ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The Broncos know Montee Ball can handle 20 carries a game and more than 300 in a season, as he did each of his last two seasons at Wisconsin, racking up 307 (21.9 per game) in 2011 and 356 (25.4 per game) last year. In 2011, he handled 52.6 percent of the Badgers' run calls; a year later, that spiked to 58.6 (adjusting for sacks, which count as runs in NCAA statistics).
It will be a stunner if Ball's initial NFL workload is anything like that. That's simply not how John Fox has handled his running backs for most of his head-coaching career.
"Coach Fox has always been great mixing in the multiple backfields and using different guys. He did it in Carolina," offensive coordinator Adam Gase said. "We'll do the same thing here."
In Carolina, Fox's ground game was at its best when he had two running backs to split the load, one always a bit more experienced than the other. That allowed for graceful transitions from the Stephen Davis/DeShaun Foster era (2003-05) to the Foster/DeAngelo Williams years (2006-07) and finally to the most successful tandem he had, that of Williams and Jonathan Stewart (2008-10).
Ideally, Fox's Panthers would alternate possessions for their running backs – or, if a drive lasted 10 or more plays, they'd make the change during the series. If one running back was particularly hot, he'd get a higher share of the workload, but that decision was often made on the fly, and wasn't something etched into the game plan.
Fox could have alternated snaps for the running backs in Carolina, since the Panthers' offense usually moved at a deliberate pace and huddled up after each play. With an up-tempo offense that huddles infrequently, that option isn't on the table, but the offense typically functions better when a running back has a chance to settle in for a few plays, anyway.
"A guy could be on the field five or six plays, especially with us being in no-huddle, so you don't have guys running back and forth to where it's two (plays) here, three (plays) here," Gase said. "We need guys to stay on the field for longer stretches of time."
That means several plays for Ball and several plays for whoever ends up being the other half of a primary running duo, which could be anyone among the other running backs on the roster.
While Ball's place in the mix appears set, the other half of a potential duo promises to provide the most wide-open competition of the summer; it could be Willis McGahee or Knowshon Moreno or Lance Ball, or someone from the host of younger runners with little regular-season experience. But it also could be Ronnie Hillman, who the Broncos have identified as the "change-of-pace" back in the mix.
Hillman is the wild card to share the primary workload with Ball – especially if his work in the weight room yields a runner who is more capable of burrowing for tough yardage in jumbo packages than he was last year.
"The biggest thing I've noticed is that he's bigger," Gase said. "The second year being in our strength staff's program, he really looks like he's filled out."
No matter which running backs top the depth chart, expect the workload to be spread around. The Broncos of 2013 won't run the ball as often as his Panthers did, but just like those teams, they will use all their viable options.
During Fox's stint as Carolina's head coach, from 2002-10, only three teams ran the ball on a higher percentage of snaps than the Panthers' 47.73 percent: Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Atlanta. But all of them were more likely to have a primary ballcarrier; they combined for nine runners with at least 300 carries in a season from 2002-10, while the Panthers had just one. Fox hasn't had a runner handle more than 54.7 percent of his team's carries since Davis a decade ago. And based on Gase's words, he's unlikely to have one in 2013– not even the uber-durable Ball.