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It’s 1971 again in Denver

It’s eerie how similar the 2022 Broncos are to the 1971 Broncos. Let’s dive in.

Denver Broncos v San Diego Chargers Photo by James Flores/Getty Images

Through 12 games, the Denver Broncos scored 173 points and allowed 209 points. That was in 1971. That team was 4-7-1 through 12 games and playing for an interim head coach in Jerry Smith. Lou Saban was fired after leading the team to a 2-6-1 record. Smith squeezed two wins out of that team which had a very good defense and one of the worst offenses in the league. Sound familiar?

The 2022 Broncos have scored 166 and allowed 204 through 12 games. In terms of scoring only the 1966 Broncos were worse (by a point) and the 71 Broncos were better by one touchdown. The similarities between the 71 Broncos and the 22 Broncos are almost eerie.

What makes it worse is that the AFL game in 1966 (and the NLF game in 1971) was VERY VERY different than the NFL game in 2022. The rules have been changed to promote scoring. Defenders can no longer decapitate receivers legally. Defensive backs can’t breathe on receivers without getting DPI. Pass rushers can get called for roughing the passer if they give the QB a mean glance. Of course I’m exaggerating (a little).

The saddest thing to me is that even that 1966 Bronco team had a game where the offense showed up and scored points. That team scored 40 against the Oilers in one of its four wins (final was 40-38). In the other three wins the offense was able to generate just enough points for victory even if the number was low - 17, 20 and 17 points. The margin of victory in their four wins was 2, 7, 3 and 7. In other words, one score games.

This was not the case in 1971 when the Broncos finished 4-9-1. In many of those nine losses the team was losing by more than one score (only two of nine were within seven points - remember that there was no 2-pt conversion in the NFL back then - that was added in 1994). That being said, even the 1971 team managed to score 27 points their best offensive game of the year. The 22 Broncos have topped out at 23.

If we look at the two wins that the 71 Broncos got under interim HC Jerry Smith (who never got a full-time HC gig in the AFL or NFL), they were against two teams that were struggling on offense. The 1971 Broncos offense finished the season 24th of 26 teams in scoring, but one of their victories came against the Bears who finished 25th. In that 6-3 victory, the Bronco defense held the Bears to 66 yards of total offense. The other three wins came against teams that finished 7th, 10th and 17th in scoring, but only one win came against a team that finished the season with a winning record (the 9-5 Cleveland Browns).

So we have established that the 2022 Bronco offense is bad, but let’s answer the question of how bad. Relative to this century (including the 2000 season which technically was part of last century), the 2022 Bronco offense is the 22nd worst offense through 12 games since 2000 (tied with three teams so you could say 24th worst).

Bur most of those team were not recent. The only recent team that had scored fewer points through 12 games is the 2021 Texans who had scored two fewer points.

Another really sad that is that most of those 21 teams with worse scoring offenses were led by rookie QBs who were highly drafted busts or journeyman QBs who should not have been starting games in the NFL. Credit goes to Colum Cronin for pointing out that none of those 21 teams had a potential hall-of-famer starting at QB.

Focusing on those offenses that had fewer than 150 points scored through 12 games, we find these guys as their primary starting QBs (8 GS or more):

  • 2000 CLE - Doug Pederson
  • 2000 CIN - Akali Smith
  • 2009 STL - Marc Bulger
  • 2009 OAK - JaMarcus Russell
  • 2005 Jets - Brooks Bollinger
  • 2009 CLE - Brady Quinn
  • 2006 TAM - Bruce Gradkowski
  • 2006 OAK - Andrew Walter and Aaron Brooks (both started 8 games)

Even the QBs who were decent (Bulger and Brooks) were at the tail-end of their careers and were a broken shell of their former selves. The rest were guys who really had no business starting games at QB in the NFL. If you continue looking at the teams you find very few names of starting QBs who were long-term NFL starters and had anything left in the tank.

The exceptions are:

  • the 2008 Bengals which had a young Carson Palmer get hurt in the 4th game of the season (who then got starts from a young Ryan Fitzpatrick). Both QBs went on to have long NFL careers after 2008.
  • the 2002 Texans with David Carr as a rookie
  • the 2007 49ers with Alex Smith

In looking through all of the offenses on that list, I didn’t see another offense that had an AllPro level (at least at some point in their career) starting QB like the Broncos have in Russell Wilson. We’re in truly uncharted waters.

It’s rare for elite starting QBs to change teams late in their careers, but it does happen. It’s unprecedented for those QBs to lose 3/5th of their starting offensive line to injury in their first season with their new team (both OTs and the center).

The Broncos have an aging mobile QB who spent most of his career behind poor offensive lines, but no longer has the ability to escape pressure and make “off-script” plays. Couple that with the fact that even when he does escape pressure he doesn’t have receivers who have been able to get chunk plays against opposing defenses who generally have not had to worry about him gaining ground with his aging legs.

The rash of injuries has compounded the problems that this offense has had from the beginning of the season - creativity and discipline. Even when this offense tries something unorthodox, it seems like the opposing defenses are ready for it, be that an end-around or a flea-flicker. Compound that with maddening pre-snap penalties on offense, missed blocking assignments and poor route running and you have the perfect recipe to have one of the worst offenses in the NFL since the year 2000.

We’re now to the point of trying to determine if this is the worst Bronco team ever. No Bronco team has ever lost more than 12 games. The 2012 Broncos finished 4-12, but the 1963 and 1964 Broncos had a worse winning percentage (15.3%). If the Broncos lose the remaining five regular season games (which is a real possibility at this point), they would finish with a record of 3-14 which still would not be worse than the 15.3 winning percentage of of the 63 and 64 teams. That being said, given the expectations at the start of the season, this had to be the most disappointing team in Bronco franchise history. You could argue that the 1999 team was more of disappointment coming off of back-to-back Super Bowl wins, but that team still finished 6-10.

Remember, no Denver Bronco team ever has finished last in the league in scoring. Even in the 8 team AFL, the Bronco offense finished no worse than 7th in scoring.

We’ve reached a level of offensive ineptitude that has never been seen in Denver.