ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – When Vance Joseph sat down with offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave during the offseason, they had something in mind for the 2018 offense.
“I wanted an offense that can obviously run the football and to find completion plays for our quarterback on the early downs,” Joseph said this week. “Bill’s done that … He’s a hell of a playcaller … He’s a calming figure for me on the sideline and obviously calming for our quarterback.”
The Denver Broncos are 2-0 after uneven wins over the Seattle Seahawks and Oakland Raiders. But, there’s plenty we haven’t seen from the Broncos offense. It hasn’t always been smooth sailing, either, especially the four three-and-outs the Broncos had in a balky first half against the Raiders when they had the ball for just 21 plays with only three first downs. Or quarterback Case Keenum’s three interceptions in the opening game against the Seahawks.
But they have indeed run the ball – they’re second in the league in rushing at 157 yards per games – and while Keenum’s 59.5 percent completion rate isn’t quite what they hope for and the four interceptions are cause for some early pause, Keenum has won over his teammates while the Broncos have made the plays when it’s counted in two comeback wins.
And much of that on the offensive side of the ball, the Broncos say, is due to how Musgrave has fit things with Keenum behind center and with the new personnel, especially the team’s rookies, including running backs Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman as well as wide receiver Courtland Sutton.
So far, the Broncos have blended a few schemes to help Keenum. Keenum played in spread attack in college then was groomed in Gary Kubiak’s zone-run scheme in his first pro stop with the Texans. The Broncos’ current offense now has some of the same looks, principles and even plays, Kubiak used as Broncos head coach, including in 2015 with Peyton Manning at quarterback, when the Broncos were a mix of what Kubiak had long done and what Manning was most comfortable doing.
That’s no surprise, really, since Musgrave was once a Broncos quarterback when Kubiak was the team’s offensive coordinator and Mike Shanahan was the coach. Shanahan has called Kubiak “one of the smartest people I’ve ever been around in football and he had so much to do with our success.”
Kubiak is not on the Broncos' coaching staff, but his front-office role with the Broncos increased this past offseason as president of football operations/general manager John Elway expanded Kubiak’s duties.
“(Kubiak is) very involved, even to this day,” Musgrave said. “ … He’s forgotten more football then all of us will ever know. It’s great to have him as a resource. I’m always hitting him up when he has a moment, amongst his personnel duties.”
So, when Musgrave shows a power run game out of a three-wide receiver set, often with a no-huddle look, it does look like the Broncos’ attempts to do what Kubiak did after he returned to the Broncos as the head coach in 2015 – Manning’s fourth (and final) season with the team. It also looks like the offense Musgrave called for the Raiders that year when Oakland was in a three-wide receiver set more than any other formation on first-and-10.
Kubiak didn’t have the early success, especially in the run game, Musgrave has had, but Kubiak fused what Manning knew best – working out of the shotgun in a three-wide set – with what he had the most success with, a quarterback under center at times with a zone run scheme and some play-action work in the passing game. After some early struggles to run the ball in 2015 with Manning in the shotgun much of the time, Kubiak tried the “pistol’’ – including a season-high 43 snaps in the sixth game of that season – with Manning not as deep behind center and a running back behind him.
Then Manning got hurt – Brock Osweiler made seven starts that year – so the offense became more about survival, a low-risk affair that kept things in line for the league’s best defense.
But the roots from this year’s playbook stretch back to that. Keenum has been in the shotgun plenty – 53 percent of the time in the opener and 65 percent of the time in this past Sunday’s win, even as they have pounded the ball on the ground at times. The Broncos have been behind in both games so they have gone to more open looks to try to come back in both.
“But you can see the similarities,” Keenum said. “There are things we do that are familiar and like with coach Kubiak. I think things always evolve and there are a lot of people involved, but you see some things.”
Joseph sees it as well, offering that Musgrave and Kubiak have “the same personality. Really bright guys, both played quarterback, understand quarterbacks and hell of game day playcallers. Obviously, as a coordinator, you make your money on game day. During the week, it’s really secretary work. You’re just gathering information and feeding it to players, but you make your living and your name on game day. Bill is a hell of a playcaller.”