By Chad Jensen
(247 SPORTS) – Bill Musgrave is entering his second season with the Denver Broncos as a coach. Hired last year to coach the quarterbacks, Musgrave was promoted to interim offensive coordinator in early November when Mike McCoy was fired following Denver’s sixth-straight loss.
When the season ended, the Broncos officially promoted Musgrave to offensive coordinator. He has since set about designing and installing his offense.
The last time we actually got to see a Musgrave offense on the field, it was in the form of the 2016 Oakland Raiders. Derek Carr had an MVP-caliber year in Musgrave’s system, and the Raiders were one of the most balanced and dominant offenses in the NFL.
Last year, Denver’s offense was the misbegotten brainchild of Mike McCoy. Musgrave would go on to coordinate six games for the Broncos in 2017, but it was all based on the bones of McCoy’s system.
Although the misconception that teams can just change their playbook on a dime exists, perhaps due to what the 2011 Broncos did when Tim Tebow stepped in to lead the offense, the reality is that doesn’t happen. When an offense gets installed during the offseason, it does not change, even if the coordinator is fired mid-season. The play-caller might change but the cornucopia of play options at his disposal does not.
There’s simply not enough alotted time for NFL coaches to redesign a new playbook, teach it to the players in the classroom and install it on the field, all while trying to prepare for a new opponent each week. That’s why it all happens during the spring. Being that it’s been two years since last we saw a Musgrave offense in the NFL, what can fans expect to see from the Broncos in 2018?
First, Musgrave has traditionally deployed a variant of the West Coast Offense. And there’s no reason to believe that’s going to change.
Broncos fans are familiar with such a scheme, as it predominated the late 1990’s era under Mike Shanahan and Gary Kubiak, both of whom Musgrave played under as a QB. Kubiak brought it back to Denver in 2015. All three of Denver’s World Championships have come in the WCO — an encouraging fact.
And we know that Kubiak, who’s now in a senior advisor role in the personnel department, has been consulting with Musgrave on the side and could be seen at virtually every OTA practice open to the media this past spring.
“I talk to Gary every day,” Musgrave said back in May. “I’m always picking his brain. If they don’t get him going with too much scouting duties, I’m looking forward to consulting with him each and every day like we have this spring. He’s at practice and we’d love to get his insight and his feedback. It’s invaluable.”
Most Broncos fans can remember the how brutally efficient Musgrave’s Raiders were in their Week 9 showdown with the Broncos in 2016. The Raiders pounded the ball down the Broncos throats, and killed them with the play-action game.
Getting the ground game firing on all cylinders is absolutely crucial to the West Coast Offense being successful, which means that we can expect the Broncos to be committed to the approach in 2018. With five young running backs currently battling it out for the starting job, the Broncos have youthful energy in spades.
Part of the running game succeeding is having a cohesive offensive line. The Broncos have made the personnel moves to upgrade the unit this offseason and the team is banking on left tackle Garett Bolles taking a great leap forward in year two. With Case Keenum under center, I share in Denver’s optimism for their 2017 first-rounder.
“We want to find that balance for sure because we don’t want go up to the plate and just bunt, bunt, bunt so we don’t strike out,” Musgrave said during OTAs. “We want to have some explosives. We need those chunks. The more chunks, the fewer third downs you have to convert.”
The Broncos hope to get some of that explosiveness out of the run game, but will have to count on it more in the passing game. The West Coast Offense, as specified by the great Bill Walsh, leans on three phases of the passing game to control the ball.
– The dropback pass
– The play-action pass
– The action pass
The dropback pass is self explanatory and can be ran from a wide variety of formations, but is used most predominantly with at least one tight end on the field, which makes it a necessity that said tight end can catch and block (Hello, Jake Butt). The QB drops back, usually a three-to-five-step drop, plants, and fires to his target.
The play-action pass requires a fake hand-off to the running back, which sucks the defense close to the line of scrimmage and can temporarily freeze defensive backs, and helps create separation for the wideouts.
What separates the action pass from the dropback is the movement of the QB to the outside. Think of the naked bootleg, which John Elway ran to perfection late in his career.
The Broncos would fake a stretch run to the left and get the entire defense flowing in that direction, only to have Elway peel out on the weak-side completely unprotected and throw open a receiver. That’s an action pass because the QB is moving outside. But it’s also technically play-action because of the fake hand-off.
A pure action pass would involve a ‘waggle’, where at the snap, the QB would sprint to the outside to avoid the inside rush and give himself a wide open window to throw the ball. You don’t see that a lot in the modern NFL but the Eagles used it on the Broncos last season.
Beyond a focus on the run, and the different passing concepts to control the ball, what can we expect from Musgrave’s offense? A lot of “smoke and mirrors”.
“It’s been fun to watch Billy with his shifts and motions,” Head Coach Vance Joseph said during OTAs. “When you play a defense like ours and it’s really a man-free, five-man rush, aggressive defense, the shifts and motions really slow you down a little bit because you have to get aligned. He’s done a great job of doing those things—shifts and motions and just smoke and mirrors—and it’s the same concept but it looks different to the defense. That’s important when you’re playing a defense with great rushers and great corners like we have.”
Great rushers and great corners are the calling cards of the AFC West, so Musgrave’s approach at disguising and creating pre-snap movement will go a long way. And don’t worry about Case Keenum in Musgrave’s offense.
Keenum was reared on the WCO by Kubiak in his first couple years with the Houston Texans. It’s a scheme natural to Keenum, and he’s totally comfortable playing under center, which is also a dictate of the WCO.
“He definitely was mobile last year in Minnesota,” Musgrave said. “He’s been mobile when he’s played for Houston and St. Louis before. So, I think that’s great part of his game. He can stay on the move and remain a passer. He can process what he sees instantaneously. Those are good attributes to have, especially when things break down.”
Those attributes Keenum possesses also happen to be key to running the West Coast Offense. Trust me when I say, that’s no coincidence.
The WCO does require the right personnel, especially at QB, but it goes beyond that. Fortunately, the Broncos aren’t far removed from the group of players assembled by Kubiak and Elway from 2015-16, despite McCoy’s gerrymandering last year.
Pretty much “everything” about the Broncos offense, including the terminology, is different this year. For that, Broncos Country can thank their lucky stars.