This conversation became predictable as the Broncos trudged off Lambeau Field through the long tunnel into the loser’s locker room . The Broncos are winless and the first team to post no sacks and zero takeaways in a season’s first three games.
The conclusion by a growing legion of fans and media: Trade Von Miller.
Tap the brakes, folks. The demoralizing start deserves anger. The Broncos' standard of excellence – seven Super Bowls, three championships – is incongruous to the history of the franchise. Denver owns a 13-28 record over its last 41 games, beginning with a 2-4 slide to end the 2016 season. The Broncos are 4-14 in their last 18 road games. And since Dec. 2 of last season, they haven’t won anywhere, saddled with a seven-game losing streak.
The stats warrant frustration. But the roster demands perspective.
I am not excusing losing. I am suggesting viewing through a wider prism. If you viewed the Broncos as a playoff team, this failure to launch makes your skin crawl. If you viewed this a rebuilding club – as I did – the start makes sense.
I thought they would be 2-1 at this point. But I predicted an 8-8 record. They now look like a 6-10 team. The Broncos have not posted three straight losing seasons since the dark period of 1963-1972. Nothing about this is comfortable. It is, however, understandable.
Look at the Broncos offense for a moment. Of their 11 starters, three are veterans. The others are either rookies (Dalton Risner, Noah Fant, Andrew Beck) or second (Phillip Lindsay, Courtland Sutton) and third-year players (Garett Bolles, Connor McGovern, Elijah Wilkinson). The group boasts a first-time playcaller and the team’s third offensive coordinator in three seasons.
There is a sobering reality of lacking talent at some spots, but the lack of continuity has played a role in stunting growth as well. If Joe Flacco is viewed as a placeholder, then this season becomes about leaving with a core group of performers in Lindsay, Royce Freeman, Risner, Fant and Sutton. And if the season begins 2-7, for instance, it’s time to take the bubble wrap off Drew Lock and giving him a chance regardless of how Flacco’s adjusted contract impacts the salary cap in 2020 and 2021. This is what teams in transition do. Develop young talent, then add pieces around it.
Which gets me back to Von and the defense. The group is a disappointment because there is money and experience on this side of the ball. Ever since cornerback Bryce Callahan reinjured his foot on July 28, the defense feels out of sync. One player shouldn’t matter this much, but it has left the Broncos scrambling, and there’s no telling when Callahan will play this season. Fangio relented and played De’Vante Bausby against Green Bay and was rewarded. He had a pair of third down stops, moving ahead of Isaac Yiadom on the depth chart. Chris Harris Jr. remains terrific, but there are few playmakers, and the Broncos are limited at inside linebacker.
So what’s up with Von? The first two games were anomalies given the quarterbacks' quick release times. Sunday stung because Miller had “clean rushes,” as he put it, and he failed to win his one-on-ones. Is that technique? Is it frustration of so many empty downs or drops in pass coverage that when a chance presents itself he’s not ready to capitalize? The Broncos rush three too often for my liking. However, when they rush more they still are not reaching the quarterback, compromising coverage. It’s clear, they must take more chances, either with linebacker, corner or safety blitzes.
The thing is Von isn’t Khalil Mack. Mack, according to ESPN stats, has created 18 sacks over the last few years, most in the NFL. That means his push has led to an opening for someone else to reach the quarterback. Von is not built like Mack. He’s not winning double teams. There needs to be a compromise here – less Von in coverage and more of him lined up differently or even on the same side with Bradley Chubb. Anything to create chaos.
About that trade? Here’s the issue. If you were going to move Miller, the time was before the draft. To trade him now limits the suitors and also the return. What is a realistic haul for Miller? A first and a third-rounder? The Cowboys will come up because they could use a rusher, even if they have little flexibility. But, you want a first-rounder from a team that is likely to get the 27th or 28th pick?
I am not a fan of trading stars for unknowns, especially for a team that has struggled with its first-round picks. And frankly, the Broncos don’t have replacements for Miller, other than undrafted free agent Malik Reed, or Harris Jr. Trading them signals a complete rebuild. I would rather lose Harris – take that back, I would sign him to an extension – to free agency and get a compensatory pick than deal him during the season.
With Miller, if you soured on him after three games with a new coach and a new scheme, then you should have re-signed Shaquil Barrett as protection for this type of lukewarm commitment.
Listen, Miller needs to play better. He knows it, and makes no excuses. If he reaches a point where he sees a future elsewhere, OK, then that changes the dynamic. For now, he remains invested. After the Packers game, one of the most dispiriting of his career, Von spent time talking with rookie Justin Hollins in the locker room. He asked how he felt in the nickel package, and reminded him, “We need you in those situations.”
The trading deadline is Oct. 29 at 2 p.m. If the Broncos are 2-6 at this point, of course trading Von will resurface. And maybe the offers will demand a closer look. Until then, give him time over the next month with this scheme, this coach and this team. He has earned the right for patience in the face of disappointment.