When Gary Kubiak took his first head coaching job with the Houston Texans back in 2006, for the next several years, they were considered “Broncos South”. Kubiak deployed the same zone running scheme and philosophy that he learned working under Mike Shanahan with the Denver Broncos.
Kubiak also signed many former Broncos players. It might have taken some time, but he eventually built a productive offense, modeled around Shanahan’s West Coast zone scheme. However, one of the reasons it took some time to successfully implement is because he had to assemble the correct personnel – players who fit the system, especially along the offensive line.
As the new head coach of the Broncos, Kubiak and his boss, John Elway, are in the process of getting the band back together. Rick Dennision has officially signed on as offensive coordinator—a position he’s held with the team before. The Broncos have been “talking” to Wade Phillips since last week’s Senior Bowl to fill their vacant defensive coordinator position and finally got the opportunity to “officially” interview him today in Denver.
There’s no question that Kubiak and Dennison’s first order of business will be to revitalize the Broncos ground game, by way of the zone running scheme. But just like his time in Houston, cultivating the right fit in the personnel department will be paramount to succeeding. Of course, the one big factor that could drastically change the offensive approach is Peyton Manning.
Manning is a creature of habit and he likes what he likes. And he’s been wildly successful doing things his way in the NFL. But by the time the 2015 season begins, he’ll be 39 years old. And as a guy staring down 40, like his peers in real life, he’s probably not too interested in learning an entirely new way of life, or a new system.
Kubiak, Dennsion and Manning – the new offensive brain-trust triumvirate in Denver – will have to find common ground. For Manning, it was the injury bug that ultimately compromised his effectiveness on the grid-iron and arguably cost the Broncos a deep playoff run this year. But a makeover in offensive identity – switching to a “run first” approach, could have benefits that go beyond the scoreboard.
Keeping Manning healthy for a full 16-game season and beyond, will benefit the Broncos, as a team, just as much as scoring a lot of points. You can believe that Manning will be keenly interested in implementing anything that will effectuate that result. Utilizing the run to set up the pass will help take the pressure off of Manning’s shoulders.
It worked for his boss, John Elway, in the late ‘90s and it could work for Manning – if he’ll let it. However, we won’t know for certain how the new brain-trust in Denver will translate these different offensive components to the field, until we see the Broncos in action this spring and in training camp. The word on the street is that Manning will return for 2015, pending a physical, so fans might as well start thinking along those lines.
But what about the rest of the offensive personnel? Do the Broncos, as currently constituted, have the right players to effectively run Kubiak’s offense? For the most part, they do. Ryan Clady was drafted by Shanahan in 2008 because of his proficiency as a zone scheme left tackle. Clady will fit right in to Kubiak’s system. He’s light on his feet, ultra-athletic, and able to get to the second level.
Clady recently made it clear to Andrew Mason that he looks forward to going back to the scheme he was drafted to play in. Via Mason’s piece.
"I love it. That's what (former head coach Mike) Shanahan drafted me to do, and I'm good at it," Clady told Mason. "So I'm definitely down for the zone scheme."
Will Montgomery, who started eight games at center (including playoffs) this year, would be a good fit for zone, as would Louis Vasquez, who started games at both right guard and right tackle in 2014. The question for Kubiak and Dennision will be where to play Vasquez in their system. He was a first team All-Pro at right guard in 2013, so it makes a lot of sense to put him back where he’s had the most success.
However, Orlando Franklin, who was moved to left guard (controversially) from right tackle in 2014, is a player who I’m not sure fits into Kubiak’s scheme. He was arguably the best offensive lineman for the Broncos in 2014, but he now enters free agency unrestricted. With his dedication, intensity and physicality, the right coaching could make a difference in shaping him into a fit in the zone scheme.
Manuel Ramirez is not a good fit. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the Broncos move on from him. Ramirez played very well at times this year, but he was too inconsistent. I’m not sure that he has the athleticism and quickness for Kubiak’s scheme.
At running back, C.J. Anderson is the perfect fit for the zone scheme. He’ll be able to utilize his excellent vision, make his cut and get down-hill. Kubiak’s system will also serve to get Anderson in space and utilize his ability to make the first guy(s) miss.
Montee Ball, before he was placed on injured reserve, dropped some pounds to get down to his college playing weight. In college, Ball was known for his jump-cut and vision, although we haven’t seen that production as much in his short pro career. But he could experience a career renaissance in Kubiak’s system.
Virgil Green could be an excellent fit, with his ability to block well and underrated athleticism. I’d like to see him used more in the passing game – perhaps in the play-action. Like Julius Thomas, Green is an unrestricted free agent, but can be brought back on the relative cheap. He is one of the keys to making the run game work.
The Broncos will likely look to the draft to fill their holes on the offensive line. There are some great prospects in this draft class, both inside and out. It’s time that the Broncos draft their center of the future. Look how quickly the Dallas Cowboys fortunes changed with a couple of productive drafts to bolster their O-Line. If the Broncos can avoid drafting another Michael Schofield, and hit on one or two rookie linemen, the Kubiak system could hit pay-dirt sooner than later.
Especially with a future Hall of Famer at quarterback. Remember, Matt Schaub had three 4,000-yard passing seasons in Kubiak's system and went to the Pro Bowl twice. I'm sure the Broncos triumvirate can put their heads together and create something unique, but familiar to the blueprint Elway has in mind.