DENVER — Hope remains being able to see the light in the darkness, the smile through clenched teeth, the flower in a bed of weeds.
The Broncos lifted the curtain at Empower Field on a sun-splashed Sunday afternoon, and challenged their fans not to flee to emergency exits. The mantra of new owner, new coach, new quarterback officially went flat with 5:48 remaining in the first half as many in the sellout crowd of 73,083 rained boos down on the sputtering offense.
After a punch to throat and a standing eight count, the Broncos offense regained its balance as Russell Wilson floated a 22-yard score to tight end Eric Saubert in the fourth quarter, the defining moment in an ugly 16-9 victory over the Houston Texans that was more graffiti than Da Vinci.
"We're just going to have to be sure we evaluate everything. Whether it's getting the personnels out there or lack thereof and making sure the plays are coming in nice and clean, and just getting into the huddle and out of the huddle. So, we just have to keep talking about that. I'll talk with ‘Russ’ (QB Russell Wilson), find out anything that I can do to help him make it better. That's inexcusable. That's on us, that's us hurting ourselves," Hackett said.
"I would be booing myself; I was getting very frustrated. We get down to the red zone two times. Don't get another touchdown, which is unbelievably frustrating. I don't think we have scored in there yet. That's something that all of our guys have to step it up. Whether we run the ball more, whatever we're doing, we just have to execute at a higher level.”
Saubert made a terrific effort, stealing the ball off Christian Kirksey's arm for Wilson's first touchdown pass with 12:37 remaining in the game. Brandon McManus added a 50-yard field goal to create room to exhale. The defense mauled Houston, but Denver's offense failed to gain traction and the team finished with 13 penalties, one more than the opening week.
Regardless of the schematics and quarterback, the Broncos displayed many of the same issues that explained why they have not reached the playoffs in six years, while posting five consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 1963-72.
Teams experience ineffective stretches. The Broncos left themselves vulnerable to a second straight upset because of questionable play calling. When the first half ended with the score knotted at 6, the Broncos offense sat saddled with alarming statistics. Why was this cause for hand-wringing? The Broncos have scored six points or fewer in the first half since 2015 and gone 3-31 in those games. Make it 4-31.
Through the season's first two games, they are 0-for-6 on touchdowns in the end zone. Worse, they failed on five attempts inside the 3-yard line, including two fumbles against Seattle, and four incompletions versus the Texans.
"Last game, we were able to move the ball well, and we didn’t capitalize for whatever reason. In this game, we felt like we capitalized on the touchdown and a couple of other plays but unfortunately not. We just have to get better," said Wilson, who completed 14 of 31 passes for 219 yards, one touchdown and one interception. "The good thing is, like I said, I’ve won a lot of football games in the National Football League and not every one of those was easy. All that matters at the end of the year is that there is a ‘W’ at the end of that column.”
The Broncos averaged 6.5 yards per carry on the ground in the first half as Javonte Williams emerged as the best player. Yet, they abandoned the run. In Denver's first 15 plays inside the 10 in 90 minutes, they passed 11 times and ran four. It was hard to reconcile, especially Sunday, with receiver K.J. Hamler inactive and Jerry Jeudy (ribs) injured when driven to the turf with 6:01 left in the second quarter.
The second half brought multiple moments of sobriety for this new coaching staff. The Broncos converted a fourth-and-2 on a six-yard completion to Courtland Sutton. Then moments later on third-and-1 from the Houston 35-yard line, the Broncos eschewed Javonte Williams in favor of an option by tight end Andrew Beck. He had the opportunity to pitch to Williams, but wisely just took a 1-yard loss. The Broncos were late getting the field goal unit on, leading to a delay of game. The punt then became the choice as fans let loose in full throat with their disgust.
"We are going to have to put them (the penalties) up in front of all the guys. We're going to have to make sure they understand why there were penalties, what they're doing wrong. Whether it's a false start, whether it's illegal cut block, any of those things that go along," Hackett said. "We just have to be sure that we clarify it to them because this has got to stop. We're not going to win a lot of games when we get that many penalties.”
Broncos general manager George Paton believed he was getting an innovative, collaborative head coach in Nathaniel Hackett. Through two games, he has been unique in that no Broncos team has been penalized more or offered such head-scratching play-calling. Through two games, it's fair to wonder if Hackett should look for a veteran coach to put in the booth to help provide assistance and guardrails for he and offensive coordinator Justin Outten.
On Texans' first series, it became obvious we were not in Seattle anymore. "Darkside," the nickname of defense, flashed on Jumbotron. Ominous music played and D.J. Jones flung Dameon Pierce to the ground for no gain. Randy Gregory repeated the feat on the following possession, setting up Wilson for his first touchdown drive.
Gregory finished with a sack and Dre'Mont Jones added two for a defense that has not yielded a touchdown in six quarters.
"We are really competitive. I think a lot of guys want to meet at the quarterback. That is kind of something we talked about, beating the other guy to quarterback and turn it kind of a little internal competition," Gregory said. "I think more guys have that mentality, the better job we can do getting to the quarterback and making plays.”
Mistakes overshadowed promise. After Montrell Washington's 20-yard punt return and 11-yard reverse , Wilson floated a rainbow in Courtland Sutton's direction. Interference set up first-and-goal at the 2-yard line. The red-faced zone remained as Denver settled for the first of two short Brandon McManus field goals.
Denver's 3-0 lead vanished on the Texans' 10-play, 54-yard march. The Broncos held as Rex Burkhead became the bad option in the passing game on third-and-5. Ka'imi Fairbairn drilled a 40-yarder to knot the score with 2:19 remaining in the first period.
A few boo birds chirped on the Broncos' first drive fizzled in the second quarter, sabotaged by a sack and a short third down pass on third-and-15, leaving Wilson 3-for-11 for 38 yards. Wilson finished the half 6-for-19 for 93 yards.
Just when you thought things couldn't get worse, the Broncos offense opened second half with a holding penalty on Lloyd Cushenberry and Courtland Sutton failed to pull in a laser from Wilson, juggling the ball as Christian Kirksey picked it off at the Broncos' 45-yard line.
What Sunday showed is that the Broncos are in a work in progress from the players to the coaches. The challenge begins in earnest this week with San Francisco headed to Denver as a Super Bowl contender.
They are no going nowhere without a cleaner operation even with a defense showing fangs.
"We’re a team. Offense is struggling, we got to step up. That is just the way it goes," safety Kareem Jackson said. "When they’re rolling, we still have to step up. But for us, it’s all about getting as many opportunities as possible. For us to get some stops today —we’ve been struggling, I can say it’s a team effort. That’s how it goes sometimes. We know we have to keep getting better.”
Broncos receiver Jerry Jeudy, coming off a 100-yard game, injured his ribs on a throw back gadget play. Wilson lofted a pass to Jeudy who couldn't corral it and was driven into the turf by the Texans defensive back Steven Nelson. Jeudy did not return, and more will learned Monday after an exam. ...
Star cornerback Pat Surtain II came to the bench midway through the second quarter, favoring his left shoulder. Liked Jeudy, Surtain was ruled out at halftime, and will undergo an MRI on Monday. Rookie Damarri Mathis replaced him, and prevented a third quarter score to Brandin Cooks with a deflection. ...
Dre'Mont Jones (two) and Randy Gregory (one) posted sacks. ...
The Broncos honored the Stanley Cup champion Avs midway through the first quarter. They showed the players on the screen as the crowd sang "All The Small Things." Well done by the crowd. ...
Broncos attendance: 73,083. The no shows: 3,108. ...
For the record, Russell Wilson's first home completion as a Bronco was a 21-yarder to Courtland Sutton. ...
The Walton-Penner ownership group of Robson Walton, Greg and Carrie Penner, attended Sunday's game, joined by part of the group Condoleezza Rice. ...
Some big names populated the inactive list, a reflection of injuries and depth needed at other positions. Linebacker Josey Jewell (calf) was optimistic about playing after running full speed Friday, but was held out a second straight week as a precaution. Second-round pick Nik Bonitto landed on the inactive list. He is behind Baron Browning on the outside linebacker depth chart and Jonathon Cooper brings special teams versatility. Others sitting: receiver K.J. Hamler (more maintenance as returns from hip and knee surgeries, could be back this week), right tackle Billy Turner (could return next week), defensive tackle Eyioma Uwazurike and wide receiver Jalen Virgil.