- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Staff Writer
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Talk to offensive playcallers in the NFL about the endless pursuit of points in the now pass-happy world and the number 500 will eventually come up.
Or at least it will come up after a short lecture about how statistics do not really tell the whole story after they have waded through a mountain of data to make a call sheet.
But 500 points in a season has routinely been the Holy Grail for those who draw up plays. Former Denver Broncos head coach Mike Shananan often spoke wistfully of his only 500-point team in Denver -- in 1998 -- which is still the only 500-point team in the franchise’s history.
Which brings us to the current Broncos, who are on the staggering, albeit unrealistic, pace to be the league’s first 600-point team. The Broncos, at 42.3 points per game, are averaging 10.3 more points per game than any other team in the league.
While it's only been three games and it is a small sample size, they are the only team that has already crossed the 100-point barrier. Quarterback Peyton Manning has thrown more touchdown passes (12) than 29 teams have scored overall.
As tight end Julius Thomas put it earlier this season, "That's Madden right there.''
Yet history shows the highest of the offensive high rollers have rarely found Super Bowl gold at the end of the rainbow.
It is a question I’ve put to more than a few offensive coordinators through the years: Why is the 500-point barrier considered to be the benchmark for an offense that isn’t just good, but special, yet those offenses rarely power a champion?
The late Mike Heimerdinger, who was part of a 500-point offense in Denver as a wide receivers coach in 1998, one that did win the Super Bowl, simply put it “because at some point, no matter how good you are at throwing it, how good your [quarterback] is at spinning it, you’re going to have to run the ball on somebody late in the year and if you lean too far one way, it’s not going to be there when you need it.’’
And there just might be something to that.
Of the 16 teams that have scored at least 500 points in a season since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, only four went on to win the Super Bowl -- the 1999 Rams (526 points), the 2009 Saints (510 points), the 1994 49ers (505 points) and those ’98 Broncos (501 points). Included in those impressive, sling-it-around teams that didn’t get it done are the 16-0 Patriots of 2007 (589 points) and the 15-1 Vikings (556 points) in 1998.
But the ’99 Rams scored 32.9 points per game as the Greatest Show on Turf, and they were fifth in the league in rushing (128.7 yards per game). The ’09 Saints were sixth in the league in rushing (131.6 yards per game). The 1994 49ers were sixth in the league in rushing (118.6 yards per game). And the 1998 Broncos, with Hall of Famer John Elway at quarterback, were second in the league in rushing at 154.3 yards per game.
There are also two members of the 500-point club who went to a Super Bowl, but lost in the title game to a top five rushing attack. The ’83 Redskins (541 points) were third in the league in rushing and the 2001 Rams (503 points) were fifth in the league in rushing.
The ’07 Patriots were 13th in rushing; the ’98 Vikings were 11th.
The only member of the 500-point club with a top-six rushing attack that didn’t at least play in the Super Bowl were the 2011 Saints -- 510 points, sixth in the league in rushing and lost in the NFC divisional round. The 1999-2001 Rams teams, with Mike Martz calling plays, are worth a look, especially since Martz was a coaching mentor for current Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase; some of Martz's influence can be seen in the current Broncos' attack.
The 2000 Rams scored more they did in 1999 (540 points compared to 526), but were 17th in rushing and lost in the wild-card round. The '01 Rams crossed the 500-point barrier and got the rushing attack back in the top five, and that team played in the Super Bowl.
Now, the argument that there is still a place for running the ball smacks a little of remember-when grumpiness, even for the most elite of offenses.
If memory serves, last season’s Super Bowl between the two teams that ran the ball the most in the postseason was decided on a goal-line stand because one of those teams elected not to pound the ball a distance of roughly six feet to go get the trophy. So, run to set up the pass, pass to set up the run. Whichever you choose, the run component is going to have to be there.
What does it mean? It means the Broncos will need a little more from the three-man rotation at running back than they’re getting. Not much more -- they’re 14th in rushing at the moment -- especially when things get squeaky tight down the stretch.
For his part, Manning has played in one 500-point offense previously in his career. The 2004 Colts, with three 1,000-yard receivers, rolled up 522 points on the way to a 12-4 finish. And with the league's 15th-ranked rushing attack, they lost in the divisional round a week after throttling the Broncos in the AFC wild-card game.
So, points are great, points are exciting and throwing the ball to do it all is what most people say they want. But even the most elite of offenses have had to get their hands dirty from time to time, at least if they want to wrap them around the trophy.
And so will the Broncos before 2013 is said and done.