Posted May 25, 2012

Huddle Up: Sorry, Willis McGahee, Peyton’s presence won’t help run game

Denver Broncos

Willis McGahee totaled just 1,595 rushing yards in his last three seasons with the Ravens, but had nearly 1,200 in his first with the Broncos last year. (Al Bello/Getty Images)

Throughout the NFL’s lengthy offseason, “Huddle Up” will provide you with a daily quick take on an important story or development from around the league …

The near-unanimous stance around the NFL is that the Denver Broncos made themselves a much better football team by adding Peyton Manning, assuming he’s healthy for the season. What no one had brought up was the idea that Manning’s arrival could improve Denver’s run game.

At least, until Willis McGahee told The Denver Post’s Mark Kiszla exactly that:

“My goal is to do better than I did last year,” McGahee told me. “And that means I’ve got to get past 1,200 yards.”

C’mon, man. You can’t be serious.

“With Peyton coming to Denver, I don’t have to worry about nine defenders in the box,” McGahee said.

A fair point, that one — Manning’s arm and the Broncos’ resulting shift away from a read-option-based offense will spread defenses and should give McGahee more room up the gut. Kiszla backs McGahee’s claim that he’ll surpass his 1,199 yards from 2011 by pointing out that Edgerrin James topped 1,200 yards rushing five times from 1999-2005 with Manning as his QB in Indianapolis.

That’s a reason for McGahee to hope that he and the Broncos will continue to thrive on the ground.

This is not: There is no chance that Denver matches its 546 rushing attempts from last season, a number that tied Houston for most in the league. The Broncos kept it on the ground for 51 percent of their plays on the season, and for a whopping 62 percent of their snaps following Tim Tebow’s ascension to the starting QB job (h/t: Rotoworld).

In those five seasons that James topped 1,200 yards as a Colt, he needed an average of 350 (!) carries to do so. At 30 years old, McGahee’s not capable of carrying that type of load anymore, and the Broncos wouldn’t ask him to with Knowshon Moreno and 2012 third-round pick Ronnie Hillman in the backfield.

A more realistic goal for McGahee and the Broncos would be aiming for what Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes did paired behind Manning in 2006. The duo combined for 1,762 yards rushing that season (1,081 for Addai, 641 for Rhodes) … or about 900 less than what Denver racked up in 2012 (2,632).

In Manning’s last three active seasons as Indianapolis’ QB, the Colts finished 29th, 32nd and 31st in yards rushing.

So while it’s admirable for McGahee to set a 1,200-yard goal for himself, it’s a pipe dream if he thinks the Broncos are somehow going to crank up their run game this season.

We won’t see Denver’s version of the Peyton Manning offense in action until the preseason — and probably won’t see the full version until Week 1 — but in Indianapolis, the run game was used to set up the pass. From 2007-09, Addai never had a run of more than 23 yards.

Basically, that’s the exact opposite setup of what the Tebow-led Broncos employed, when they stashed a few deep balls in their back pocket in an effort to keep defenses honest.

Where McGahee and Moreno may get a statistical boost is as receivers. They combined for just 23 catches last season; Addai averaged 35.2 receptions by himself in his five years with Manning, while James hauled in 51 passes a season during his Indianapolis days, adding to his superhuman workload.

Assuming Denver’s tweaked offense resembles Manning’s old Colts attack, McGahee and his running back partners will get their touches. But it would be extremely surprising to see them match, let alone exceed, their 2011 output on the ground.

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