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For Broncos, more plays isn't always better

Peyton Manning says it's not now many plays you run, but which plays and at what tempo. David Zalubowski/AP Photo

As the league begins to work its way through the preseason schedule, there has been plenty of discussion about picking up the pace on offense, about running more plays, about overwhelming defenses with speed and volume.

The Broncos have been among the chorus at times, with quarterback Peyton Manning having discussed the benefits of more snaps on offense and offensive coordinator Adam Gase having considered the upside of going "pedal to the metal."

But a look at the Super Bowl era shows quality still trumps quantity among the league's elite, and as the offensive coaches continue to push the envelope, everyone will watch to see where the lines get drawn between too little, too many and just right.

Or as Manning put it:

"I think it's about the option of going fast, getting more snaps, if you see a point when it could help, especially here in Denver, at altitude. The ability to go different speeds is the key. But no matter what you do on offense, it's always going to be about execution, how well you can execute at whatever speed you're going. You can have great plays with a quick snap, no huddle, and you can huddle, take the play clock all the way to the end and still snap the ball for the best possible play in that situation. It will always be more about how you do it rather than how fast. You can have 50-play games where you were really good and 75-play games when it was a struggle."

But through the decades, especially those of the 16-game schedule, 1,100 plays has been a frontier of sorts. Last season the Broncos, with the league's No. 2 scoring offense, didn't quite make it, checking in at 1,090 plays on offense for the season.

Just three teams crossed the barrier -- New England, which led the NFL's need-for-speed movement when they cranked up the pace, Indianapolis, with rookie quarterback Andrew Luck behind center, and Detroit.

No trophy came with those efforts, however, as New England lost in the AFC Championship Game, Indianapolis lost in the Wild Card round and Detroit didn't make the playoffs. Just one team crossed the 1,100-play barrier in 2011 -- New Orleans -- and the Saints lost in the Divisional round that year.

From 2001 to 2010, no offense in the league finished a season with at least 1,100 plays.

And when it comes to those who turned all those plays into a title, let's just say it's been a while. Just two teams in the Super Bowl era have run 1,100 plays in a season and gone on to win the title -- the Raiders to close out a 1983 season in which they ran 1,101 plays and 1981, when the 49ers were constructing a dynasty and ran 1,106 plays in Bill Walsh's first championship season.

Certainly most of the big-play offenses that went on to titles didn't need as many snaps to get things done. The 1999 Rams, for example, were 23rd in offensive snaps that season at 994 but first in points (526) and first in yards per play (6.5).

But while the explosive offenses, those of the 500-point variety, that move on to the championship routinely feature elite quarterback play and a dynamic passing game, there is a component of a run game in all of the production against defenses arrayed to slow down the passing game. The '99 Rams were second in the league yards per carry (4.8).

The '94 49ers, with Hall of Famers Steve Young and Jerry Rice in the formation, were 11th in plays run (1,037), but first in points (505) and yards per play (5.8). They were also fifth in rushing attempts.

For the Broncos, the '98 team is the highest-scoring team in franchise history -- 501 points -- and was sixth in plays run (1,041) that year, third in yards per play (5.9) and second in points. The Broncos also were second in rushing attempts as Terrell Davis rumbled to 2,008 rushing yards on the way to a Super Bowl win.

Certainly it's all transition. Since 1990 there have been 15 seasons in which no teams crossed the 1,100-play barrier. But between 1978 and 1989 at least one team topped 1,100 plays in each of those seasons, with seven teams running at least 1,100 plays in 1981.

In '81, a different time in the league's offensive evolution, four of those seven teams ran the ball more than they threw it.

Perhaps the rule book, which leans decidedly to quarterbacks, receivers and high-scoring games, will push far more teams across the 1,100-play line. Perhaps it will be just another number lost in the dust of no-huddle play after no-huddle play that defensive coaches expect to be run in this and future seasons.

"But again, I think you look at the plays you run and maybe it's a factor of how long you held the ball, your ability to move the chains and make first downs," Manning said. "But you want wins, and you want points, and you don't necessarily need more plays to do that -- you just need good ones."