When Willis McGahee went down for the season in Week 11, there were serious concerns about how his injury would affect Denver’s playoff push and their chances in the postseason. At the time it appeared as if the Broncos would have to go to rookie Ronnie Hillman, the youngest player in the league, to anchor their rushing attack.
Instead, Denver returned to former first-round pick Knowshon Moreno, which raised just as many concerns, as Moreno had been inactive for eight consecutive weeks and hadn’t played since fumbling the ball in a Week 2 loss to Atlanta. But the proof is in the pudding; Moreno has done a fine job and in some ways may actually give the Broncos advantages in the postseason that they wouldn’t get from McGahee.
It must have been tough for a former first-round pick like Moreno to be relegated to the scout team and inactive list on Sundays for so long, but Moreno maintained great professionalism throughout his hiatus from the lineup. Many, including quarterback Peyton Manning, praised Moreno for the way he handled the situation and the work ethic he displayed on the scout team, despite not being a part of the team’s game plan from week to week. As a result, when the Broncos needed him after the injury to McGahee, Moreno was ready.
Moreno surprised everybody not only by getting right back into the starting lineup the week after McGahee’s injury, but by coming back strong. Right off the bat Moreno had 20 carries for 85 yards and looked like a much-improved runner from the first three years of his career. He has had some rust to shake off, but for the most part the Denver running game has not missed a beat with Moreno in the lineup – something Moreno himself proved with back-to-back 100-yard games against Oakland and Baltimore in Weeks 14 and 15.
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In the short time since Moreno was re-inserted into the lineup he has proven that he’s capable of handling a lot of carries and garnering even more touches by catching passes out of the backfield. McGahee only carried the ball more than 20 times on three occasions this season, while Moreno has carried the ball 20 or more times in every game since he returned to the lineup following McGahee’s injury. Considering his age and his injury history, the Broncos were not as comfortable using McGahee as a workhorse back as they have been with Moreno since he took over. Moreno is younger than McGahee, and thus better suited to handle a large amount of carries, something Moreno has proven he’s capable of and something that could be useful in the playoffs.
It also helps that Moreno has played less than half a season, meaning he has more gas left in the tank for Denver’s playoff run. Down the stretch he has run with great power and energy, as he has been reinvigorated by the second chance he’s gotten. Moreno has also benefited from having relatively fresh legs while going up against defenses that have been worn out by the long season. Perhaps most importantly, Moreno has valued the opportunity he’s gotten and therefore valued the football as well, not fumbling the ball since taking over for McGahee. As much as McGahee relished the fact that he was still playing at his age, Moreno is equally grateful for the second chance he’s received this season, meaning he’s running with a lot of motivation and attitude.
When it first happened, the injury to McGahee was a devastating loss for the Broncos. However, with the re-emergence of Moreno, it may end up being a blessing in disguise. Moreno is running with legs that are younger and stronger than McGahee’s legs, and now the Broncos have a fresh and well-rested running back carrying the ball for them heading into the playoffs.