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Why Broncos Are Banking on a Flacco Return to Form

John Elway acquired a big-armed quarterback who can—in theory—operate a full-scope dropback passing game that Case Keenum couldn't. Can a new offensive coordinator, installing a system Flacco succeeded in before, make it work?

The Joe Flacco trade is just the latest in a decades-long string of evidence illustrating the NFL’s insatiable appetite for big-armed passers. John Elway can especially appreciate big-armed passers because he was one.

Elway’s game also hinged on strong out-of-pocket mobility. That’s never been Flacco’s forte, though Flacco is not the statue that his comportment and body type suggest. New Broncos offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello was hired to install a Kyle Shanahan-style scheme, which means a play-action passing game built off outside-zone runs looks. This approach naturally lends itself to bootlegs and rollouts.

Flacco can execute those designed-movement plays (recall that he did so effectively in 2014, Gary Kubiak’s one year as Baltimore’s offensive coordinator), but he’s in Denver primarily to offer a full-scope dropback passing game. The question is, Can he?

Flacco, battling knee and back problems in recent years, has been average at best, looking nothing like the QB he was during Baltimore’s magical 2012 playoff run. It’s not all physical… Flacco’s field-reading and coverage diagnostics have also been strangely spotty for a veteran in his 30s. But Elway is making two bets:

1) That Flacco’s arm, which has diminished some but not so much that he can’t still throw anywhere on the field, will give Scangarello unlimited options in aerial designs, which wouldn’t have been the “Case” with Keenum.

2) That Scangarello’s scheme can appropriately cater to the overly cautious approach that post knee-injury Flacco has adopted. If Scangarello is running a true Shanahan-style system (and Elway would not hire him if he weren’t), then many dropbacks will present the quarterback with a defined read.

The Shanahan system believes in throwing the ball out of two-back sets, where defenses, forced to worry about the added run-game possibilities, are more predictable in coverage. In obvious passing situations, where playing two backs is unfeasible, routes are always intertwined, especially on the three-receiver side, where the locations of the safeties often dictate the read. (This, by the way, is why that system demands a smart center… you want a center who can read the front seven and call protections so that the QB is free to just focus on the safeties.)

Any experienced veteran QB can run the user-friendly Shanahan-style passing game. Elway is banking that a good-but-never-great one will suffice for leading an offense that is playing opposite what’s still one of football’s most talented defenses.

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