DENVER -- Amidst the wreckage of a fourth straight losing season, one without an offensive identity, the Broncos did one thing well: run the football.
It was not worthy of a weekly headline or SportsCenter highlights, but significant improvement unfolded. The Broncos rushed for 119.9 yards per game, ranking 13th overall, a significant spike from 2019 (103.9, 20th).
In his first season in Denver, Melvin Gordon finished with 986 yards on the ground with nine touchdowns in 15 games. He averaged 4.98 yards per carry over the final eight games with five touchdowns.
His situation, though, lacks clarity. Last month Gordon entered a not guilty plea in his DUI case stemming from October. A disposition has been set for Feb. 24 with a pre-trial conference scheduled for April 2 and a jury trial on April 8. There could be resolution before a trial. Gordon is facing a potential three-game suspension from the NFL.
If Gordon is convicted, it could void guarantees in his contract. He is due $4.5 million in salary next season, and a $2 million roster bonus at the beginning of training camp, per Spotrac. While Gordon performed well, a layer of uncertainty exists about his future in Denver.
Sames goes for Phillip Lindsay. After eclipsing 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons, Lindsay struggled with injuries in a diminished role. The former CU star is a restricted free agent. The Broncos could place a second-round tender on Lindsay -- this amounts to a one-year, $3.2 million contract -- creating pause from other teams to sign him away.
Lindsay finished with 502 yards on 4.3 per carry and one touchdown in 11 games, his season undermined by toe and knee issues. Lindsay and Gordon did not complement each other well for a number of reasons. For it to work, Lindsay needed to serve as the first and second down back with Gordon used on third down given his prowess as a receiver and blocker.
However, Lindsay became a ghost in the passing game, so when he was in the backfield it signaled a run, leading his yards per carry to spiral as the season advanced.
Lindsay averaged 5.85 yards per carry on his first 53 attempts, and 2.95 yards on his final 65 attempts. It was a tough season, Lindsay explained during a recent appearance on 104.3 The Fan with Cecil Lamney and Nick Anderson. He admitted he became hellbent on proving himself every rep after the team signed Gordon to a two-year, $16 million deal, leaving Lindsay without a new contract.
"This year I am going to take a different approach. I was in battle mode. Everything caught me off guard with my teammate Melvin coming in. You can burn yourself out like that," Lindsay said. "I am going to push myself mentally in different ways. I will get my mind tightened back up, my eyesight and peripheral tightened up. You can overdo a lot of things. When it’s time to play, play. When it times to rest, enjoy your family. I think I am going to have a calmer approach wherever it’s at."
Lindsay acknowledged his usage did not lead to his customary success in a "COVID year." Lindsay caught seven passes for 28 yards -- he averaged 35 receptions in first two seasons -- and failed to get a single target in four games.
"Everybody knows I can run inside well. But come on now, I am 190 pounds, I can’t sit there and run up the middle 24/7. That’s just not my style. I have all this speed and have great vision and I am person who can accelerate anytime. I need to be put in a position at times where you can get the pulling guards, you can get the screens, the draws. That stuff right there accelerates a running back, especially my type of running back. I am not sitting here saying you have to give me 25 carries. It’s about the type of carries you give a running back," Lindsay said.
"It’s the times you give them the carries, the set up of plays. That's the stuff that elevates a running back and makes them sometimes look better than they are, and other times it showcases their talent. If you are running a play just to run it, it doesn’t work. It will never work like that. On top of that it. It’s about getting involved in the passing game. The fact is how can you say someone can’t catch a ball when you don’t give them enough balls thrown to. It doesn’t matter who it is."
The reality is the Broncos boast success when running well. The offensive line continues to make strides under coach Mike Munchak, including All-Pro status for left tackle Garett Bolles. In coach Vic Fangio's first two seasons, the Broncos are 4-1 when a running back rushes for 100 yards.
Simply put, the ground game remains critical even if it's unclear who will be powering it as free agency and the draft beckon.