ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Two weeks ago, ahead of a matchup with the Las Vegas Raiders, Broncos offensive coordinator Justin Outten outlined a goal for his offense.
“Our top run was 17 yards,” he said. “I gave them a plus-18 challenge.”
The closest the Broncos came was a 12-yard run from Latavius Murray. A week later, though, Outten got what he was looking for when Murray broke off a 52-yard run in the second quarter against the Panthers.
“When they hit the 52, that sideline was jacked and the coaches were jacked,” he said. “They were committed to getting that done.”
Murray’s run made the Broncos the final NFL team to record a 20-yard run this season. By the time the Broncos hit that mark, 26 teams had at least five 20-yard runs and nine teams had at least 10 such runs.
Before the season, nobody could have predicted the Broncos’ struggles on the ground. Second-year back Javonte Williams was primed for a breakout campaign and veteran Melvin Gordon would have been the opening-day starter for more than a few teams. The Draft Network and NFL.com called the duo the second-best in the NFL and FanSided ranked them third before the season.
But Williams tore his ACL in Week 4 and Gordon was released after his fifth fumble of the year. The Broncos’ third back, Mike Boone, was talented enough to steal at least 10% of the snaps in two of three games when both Williams and Gordon were active, but he was placed on injured reserve with a high ankle sprain.
Now, the rushing duties are spread amongst a close-knit group of replacement backs, led by Murray.
“We’ve got a great room,” Murray said. “We’ve got some good guys in the room and that’s what it’s all about.”
At 32 years old, Murray has reached journeyman status. His run with the Broncos is his sixth stint with an NFL team. His journey has left him with plenty of connections across the league, including a couple in Denver; Murray and Boone spent a season together with the Vikings, and Murray and practice squad back Devine Ozigbo spent a training camp together in New Orleans in 2019. Boone and Ozigbo were both rookies when they crossed over with Murray.
“I remember talking about it before the Carolina game on the bench,” Ozigbo said. “He was like, ‘Look at us. Who would have thought we would have circled back here together?'”
“Savvy vet, man,” Boone said. “He taught me a lot. Hell of an athlete; even better guy off the field.”
“Latavius is a special man,” the coordinator said. “You could see when he first stepped in these doors that he was going to command that room. As far as leadership qualities, he’s going to lead young guys and take them under his wing. He’s always asking questions. He’s always poking holes and trying to find the ‘why’ in most of the stuff that we’re doing.”
Since joining the Broncos in early October, Murray has led the Broncos in carries in five of six games. He’s playing a familiar role.
Murray has bounced around the league for the past half-decade, typically picking up a handful of starts in banged-up backfields. He ran for 500 yards for the Ravens last season but spent all offseason and training camp as a free agent.
“I’m just humbled by an opportunity,” the nine-year veteran said. “I was sitting at home uncertain about where I would be and if I would even play. I’ve just been trying to take advantage of the opportunity but also enjoy the opportunity and have fun and not take it for granted.”
There’s no denying that the Broncos have struggled on the ground. They rank in the bottom 10 of the NFL in rushing yards, yards per carry and rushing touchdowns. But, thanks to Murray’s long run, they’re coming off their third-best rushing performance of the season. And they’re likely to get Boone back from his high ankle sprain this week.
“I hated being in the training room,” Boone said. “I feel like an athlete again.”
Even if Boone can be the lightning to the Murray’s thunder, the Broncos will face a tough test on Sunday against a Ravens defense that has given up the second-fewest rushing yards in the NFL.