A 34-13 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers means the Broncos secure some pretty pathetic accolades. Denver will miss the playoffs for the sixth straight year, and you’d have to go all the way back to the Broncos 17-year start from the 1960s to find a longer stretch without postseason appearance. The ignominious achievement becomes even worse when you consider that the playoffs have been expanded from five seeds to seven since the 1970s. Vic Fangio’s 29 losses across his first three seasons is the most by any head coach in franchise history. On top of those dubious achievements, this also the first Denver roster in 40 years without a single player on the Pro Bowl roster. To someone who does not bleed orange and blue, there’s little debate that these Broncos are both bad and boring.
Truthfully, there wasn’t a whole lot learned in today’s predictably dreadful affair. The backup quarterback couldn’t carry an offense down four starters while Covid and injury exposed the holes in the defensive depth chart George Paton couldn’t account for. As you’d expect, Justin Herbert took advantage. There biggest question hanging over the game was Vic Fangio’s job status, but he continued to show all the same strengths and weaknesses that got the Broncos to this point: he’s a brilliant defensive mind that struggles with game management as well as fourth down decision making, and his offensive and special teams coordinator are huge liabilities.
The bottom fell out
Due to a Covid-19 outbreak the Broncos knew as far back as Friday that they’d be down bad at a number of positions against the Chargers. The receiver corps. was down to Courtland Sutton, Kendall Hinton, and practice squad players while only Malik Reed remained from the typical edge rotation. When Kenny Young was added to the inactive list shortly before kickoff, it meant the linebacker corps. would have their seventh and eighth string off ball backers. Looking at what was left of the defense by kickoff, I can’t help but feel like Fangio did a commendable job in an impossible situation. Heck they looked like the best Broncos unit in the first half, holding the Chargers to just 4.4 yards per play despite gaffes and failures by both the special teams and offense.
With so few starters left, it never seemed realistic to hope Fangio’s undermanned front would be able to pressure Justin Herbert enough to slow down the Chargers’ offense. After stalling out a couple of times in the first half the Bolts proceeded to score on every one of their second half possessions. The offense was equal parts methodical and surgical: Herbert completed 70.9% of his passes and never took a sack as he helped the offense convert nine of L.A.’s 15 third downs.
There isn’t a whole lot I can say about the special teams that you don’t already know. The Broncos special teams came into today with one of the five worst special teams in the league. Tom McMahon is the embodiment of “death by inches” and the fact Fangio retained him for the 2022 season despite his complete ineptitude the last three years is damning. Andre Roberts touchdown and Diontae Spencer’s muffed punt should have given Broncos Country a bad case of déjà vu.
That was the fifth touchdown on a kickoff or punt return given up by the Broncos in the Fangio era (2019-present). That is the most in the NFL in that span.— Andrew Mason (@MaseDenver) January 2, 2022
Like the special teams, little the offense did came as a surprise today. Down four opening day starters and Teddy Bridgewater, they were essentially a continuation of what we’ve seen the last two years. It’s no surprise Denver failed to score from the two when you remember they entered the game with the sixth worst goal to go offense in the NFL by Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric. Lock’s fourth down sack was predictable in that he failed to anticipate Courtland Sutton breaking open, something he’s struggled with throughout his career.
If you’re looking for silver linings, the offense did find ways to move the ball once L.A. had a comfortable lead. After he returned from a right shoulder injury Drew Lock rediscovered the improved play he displayed in the week 16 loss to the Raiders. Lock’s play helped both Noah Fant and Courtland Sutton come alive, and they showed off the dynamic athleticism that’s seemingly been in short supply for most of the season. Given the backups under center and holding down the right side of the line as well as the practice squad receivers, perhaps that’s commendable? Lock and offense averaged less than 4.4 yards per play until L.A. was up by 17 points, and I’ll admit it brought back some memories of Teddy Bridgewater’s garbage time production against the Las Vegas Raiders way back in week six.
Sure looks like Courtland Sutton was Lock's primary. pic.twitter.com/CTcPXD40Do— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) January 2, 2022
Final Thoughts (for now)
The good news is most, if not all of the Broncos’ Covid reserve should be able to return in time for the season finale. The bad news is they face off against a Kansas City Chiefs team that needs a win and Tennessee Titans loss to secure the top seed in the AFC playoffs. Denver will get Reid and Mahomes’ best.
With a last place schedule secure and the playoff dreams a distance memory, the Broncos are 7-9 with nothing to play for but pride and money. They’re long past the point where it makes sense to play all of the young players and yet a coaching staff working for their next opportunity’s has every reason to play veterans. This could lead to some controversial decisions in week 18 as it pertains to quarterback, linebacker, running back, and defensive line.
While there’s one game to go, it’s definitely reasonable for Broncos Country to pivot to offseason mode at this point. The uncomfortable truth is there is painfully little certainty ahead.
All signs point to a new owner in March as the Bowlen trust has reached out to a number of banks to work towards a sale. We do know that after working under Joe Ellis and John Elway this season, George Paton is going to assume the top spot in Denver. We don’t know yet know what the second year general manager has planned for Fangio, who has one year remaining on his contract. Firing him would mean Paton has to hire a coaching staff before the Broncos have a new owner, but retaining him likely means chasing replacement coordinators with a lame duck head coach. A redshirt year with Fangio and company made sense for Paton when Elway was his boss. Now what?