Broncos helped make outside zone an NFL hit. Now, Denver is betting big on the scheme again.
Mike Shanahan and the Broncos rode the outside zone to two Super Bowl titles. More than two decades later, Denver hopes the scheme still can pay off.
DENVER — In the grainy video, Alex Gibbs is pacing near a lectern at a Marriott in Atlanta somewhere around 2001, explaining changes to NFL rules regarding clipping and the impact most of the league thought it would have on the Denver Broncos’ prolific outside zone-based rushing attack.
“Two years ago, after three straight years of leading the NFL in rushing, they called us all in and they changed the rule in the NFL that you could no longer clip in that region (of the field),” Gibbs, then the Broncos’ offensive line coach, tells a coaches convention. “And everybody assumed, well, there goes the Denver running game. They’ve got no chance now.”
Gibbs and Shanahan brought the outside zone system to Denver in the mid-1990s and rode it to a pair of Super Bowl titles. Gibbs, who died last summer, says in the video that instead of the Broncos’ run game disappearing, “what we found out was it actually helps.”
Adapt or fail. That’s life in the NFL.
The two-hour video is on YouTube titled, “How to run the outside zone like the Denver Broncos.”
Fast forward more than two decades, and the Broncos under first-year head coach Nathaniel Hackett are trying to learn how to run the outside zone like the Broncos of yesteryear. They are only the latest franchise to do so as the system popularized in this city by Shanahan re-sweeps across the league a generation later.
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The proliferation of head coaches in the NFL baptized in the Shanahan order at this point is well-documented, leading with his son, Kyle, in San Francisco, Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay and Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur, all of whom worked under the elder Shanahan in Washington. They have, in turn, already spun off several other head coaches including Cincinnati's Zac Taylor, Atlanta's Arthur Smith and 2022 first-year head men in Hackett, Minnesota’s Kevin O’Connell and Miami's Mike McDaniel.
At the most basic, zone running plays are predicated on blockers being responsible for areas rather than specific defenders and aim to use defenders’ goal of controlling gaps against them. The outside zone, in particular, is geared toward stretching a defense horizontally in order to give a running back a clean, one-cut read either off the tight end or vertically up the field.
“Whenever you’re dealing with the outside zone action, the defensive line not only has to step up to fit the run, but now they have to run sideline-to-sideline,” Hackett said recently, providing the elevator pitch version of the offensive philosophy. “It’s almost like you give them a two-fold area that they have to cover. When you add in the play-pass that looks just like it, whether you’re booting out with (quarterback Russell Wilson) or he’s setting up in the pocket, it makes them have to step up and go sideways, which voids the zones behind them. Those are things where you’re always trying to get that run, get them stepping up, get them thinking and guessing.
“Then you have a chance to get those deep shots behind them, which we all love the most.”
This is, in general terms, very similar to what Shanahan and Gibbs set out to accomplish in the 1990s. Gibbs details at length, for example, offensive linemen running off the ball, the running back aiming at the rear end of the tight end, the timing of the read, the critical nature of making only one cut and the relationship between the center and the tailback, all of which sounds just like what players and coaches said in Denver during the Broncos' offseason program.
“If your tailback is ever way behind your center, you have no wide zone play,” Gibbs said in another video. “If he is way ahead of your center, you have no center. You’d better go get one.”
He also hammers home the importance of the quarterback boot to keep the back side of the defense honest, saying he “struggled with John Elway for five (expletive) years that he won’t run the keepers out the back side of a wide zone play. But we convinced him, through the same maneuvers that you convince your guys, that his presence in faking it and coming this way is worth at least a hat or a hat and a half on every play.”
The current generation of coaches that grew up in the system have all made their own changes and evolved over the years. Notably, most of them have diversified run games that feature the outside zone rather than almost entirely depend on it the way Gibbs and Mike Shanahan did. Everybody runs at least some inside and/or outside zone and even the teams that rely on it the most have some power elements or other change-ups in their arsenal.
“To be honest with you, it really has changed. It’s like anything,” Mike Shanahan told USA TODAY Sports earlier this summer. “You take a look at the 3-4 defense, the Buddy Ryan defense, people catch up with it. You have to have different variations: Is it the splits, is it the attack point? You’ve got to have a base. What is your base and then what are the variations off of it? That’s where I think (offensive coaches) have done a great job through the years. Even the coaches, when you take a look at whatever the flavor is, whoever the new guy is, what is he doing that’s a little bit different? How do you get guys that open? What is he doing that other people aren’t doing?”
That’s part of what Hackett and the new staff in Denver are in the process of devising now. What will their brand of this system look like? Hackett spent the past three years as LaFleur's offensive coordinator in Green Bay. Now the head man, he has several offensive coaches on his staff who have history with the system including offensive coordinator Justin Outten (Green Bay, 2019-21), offensive line coach Butch Barry (2021 in San Francisco and 2020 in Green Bay) and quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak, whose father, Gary, was Mike Shanahan’s offensive coordinator in Denver from 1995-2005, when he left to be the head coach of the Houston Texans and later reunited with Gibbs.
Gary Kubiak, of course, returned to Denver as the head coach and won the Super Bowl in 2015 with an outside zone-predicated offense.
What the Broncos offensive staff lacks in overall experience – Hackett is a first-time head coach, Outten a first-time coordinator, Barry a first-time position coach – they are hoping to make up for in not only familiarity with the zone-based system, but also conviction.
That, according to Mike Shanahan, is perhaps an underrated element in who succeeds and who doesn’t.
“No. 1, Do you believe in it?” he said when asked what makes the system successful. “And if you believe in it, do you know what you’re talking about? If you believe in it, then you’ve got a chance to start with. If you believe in it, you’re going to run it and you’re not going to give up on it.”
The new Denver staff certainly talked the talk during the offseason program.
“The outside zone concept—the whole world with the outside zone is just pulling the trigger, rolling, running, and not measuring,” Outten added. “That’s where you get in trouble—when you start to measure and slow down. When one guy is off, the back’s track is off and then it just turns into a bad deal. Getting them to buy into the technique that we’re getting them to do is a little bit outside of the box, as far as this system.”
Second-year running back Javonte Williams said the backs essentially learn all of their own duties and the receivers’, too.
“Every meeting we have, we always talk about confusion,” he said. “We want everything to look the same so the defense doesn’t know when a different play is coming. It’s probably the most complex offense I’ve played in, but I really feel like it’s going to be the best because you never know what’s coming at you.”
Shanahan noted that versatile players thrive in the system and those who are limited to one or two spots struggle to find their way to the field.
In San Francisco, his son deploys fullback Kyle Juszczyk in a multitude of ways and has found success – not unlike his dad in Denver – with unheralded running backs who excel in reading the zone run game. In Green Bay, LaFleur and company have accumulated a multitude of tight ends, versatile running backs like former fifth-round pick Aaron Jones and receivers like Allen Lazard, willing and capable of both rooting out safeties in the middle of the field and making plays down the field. Denver has talent across its skill position group, so the onus is on the mostly fresh coaching staff to figure out how to maximize it.
Of course, nobody’s going far without quality quarterback play either.
“Whoever your quarterback is, I’ll use the guys I’ve been with – Joe Montana, Steve Young, John Elway – everybody runs things that they really like to do and you have to find out what they like to do,” Mike Shanahan said. “If it’s Joe, if it’s Steve, if it’s John, some things that they’re good at and there are some things that they really don’t like.”
That’s a key part of the offseason in Denver, where Hackett and Wilson have each said that they spent most of their time together building on what they think are strengths and tailoring around the franchise’s new star quarterback.
“We have Russ and we have Coach Hackett,” wide receiver Tim Patrick said. “They put in both of their systems together, so it’s kind of a one-of-one offense. It’s not something that’s really been taught before.”
Quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan have played some of their most efficient football in this style of offense and without years of learning the nuance. Matthew Stafford won a Super Bowl his first year in Los Angeles. Robert Griffin III was named the Associated Press’ Rookie of the Year in 2012 playing for a coaching staff that featured both Shanahans, LaFleur, McVay and McDaniel.
Whether Wilson can follow in their footsteps – and whether Hackett can conjure the early success that his predecessors in this offensive system have found – will be among the most closely watched storylines in Denver this fall.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Parker Gabriel on Twitter @ParkerJGabriel.