Denver's Way No team in the NFL has mastered the running game as the Broncos have--and nobody else has matched their success

September 02, 2001

Rod Smith emerged as one of the NFL's best wide receivers last
year, catching 100 balls for the Denver Broncos and earning his
first trip to the Pro Bowl. However, ask coach Mike Shanahan to
name the play he remembers most in Smith's breakout season, and
he'll say, "His block in Seattle."

The playoff hopes of the 7-4 Broncos were flickering as the rain
pelted Husky Stadium that late November afternoon. Four minutes
remained in a 31-31 game against the Seahawks, and Denver,
playing without injured starting quarterback Brian Griese, faced
a second-and-10 at its 20-yard line. Before he ran onto the field
for what would be a Mike Anderson run around left end, Smith was
told by offensive line coach Alex Gibbs that Seattle free safety
Jay Bellamy would attempt to shoot the gap between the left
tackle and Smith in the left slot. "You get rid of him," Gibbs
barked, "and Mike's out the gate. Gone."

Smith did more than that. He shot across the line and engaged
cornerback Willie Williams. As Anderson dashed around left end,
Smith drove Williams into Bellamy, demolishing neither defender
but neutralizing both. Anderson was gone, and the Broncos had a
38-31 victory. "We won that game," says Shanahan, "because Rod
Smith is totally unselfish--and a great blocker."

It's eight months later, early August in Greeley, Colo., and the
Denver offense has gathered for a Sunday-night meeting at
training camp. Before he begins to go over the playbook,
offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak has a pointed message for
newcomers to the team and a reminder for the holdovers. "You
receivers and tight ends have got to pay more attention to your
blocking," Kubiak says. "The difference between a good running
football team and a great running football team is the receivers.
The difference between an eight-yard run and a 30-yard run is
your blocking."

That's one of the keystones of the Broncos' running game, the
most dominant in football. Since Shanahan took over as coach in
1995, no team has rushed for as many yards as Denver (chart, page
101). Nor has any team scored as many points or won as many Super
Bowls.

There is no conventional NFL wisdom at work in the Broncos'
system, no trace of the popular belief that the line must be
stocked with 350-pound draftees who can pancake the defensive
front seven, no absolute need for a franchise back to make the
game plan work. Shanahan's fresh line of thinking is long overdue
in what has become a copycat league. His system employs light,
athletic linemen who can be schooled from ground zero by the
fanatical (and now semiretired) Gibbs, himself an invaluable
element in Denver's success. The system is designed for the
midsized back, maybe 5'11" and 220 pounds, a punishing runner who
needs good but not exceptional speed. The east-west runner is
out; north-south is in. The system doesn't tolerate great pass
catchers who won't block (Anthony Miller, for example, a
free-agent pickup in 1994) and opens its arms to unknown
small-college receivers who will (like Smith, out of Missouri
Southern).

The statistics are daunting. In each of the last three seasons
Shanahan has called on a different player to carry the rushing
load. Each back responded with a big year (chart, right). Terrell
Davis started the run in 1998 with a career-high 2,008 yards. The
following season Olandis Gary gained 1,159 in 12 games after
Davis went down with a knee injury. Last year Anderson rushed for
1,487 and was the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Before Shanahan's arrival, the Broncos had struggled to develop a
running game to complement the skills of John Elway. In fact, in
15 of the 20 previous seasons Denver didn't even have a
1,000-yard ground gainer. Here's how Shanahan and the Broncos
changed that.

Mining talent. Before Denver's annual predraft meeting in March,
Shanahan tells his coaches and scouts not to read draftnik
publications or news accounts of who's hot and who's not. "If I
trust the opinion of my coaches and scouts, why would I want them
to tell me what some other team thinks about a player?" he says.
The Broncos spend six weeks on player evaluation. In the first
four weeks each position coach, working with a list of prospects
supplied by the scouting department, looks at the leading college
players at his position, ranking them 1 to 35. In the fifth week
offensive and defensive coaches meet separately to discuss their
ratings. In the final week the entire coaching and scouting
staffs convene to finalize ratings of each player.

This process led to Denver's using a sixth-round pick in the 1995
draft on Davis, a Georgia back who was the 21st runner chosen
that year, and a fourth-round selection in '99 on Gary, another
Bulldog. Even for the Broncos, Anderson was a stretch. He played
the drums for his high school band in Fairfield, S.C., then did a
four-year hitch in the Marines. Two years as a running back at
Mount San Jacinto Community College in San Jacinto, Calif.,
convinced him that he should devote himself to football, but
after two 1,000-yard seasons at Utah he was still a marginal NFL
prospect. "I brought up Anderson's name to the staff," recalls
running backs coach Bobby Turner, "and they all looked at me
like, He's 26? Played in the band? A Marine for four years? But a
lot of times, you draft a great back, and he turns out to be an
east-west runner. Plus he might not be a good, or willing,
blocker. Mike, like Olandis and Terrell, came here very
coachable."

The rest of the offense is constructed similarly. "We don't have
prima donnas," Gibbs said in a rare interview. "We have workers."
Proletariat, unite. Denver's starting offense doesn't have so
much as a first-round draft pick.

Building a wall. The starting offensive line last year was on
average at least 15 pounds per man lighter than any other in the
league (chart, page 102), with none of the five linemen weighing
more than 290. It's an NFL line right out of 1975:
well-conditioned so the players are fresher than most other lines
in the fourth quarter. Apprentices don't play much for a year or
two but are vigorously tutored by the demanding Gibbs and line
coach Rick Dennison. "It's the most technically sound line I've
coached against," says New Orleans Saints coach Jim Haslett, an
eight-year NFL veteran.

The line has a second-round draft pick (left guard Lennie
Friedman), a third-rounder (right guard Dan Neil), two
seventh-rounders (left tackle Trey Teague and center Tom Nalen)
and an undrafted free agent (right tackle Matt Lepsis). The
Lepsis story is a classic. A marginal 6'4", 260-pound tight end
out of Colorado, Lepsis had his hopes of being drafted crushed at
the Senior Bowl in January 1997 when he tore his right ACL.
However, Rick Neuheisel, Colorado's coach at the time, suggested
to Shanahan that Lepsis was worth a look because of his quick
feet and wide frame. "He had the kind of feet we look for in a
tackle," says Shanahan.

Denver locked up Lepsis in April '97 for the bargain-basement
signing bonus of $15,000, supervised the rehabilitation of his
knee that year, sent him to play in NFL Europe in '98 and
schooled him for another year under Gibbs before his first start,
in 1999. Now he is one of the best right tackles in the league.
Lepsis is an average run blocker, an excellent pass blocker and
one of the best in the league at cut blocking--diving at a
defensive lineman's legs on plays to the opposite side of the
field. "We're all basically the same on this line: hungry guys
who, for the most part, nobody wanted," Lepsis says. "When you're
in the position I was in, you have to do it their way, which is
the right way."

"These guys know the system well by the time they have to play,"
says Gibbs. "They're older and wiser. They play when they're
ready to play. You pick a guy in the first round, there's
pressure to play him right away, and he's not ready."

Getting the blockers and backs in sync. At practice Gibbs, who
worked under Woody Hayes at Ohio State for four years, sounds
like Hayes, with a little Patton mixed in. Before a recent
training-camp drill against the defense, he got his line together
and said in his raspy voice, "Gotta go to war, men! This is how
championships are won. Right here, on the practice field. Nothing
cheap out there, but if it moves on defense, knock the doo-doo
out of it." When rookie center Ben Hamilton, a fourth-round pick
out of Minnesota, lagged on one play, Gibbs got in his face and
screamed, "War! War! War! Do you understand?! You're too nice,
kid!" When Hamilton and fellow backups Jay Leeuwenburg and Steve
Herndon let a defender through, Gibbs told them they were "a
f------ disgrace to football."

Because Gibbs teaches zone blocking (each man is responsible for
keeping an area clear rather than blocking a single defender),
it's important that the linemen play error-free. If a Bronco
blocks the wrong guy, a defender is likely to have an open lane
to the backfield. It's not as important for the linemen to blow
defenders off the ball as it is for them to hold their ground and
move opponents out of the rush lanes--and, when necessary, to
cut-block and to do it well. While defensive linemen detest cut
blocking because it causes knee injuries, it's legal. When a
Denver ballcarrier runs left, Lepsis, the right tackle, pivots
and moves left, lunging for the thighs of a left defensive
tackle. "It's a pain, and I hate it," says San Diego Chargers
defensive tackle John Parrella, "but Denver's great at it."

Last December, when the Broncos played the Saints, who have one
of the best run defenses in the league, Anderson ran left a lot
and Lepsis tangled repeatedly with Pro Bowl defensive tackle
La'Roi Glover. On tape you can see Glover hesitate whenever the
play went left. "You try to block it out of your mind," Glover
says, "but you can't help but be leery. You know you're going to
be cut." Denver rushed for 283 yards, with Anderson getting a
career-high 251 in a 38-23 victory.

Gibbs, 60, says that by last year he had become so obsessed with
football that he began feeling depressed. So at the end of the
season he walked away. Sort of. He coached at camp and tutored
Dennison, a former Bronco who has been on the staff since 1995.
During the season Gibbs plans to commute from his home in the
Phoenix area to Denver to help with the weekly game plan on
Tuesday and Wednesday, but he'll spend the rest of the week away
from football. So important is Gibbs that Shanahan is keeping him
on the payroll, at more than $200,000 a year.

For the backs the instructions are simple: No rushes for losses.
Get to the line, make one cut, then go. Get upfield, break a
tackle, fall forward. The ballcarriers, particularly Davis, chafe
at the suggestion that, in this system, you could plug in any
back and he'd gain 1,000 yards. They're right. Denver's three
backs are powerful and shifty, with a trait that all first-rate
runners have: On each carry they usually get at least a yard more
than they should. They're also better athletes than most predraft
evaluations said they were. On Anderson's 80-yard gallop in
Seattle, the last man with a chance to tackle him was speedy
cornerback Shawn Springs, who appeared to have the angle as he
closed from the middle of the field. But Springs underestimated
how fast Anderson is. Anderson shifted into another gear, and
Springs could only flail at the back's ankles.

Everyone blocks. On another big play in that Seattle game last
year, Smith lined up in the backfield and ran 50 yards for a
touchdown--with Anderson making a key block. "[The receivers] give
it up for us," Anderson says, "so of course I'm giving it up for
them."

"Look at any long run we've made the past few years," Shanahan
says, "and I guarantee you a wide receiver has blocked somebody's
ass off downfield. That's such a key to our running game."

There's one other facet to Denver's success. Everyone buys into
what the coaching staff is selling: unselfishness. When Davis,
Gary and Anderson are together, they act like college roommates
(box, left). Who will play which role this year depends on
Davis's health. He missed 24 games over the past two seasons with
knee and shin injuries, and knee and hamstring pain plagued him
in camp. If Davis works mostly as a pinch hitter, Shanahan will
most likely wait until just before the opener to name Anderson or
Gary the starter. The betting around camp was that the coach
would settle on Gary, because--why else?--he's a slightly better
blocker than Anderson. Yet the two are comparable in almost every
other rushing skill, and last year no one ran harder than
Anderson.

During training camp Gary was asked how he would feel if he were
moved to fullback. "I'd hate it," he said, "but whatever's best
for the team, I'll do."

That's what Shanahan likes to hear.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS The Broncos' system has produced happy results no matter whether (from top) Gary, Anderson or Davis carries the ball. COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Anderson is typical of the gems unearthed by Denver's coaching and scouting staffs: a hard worker who wasn't high on anybody's draft list. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS Gary, who played in only one game last year after tearing the ACL in his right knee, was back to his old self in camp. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS Gibbs has moved into a consultant's role, but he's still the force behind his linemen.

What a Run

Over the last three seasons Terrell Davis (2,008 yards in 1998),
Olandis Gary (1,159 in 1999) and Mike Anderson (1,487 in 2000)
have led the Broncos in rushing. Take the three best
single-season totals (any seasons, not necessarily consecutive)
by three players on the NFL's other 30 teams since the 1970
merger, and only the Falcons' trio has a higher per-game average
than Denver's.
YARDS
TEAM PLAYERS YARDS GAMES PER GAME

Falcons Jamal Anderson ('98) 5,132 48 106.9
Gerald Riggs ('85)
William Andrews ('83)

Broncos Terrell Davis ('98) 4,654 44 105.8
Mike Anderson ('00)
Olandis Gary ('99)

Cowboys Emmitt Smith ('95) 4,933 48 102.8
Tony Dorsett ('81)
Herschel Walker ('88)

Rams Eric Dickerson ('84) 4,915 48 102.4
Marshall Faulk ('99)
Jerome Bettis ('93)

Bills O.J. Simpson ('73) 4,675 46 101.6
Thurman Thomas ('92)
Joe Cribbs ('80)

Lions Barry Sanders ('97) 4,674 46 101.6
Billy Sims ('81)
James Stewart ('00)

Oilers/ Earl Campbell ('80) 4,669 47 99.3
Titans Eddie George ('00)
Lorenzo White ('92)

Colts Edgerrin James ('00) 4,687 48 97.6
Eric Dickerson ('88)
Marshall Faulk ('98)

Stampede

Since Mike Shanahan took over as coach before the 1995 season, no
team has run for as many yards as the Broncos.

TEAM YARDS YARDS/RUSH YARDS/GAME

1. Broncos 13,378 4.5 139.4
2. Steelers 12,903 4.2 134.4
3. Raiders 11,975 4.4 124.7
4. Titans 11,893 4.0 123.9
5. Bills 11,799 3.9 122.9

He Ain't Heavy, He's My Tackle

In 2000 the only NFL team with a starting offensive line
averaging less than 300 pounds was the Broncos. Denver still
finished third in the league in rushing. Here are the top 10
rushing teams, with average weights of the five-man line.

TEAM AVG. WEIGHT YARDS/GAME

1. Raiders 318.1 154.4
2. Bengals 319.3 144.6
3. Broncos 287.6 144.4
4. Steelers 308.5 140.5
5. Ravens 316.3 137.4
6. Vikings 328.5 133.1
7. Titans 307.0 130.3
8. Saints 309.2 129.3
9. Bucs 312.2 129.1
10. Jaguars 308.2 127.0

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)