First postseason look: Offense

In looking at the offense over the past couple of weeks, and mostly watching the film of the Chargers game, there was something awfully familiar about the play of Tim Tebow. What I'm referring to may surprise a lot of people - I don't mean his college career or tendencies, although they certainly play into this. I’m thinking of things much older, really. While reviewing Sunday's game - the second half in particular - I noticed something that may be helpful to the Broncos over time. 

The more things change, the more they stay the same. When Tebow was lined up in a classic T formation, one running back short of the old T that Chicago used to beat the Redskins in the most lopsided championship in history, 72-0, the line usually blocked straight on. In modern times, of course, it’s just called a ‘pro set’, and the QB has a running back on either side (one may be a fullback). When they lined up and had Zane Beadles pull after the snap, it was designed as a running play. With Tebow keeping a fair number of them (I apologize - I haven’t had time to count them exactly, although I'll get into greater detail as the offseason wears on), he’s running in a system that has similarities to the old single wing offense. The ball is snapped, and in this case, we do know who’s going to get it, which is the modern approach.

That doesn’t mean that the next coach can’t make further use of Tebow’s unusual skillset and look for a RB who can take a snap while moving from, say, left to right (weakside to strongside). You usually use two RBs on such a play, and any of the three - Tebow or either RB - can take the ball. The line will inevitably pull or trap - lots of movement on the OL is one of the hallmarks of the old single wing. Tebow plays like an old single wing QB at times anyway - it would be a lot of fun to see them use that fact, at times, to throw the single wing’s old variations at the modern defense. It’s definitely not a full-time system, but it’s one of the options that Tebow’s strengths make possible and perhaps effective.

Tebow is playing like it, after all. When he just takes off and it seems that neither he nor the defense knows what will happen next, it reminds me of the old Michigan offense, called the Mad Magicians. You never knew who was going to have the ball. With some work on ball skills, which he already has a grasp of, Tebow and the RBs could have a field day with that. Over time, defenses will get enough film on him to develop some remedies, but it’s something that can be hard to stop - if the QB doesn’t always know what he’ll do (except examine the field and run like heck towards daylight), it’s a bit tough to prepare for. That’s a great advantage. If Tebow is able to master passing accurately, and I know how hard he works, what I’m describing becomes even more dangerous.

In the modern game, the linebacker often does know where the ball will be, and it involves the guard and running back. For a rookie guard, Beadles is unusually good at pulling, and he was absolutely excellent in the SD game. I’ve heard from a person or two that he’s just an average player. In a way, that’s fair enough, too - he’s a rookie and playing next to a rookie center, and he was thrown to the wolves this year. He got his backside kicked lots of times - welcome to the NFL, Zane. That’s why Mike Shanahan, like many (most) coaches doesn’t play OL draftees in the first year - just learning the NFL takes at least that long. Beadles got a lot of on the job training, and Chris Kuper is also talented at pulling and trapping, and probably helped the young player out.

But in any case, Beadles is doing an exceptional job when he pulls and he’s catching on to the NFL game, and it really showed against SD. A line that can pull and trap can be used in a lot of ways. I keep hearing questions about the OL - will they go to a zone-blocking scheme again, or go down the road that they’re on. I don’t know - the next coach will answer that. I think that this group of five young starters can handle it either way. Although they are talking about letting RT Ryan Harris test the market, i think that they’ll be tempted to meet any offer. It’s a good group, although they need someone to back them up when one is out injured.

But there’s a downside to having the pulling guard leading the rushing play. If the linebacker reads the running back through the guard - in other words, if the guard pulls - the LB knows that the runner will be going to the hole that the guard is running to, the LB can beat the blocker (often the RT) who is coming out and if the LB can slip that block, he can stop the runner. With Tebow’s ability to run, however, that’s not always going to be true, and that’s going to play merry hob with the defense. The LB who follows the pulling guard may find himself guarding air, and Tebow is suddenly free on the weakside, with Ryan Clady leading the way and taking an angle on the weakside LB, who tends to be pulled to the strongside as he identifies, just for a moment, the faked running play. That’s all it takes to get a RB or a QB open on the weakside, especially if the WRs are bunched on the strongside.

The reason that I open with this is that Tebow is himself an unusual combination. You can use him in many ways, and that opens up the options of the offense. A coach who understands what that can do for the offense is essential to the success of the team in the next season, hopefully 2011. That’s about it for my contribution to the conversation, but I wanted to show why I think that it’s very important.

It is true that Josh McDaniels was working with Tebow heavily on his passing, and while I do give any rookie a pass on accuracy, I don’t accept the theory that because other QBs have had poor completion rates and gone on to victory, that Tebow will necessarily be one of them. I do hope so, and I take for granted that he’s going to be working very hard on that part of his game. He’s improved his mechanics, is working on the footwork, reads defenses as well as I’d ask a rookie to, and again - I tend to wait and see how well a player does. I’m just not into predictions, really, and that should NOT be read as a negative on Tebow. What he does right now is confusing to defenses. That’s great, and I hope that the next coach builds on that. Otherwise, with sufficient film on his tendencies, he’s going to be somewhat easily defensed.  With a coach who loves misdirection, but understands the importance of the basics as well, Tebow is a heck of a weapon.

Right now, it’s mostly been very effective; if you look at Tebow’s TD percentage, it’s great. He’s also already set a rookie record with his feet and arm by running for and throwing for TDs, so he’s obviously well on his way. Will his accuracy improve? Hopefully, sure. He’s got other talents, and he’ll work hard on it. He’s about where I’d ask him to be, and the rest will play out over time. Getting a coach that’s fine with this is essential, though. Imagine trying to confine Tebow to the pocket? It’s not going to work. He should develop many of those pocket skills, though, if he wants to be the player that I think that he can be.

Oddly, I’m not sure that Josh McDaniels would have been as happy with Tebow over time. I could be way off on this, since McD drafted him (so much for the idea that McD never did anything right). However - McD was adamant that he wanted to develop Tebow’s pocket skills. From what I’ve seen so far, that’s just not Tim’s strong suit. He seems to view play calls as ‘theories’ and is very capable of pulling out of them and ‘making something happen’. It’s the antithesis of the New England game, but it seems to be working awfully well. That makes sense, too - the basis of the troubles on offense have been the poor protection. The line seemed to play better all the time, and additionally, Tebow makes the defenders pause, something they did not have to do with the scheme that Kyle Orton played. That additional moment of time can be used in many ways.

Running Back

Knowshon Moreno has had injury problems, and that’s something that I worried about before he was drafted. Several good people considered him a once-in-a-decade runner, and if that was true, he would be worth a 1st-round pick. I’m not sure that he’ll live up to that, but he’s fine for Denver when healthy - perhaps not the star that they'd hoped for, but a good, solid runner. Not blazingly fast, but good through the tackles despite his size, and he both blocks and receives well, which are essential to Denver’s success.

Correll Buckhalter seemd to improve as the season went on. He’s also professional enough to ‘read’ Tebow, as he did on Tim’s big TD run against Oakland, which was a total mess in theory. Tebow recalled running the wrong play, but Correll immediately noted what was happening and burst out to block for TT, making the play possible. He’s also doing a great job of filling in for Moreno. Buck is old enough that they need a replacement in the wings, and Lance Ball seems to have earned that job. He’s raw, but he’s a talented young guy. Not a star, but a good role player, and he’s come on of late, mostly through experience. Could they use one more? Hopefully LenDale White will bounce back well, but nobody has too many good RBs. They tend to be breakable. I was surprised at McDaniels' use of the primary back, and i’m afraid that it contributed to the injury issues with Moreno. He belongs in a rotation of backs, to lengthen his career. It could be just one other, but two would be better, in my eyes. I’m not in favor of the one-back system due to the injury factor. Opinions vary.

Wide Receiver

The easiest group to talk about has to be the receivers - talk about a wealth of players! Eric Decker’s ability in the kick return game seemed locked in until Cassius Vaughn gave the Broncos their first and only special teams TD of the season, and the first since Eddie Royal in San Diego last October. They can fight this one out - Denver wins either way. Tebow to Decker is already becoming a mantra. Demaryius Thomas runs routes better than was advertised, and will be a big contributor over time. However, there’s someone in his way. Two someone’s, really. Eddie Royal is a slot guy - no problem there. Jabar Gaffney showed again versus SD that he’s one of the most underrated WRs in the game - This season, he nailed 65 receptions for 875 yards and a 13.5-yard average. Who brought him in? Oh, yeah, that guy....didn’t know offenses, did he?

And even Gaff’s work paled in comparison to Brandon Lloyd’s, another McD acquisition who’d never amount to anything. Tebow’s accuracy on the move, and/or his willingness to stand in the pocket will be tested if Lloyd is to reprise his league-leading performance. Lloyd was incredible this year, making circus catches with metronomic regularity. As usual, he was a delight to watch against SD, and his deceptive ways on the crossing route to the end zone for a TD were splendid. He’s being double teamed regularly, but that’s opened the door for Gaffney, Decker and even the oft-ignored Royal.

Other than Royal, these are all guys from the coach who, in the common wisdom, ruined the offense. Nonsense, of course - it’s true that the line and the coaching didn’t have an answer for the approach of blitzing Orton - and Orton needed to get the ball out faster, although he shouldn’t be asked to do that with two DL players on his back - but that’s been greatly fixed. Remember  - the line at that point was slipshod, and the running game nonexistent. Both are developing, especially as the line has more time together. I’m not taking away from Tebow’s effect, but these other things are happening at the same time.

Tebow just runs away from danger, does it well, and few QBs have that kind of speed and size when they run. It suits the line’s point in development (with Beadles and JD Walton both rookies and still learning) much more appropriately, although I would have loved to see Tebow get a full year’s teaching before he got on the field. Even so - TT’s the right QB for the team as it stands right now.

Tight End/Fullback

There have been a series of Richard Quinn sightings recently, and more were made at the SD game. Quinn played some fullback and some TE, as well as contributing on ST. He looked half lost at FB, which makes sense (it’s a new position that he was drafted into duty for when Spencer Larsen was injured), but Quinn played well at TE and on ST.

By the way, I was watching a two-way player for Stanford on Monday who reminded me of a slightly larger, more durable Larsen - Owen Marecic. He’s probably not going to be a star, but someone will take and like him. He plays LB and FB, and he’s a football player. There are few two-way players, but he seemed to thrive on it. Fun to watch. Against Notre Dame this year, he became the first player to score both an offensive and defensive TD in the same game since current Chargers S Eric Weddle did it in 2006 for Utah. Even more remarkably, Marecic did so in the span of just 13 seconds - scoring as a fullback and then on an interception return. Great story there, for the draft and the bowl geeks like myself. Spencer Larsen himself is going through a long bout of injuries - sadly, that’s limited his effectiveness. Someone will love stealing Marecic in the 5th round or so.

Who have I missed? Ah, the TEs other than Quinn, which right now includes the injured Dan Gronkowski and veteran Daniel Graham. DG is still tough and is putting out the effort, but age is slowly coming on, and the Broncos will need to deal with the TE position in the offseason. That’s okay - it’s been coming for a while.

Summary

Denver now has a QB who is scheme-specific (if there still is one), who can deal with the sometimes porous (and quickly improving) OL, and who’s getting a decent set of three RBs, and great receivers who love to block, which works in Tebow’s favor. That was what made the SD game fun to watch, and it should leave Denver fans with a lot of hope for the next season.

And, the options that Denver now has are nearly endless. They need a new coach who loves the idea of opening up the offense in ways that have usually not been effective - they require a specific type of player, and Tebow is that. They do need some depth on the OL and TE needs to be looked at. There are also very old ideas that could be made new again, and there is the option of developing new ways to use this backfield and WR/TE corps. Does this seem too light-hearted for the kind of season that Denver fans have had to endure?

It shouldn’t. Look at Doug’s numbers on Tebow’s TDs. Look at Lloyd having led the league in yards with 1,448 on 77 receptions, for a staggering 18.8-yard average, and Gaffney with his 65 catches. Those things will open the line - Denver just faced too many blitzes early, with a makeshift line and a poor running game. They have an answer for that now. Are there needs? Yes. Is the offense in very good shape to deal with next year?

You betcha. Go Broncos!

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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