How Broncos missed NFL playoffs for sixth straight year
The Broncos’ season came unglued during a five-minute stretch against Baltimore in Week 4 — a sequence of three possessions that defined their shortcomings.
Undefeated (3-0) and leading the Ravens 7-0, the Broncos allowed a 75-yard drive capped by a 12-yard touchdown carry from Latavius Murray, the development of a struggle-stopping-the-run theme.
The Broncos followed with a three-and-out capped with a sack, the development of a can’t-answer-a-score theme.
And Baltimore took the lead for good when receiver Marquise Brown’s route turned around safety Justin Simmons for a 49-yard touchdown after safety Kareem Jackson was late getting out of his back-pedal, the development of a can’t-prevent-big-plays theme.
The 23-7 defeat triggered a four-game losing streak that didn’t end the Broncos’ season, but did put them in chase-the-standings mode — 3-0 became 3-4 … 3-4 became 6-5 … and 7-6 became their current mark of 7-9 entering Saturday’s finale against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Their margin for error from mid-October on was eliminated and the Broncos never sustained any offensive consistency, never overcame the injuries that beset key parts of the roster and never figured out how to win in the AFC West (1-4).
“You can never base a record on a sheet of paper with names, but I think this was just such a well-built roster and we had so many guys who could make plays at every position level,” Simmons said. “It’s just unfortunate and disappointing that we, as a collective unit — coaches and players — just couldn’t get the job done.”
There is no one person to blame … and everybody to blame.
Start with an offense that is averaging 19.4 points per game. And a defense that is third in fewest points allowed, but 27th on third down and tied for 17th in takeaways. And a special teams unit that made critical errors on an almost weekly basis.
Add it up and it is no surprise the Broncos have clinched a sixth consecutive losing season for the first time in 45 years and a fifth straight year out of the playoffs for the first time in 49 years.
Think about that. Ending with their Super Bowl title in 2015, the Broncos made the playoffs 22 times in 39 years and had a losing record in only six of those seasons (one was a strike-shortened year). They were almost always in the mix. They were a nightmare to play at their home stadiums. And they were relevant.
Now? The Broncos scare nobody.
The Chiefs, who have won 12 consecutive games in the series, are an 11 1/2-point favorite, the second-biggest road choice at the Broncos in 30 years; behind only New Orleans, which was a 17-point favorite in November 2021 when the Broncos had to play practice squad receiver Kendall Hinton at quarterback.
Only general manager George Paton knows if major changes (dismissing coach Vic Fangio and the majority of his assistants) or minor alternations (retaining Fangio with the understanding he needs to overhaul his staff) are imminent.
So what went wrong? Why have the Broncos lost nine of their last 13 games? Here are three key factors:
If Fangio’s tenure ends this weekend, he will undoubtedly say he had few regrets despite his 19-29 record — it just isn’t in his NFL DNA to say as much. A more confident defensive play-caller will be tough to find and he mostly has the resume to back up the bravado he displayed after the rout of Dallas in November.
But at the root of Fangio’s three years is an inability to stop the figurative bleeding. The Broncos have five losing streaks of at least three games.
2019: The Broncos started 0-4, including come-from-ahead home losses to Chicago and Jacksonville. They were never closer than two games under. 500.
2020: The Broncos started 0-3, including a botched clock management opening-game loss to Tennessee. They never reached .500.
This year: The Broncos started 3-0 with wins over the Giants, Jacksonville and Jets (combined current record of 10-38), but lost four straight to set up a must-win finishing stretch minus quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
Asked after Week 7 if he should have gotten more involved with the game planning, Fangio said: “Well, I’ve been involved from the start. Obviously, every week I take a look at it and I give my opinion. Sometimes, it’s more detailed and in-depth than others, but I’m involved with it.”
Fair enough. There is no doubt Fangio as the head football coach is aware of what offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur’s game plan will look like each week. But by the time Fangio put his verbal foot down in the days following the Thursday night loss at Cleveland, it may have been too late to stop the snowball.
The Broncos spent their bye week signing receivers Tim Patrick and Courtland Sutton to three- and four-year contract extensions, respectively, and were optimistic Jerry Jeudy would be back to full throttle after his Week 1 high ankle sprain.
But whatever the reason, their lack of production in Games 11-16 has been confusing.
Sutton: 14 catches and no touchdowns.
Jeudy: 14 catches and no touchdowns.
Patrick: 10 catches and one touchdown.
Just as alarming is each player has only two explosive catches (gain of at least 16 yards) apiece during the stretch.
Blame the quarterback play or leaky pass protection or game situation, but the Broncos were not a quick-strike offense. In the last six games, the Broncos’ 12 touchdown drives have averaged 8.5 plays, a noble achievement of ball control, but it also shortens the game by limiting possessions.
The Broncos will never know about Jeudy’s season after he was injured against the Giants.
“I think the injury certainly had an effect,” Shurmur said. “He can be a very outstanding route runner and (has to) just keep continuing to work on all the things that are necessary to play receiver in this league. As long as he’s willing to do that — which I know he is — he’s got a bright future.”
If Jeudy isn’t a part of a trade to acquire a veteran quarterback, an offseason priority is finding ways to create favorable matchups for all three receivers and two tight ends.
Injuries impact run defense
The Broncos lost inside linebackers Josey Jewell (Week 2) and Alexander Johnson (Week 6) to torn pectoral injuries. The ripple effect led to Fangio starting seven players at a key run-defending spot.
In order to take advantage of a secondary full of talent, the Broncos needed to stop the run better.
Overall, the Broncos have allowed 109.8 rushing yards per game, 15th in the NFL. Not great, but not awful.
But a closer look is required. On first down, the Broncos allowed at least a four-yard carry on 55.1% of the attempts, 31st in the league. And on every attempt, opponents have gained at least four yards on 51.7% carries (29th in the league).
“We’ve never had a great stretch there this year, especially after we lost (Jewell and Johnson),” Fangio said before the Week 16 game at Las Vegas.
Opponent’s rushing in the Broncos’ seven wins — 18.1 carries for 79.1 yards per game and one touchdown.
Opponent’s rushing in the Broncos’ nine losses — 31.6 carries for 133.2 yards per game and eight touchdowns.
Paton faces major decisions this offseason because Jewell and Johnson are free agents and more defensive line girth could be required. First up is diagnosing the problems of this past season and why the internal optimism never matched the performance.
“I can sit here and say it’s extremely disappointing because of the guys we have,” Simmons said. “I really liked our chances.”
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