had the biggest impact on the differences between the 2012 and 2014 Broncos and Kubiak's teams:

Peyton Manning is one of the greatest quarterbacks in history. Matt Schaub and Joe Flacco were/are just good NFL starters.

Sometimes, the obvious solution is the correct solution. Manning's completion rates were four to five percentage points higher than the rates of Kubiak's quarterbacks. That means he completed 51 more passes than Flacco in 2014, and 50 more than Schaub in 2012.

Lower the total pass attempts to Kubiak levels, and Manning would still be expected to complete about 40 passes the others did not complete, which would translate into about 600 more yards to divide among Sanders and Demaryius Thomas than Torrey Smith, Steve Smith, Andre Johnson or Kevin Walter enjoyed in the past.

May 27, 2015; Englewood, CO, USA; Denver Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak walks the field past quarterback Peyton Manning (18) before the start of organized team activities at the Broncos training facility. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe Sanders won't reach 1,400 yards, but he probably does not have to hope and pray to crack 1,000. If Manning is more efficient than Flacco, and Sanders is more consistent than Torrey Smith (both safe bets), he'll get there. Those No. 3 receivers have a lot more to worry about, since Daniels and Casey will gobble up both playing time and targets that would once have belonged to Welker and others. The fantasy distributions will look different, but the team totals won't change all that drastically.

The loss of Clady and the other changes on the offensive line will have a negative impact, though it is impossible to predict how severe it will be. Manning reached the Super Bowl without Clady in 2013, and the Broncos signed replacement Ryan Harris, who played for Kubiak's Texans for a few years and wasn't terrible as a starter for the Chiefs in 2014.

Last year's Ravens weren't exactly loaded at tackle, yet the team got just as far in the playoffs as the Broncos. Kubiak built a great offensive line in Houston and should be able to cobble together a decent one this year.

Will all the changes result in a Super Bowl? It's June 2, for heaven's sake: Even official team websites aren't predicting Super Bowls. For now, let's just say that the Broncos will look very different in the huddle, in the formation and on the fantasy football cheat sheets. Upon closer inspection, however, they may be more similar to last year's team than even Sanders can anticipate.

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

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