When it was announced that the Broncos had signed running back Melvin Gordon, Broncos Country wondered what effect the move would have on incumbent starter Phillip Lindsay.
Gordon will obviously be the Broncos starting running back. His ability to catch the football, find the end zone, and convert third downs make him a very valuable addition to the offense.
Gordon’s presence should not reduce Lindsay’s ability to make plays, however. Lindsay, can still be a playmaker for the Broncos. It may just look different than it has the past two years.
From 1993-95, the Broncos had an explosive running back with big-play capabilities. However, he was never the starting running back.
Glyn Milburn was drafted in the second round of the 1993 draft by the Broncos. Milburn’s first game as a Bronco was Week 1 of the 1993 season against the Jets. In that game, Milburn only needed two receptions to show he was a playmaker.
Milburn’s two catches totaled 75 yards and a touchdown. He was the difference in that game.
During his three years in Denver, Milburn was never asked to be a 10- to 20-carry-per-game running back. In 1993, Milburn was behind Rod Bernstein and Robert Delpino. In 1994, he was behind Bernstein and Leonard Russell. And in 1995, Terrell Davis came to town. Even though he was effective when given the ball, averaging 4.4, 3.5 and 5.4 yards per carry, the Broncos never needed Milburn to be the feature back.
Milburn became a factor in multiple other ways. In his rookie season, he caught 38 passes for 300 yards. In his second season, Milburn caught 77 passes for 549 yards.
In Milburn’s third season in Denver, his role in the offense was reduced. Mike Shanahan was the new head coach and rookie Davis became the featured running back. With Davis becoming one of the best running backs in the league, there was no reason to be taking Davis off the field.
With fewer opportunities on the offense, Milburn managed to turn in a Pro Bowl season as a kickoff and punt returner. Since he had come into the league, Milburn had been a kickoff and punt return specialist and 1995 was his time to shine. Milburn was in the top five in average yards per punt return and tied for first place in average yards per kickoff return.
Miburn’s career defining moment came in a Week 15 game against the Seahawks. That day, Milburn set an NFL record for most all-purpose yards in a single game. Milburn compiled 131 yards rushing, 45 yards receiving, 133 yards in kick returns and 95 yards in punt returns. By himself, Milburn accounted for 404 total yards. This is still an NFL record (we’ll leave out the fact that the Broncos managed to lose the game).
Stylistically, Milburn and Lindsay are different. With back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons, Lindsay is the vastly superior rusher to Milburn, but Milburn was a better receiver and a special teams ace.
One thing Lindsay and Milburn have in common is that there is a home-run element to their game. The Broncos offense went through multiple changes in Milburn’s three years in Denver. Nothing was consistent. Even with the continual changes, Milburn always found a way to contribute. He wasn’t always given a lot of opportunities but he made the most out of them. Lindsay is heading into his third season, and like Milburn has faced continual changes.
For the last two seasons, everybody has been screaming for the Broncos to use Lindsay in the screen game. This is on Lindsay to make happen. He needs to be better at catching the ball.
Maybe his wrist was bothering him last year and that affected his ability as a receiver. If Lindsay can become effective in the passing game, he becomes a bigger asset to the Broncos offense than he would as a pure running back. One of Pat Shurmur’s biggest areas of focus this next season should be to have Lindsay comfortable catching the ball.
With Gordon now on the roster, the Broncos won’t have to rely on Lindsay as a running back as much as they have in the past two seasons. Now the Broncos have the flexibility to use Lindsay as a receiving threat and possibly try him on special teams, specifically, punt returner.
I have no idea if Lindsay would be a good option at punt returner, or if he would even want to. I do know it’s another opportunity for Lindsay to get the ball in space with room to make defenders miss.
Using Lindsay in different areas such as receiving and returner doesn’t mean the Broncos should abandon him as a running back. He is still more than capable taking hand offs and juking defenders. He can become a dual- or triple-threat player.
Milburn did whatever he could to make a play when on the field in whatever capacity the team asked him to perform. Lindsay has always had that same mentality. It’s not that Lindsay needs to mimic Milburn’s play; he needs to mimic the manner in which Milburn maximized opportunities.
Lindsay is a better player than Milburn ever was. Milburn was in Denver for only three years. That’s not long, but any of us that watched the Broncos play in the early to mid-90s remember him well. He had big moments.
Lindsay didn’t earn his job as the Broncos starting running back. He took it. He’s always hungry. That is his best quality and what will help him succeed the most.
While his carries will likely decrease, his opportunities in other areas can increase. Whether it be receiving, rushing or on special teams, every time he touches the ball, Lindsay needs to make it count. Given what we’ve seen from him so far, I’d bet on him to make it happen.
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