Broncos’ season broke down after it began running on fumes
Minutes after the Broncos outlasted Carolina in February to win the Super Bowl, Denver coach Gary Kubiak ran into his boss, John Elway, for a hug and an impromptu evaluation.
“You can win it all kinds of ways, baby,” Kubiak said into Elway’s ear, with confetti raining down on the field. “You can win it all kinds of ways.”
The Broncos had just won a championship despite gaining only 194 yards of total offense in their 24-10 victory. They cobbled together just enough yards on the ground and in the air.
One year later, all those ways to win largely disappeared. The Broncos’ output from their passing game remains largely the same as a year ago. Their defense is still stout. But the biggest difference between an offense that finished 12-4 and went on a Super Bowl run and the offense that will miss the playoffs this season is a run game that bellyflopped.
The Broncos gained just 139 yards on the ground, in total, over their past three games, just as their season slipped away. They averaged 46.3 yards per game over that stretch. In six of their 15 games this season, Denver gained fewer than 65 yards rushing.
Denver’s rushing attack ranks 28th in the 32-team NFL. And when they lost the ability to win
“all kinds of ways,” they lost key games.
“If you last long enough, you can go back and look at those great years when things work out for you, and you think about how the ball bounced for you to get there,” Kubiak said this week. “Last year, we played in a lot of really close football games. The thing we did last year, we were able to get leads in games. People had to play differently against us.”
The Broncos, though, have not held a lead since Dec. 4. And in hindsight, their season turned in Week 7, when starting running back C.J. Anderson tore cartilage in his right knee, ending his season. With Anderson in the lineup, the Broncos went 5-2, averaging 111.6 rushing yards per game. Since then, they are 3-5 and averaging 70.0 rushing yards per game.
The difference is stark. No. 2 running back Devon- tae Booker is averaging 37.0 yards per game, with six starts. Justin Forsett, who joined the team earlier this month after he was waived by two other teams, is averaging 21.7 yards per game, with two starts. Anderson, in his seven starts, averaged 62.4 yards.
Kubiak’s offense, a traditional balanced set that calls for the run and pass games to work in concert, falls apart like a top-heavy snowman when the running backs can’t gain yards.
Denver ranks last in the NFL on third-down conversions in short yardage, when the the offense needs three or fewer yards. The Broncos rank 28th in first downs. And when they fail to run well early, and get a lead, they then stop running the ball in order to try and catch up. At that point, the playbook falls apart.
“It’s been disappointing offensively,” Kubiak said. “I can go to points and say that I thought we were making some good progress and started doing the things that we wanted to do. But obviously you look at the last four or five weeks, we have not run the ball.”
When the Broncos fell in Oakland on Nov. 6, a loss that flipped the power balance in the AFC West from the defending Super Bowl champions to the upstart Raiders, the difference between rushing ability was huge. The Raiders gained 218 yards on the ground, led by Latavius Murray‘s 114 yards. The Broncos gained 33.
“Other than tell you that I’m disappointed,” Kubiak said, “I have nothing else for you.”
Broncos running back Devontae Booker gets hit hard by Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Rakeem Nunez-Roches after a short gain Sunday night. John Leyba, The Denver Post
Kansas City Chiefs defensive back Daniel Sorensen knocks the ball from the hands of Denver Broncos running back Devontae Booker during Sunday’s game. John Leyba, The Denver Post