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Peyton Manning, Gary Kubiak will have to put Broncos' offense on solid ground

3/19/2015

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Since Gary Kubiak was named Denver Broncos head coach in January, he has taken several opportunities to say the team will run the ball more.

Kubiak has said "I just believe in it."

Offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, too, has said the team will run more, and has said, "It's something we've believed in."

Quarterback Peyton Manning, who took a $4 million pay cut to see what the Broncos could be, has said he'd be comfortable in any offense short of the wing-T.

But how much more running the Broncos do remains to be seen as Manning tries to mesh what he does with what Kubiak believes in, and has done as a part of his coaching career that includes three Super Bowl rings. If you draw the line at seasons with 500 rushing attempts -- a hefty total even before pass-happy times went to pass-giddy times -- it's clear Manning, Kubiak and Dennison will have to work it out because that would be uncharted ground for the quarterback.

Manning has never played in an offense that ran the ball 500 times and there would be a line around the block of offensive playcallers, offensive strategists, who would say "and why run the ball 500 times with Manning, moron?" But Manning has been a part of three seasons when his offense ran the ball 450 times and had four seasons when his team didn't run the ball at least 400 times.

Those sub-400-carry seasons were his rookie year in 1998 and a three-season run of 2008-10 before he missed the 2011 season with his fourth neck surgery.

By contrast, Kubiak has been a part of offenses that ran at least 500 times in a season nine times and been part of offenses that ran the ball at least 450 times in 12 seasons.

It's not to say Manning hasn't played in an offense that succeeded at running the ball. Edgerrin James won league rushing titles in 1999 and 2000, with 1,553 yards and 1,709 yards rushing respectively, and had two other 1,500-yard rushing seasons (2004-05) for the Colts.

The rub, and it may be a small one, or at least one that is lost in a sort of chicken-or-egg argument, is all of those 1,500-yard seasons for James came in Manning's first seven seasons in the league. The question then becomes: did things change because the Colts didn't have James, or was Manning taking more of the offense into his own hands to get the ball into Reggie Wayne's and Marvin Harrison's hands?

His growth as a quarterback, the Colts pushing the no-huddle offense and Manning doing more at the line of scrimmage meant more of the results fell on his shoulders. That's been true in Denver as well. But the postseason has not always been kind. In the past two playoff exits, including a 35-point loss in Super Bowl XLVIII, Denver's offense faltered when Manning struggled and it didn't have the run to fall back on.

The chase for a franchise quarterback most often separates the teams with the trophies and the ones without them in the NFL. But over the past 16 years, at least one Super Bowl team has emerged from a small pool of 500-carry teams seven times -- over that span the highest total of 500-carry teams in any year was eight in 2008, and there have been four or fewer in nine of those years.

So how the Broncos find the common ground between Manning and Kubiak will be one of the most important items on their to-do list in the coming months, perhaps the most important item after a rare retooling following a 12-win year.

Manning looked uncharacteristically out of sorts in the Broncos' playoff loss in January, making choices with the ball that brought a scowl to his face and the punter on the field. And the Broncos have watched four consecutive division titles turn into zero championships.

The potential is certainly there, both in personnel and talent, for the Broncos to find the balance between what's been done and what needs to be done. But Manning has to be on board with the changes, while Kubiak and Dennison have to show him why he should be.