Scoring touchdowns in the red zone are how games are won in the NFL. Field goals don’t cut it.
It showed in the Denver Broncos' first game this the season against the Oakland Raiders. Four trips to the red zone and one touchdown led to a 24-16 defeat for Denver. However, this is not a new problem.
The Broncos have been downright putrid in the red zone for the last five years and the blame lies at the feet of GM John Elway. It isn’t only because he can’t find an elite quarterback (they are really hard to find).
The Broncos have started five different quarterbacks from 2014 to 2018, including the future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer Peyton Manning. It also isn’t solely an offensive coordinator problem or a coaching problem.
The Broncos have had three different head coaches and four different offensive coordinators over that span. One would think that one of those guys could figure out the red zone.
Much of the blame actually resides on Elway’s inability to build a solid offensive line.
Broncos' red zone woes stretch back years
From 2014-18, the Broncos have ran 988 plays in the red zone and scored a touchdown 127 times. This is a percentage of 12.9%, ranking Denver 30th in the NFL over that time period. Only two teams have been worse. Needless to say, that isn’t good red zone production.
How can this be blamed on the offensive line? This conclusion comes by using the number and percentage of sacks, QB hits, and yards per carry in the red zone as metrics to indicate how effective the offensive line was during the same time period.
The verdict is; the Broncos' offensive line play was not very good.
From 2014-18, the Broncos ranked 29th in the NFL for redzone sacks allowed and 27th for red zone sacks allowed per play. Denver ranked 25th in QB hits allowed and 23rd in QB hits allowed per play. Finally, the Broncos ranked 29th in yards per carry.
Other red zone bottom feeders like the San Francisco 49ers, New York Jets, and Houston Texans also rank low in these metrics. The Texans last season ranked dead last in two of the three offensive line metrics and QB Deshaun Watson could not get the team to even the NFL average in touchdowns per play.
An elite quarterback helps, but if the offensive line is terrible, he cannot always overcome those deficiencies.
Elite QB not required for red zone efficiency
To further emphasize how important the offensive line is in the red zone, there are two teams, without elite quarterbacks, that rank in the top-5 for red zone touchdowns per play and rank high in the offensive line metrics above. The Chicago Bears and the Cincinnati Bengals rank No. 3 and No. 5, respectively, in red zone touchdowns per play. The issues of those two teams have been actually getting to the red zone.
Examining Elway's complicity
Why blame lies with John Elway is simple — he has not built a good offensive line since he has taken the helm. To start his front-office career he really didn’t try very hard. He didn’t select an offensive lineman in the first round until 2017.
Before that, his highest selected and arguably his best offensive tackle selection, Orlando Franklin, was taken with pick 46 (second round, 2011) and he let him leave via free agency. Elway has tried to patch together his O-line drafting issues by signing other team’s castoffs in free agency.
The Donald Stephensons and Menelik Watsons of the world have not panned out in Denver. Elway also let the best offensive lineman he has drafted, Matt Paradis, walk this past season.
Elway does seem to be getting serious about fixing the offensive line as of late. He took Garett Bolles in the first round, but unfortunately, Elway drafted a 25-year-old rookie that needed to develop and he simply hasn't been the answer.
Elway went after Ronald Leary and Ja’Wuan James in free agency, two good offensive linemen. However, both are oft-injured. Fortunately, Dalton Risner in the second round in 2019 looks like a keeper. Prying Mike Munchak away from the Steelers to coach the O-line may also prove to be a wise move.
If the Broncos want to fix their red zone woes, Elway has to hit on offensive linemen in the draft. He must spend some early draft capital to get those building blocks.
The GM has to build the team in the trenches. It isn’t sexy, but it will pay dividends. Then if he finds that franchise quarterback, the team will be a force to be reckoned with.