Eleven months ago, Broncos general manager John Elway stood at the front of the team’s auditorium at Dove Valley and somberly bid his trusted coach and friend farewell. For a short while, anyway.
Gary Kubiak stepped down from coaching, sending Elway and Co. on another search — their third since 2011 — for a head coach. One who fit “the culture” and understood the Broncos’ long-held standards.
“Challenges excite me. That’s what it’s about,” Elway said that day. “That’s how we adjust. Things are going to happen, good and bad. It’s all about adjusting. This game is about adjusting.”
Ten days later, Elway returned to that auditorium, looked out to a crowd of the same faces and introduced his next coach. Vance Joseph fit the culture, Elway said. Joseph was a communicator and a leader and a smart football mind, and he would be the one to guide Denver back to the playoffs, where it belonged.
“Most jobs that are taken by a first-time head coach or most jobs that are open, it’s a rebuild,” Joseph said during his introductory speech. “This job is not broken.”
In Pat Bowlen’s three-plus decades of owning the Broncos, never once did he describe his team as a “rebuild.” But these Broncos will have little choice in January, when their first losing season since 2010 culminates and gives way to an offseason of change.
Two years removed from winning the Super Bowl, the Broncos have lost their way. And their identity. And, perhaps, much more.
“Everything is tough right now. Everything,” admitted star linebacker Von Miller. “What is Bronco football? We have to find that. We have to grind and get back to whatever it is. You can’t say Bronco football is … what we did in 2015. That’s two years ago. We have to find our identity. We have to find the guys that are ready to take their game to the next level.”
“It’s taking a big toll”
Only one player on Denver’s current roster was around to witness the chaos of 2010, when the head coach, Josh McDaniels, became embroiled in a videotaping scandal and was fired in Week 12, when fan turnout dwindled at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, when the team limped to the finish line for an embarrassing 4-12 record.
Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, then a rookie, got a front-row seat to the season that remains the franchise’s benchmark of hell.
Losing breeds frustration, but the Broncos’ latest bout with discontent is amplified by what they do have instead of what they don’t. On defense, they have a trio of first-team all-pro players: Miller and cornerbacks Chris Harris and Aqib Talib. They have a better run defense than a year ago, sparked by the arrival of nose tackle Domata Peko. They acquired speed on special teams, they found a left tackle in the draft and a veteran guard in free agency that Joseph dubbed the best available guy at his position. They have depth at running back, a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders and, they thought, they had a pair of young quarterbacks on the up-and-up.
Unlike 2010, they have talent.
But a home loss to the then-winless New York Giants in Week 6 was the start of their collapse; each of the ensuing seven losses were worse than the one before.
“I think it’s taking a big toll, because every week we say the same things, we answer the same questions the same way,” Thomas said. “Every week we do the same thing week in and week out, and we don’t make it no better.”
The frustration is evident on game days, as early deficits spiral out of control, turnovers pile up, punts are muffed and big touchdowns are surrendered. When the losing streak reached six games, running back C.J. Anderson sat at his locker in tears after a defeat to the Bengals. Then emotions boiled over during a Thanksgiving practice four days later when a pair of skirmishes ensued and more tears followed. Defensive end Zach Kerr got into it with offensive lineman Connor McGovern. And Harris got into a heated exchange with Isaiah McKenzie that left the rookie inconsolable at his locker shortly after.
“I just come to play football, and just respect that. Always respect the vets,” Harris said afterward.
In the following game, quarterback Paxton Lynch suffered a sprained ankle and headed to the bench in tears, frustrated by another injury and another loss.
The toll is heavy, and has spared no one.
“A lot of times, I don’t feel like guys feel like their backs are against the wall,” tight end Virgil Green said. “For myself, it’s my seventh year, but I always feel like my back is against the wall. I know each and every day, every week you got to come in and earn the right to be on the field. I don’t just expect to be thrown out there. I want to earn the right to be out there. I think with these guys born in 1990 to 1990-whatever, that’s the mind-set.
“I’m technically a millennial, but I’m a different millennial. I’m old school. These new-school cats, they don’t get it. If they want a job, they’ll get it.”
“There is no perfect roster”
In its most simplistic form, Broncos history offers two notable trends. First: The Broncos have won when they have had an elite quarterback, be it with John Elway, or Jake Plummer for a short span, and then with Peyton Manning.
The Broncos need a quarterback.
And second: Their drafts of the past few years have been unproductive.
Since 2011, when Elway joined the front office, the Broncos have acquired an NFL-high 12 players who have combined for a league-best 26 total Pro Bowl selections. But only two of those players were draft selections and only one of those picks — Miller — is still with the team. The other, tight end Julius Thomas, was nabbed in the fourth round and gave his former team a nice reminder last Sunday of what it’s been missing in the red zone since his departure.
Not a single member of the draft class of 2013 is still with the Broncos, and only four members of the nine-player class of 2015 are on the roster.
Of the 2017 draft class, only left tackle Garett Bolles is a starter. Three players (wide receiver Carlos Henderson, tight end Jake Butt and quarterback Chad Kelly) have landed on injured reserve, three others have been inactive more than they have played (defensive end and linebacker DeMarcus Walker, cornerback Brendan Langley and running back De’Angelo Henderson) and one has been benched twice for performance (McKenzie).
As the Broncos’ problems multiply, the question of whether the root of the issues is talent or coaching has often been raised. The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. It’s talent. It’s coaching. It’s also a trickle-down effect from past drafts that haven’t panned out.
“We were 3-1 in the first month of the season. It was a good enough roster to win with,” Joseph said. “Now that we haven’t won, I’m not going to stand here and say that it’s all roster. It’s not. Every team has roster issues. There is no perfect roster. But the guys on our football team, we chose. It’s our guys. So, we have to coach and play better to fix this. Every offseason — if you don’t win the final trophy — every team evaluates their roster and tries to improve.”
“Pardon the mess”
Standing inside the main entrance of the Broncos’ field house is a blue warning sign that reads: “Pardon the mess while we make improvements. Thank you!”
Behind it is a sheet of plastic that barricades a room under construction where a pair of workers in hard hats review a blueprint labeled “Denver Broncos Remodel.”
It was a Friday morning during the Broncos’ slide, but the scene — and the sign — appeared applicable to nearly every facet of the franchise.
The Broncos have four games left in a season they would like to forget, but Joseph said the mandate remains the same. He’s out for a win. And trying to get one takes precedence over talent evaluation for 2018. But as they hobble to the end, they have no option but to begin looking ahead.
“You have to try to find a way to win the game,” Anderson said. “Not only are you playing for if you want to be in blue or orange next year, you’re also playing for 31 other teams too.”
Sunday’s home game against the New York Jets means little toward their season, but will be weighted heavily toward the future and, perhaps, the faith of the team.
When McDaniels was fired in 2010, it came on the heels of the Broncos’ worst game-day turnout in Mile High history. While it was hardly the main reason for his ouster, it was another blemish on a low point in Broncos history.
A loss against the Jets at home would dig the Broncos’ rut even deeper. A win could revive some hope for a team that has offered little with its double-digit lossesr. A win could also help to salvage a first year gone horribly wrong for Joseph and a franchise that, for more than three decades, never used the word “rebuild.”
“We just have to keep fighting,” Thomas said. “We have to keep grinding. If the season ends this way, it ends this way. We just can’t give up. We can’t stop playing. We can’t put bad film on tape for nobody, because there’s going to be a change. We don’t know what it is going to be, but it’s going to be a change.”