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These Broncos Look Nothing Like The Broncos Of Two Years Ago

In the strike-shortened 1982 season, the Miami Dolphins made it to the Super Bowl on the strength of an incredible defense that allowed the NFL’s fewest yards, first downs, passing yards and net yards per pass attempt. The offense wasn’t very good, but the defense — known as the Killer Bees because the last names of six starters began with the letter B — guided the team to the Super Bowl, as Miami ranked second in points allowed and third in takeaways.

Just two years later, the Dolphins were back in the Super Bowl, and once again, the team was one-dimensional. But, remarkably, it was the offense that was the dominant unit, as Miami led the NFL in points, yards, first downs and net yards per pass attempt, while a second-year quarterback named Dan Marino set single-season records for passing yards and passing touchdowns.

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It’s rare for a team to be incredibly dominant on one side of the ball, and then similarly dominant on the other side just two years later. By selecting Marino in the first round of the ’83 draft, Miami became one of those teams. The first overall pick in that draft, John Elway, is now the architect of another. The 2013 Broncos were a lot like the ’84 Dolphins: Peyton Manning, like Marino, set single-season records for passing yards and touchdowns, while Denver, like Miami, led the NFL in points, yards, first downs and net yards per attempt. This year’s Broncos led the NFL in yards allowed, while becoming just the fourth defense since 1970 to lead the league in both net yards per pass and yards per rush.

That sort of transformation is remarkable. After losing to Seattle in Super Bowl XLVIII, Denver added three Pro Bowl players in outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward the following offseason. Denver then added safety Darian Stewart in March, and it has turned nose tackle Sylvester Williams and linebacker Brandon Marshall — role players on the 2013 Broncos — into starters. As a result, the 2015 Broncos defense doesn’t look or feel all that similar to the 2013 one. Only Von Miller (who missed seven games because of injury or suspension in 2013), Chris Harris Jr., Malik Jackson, Danny Trevathan and Derek Wolfe played at least 45 percent of the team’s snaps in both 2013 and 2015; of course, that’s a pretty excellent core to build around.1 And the Broncos added defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, long respected as one of the game’s top defensive minds.

On the offensive side, the turnover has been even more drastic. The team has turned over four of its five starting offensive linemen (only guard Louis Vasquez remains), while losing starting wide receivers Eric Decker and Wes Welker, tight end Julius Thomas and running back Knowshon Moreno. And offensive coordinator Adam Gase, who earned great praise for his coaching in 2013, has moved on. That means just three of the team’s offensive starters from Super Bowl XLVIII are still around, and all three — quarterback Peyton Manning, wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and Vasquez — were playing a lot better two years ago. The difference is most stark with Manning, of course, who has gone from having one of the best seasons ever by a Super Bowl quarterback to one of the worst.

As a result, Denver has had a remarkable turnover from an unbalanced team with an offensive identity to a one-sided team with a defensive identity. This can be seen clearly even with basic stats such as points and yards.

Points

Broncos games were extremely high-scoring in 2013, as Denver and its opponents combined to average 62.8 points per game (Denver averaged 37.9, while allowing 24.9). This year, only 40.7 points are being scored in the average Broncos game, courtesy of 22.2 points by Denver and 18.5 points by opponents. That’s a decrease of 22.1 points per game in Broncos games, the largest swing, positive or negative, in any two-year stretch following a given season since 1970.

TOTAL POINTS/GAME
TEAM ENDING YEAR STARTING ENDING DIFF. WIN%
1 Denver Broncos 2015 62.8 40.7 -22.1 78.1%
2 St. Louis Rams 2000 41.4 63.2 +21.8 43.8
3 Buffalo Bills 1977 55.4 33.8 -21.6 39.3
4 Atlanta Falcons 1979 22.0 43.0 +21.0 43.8
5 Buffalo Bills 1975 34.9 55.4 +20.4 60.7
6 St. Louis Rams 2002 63.2 42.8 -20.4 53.1
7 Denver Broncos 2013 43.7 62.8 +19.1 65.6
8 San Diego Chargers 1987 56.4 38.0 -18.4 51.7
9 Chicago Bears 1995 29.0 47.0 +18.0 50.0
10 Kansas City Chiefs 2006 57.4 40.4 -17.0 50.0
11 New Orleans Saints 1982 48.6 32.1 -16.5 25.3
12 Washington Redskins 1985 54.6 38.1 -16.5 75.0
13 Oakland Raiders 2006 47.6 31.3 -16.4 21.9
14 Washington Redskins 2001 51.3 34.9 -16.3 56.3
15 Detroit Lions 1990 33.3 49.1 +15.8 31.3
16 Atlanta Falcons 1977 37.8 22.0 -15.8 39.3
17 Cleveland Browns 2007 33.3 49.0 +15.7 50.0
18 Washington Redskins 1977 42.9 27.5 -15.4 60.7
19 Minnesota Vikings 1998 38.3 53.3 +14.9 75.0
20 New England Patriots 1982 47.9 33.3 -14.5 59.0
21 Minnesota Vikings 1995 35.4 49.8 +14.4 53.1
22 Cincinnati Bengals 1985 40.5 54.9 +14.4 43.8
23 Chicago Bears 2013 43.4 57.7 +14.3 50.0
24 Kansas City Chiefs 1975 30.2 44.5 +14.3 46.4
25 New York Jets 1977 49.4 35.1 -14.3 21.4

In an interesting bit of symmetry, the 2013 Broncos show up twice on the list: Not only do they form the first leg of the 2013-2015 Broncos row, but they form the back end of the Tebow Broncos, the 2011 Denver team that snuck into the playoffs despite a very inefficient offense. Most impressively, Denver ranks as the team with the largest swing in total scoring since the merger while being excellent both years, with an average winning percentage of 0.781. Teams like the 2000 Rams made the list courtesy of some terrible years in ’98 and ’02; Denver’s appearance wasn’t due to a massive dip in quality, but from a complete transformation of its identity.

Yards

If we look at total yards per game, Denver once again stands out as the team that has suffered the biggest decline. However, the Broncos are no longer the most extreme team, as the ’82/’84 Dolphins had an even larger move, albeit in the direction of more yards. In 1982, there were 552.2 total yards of offense per game — combined among the two teams — in Miami games. Two years later, that number was a whopping 772.3, which represents an increase of 220 yards per game in just two seasons. There were 813.3 total yards of offense per game in Broncos games in 2013, but just 638.6 yards of offense in Denver games this year; that difference of 174.7 yards per game is the seventh-largest shift in a two-year period since 1970. And, given the general movement toward offensive efficiency, it also stands out as the largest decline in total yards per game during this period:

Biggest two-year differences in total yards per game
TOTAL YARDS/GAME
TEAM ENDING YEAR STARTING ENDING DIFF. WIN %
1 Miami Dolphins 1984 552.2 772.3 +220.0 82.6%
2 Atlanta Falcons 1979 463.4 668.0 +204.6 43.8
3 St. Louis Rams 2000 584.5 785.6 +201.1 43.8
4 San Francisco 49ers 1979 503.6 685.4 +181.7 24.1
5 Buffalo Bills 1975 571.4 752.9 +181.4 60.7
6 San Diego Chargers 1981 627.4 805.0 +177.6 68.8
7 Denver Broncos 2015 813.3 638.6 -174.7 78.1
8 New Orleans Saints 2012 678.8 851.0 +172.3 56.3
9 Chicago Bears 1995 523.1 694.7 +171.6 50.0
10 Kansas City Chiefs 1975 507.9 674.5 +166.6 46.4
11 San Diego Chargers 1987 800.0 636.1 -163.9 51.7
12 Oakland Raiders 2006 693.1 531.0 -162.1 21.9
13 Green Bay Packers 1983 627.8 785.9 +158.2 50.0
14 Baltimore Colts 1971 651.9 494.5 -157.4 66.1
15 Atlanta Falcons 1977 619.5 463.4 -156.1 39.3
16 Minnesota Vikings 2006 765.1 609.1 -155.9 43.8
17 Pittsburgh Steelers 2014 608.6 764.4 +155.9 59.4
18 Cincinnati Bengals 1995 566.9 721.3 +154.4 31.3
19 Green Bay Packers 2011 663.5 816.7 +153.2 81.3
20 Atlanta Falcons 1980 530.8 682.1 +151.3 65.6
21 Carolina Panthers 2013 767.4 618.1 -149.4 56.3
22 Washington Redskins 2001 729.4 580.1 -149.3 56.3
23 Detroit Lions 1995 582.9 732.0 +149.1 62.5
24 Pittsburgh Steelers 1990 688.1 540.0 -148.1 43.8
25 Philadelphia Eagles 1991 638.4 490.7 -147.7 65.6

While yards and points are hardly perfect measures of performance, they do the job in this instance. Using Football Outsiders DVOA and Estimated DVOA, I measured similar swings in team imbalance — i.e., going from heavily slanted toward offense or defense in one season, and then the other way two years later — and the ’13/’15 Broncos also stood out as the most extreme team since 1970 by this measure. The ’82/’84 Dolphins had the fourth-largest swing using this methodology, behind the ’04/’06 Vikings and ’91/’93 Eagles.

By any metric, Denver’s turn from an offensive powerhouse to a defensive colossus is among the most extreme makeovers since the merger. The only question left is whether the Broncos can avoid the fate suffered by those ’80s Dolphins teams: losing both Super Bowls, with the second game coming against a 17-1 team.

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Footnotes

  1. Miller, Harris and Wolfe missed Super Bowl XLVIII because of injury, leaving only Williams, Jackson and Trevathan as Denver defensive starters in both Super Bowl XLVIII and, presumably, Super Bowl 50.

Chase Stuart writes about football statistics and history at FootballPerspective.com

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