Montee Ball had a rough 2014. After being selected by the Denver Broncos in the second round of the 2013 draft, Ball went on to have a productive rookie season, backing up Knowshon Moreno, rushing for 559 yards (4.7 YPC) and 4 touchdowns, while hauling in 20 passes for 145 yards.
That year, as the Broncos made their Super Bowl run down the stretch, Ball contributed mightily, even averaging a whopping 6.48 yards per carry over the last seven games of the season. He started to show flashes of perhaps why John Elway so famously compared him to former Broncos great—Terrell Davis.
Following the Broncos disappointing loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII, Moreno entered free agency unrestricted. Elway and company, feeling confident in the development of their shiny new second round pick, elected to let Moreno walk, passing the torch to Ball as the team’s starting running back.
Throughout organized team activities and training camp, Ball earned his spot with the first team, and was poised to hit the regular season with every opportunity to succeed. However, Ball didn’t have the success initially that he had hoped for. And then he injured his groin.
In the three games Ball started in 2014, he rushed for just 165 yards on 49 carries (3.36 YPC) and one touchdown. His slow start can possibly be attributed to a combination of an under-performing offensive line, a pass-first offensive mentality, and a 7-pound weight gain.
“When I was playing, I was at 220 — 222 or somewhere around there,” Ball said. “I was comfortable with it, but I want to get down to 215. That’s my best weight. As a rookie I was 217-218. I felt really good that year. I felt good. I need to get back to that. I plan on getting back to that weight, but with more flexibility.”
There’s no question in my mind that Ball’s weight gain played a role in his issues early on in the 2014 season, and it may have even contributed to his groin injury. When he went down in Week 5 vs. the Arizona Cardinals, it would cause him to miss the next five games.
“It was a freak accident, freak injury, but it comes with the sport,” Ball told us. “It’s all about battling through and as of right now, I’m hungry. I’m hungry. I had the most rest. That’s why I’m training a lot earlier than a lot of players because they played all 16-17 games, whatever it was. For me I rested most of the season so I’m ready to get back to it. I’m ready to get back to playing the sport that I love.”
Ball and the Broncos felt good enough about the progress of his health to have him suit up and play in Week 11 on the road vs. the St. Louis Rams. Alas, he re-aggravated his groin injury, before he could even touch the ball once. He would go on to be placed on season-ending injured reserve.
“It was tough. It was tough. Going to the sideline once it happened again, holding back tears and stuff like that because I had so many friends, family, here up in the stands, wearing my jersey, that took time out of their day, took money out of their pockets to come watch me play, so it kind of hurt a little bit. But I believe everything happens for a reason. I’m not playing the woe-is-me card."
The season didn’t end the way Ball, or his team, had envisioned when they reported for training camp last summer. Since the Broncos fateful Divisional Round loss to the Indianapolis Colts, a lot has changed at Dove Valley, including a new head coach and staff. Fortunately for Ball, Gary Kubiak and Rick Dennison are the ultimate NFL running back whisperers.
If anyone can resurrect Ball’s career and put him back on track to being a productive NFL running back, it’s Kubiak. Kubiak’s coaching resume includes the prolific likes of Terrell Davis and Arian Foster. Arguably Kubiak’s greatest achievement in coaching an individual player, is his most recent.
Under Kubiak (offensive coordinator), journeyman running back Justin Forsett had a renaissance in 2014 for the Baltimore Ravens, rushing for 1,266 yards and 8 touchdowns and earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl. Kubiak’s zone blocking scheme, a system he learned under former back-to-back Super Bowl champion head coach Mike Shanahan, puts instinctual one-cut downhill runners, like Ball, in a position to succeed on every carry.
For Ball, he’s looking forward to working in the new system.
“I had the opportunity to talk to Coach Kubiak,” Ball said. “He called me. He told me he’s excited to coach me, excited for me to be in the system. The zone-blocking system I guess that’s what’s coming in. I did that all throughout college. C.J.’s going to fit the system as well. I think all the running backs will. We’re excited. He’s excited. Just as long as everyone’s excited to get this thing rolling and to get us back to the Super Bowl, I think it’s going to work for everybody. Coach Kubiak is a great coach. He’s going to put everybody in the right position to succeed.”
When Ball went down with his groin injury last season, it created a vacuum that was filled with gusto by C.J. Anderson. Down the stretch, Anderson dominated the NFL and earned a trip to the Pro Bowl in his own right—a feat rarely accomplished by a former undrafted rookie free agent.
Ball was happy for his teammate, and looks forward to competing with him when the team reconvenes on April 13th.
“First off, hats off to C.J. because no matter what he seized the opportunity,” Ball said. “I told him, seize this opportunity because you have a great opportunity ahead of you. With me being out you have the opportunity to take the spot and he did. He did a great job with that. I like it. I like the competition that’s coming because I think that’s what drives the team and that’s what makes everybody better around us. If we’re working to become the starter, working, working, working, we’re going to keep that offense going and the defense is going to feed off the offense, the offense is going to feed off the defense and we’re going to be a better team.”
For now, Ball is taking the advice of his running backs coach, Eric Studesville. He’s not dwelling on the past, but he also understands that in the NFL, you’re constantly auditioning and looking to prove yourself.
“I talked to my running back coach and he told me ‘Don’t come back and act like you have to prove a lot. We saw what you did your first year when you backed up Knowshon (Moreno).’ Me and him took the offense to the Super Bowl with the run game. So they know what I’m capable of doing. Obviously in this business you have to keep showing it. So I didn’t have the opportunity last season, but I’m going to come back, work my way back up to the starting position and show everybody what type of back that I am.”
Both Ball and Anderson are good fits for what Kubiak and Dennison do best with the zone scheme. In his presser at the NFL Combine in Indy, John Elway made it clear that he still believes in Montee Ball and that there will be room for both players to make their mark on the offense.
“Montee just had a tough year with injuries last year,” Elway said. “He had that groin injury that he could never really come back [from]. I still think that Montee is a very good running back. It’s just a matter of getting him in the right spot—the right position—and having him be healthy and having him get some confidence. In this offense we’re going to use more than one back and I believe Montee can be very helpful to our football team and do good things for us.”
Don’t count Montee Ball out just yet, Broncos Country. He’s been working hard to get his conditioning and body right and he’s as committed as he’s ever been to being great. Expect to see big things from him in 2015.