No battle plan survives contact with the enemy. On paper, it made all the sense in the world for Gary Kubiak to reimagine the Broncos offense, emphasizing the run more, and lining up his quarterback in different positions to keep opponents off-balance. In practice, Peyton Manning doesn’t like taking snaps from under center, and doesn’t excel at it. Last night, the Broncos found compromise.
The Broncos went 1-0 thanks to some defensive fireworks against the Ravens, who just may not be very good. They made it 2-0 against the Chiefs on the backs of a mid-game adjustment, when Manning abandoned taking snaps under center and moved back to the shotgun. They remained undefeated last night with a gameplan that still wasn’t quite as balanced as Kubiak would like, and may prove too predictable against better defenses, but made the offense look a hell of a lot better. Everyone appears comfortable in the pistol.
The Broncos took all their snaps (save three red-zone runs) out of Manning’s favored shotgun, seven yards back of the line of scrimmage, or the pistol, which lined up up five yards back. He looked good, completing 31 of 42 passes for 324 yards and two touchdowns. Manning downplayed the instant effect of the pistol, but conceded that the offense is finding comfort in its consistency.
“You have to play these games in order to get those plays, right? Find out about them. That’s how you play fast and you play with confidence.”
The pistol isn’t new to anyone here—Kubiak used it in Houston, and it was in Denver’s playbook under Adam Gase last season, even if it was rarely broken out. At its best, the pistol combines the best of both worlds—the extra time and the better vision afforded by the shotgun, with fewer negative yards in play on each handoff—and the two conceded yards weren’t hindering Manning last night.
It’s still predictable. Kubiak’s big thing, if and when he can get his run game going, is that an I-formation doesn’t tip which way a handoff might go, while the back has to commit to one side or other of the QB before the ball is snapped in the shotgun. That didn’t come into play much last night, because the Broncos barely ran: just 18 combined carries for 42 yards.
Kubiak says it’s still a team trying to find its sweet spot, and he knows that ultimately the Broncos will have to run, even if Manning felt right at home throwing the ball 42 times.
“I think we protected him better than we have,” Kubiak said. “I know he likes to see the field from back there. We continue to work both (under center, the Pistol and the shotgun) and I think you’ll continue to see both, but I was trying to find some balance with what we’re doing offensively. But I think he played really, really well.”
The pistol isn’t a permanent solution—the Broncos broke it out especially for the Lions because it so stymied Detroit in a game against Green Bay last season. But it’s a transitional arrangement good enough to beat mediocre teams long enough until something lasting can be found.
The beautiful thing for the Broncos is that they have plenty of time to work this out. They’re 3-0, and maybe lucky to be there, but more than that, their offense is and even under the best of circumstances will be secondary to their success. Denver’s defense is otherworldly right now, with a +6 turnover differential that probably can’t be maintained, but the combination of Wade Phillips mayhem-heavy packages and substitutions, a formidable pass rush, and a secondary that might be the best in the game means the Broncos will be causing havoc with opposing offenses even when they aren’t taking the ball away.
But the offense? Well, that is the question. There’s talent here, though the offensive line has been a work in progress and the run game hasn’t come near the promise it showed in the second half of last season. Teams have won Super Bowls with decent, not great, offenses when paired with defenses like Denver’s, but that run game is a big, big concern.
A one-dimensional offense is especially vulnerable when it rests on the surgically fused spine of Peyton Manning. Even in last night’s supposed rejuvenation, his “big” throw—a ball to DeMaryius Thomas that traveled about 35 yards in the air—was underwhelming. It wobbled, which is fine, Manning’s long balls have always fluttered, but it was underthrown. Rather than hitting Thomas in stride, it made the receiver stop, come back, and go up and over Darius Slay to come down with it.
Manning’s arm strength is a big question. It could develop over the course of the year—maybe it takes the old man time to ramp up—or it could get even worse with the accumulation of dings and bruises and strains that build up over a season, like a quad injury suffered in Week 15 that saw Manning close out 2014 looking completely washed up. Even now, looking more like a competent, capable quarterback, if no longer a great one, he’s in near-constant pain. Is that sustainable until January? Until February?
But Manning is still tough, and smart, and unflappable, and too good at what he does for the Broncos to force him too firmly into something alien. Gary Kubiak’s schemes aren’t just about finding a more balanced offense; they’re about protecting the most important part of that offense. Sticking Manning close to the line to maximize the ground game also gives him less time to escape sacks—he was taken down just once yesterday, after seven sacks in the first two games. An offense that suits Manning’ style of play isn’t necessarily one that would best suit another QB without his crumbling body.
It’s a high-wire act, but not one different in kind than what every team has to balance. Talent is one thing, and schemes are another, and every NFL team has to find the right scheme for the right personnel. Most teams never do; the best create collective magic far beyond what individual players are capable of (look what happens to receivers who head to New England, or corners who leave Seattle). But the Broncos have the unenviable extra task of wresting an unripe offense into a shape that serves both its need to score points and its need to preserve a quarterback who may be too inflexible to meet it halfway.