ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – He was a quarterback during his playing career and the NFL around him is a pass-happy league with rules that entice coaches to throw more. But Denver Broncos coach Gary Kubiak still believes in the running game.
Even as the Broncos have struggled to run through their first three games of the season, Kubiak has no intention to surrender the idea the Broncos can do it or will do it.
“I've said, 'Nothing is ever going perfectly smooth in this business,'" Kubiak said. "But it's a combination of a lot of things, but we need to run the ball, I believe we will run the ball better and that's important that we do it."
The numbers, even in a 3-0 start for the Broncos, are the ugliest of numerical ducklings at the moment. The Broncos are 31st in rushing at 57 yards per game, are tied for last in the league at 2.6 yards per carry and they have 21 rushing attempts – 31.8 percent of their total attempts in three games – for negative yardage or no gain, including 12 in the Broncos' Week 2 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.
But Kubiak believes in his system, his assistant coaches believe in the system, and the players have talked repeatedly of the past success of the system. In 20 previous seasons as either an offensive coordinator or head coach, Kubiak's teams have had a 1,000-yard rusher 15 times, with a back having topped 1,500 yards in seven of those seasons.
No matter the back with the ball or the line in front of him, the system has worked. And even as the Broncos appear to have found at least the beginnings of a groove in the passing game with the use of the pistol formation – Peyton Manning had his first 300-yard passing game of the season this past Sunday in Detroit – the Broncos are not going to go all-in on throw-it-around.
In the first three games, they have tried to run the ball at times and then left the idea behind in order to win the games, tipping things to Manning and the passing game. But Kubiak has maintained that the big plays in the offense won’t come as desired until the Broncos have a run game that gets defenses to respect the play-action plays.
“Like I said, we're continuing to work,’’ Manning said this week. “We've got a lot of changes, some new players and new guys doing different things. ... We all want to do our jobs to help our team win each week. ... We continue to try to see what works best for the players that we have playing. If we can keep improving and win games at the same time, that's what we talked about earlier. That's a real positive.’’
At least a piece of the issue has been the fact the Broncos hadn’t assembled their starting offensive line until late August – when they signed Evan Mathis – and the group did not play in a game until the regular-season opener. This week, against the Minnesota Vikings, there is a little additional uncertainty as well given that left tackle Ty Sambrailo missed significant practice time with an injured shoulder and Mathis was held out of Thursday’s practice with a hamstring injury.
But, again, the white flag won’t go up. The Broncos are 27th in carries – 22 per game – and are looking to boost that number as well to help keep the heat off Manning, but it’s difficult to run the ball more without some success doing it.
Offensive coordinator Rick Dennison was asked this week if he had seen progress in practice and if a solution could be found.
“Certainly we wouldn't come out here and practice if we didn't think that we wouldn't get it to work, so we're getting our work in," Dennison said.
But for the most part, help isn’t on the way. There aren’t players available on the street who could come in and turn the tide, so the Broncos will have to do it with the personnel on hand, with the plan that has worked so often in the past.
And when asked which of the team’s running backs would get the longest look in the coming weeks, Dennison said the decision was fairly simple as well.
“We have to find the holes and whichever guy is finding the holes, that's who will play," Dennison said. “ … I'm not saying who's in the game. We're going to play some guys and whoever finds the holes, that's who's playing. It's not that hard."