Blame Mike Shanahan
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Not only can Mike Shanahan be blamed for the downfall of the Denver Broncos, leading to his dismissal as team dictator following last season, he's the guy fantasy owners should blame for ruining one of the great traditions in first-round drafting.
The feature back. You know the creature I'm talking about. The feature back -- the guy who was good for 1,500 yards and double-digit touchdowns just by stepping on the field. Teams were built around the feature back, and fantasy drafts followed the model that as many a dozen 'feature backs' could be taken in a draft before any quarterback (not named Peyton Manning). A few years ago, there would be as many as 20 feature backs taken before one wide receiver.
Well, times have changed. And it's all Mike Shanahan's fault. In 1995, Shanahan's first year as head coach in Denver, the Broncos leading rusher was Terrell Davis with 1117 yards. The following year, Davis rushed for 1,538, then 1,750, then an incredible 2,008 and 21 touchdowns in 1998. Davis put the entire city of Denver on his back in '97 and '98, leading the Broncos to back-to-back Super Bowls.
And that was it. While John Elway retired after the second Super Bowl, riding off into the sunset a champion, Davis' career ended differently. In the prime of his career, Davis was saddled with debilitating injuries that allowed him to play in just 16 more games in his career, totaling just 1,194 yards over the next three seasons before retiring.
With Davis hurt in 1999 and no Elway to fall back on, Shahanan needed someone to fill in. Enter Olandis Gary.
Gary rushed for 1,159 yards in only 12 games, and while Denver only won six games that year, it was clear to Shanahan, and many NFL pundits, that the 'system' produced the rushing yards, and not the back.
In 2000, Gary only played in one game before an injury sidelined him for the season. And with Davis only able to play in an ineffective five games, Shanahan found another 1,000-yard back, this time calling on converted fullback Mike Anderson who ran for 1,487 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Three 1,000-yard backs in three years, and even though the job was Davis' when he was ready to return to a full load, his injury problems precluded him from doing so. In 2001, Denver had three backs with more than 55 attempts, led by Anderson with just 175 carries. Davis actually led the team in yards with a paltry 701 yards and zero touchdowns. In fact, the Broncos only scored seven rushing touchdowns as a team in 2001, and two of those were by quarterbacks.
If there was ever a season that proved the running-back-by-committee didn't work, it was the 2001 Broncos, who finished the season 8-8.
The reason Denver was in that situation in the first place was because Shanahan ran Terrell Davis into the ground over a four-year span. That shouldn't happen again, and if a team can have two or even three running backs worth featuring, why not have fresh (and healthy) legs?
That said, the Broncos knew their system wasn't working without a feature back and drafted Clinton Portis, who burst into the league with 1,508 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2002. In 2003, Portis rushed for 1,591 and 14 scores. The feature back was, well, back in Denver.
Until it wasn't. Not wanting to pay Portis, the Broncos traded him (in one of the best trades in Broncos history, mind you) to the Redskins. Reuben Droughns took the reigns for Denver, amassing 1,240 yards and six scores.
Droughns was jettisoned following that season (another money situation) and the 2005 season saw Anderson and Tatum Bell share the load, each recording more than 900 yards. Uh-oh.
Shanahan's plug-in-a-back system never had that kind of impact on a fantasy situation. Sure, the 2001 season was a bust, but the 2005 campaign was a nightmare for fantasy owners with two backs who shared equal load.
As someone who drafted Tatum Bell that year, I can attest. A nightmare.
2006 saw Tatum Bell lead the team with 1,025 yards but Mike Bell lead the team with eight touchdowns. STOP DOING THIS TO US! The next year saw three backs carry the ball more than 40 times, with no back rushing for more than 730 yards even though the team totaled nearly 2,000.
Stop stop stop stop stop.
Last season, thankfully his last season in Denver, Shanahan's 'the system, not the back' running style came back to haunt him, as injuries had the Broncos plugging guys off the scrap heap into games. No running back started more than six games for Denver, and no back amassed more than 343 yards. Karma.
So, in review, the Broncos had a feature running back that led them to two Super Bowls, but became so enamored with their 'system' they forgot that sometimes a feature back is what you really need. And when they had another feature back in Portis, they got rid of him the moment he wanted to be paid like a feature back. With Shanahan finally gone from Denver, the Broncos drafted Knowshon Moreno to take the job this season. But the league has already copied Shanahan's model. Nearly every team has a committee that handles the load.
Only five running backs carried the ball more than 300 times last season, with 49 backs recording more than 100 attempts. In 1998, Davis' last year as a feature back, eleven backs rushed more than 300 times, with only 39 getting more than 100 carries. Last season saw 70 backs carry the ball 50 or more times, and that does not include quarterbacks in the run-only wildcat position. Just 58 running backs had as many as 50 carries in 1998. While the numbers aren't that far off, the disparity in each does equate to 1/3 of the league, which would make this a pretty significant trend.
The most damming situation for fantasy owners is the system that gives one back all the yards, while the other gets all the scores. While no team rushed for fewer than 1,178 yards last season, only 16 backs -- including two on the Giants -- rushed for 1,000 yards. And of those 1,000-yard rushers, only six scored double-digit touchdowns, the same number of players who scored double-digit touchdowns without registering 1,000 yards. TJ Duckett was the biggest offender, scoring eight touchdowns last season -- more than seven 1,000-yard backs -- while racking up 172 yards.
It makes a fantasy owner go nuts. There still are some teams that employ a feature-back system, but they seem to be dwindling each season. And we have one guy to blame for it.
August 17, 2009; 6:11 AM ET
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