With running back Willis McGahee on injured reserve and unavailable for the rest of the season, the Denver Broncos wasted no time in bringing Knowshon Moreno back into the fold. McGahee suffered the MCL tear that cost him his season and cost the Broncos their starting running back. Moreno was in the starting lineup on Sunday for Denver’s 17-9 win over Kansas City, rushing for 85 yards on 20 carries while also catching four passes for 26 yards.
Moreno was Denver’s first-round pick in 2009, but he has spent much of this season inactive for Denver’s games and playing on the scout team in practice each week. Until this past week Moreno had not been seen in a game for the Broncos since their week-2 loss to Atlanta. In that game Moreno had two yards on three carries, a twelve-yard reception, and a fumble that banished him to the bench for the next nine weeks.
The move by the Broncos to immediately go back to Moreno in the absence of McGahee is not so much a sign of faith in Moreno as it is a sign that they are clearly not ready to hand the starting running back duties to either rookie Ronnie Hillman, their third-round pick in 2012, or veteran Lance Ball. Moreno, who has drastically underperformed to this point in his career, and whom some would consider a bust for a player drafted 12th overall, has been deemed by the Broncos as the best available option to take over the starting running back duties with McGahee out for the rest of the season. Naturally, replacing McGahee with someone who’s been absent from Denver’s offense and a complete non-factor for much of the season raises some concerns.
For starters, Moreno has to learn how to play alongside quarterback Peyton Manning. McGahee, as well as Denver’s corps of receivers and tight ends, have been playing with Manning all season and have 12 weeks worth of experience with the hall-of-fame quarterback under their belt. Meanwhile, Moreno has been absent from the offensive game planning for much of the season, limiting the time he’s spent with Manning during both practice and games. Getting acclimated to the offense Manning is running and becoming accustomed to all that Manning demands from the players around him is a difficult adjustment, and one that Moreno will have to make quickly if he’s going to become a factor during Denver’s playoff run.
Something else Moreno will have to do in short order is prove that he can be a complete back that’s capable of playing on every down and every drive. In the past, when he’s actually played, Moreno has split time with McGahee, but now Moreno alone is the primary back. He will get some help from Hillman and Ball, but for the most part Denver will be relying on Moreno to be the running back that takes on a bulk of the work.
Something that isn’t a concern based on Moreno’s first game back on the field is his professionalism. It can’t be easy for a former first-round pick to be pushed to the side and forgotten about for such a large chunk of the season, but Moreno’s performance against the Chiefs suggests a player that has continued to train hard and practice hard, despite not seeing the field in over two months. There didn’t seem to be a whole lot of rust for Moreno to shake off; in fact, he looked like a much-improved running back against the Chiefs, making sharp cuts, breaking tackles, holding onto the football, and playing a key role during Denver’s six-minute game-clinching drive in the fourth quarter.
One potential advantage for the Broncos as they are forced to make a change at running back late in the season is that Moreno may be the healthiest starting running back in the NFL. With just eight total carries on the season prior to this past Sunday, Moreno has not been forced to withstand the bumps and bruises that an NFL running back suffers throughout the season. Moreno is as fresh as can be for the stretch run, and will enter the playoffs less banged up than any other back in the league, which could potentially work in Denver’s favor late in the season.
While it wasn’t in Denver’s plans to lose McGahee for the season and replace him with Moreno, after one week it’s so far so good for the Broncos running back. Moreno has a lot left to prove, but the Broncos have no other choice than to take a shot on their former first round pick, and see if he can finally deliver in Denver’s time of need.