ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Broncos are failing at a fundamental mission — winning football games.
That was the goal when coach Sean Payton took over, to transform the culture and change the results of a franchise that has posted six straight losing seasons and bottomed out in 2022 given the expectations.
Problem is, this year looks a lot like last year, save for some nuanced improvement.
The Broncos don't do anything exceptionally well. They rank sixth in penalties with 40, including seven false starts, 17th in points per game (21.5) and last in points, total yards, rushing yards and passing yards allowed. It has left Denver at the epicenter of trade rumors.
Will the Broncos look for a hard reset by the Oct. 31 deadline and move receivers Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton, safety Justin Simmons, tackle Garett Bolles and others?
A compelling case can be made to tear it down for draft capital, while determining who the foundation players are moving forward. Coach Sean Payton is not taking the 10,000-foot view at this juncture.
“The focus is on the schedule and winning the next week. Certainly, every year when this time comes, there’s speculation. People call, and people call teams that aren’t playing well or are struggling to see if they’re interested in moving players,” Payton said. “That would be the only thing. It doesn’t require a four-day summit relative to what the plan is. (General manager) George (Paton) would bring any information to (Owner/CEO) Greg (Penner) and myself, but right now, our focus is on playing Green Bay.”
The Broncos find themselves in a pit of misery, strapped with a 1-5 record and looking for their first home win in their fourth attempt when hosting the Packers on Sunday. While the defense improved, the Broncos offense regressed. Russell Wilson, who had shown improvement from a year ago, played his worst game as a Bronco in the 19-8 loss the Chiefs, completing 13 of 22 passes for 95 yards with two interceptions.
Wilson, who has 12 touchdowns and four picks this season, made multiple poor decisions, and fell into the bad habit of dropping his eyes and spinning out backwards from the pocket.
“I’ve got to play better. That starts with me, and I know I will respond the right way,” said Wilson, who is 5-16 as a starter for the Broncos.
Part of the issue is that he’s feeling the pressure literally and figuratively. He has been sacked 19 times and pressured on nearly 40% of his dropbacks. It makes the deep passing game difficult, complicated by receivers who are not consistently creating separation.
“It’s been a handful (of things). It’s hard to point to one specifically. You want to have confidence in the pocket, and we need to find ways to get guys open. Typically speaking, that has to happen efficiently on early downs. It can’t be just on third down. That’s one of the things that we’ve discussed here early (Monday),” Payton said. “We’re looking at our pass list and drive starters and making sure that we find a way. Obviously on first down, you’re going to mix, run or pass, with your sequencing. The feeling after that game was just simply, ‘We’ve got to be able to throw it better to win in this league.’ That wasn’t directed at any one player. That was directed at all of us on offense.”
Bolles didn’t shy away from the criticism after the Chiefs sacked Wilson four times a week after the Jets posted the same number. Wilson has been sacked 19 times, one fewer than through six games last season. This wasn’t supposed to happen with Bolles’ return and the free agent additions of left guard Ben Powers and right tackle Mike McGlinchey.
“We’ve got to be better. That’s all there is to it,” Bolles said. “I’ve got to be better. The O-line has got to be better.”
Jeudy, who appeared to turn a corner over the last five games of 2022, has contributed to the offensive’s inefficiency, taking a step back. He has yet to score a touchdown and has been criticized by Fox analyst Mark Schlereth and NFL Network’s Steve Smith for his performance and effort. Jeudy said he was “living in the present” and “focusing on his job,” when asked about possibly getting traded. I asked Payton on Monday about the receiver’s slow start this season, which includes 20 catches for 222 yards.
“He’s frustrated, I’m sure. He’s a talented player. We need to continue to look for ways to get him throws — not only in the slot, but outside. The other stuff (social media spats and such), I don’t try to keep track of as long as it’s not a distraction to what we’re doing as a team,” Payton said. “That being said, he’s very competitive, he’s smart and he’s a playmaker for us. We have to continue to look for ways to put him in positions to make plays.”
The Broncos are not the team they were designed to be. The offseason blueprint featured an HGTV makeover with physical linemen, a blocking tight end (Chris Manhertz) and fullback (Mike Burton). Yet, the Broncos running backs – Jaleel McLaughlin, Javonte Williams, and Samaje Perine – have rushed 101 times, compared to Wilson’s 185 passing attempts. This is not the balance the team sought when Payton pledged that “running will be part of our DNA.”
“I feel like it’s been lopsided all year. When the offense plays well, the defense has a down game and vice versa,” said Williams, who believes he’s close to 100% now a year removed from knee surgery. “We have to get everything clicking on the same page. If we win, a whole lot of the outside noise will quiet down.”