After 6 games in the 2022 NFL regular season, the hype of the offseason, the Denver Broncos, have taken all the high expectations placed upon them and set them on fire.
Following the hiring of an offensive-minded head coach in Nathaniel Hackett, a supposed franchise QB in future Hall-of-Famer Russell Wilson, a quality defensive signing in outside linebacker Randy Gregory, and already possessing a nucleus of young talent on both sides of the ball, this was expected to be the year the Broncos, having spent 6 seasons in football mediocrity, got back to being contenders.
However, after a 2-4 start in which the Broncos rank dead last in offense, lead the league in penalties, and are calling offensive plays like a 5-year old playing Tecmo Super Bowl (i.e., just hitting buttons), the team’s offensive unit has revealed themselves to be the most fraudulent promise of entertainment since the Fyre Festival.
And still, despite all the ugliness on offense, the team also fields a defense that may just be the best in the NFL. In the team’s 4 losses, they have lost by 1, 9, 3, and 3 points. Each game was winnable, and it can be argued (strongly) that each of the losses was a result of self-inflicting damage rather than just being the lesser team.
At 2-4, it can be looked at retrospectively and think that just 1 or 2 plays in each game could have this team looking at 6-0. Yet, even the 2 wins were ugly, so the other side of the same card says the team is lucky not to be 0-6.
The trade deadline is November 1, so general manager George Paton has 2 weeks to determine which side of the card he wants to play. He can look at how close this team is to being 6-0, continue to operate in a win-now mode, and attempt to acquire players that could not only help offset the injuries that have torpedoed the team, but elevate the group as well.
He could also look at just how bad the team has performed in every game offensively, see the injuries, including a potentially bad one to Wilson, and do what he can to gain back some draft picks he sold off in the trade for Wilson this offseason.
It’s an unenviable position to be in and one he surely didn’t expect to find himself in the first year of his new era. Yet, this is where he sits, and this is what he is paid to do.
First and foremost, he needs to ask himself just how much faith he has in his first major hire, Nathaniel Hackett. The rookie head coach has been torched by media and fans alike, as in each game he has done nothing but look completely in over his head, unorganized, unqualified, and in no way fit for the position he was hired for.
Yet, what fans and outside media see on game day is only a portion of what goes on within the franchise, and Paton is with him on the inside with a better vantage point. Therefore, what is the coach’s attitude like? What are meetings like with him? How is the team responding?
Wilson said after the loss Monday night that there was no division in the locker room, but safety Justin Simmons openly questioning the leadership of the team doesn’t exactly make it seem like there are many Kumbaya sessions going on inside the building, either.
Admitting a mistake this early in his tenure as GM is likely not an easy thing for someone in his position, but with new ownership who want the team to be successful, see the stadium full, and make a profit, he may not have the luxury of taking the gamble of staying pat.
The Broncos have reportedly inquired about trading for star Carolina Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey, but as they already sent away two first-round picks and two second-round picks in the Wilson trade, what exactly would Paton have to offer? Could he honestly afford to send away MORE future first round picks and draft capital when the team barely has any in stock? And that goes for any other impact player potentially on the block, not just McCaffrey.
On the other hand, he could take some assets he currently has who could be of use to other teams and hope to be able to get back some draft picks in hopes of bolstering the team with more young talent.
Players like tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, a healthy scratch Monday night, RB Melvin Gordon, the former Pro Bowler who was benched vs. the Chargers, and even former first-round picks Jerry Jeudy and Bradley Chubb could produce a nice return in the form of draft picks.
Jeudy has shown flashes of being a talented difference maker at wide receiver but is inconsistent, has had issues with drops, and has been the targeted receivers on several QB-WR miscues this season. Chubb, on the other hand, is having a career year and could potentially boost any contender to a Super Bowl winning team and therefore command a hefty return.
Unfortunately for Paton, there has been nothing to suggest thus far that Hackett is going to get things turned around. And Wilson, even while healthy, has been inconsistent at best and not the franchise signal caller the Broncos expected to have.
It’s a tough call. Again, the Broncos have 4 losses not because they were necessarily the worse team that day, but simply because they were the less prepared, less disciplined, less focused, and less organized team. They lost by not doing the things that JV high school teams can do with efficiency.
But can Paton really afford to bank on a complete 180 in offensive discipline and execution (both by the players and the coaches making the play calls)? Can he really gamble on the idea that the defense will continue to carry near-100% of the load for the remainder of the 18-week season?
The new ownership group was front and center for the debacle in Los Angeles Monday night, and Paton knows it. Rob Walton and his group didn’t buy the Broncos to field an inept offense and see fans leave the stadium in droves, so Paton is under the radar just as much as his two major acquisitions are.
He has done wonders with his drafting for the Broncos, as Pat Surtain II might just be the best DB in the NFL, OLB Baron Browning is suddenly one of the league’s most dangerous pass rushers, and other recent draftees like Quinn Meinerz, Javonte Williams (pre-injury), and Greg Dulcich appear on their way to being impact NFL players.
Yet, as he sent away early draft picks for Wilson, he won’t be able to shine in that area like he has his first 2 offseasons, and both Hackett and Wilson (and his perhaps premature extension) are looking worse by the day.
Paton can view this as just a bad start by a good football team who just hasn’t clicked yet, or he can see it as a dud that needs to be salvaged by any means necessary.
The man has been near-flawless when on the clock in the draft room, but now he finds himself on the clock with 2 weeks left before the trade deadline, and both fans and ownership will be watching what he does.
Paton alone holds the cards, and he can either take a huge gamble and stay all-in, or he can fold and start again with a fresh hand. This is a defining moment of his early tenure, and given the lack of success his most recent moves have produced, he has no wiggle room here. He has to get this one right.