The Broncos are currently experiencing a stretch of results that isn’t the standard for Denver. Entering 2019, the Broncos had not endured consecutive losing seasons since 1971-72 and are one loss away from making in three in a row.
After finishing 5-11 in 2017 and 6-10 in 2018, general manager John Elway hired Vic Fangio as head coach to replace the failed hire of Vance Joseph. A deserving candidate, Fangio’s opportunity to be a head coach was long overdue but it was undoubtedly a safe hire to restore some stability.
Entering Week 14, Denver sits at 4-8. The Broncos are in danger of registering double-digit loss seasons for the third consecutive season, something that hasn’t happened since 1967. There is plenty of blame to go around for the franchise enduring an uncommon low. Let’s point some fingers.
ELWAY KEEPS FAILING TO FIND A QUARTERBACK
The quarterback is the most important position in professional sports, and after multiple attempts Elway has failed to land a viable franchise QB since Peyton Manning, who led Denver to a Super Bowl championship in 2015. Elway’s latest attempt, Joe Flacco, was available after seeing the team he won a Super Bowl with draft his replacement in the first round. Flacco then got replaced due to injury while his successor went 6-1 as the starter to close the regular season and make the playoffs.
Flacco continued to perform like the player the Baltimore Ravens opted to move on from while getting sacked on nine percent of his dropbacks, and Denver went 2-6 in Flacco’s eight starts before. Again, Flacco suffered an injury, this time to his neck, that landed him on injured reserve, ultimately ending his season.
Perhaps Drew Lock can be the long-term answer at quarterback for Denver but the list of failed Manning replacements now includes Brock Osweiler, Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch, Case Keenum and Flacco.
Flacco doesn’t deserve all of the blame for the offensive shortcomings in Denver. The offensive line failed to meet expectations and more weapons in the passing game needed to emerge. But nothing is more critical than sound quarterback play and Elway hasn’t delivered the man for the job.
OFFENSIVE LINE DIDN'T TAKE A STEP FORWARD
There was a lot of excitement over what this unit could have been this season. After hiring arguably the best offensive line coach in football in Mike Munchak, Denver drafted Dalton Risner and committed a massive contract to Ja’Wuan James to anchor right tackle. Garrett Bolles was a toolsy first-round pick that Munchak could develop and Connor McGovern was poised for a big season taking over at center in a contract year. Ronald Leary was also finally healthy and set to live up to his hefty contract.
As it would turn out, Bolles has played well but the excessive penalties still remain a huge problem. Leary’s run blocking has left something to be desired and the same can be said for McGovern. Risner has quickly become a stud at left guard but the biggest problem has come from the right tackle position.
James has been limited to just 32 snaps over two games which has forced Elijah Wilkinson into the lineup. Wilkinson has struggled mightily in pass protection, routinely getting dusted for pressures and sacks.
Denver’s offensive line remained below average, which was especially problematic for an immobile quarterback like Flacco and the inexperienced backups (Brandon Allen and Lock) that were forced into action once he went down with an injury.
Denver’s defense hasn’t been dominant this season but it is far from the problem. Fangio and defensive coordinator Ed Donatell have done an adequate job with the unit, but critical injuries have limited the defensive output.
After producing 12 sacks as a rookie, Bradley Chubb suffered a season-ending ACL tear in Week 4. Chubb and Von Miller combined for 26 1/2 sacks in 2018 forming one of the NFL’s best edge-rushing tandems. With six sacks on the season, Miller is on pace for the lowest output of his career since 2013 when he was limited to just nine games. Chubb’s absence from the lineup has been costly for Denver, who has only produced 28 sacks so far in 2019 after registering 44 in 2019.
Another crippling defensive injury came to prized free-agent signing Bryce Callahan, who starred for Fangio’s defense in Chicago as a slot corner. Inking a three-year, $21-million deal last offseason, Callahan never stepped on the field for Denver as he is still recovering from a foot injury he sustained while still with the Bears. It has left Denver without his pesky coverage skills and blitzing ability that is essential for this defense.
Without Chubb and Callahan’s services, Denver has truly struggled to create takeaways on defense and help lift its lackluster offense. Taking away the football is a staple of what has made Fangio’s defenses great in the past. The pass rush and coverage ability of the unit was hampered without Chubb and Callahan. Producing just 12 takeaways so far this season, Denver has secured the sixth-fewest turnovers in the NFL.
The most economical and effective way to build a consistently competitive NFL roster is by hitting on draft picks, especially those in the first round. The biggest reason Denver is on the brink of logging three consecutive losing seasons for the first time since Richard Nixon was President of the United States is that they simply aren’t getting enough meaningful contributions from its top picks. Since Denver snagged Von Miller with the second-overall pick in 2011, the selections have been nearly fruitless.
- 2012 - no pick
- 2013 - DT Sylvester Williams: never produced into a playmaking presence, now on his fifth NFL team.
- 2014 - CB Bradley Roby: member of the Houston Texans who was primarily a sub-package player for his tenure in Denver
- 2015 - OLB Shane Ray: not rostered by any team after producing just one sack in 2017 and 2018
- 2016 - QB Paxton Lynch: a disaster in limited playing time in 2016 and 2017, wasn’t rostered in 2018 and was signed to the Steelers’ practice squad in September
- 2017 - OT Garrett Bolles: an average starting left tackle that keeps putting the offense behind the sticks with penalties
- 2018 - DE Bradley Chubb: has superstar upside but missed all but four games in 2019 due to an ACL tear
- 2019 - TE Noah Fant: has made a modest impact as a rookie but a first-round investment on a tight end ignored more pressing needs on the roster
Generally speaking, Denver has drafted poorly but the returns on first-round investments have been woeful.
Denver was behind from the outset after beginning the year 0-4. While the Broncos have managed a modest 3-3 record at home, they especially struggle to win on the road with a 1-5 mark away from Mile High Stadium.
Every NFL season is filled with challenges like playing on the road, facing opponents that enjoyed more rest and preparation time, slumps and navigating inevitable injuries.
Denver couldn’t climb out of that dreadful start, struggled playing on the road, got blown out in a short week against Kansas City in Denver and the injuries were just too much to overcome.
THE FINAL VERDICT
Each of the Broncos’ biggest culprits have been outlined, but who owns the greatest claim of credit for Denver’s disappointing 2019 season? In order of most to least blame:
- Bad drafting has limited the talent of the roster.
- Quarterback remains a revolving door.
- Offensive line didn’t take the much-needed step forward.
- Defensive injuries limited the potential of the unit.
- Handling adversity was a problem for Fangio in his rookie season at head coach.
How do the Broncos clean up this mess? Be sure to check back tomorrow, as TDN analysts Kyle Crabbs, Joe Marino and Benjamin Solak outline a plan to fix this team.