Those inclined to put a wager on the Super Bowl 50 MVP will have to lay down a lot of cash to make any kind of a return on Cam Newton. He’s the runaway favorite, according to oddshark.com’s numbers as of Jan. 26, at -140. Peyton Manning comes in as the Broncos player with the best odds at +245. Folks looking to pad their wallet with lesser risk have several Broncos to choose from at +2200: linebacker Von Miller, wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, and running back C.J. Anderson. Ronnie Hillman, who joins Anderson in the Denver backfield, comes in with a slew of other Broncos all the way down at +6600. Those so inclined to wager on such events might be wise to avoid putting their money on either Hillman or Anderson, if there’s anything to be learned from the experience of Broncos Ring of Fame center Tom Nalen; he suggests the Broncos may still be at least a few years away from producing a truly explosive rushing attack.
The commonly held belief that the Denver Broncos needed to run the football well to beat the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship did not play out as expected. Denver rushed for only 99 yards on 30 attempts, a 3.3 average and a far cry from the 4.2 they averaged during the regular season. New England, as expected, stacked the box against Denver and neutralized the running game for much of the afternoon. Only a 30-yard gain in the fourth quarter by Anderson out of a power formation brought any degree of respectability to Denver’s run game. It was the only formation that really seemed to work at all against New England, begging some to wonder why they didn’t go to it more frequently.
Nalen was posed that very question when he joined Notaro & Big Dee on Mile High Sports AM 1340. He says the reason Denver didn’t use it more frequently, despite its success, is because it’s simply not something they practiced or game-planned to do. Nalen was part of that same style of game for most of his time in Denver.
“In that zone-style running game,” he said, “you always have to go back to it because that’s what you practice. You run powers and counters and traps to break the monotony of the play-calling or to give the defense a different look. If it hits, maybe you come back to it, but I don’t think a steady diet of it [is good] because I don’t think they get the reps at it like they do with the zone blocking.”
The similarity between Nalen’s teams of the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s and the current iteration of the Denver Broncos is the direct result of one man. Gary Kubiak, now Broncos head coach and chief play caller, was offensive coordinator in Denver from 1995 until 2005 when he became the head coach of the Houston Texans. While many things have changed in the NFL, Kubiak’s play calling and the mentality he has for his offensive line remains the same from then to now.
“There were games when I was playing,” says Nalen, “when Gary would call [them], we would run some traps and it would work. We’d run it a few times but then we’d never see it again because I think the defenses see that a lot from other teams. They go ‘Oh crap, they’ve got a trap put in the game plan this week, this is how they’re going to do it.’ We always fell back to the zone blocking because it’s comfortable. If you’re practicing a 10-play period of straight runs, eight of those are going to be zone blocking. You should become proficient at it. What are we? Week 20 of the season? You should be pretty good at it, whereas you’re not getting as many reps running the trap or power or counter, some sort of misdirection like that.”
As such, Broncos fans shouldn’t expect any major departure from the game plan come Super Bowl 50. That could mean another slow day for Hillman and Anderson. The biggest key in this system, Nalen says, is patience.
“Ronnie’s a different type of running back than C.J.,” Nalen says. “I think it’s a nice combo. But you look at the Patriots game in particular. I fell like the Patriots decided, ‘We’re taking the run away.’ And other than C.J.’s 30-yard run, they pretty much did that. It may look like they’re not able to hit the hole or read the hole, but I don’t think there was a lot there for these guys. They were getting two yards, three yards. I think that’s good enough. As long as you’re not losing two, three yards on a zone run – Alex Gibbs used to say, ‘Give me zero yards, don’t lose any yards. If there’s nothing there, just get back to the line of scrimmage and we’ll move on from there.'”
That patience isn’t just in the short-term as it relates to individual games or even the course of a single season. Folks looking to really cash in on the Broncos rushing attack might be better off looking at the odds for Super Bowl MVP in two or three years. (Assuming either one returns in 2016. Both are free agents next year, Anderson of the restricted variety and Hillman unrestricted.) As Nalen experienced, the system takes time to learn and develop, both for the running backs and the guys that open up the holes for them.
“I think they’re still learning too, just like the offensive line,” he said. “These running backs are learning that zone blocking cut. [Former Broncos running backs coach] Bobby Turner’s not there to teach these guys. He was here forever with all those [1,000-plus yard] running backs. I know fans don’t want to hear it but 2016 they’ll be better at it than 2015, but we’re still in [the] 2015 [season] and it’s a growing process for these guys.”
He reminds fans just how long it took for the running game to develop with Kubiak as offensive coordinator under Mike Shanahan.
“Mike Shanahan, when he came here in 1995, the offensive line, it wasn’t like we were hitting on all cylinders that first year. We were 8-8 and T.D. [Terrell Davis] had 1,000 yards and it was a pretty pedestrian year offensively.”
It wasn’t until 1997 and ’98, Denver’s two Super Bowl years, that the system really rounded into form and the run game exploded in those years and for years to come, not only for Terrell Davis, but guys like Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Clinton Portis and Reuben Droughns.
Broncos fans would certainly love to see the vaunted zone blocking system have a break out game on Feb. 7 in Santa Clara. While Nalen thinks it may take time, there’s still a chance Denver could have a big day against the Panthers. The offensive line is peaking at the right time, says Nalen, and Denver has been much better running the ball through the second half of the season. Denver ran for more than 100 yards in six of their last eight games and against Pittsburgh in the Divisional Playoff.
The odds may be long, but the payoff would be sweet in more ways than one for Broncos fans putting their money on C.J. Anderson or Ronnie Hillman to have a big day on Super Bowl Sunday.
Listen to the full interview with Nalen and Notaro & Big Dee, plus talk about Peyton Manning and Cam Newton, in the podcast below…