Bill Musgrave is the Denver Broncos “new” offensive coordinator, going from interim to permanent this offseason, and the unit is in need of a total makeover.
While the Grand Junction High School alum did some good things in Denver in the final six games of the season, what he’ll bring to the table as a coordinator is still largely unknown from that brief stint. So, while we’ll circle back to some of the good things he did as the Broncos coordinator, we’re more interested in seeing what he can bring to table based off of his best season as a play caller.
In 2016, the Raiders were the seventh-best scoring offense in the NFL—tallying 26 points per game—and the sixth-best offense in yards per game with 373, all while young stars like Derek Carr and Amari Cooper flourished and veteran receiver Michael Crabtree had himself a career year. The rest of Oakland’s personnel was far from elite, but the OC made it work. Given similar tools at his disposal, Musgrave could repeat himself in Denver. After all, his absence was severely felt in Oakland this past year and his presence the last six weeks did help the Broncos offense despite three different quarterbacks seeing the field.
We went back to those final six games in Denver and also reviewed the 2016 Raiders tape to see how Musgrave handled the four top defenses he faced—all ranked in the NFL’s top 10. In those four games against high-end defensive units, the Raiders went 4-0, scoring an average of 29.5 points per, including a dominant win against the Broncos and the “No Fly Zone” as well.
Keeping things balanced
When he was first put in charge of the Broncos offense, Musgrave was given a clear mandate; simplifying the offense while achieving better balance. In a brief period, the new OC was able to achieve both of those goals, especially keeping the attack balanced, as the Broncos ran the ball 162 times and passed it 167—which isn’t easy to do when the team was down in four of those six games.
The offensive line saw an uptick while playing this way, and a sustained commitment to the run will be crucial in Denver’s ability to obtain success offensively next year, regardless of who’s playing quarterback. The offensive line play and running game success were especially noticeable in the Broncos Thursday night win at the Indianapolis Colts and against the Washington Redskins in a crushing loss.
That balance allows the offense to be more unpredictable, keeping defenses guessing. If a defense is overplaying the run while not respecting the pass, Musgrave will implement more cut-back or counter runs, which were especially effective in the loss to Washington were the Broncos ran it for 159 yards.
One way in which the coordinator kept defenses guessing back in Oakland was with reverse runs from receivers. The Raiders speedy wideout Johnny Holton ran it six times back in 2016, and Amari Cooper ran it another time. The Broncos, for comparison, ran it once with Isaiah McKenzie this season and ran it twice with a receiver in 2016. The misdirection and threat of a reverse pre-snap can be an added little wrinkle to the offensive game plan, and all it takes is a few such runs on tape to get opposing defenses to respect the play.
Even if the Raiders running attack was far from great, Musgrave found ways to get the ground game going enough to where his passing attack wasn’t overloaded. Even in Denver, in a much tougher situation, he was able to keep a balance and a certain amount of misdirection that was crucial. That trend must continue.
Simplicity in the air
The big task beyond balance for the OC was to simplify the passing offense, and when watching the tape, the Raiders attack was fairly simplistic but deadly at the same time.
The staple of that passing attack stems from two areas—passing out of max protection with big jumbo packages, especially off of play-action, and spreading attacks out in shotgun sets that allowed for quick reads and throws.
The most effective and common spread look Musgrave used was basically a variation of the same play on four-wide formations, with the inside receivers running in-routes, curls or slants while the outside receivers ran vertical routes. The added wrinkle that he often throws into these plays is a running back running a wheel route to the flats, filling real estate that’s often being cleared out by the outside receiver who stretches the sideline cornerback downfield.
This is particularly effective against zone coverages where the overload of receivers to one side stretched defenses, often leaving one of the three targets to one side open for a quick gain. There’s an endless array of examples we could use of such plays with small variations being thrown in, and the Raiders ran such plays to perfection, allowing Carr to make easy reads. These spread out shotgun looks also allowed for quick releases and often got first-downs if not more, while pressure was kept to a minimum for the quarterback.
While not talked about very much, the Raiders actually used their running backs in the receiving game a good amount, targeting them 7.7 times per game, good for ninth-most in the NFL two seasons ago. We didn’t see as much of this in Denver, but expect similar schemes to be used by the Broncos with Musgrave having a full offseason to implement these crucial staples of his offense.
The new offensive coordinator often has his receivers run routes that initially look to be going inside but then break outside, turning cornerbacks inside-out and making things very hard to defend. This also makes routes harder to jump, limiting the potential of an interception. These routes are killers against man coverage and were actually a big part of Denver’s success in their win against the Colts.
Setting the tone
Everything Musgrave does is aimed at making protections easier on the quarterback, and that includes the emphasis on the run game. Just like he does in the passing game, the former Oregon Duck prefers to run out of heavy formations with anywhere from six to eight men stacked on the line, and when you’re running or passing out of jumbo packages, it’s very hard to key in on an offensive play caller.
This gave the Broncos fits two years ago, and it created issues for all the other top defenses the Raiders faced that season while Carr was still healthy.
One sequence, in particular, stood out where Musgrave simply toyed with the Jacksonville Jaguars, imposing his will and ending the game on two consecutive plays that led to the game-sealing touchdown.
With the Raiders up 26-16 and nearing the red zone on 3rd-and-2, Musgrave did something you won’t see very often—he stacked the line with eight men, all dedicated to blocking and had a running back in the backfield added to a single outside receiver. Amazingly, with only one-route being run and nine players dedicated to pass protection, he threw it, something the Jags never expected. Carr made an accurate, quick pass down the sideline to get the conversion to Cooper and next thing you know the Raiders were in the red zone knocking on the door for another score. As aggressive a play call as you’ll ever see, the kind of play that requires big stones.
It didn’t end there, on the very next play, out of the same exact formation, Musgrave ran it up the gut for a touchdown by Latavius Murray, with the Jags simply overwhelmed by the jumbo formation, leaving them demoralized and confused.
He did similar things to the Houston Texans, putting extra offensive lineman in motion on short passes, always trying to keep defenses guessing while making life easier for his quarterback.
That type of tone-setting, aggressive mentality out of formations that would suggest run but actually turns out to be a pass is exactly the type of creative play call that makes Musgrave such an intriguing coordinator.
He’ll need better talent around him, especially at quarterback and on the offensive line, but the right mentality is there. He can stay balanced, can simplify the offense, and has shown in the past that he can impose his will on defenses forcing them to play on their toes—and once that happens, he’ll keep you guessing all day long.
Billy Musgrave might not be the first choice in most Broncos fans minds, but he’s the right man for a very daunting task, restoring the Orange & Blue to offensive success.