CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In the north end zone of Bank of America Stadium two hours before kickoff, a Broncos fan refused to give up hope.
Easily heard in a half full venue, he told a passerby he would not concede that Russell Wilson is washed. His resume is too bloated to believe he has gone from a nine-time Pro Bowler to a rumor. Latavius Murray would take pressure off with a mudflaps approach in the run game. And the MacGyver offensive line, patched together with duct tape and chicken wire, would find its footing.
His passion was convincing. His favorite team was not.
The game started and reality clobbered optimism over the head like a sledgehammer, leaving the lingering question if Nathaniel Hackett has coached his last game for the Broncos?
The Broncos were suffocated, stifled and embarrassed by the Panthers in a 23-10 loss. In a season of disappointment, this represents the nadir. The Broncos struggled to compete against a 3-8 team that fired its coach weeks ago.
"It's about the team. I just want to find a way to win a football game. That's all that's important to me," said Hackett when I asked him if he was concerned about his job. "These coaches, these players, they have worked so hard. I just want to be there for them so we can be successful as a team."
When Carolina increased its lead to 20 points in the fourth quarter, nose tackle Mike Purcell reached his flashpoint. He walked toward the sideline, then turned and made a beeline toward Wilson, snapping at the quarterback as Hackett stood there. Hackett said he didn't see it. Purcell explained what happened.
"Frustration. We want a spark on something. We are all in this together. Period," said Purcell, who was called for unnecessary roughness on the previous play, increasing his frustration. "That's the quarterback of our offense. They were about to take the field and obviously we let up a touchdown. We weren't doing our job. We gotta get a spark somewhere. That's all it was."
I asked Wilson about it following the game.
"Mike and I are on the same page. He came off the field after they kicked the field goal and he was pissed off. He said we have to F-ing go. And I agreed," Wilson said. "Me and him are on he same page. There's no animosity at all. We have to win. We have to have some grit to us to win these football games. Those guys are out there battling every play and on offense we have to capitalize."
It was a snapshot in a movie reel of scenes of why Hackett might be the second first-year coach in as many years not to make it through the season, joining Jacksonville's Urban Meyer. When Hackett kept his job after the Raiders loss, he offered the defense of playing close games. That evaporated Sunday. The Broncos looked lost and inept for long stretches which lands directly on Hackett's doorstep. That said, while in the past four years four first-tine coaches have been canned after one season, it is historically rare that a coach is let go during the season.
It is a question because of where the Broncos are. And who they are.
They can't get out of their way. They can't find their way. And certainly not on the road where they have not won in the States since Nov. 7 of last season. That club reached the 7-6 mark before unraveling, looking like a bastion of excellence compared to this version.
The Broncos have dropped seven of their last eight games overall. Nothing about this game was close, other than it moved closer to a likely end for Hackett at some point.
"Personally, I was very excited for coach Hackett to get the job here. I personally enjoyed his coaching philosophy, but in my opinion, I don't think guys are worried about his job. When we are losing, they are going to get new players, too," said kicker Brandon McManus, the last remaining member of the Super Bowl 50 team. "They are probably more worried about themselves than a coach. Each player has to put their head down and work and continue to make plays."
Hired to fix the offense, Hackett gave up play-calling last week to quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak. The initial jolt vs. the Raiders did not carry over. The Broncos' were ineffective, save for a 52-yard second quarter run from Latavius Murray and a garbage time fourth quarter drive.
Just when we think the Broncos have reached rocked bottom, they break out the shovels and begin another archaeological dig. With two minutes remaining in the first half, Denver had minus-1 yards passing. The Broncos finished the first half with one third down conversion, a lost fumble, and a missed field goal. In other words, on brand. To be fair, they did not have a penalty after entering the game with the most in the league.
When the Broncos fell behind 17-3 midway through the third quarter on Sam Darnold's touchdown fumble recovery, it felt insurmountable since Denver has eclipsed 16 points just twice this season. When the offense gained a morsel of momentum, reaching the 45-yard line, Courtland Sutton received an unsportsmanlike conduct flag for flinging cornerback Jaycee Horn out of bounds. Perhaps, it could have been offsetting fouls. It was not. The drive fizzled as Sutton stewed on the bench.
The Broncos finished the third quarter with 24 yards on 12 plays. They have scored one touchdown in the period this season.
"It's not just the third quarter, it's all the quarters," said Wilson, who finished 19 for 35 for 142 yards and one score. "We have to be better. ... It's unacceptable."
With the dueling one-string banjos defining the first quarter, the Panthers made a bold move. They faked a punt on fourth-and-1 from their own 38. Safety Sean Chandler converted as the upback. Moments later, Darnold, making his season debut, connected a 26-yard pass to D.J. Moore. He liked it so much, he found him in the end zone for a 5-yard score. The Panthers finished the quarter with a 7-0 lead, outgaining Denver 92-26.
Wind swirling, the Broncos special teams provided a boost as Raheem Blackshear fumbled Corliss Waitman's dying line drive punt. It set up Denver at the 27-yard line. The Broncos ran the ball three straight times, among them a 13-yard gain from Kendall Hinton, before stalling. They went backwards on third-and-2, their fourth consecutive to open the game, settling for a 27-yard Brandon McManus field goal.
A 7-3 deficit felt ominous given the Panthers' running game. D'Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard steered the car midway through the second as Carolina scored despite completing one pass on a 10-play drive. They inflated their lead to seven points when the Broncos offense finally awoke. Murray bolted for 52 yards — the Broncos had not had a 20-yard gain on the ground before Sunday — to set up a potential tying touchdown. Then again, this is the Denver offense that measures progress in first downs not touchdowns.
On second-and-10 from the 23, Wilson was strip-sacked, hope fizzling as the ball spun onto the turf. Replays showed it was a fumble, not an incomplete pass. Hopefully on Sunday night the Broncos blocked linebacker Brian Burns on Twitter because they did not block him anywhere else.
The lack of respect for the Broncos offense showed at the two-minute warning. After Murray gained three yards, Carolina began using its timeouts. Carolina is a pitiful offense team, but more competent than the Broncos.
The Panthers, of course, got the ball back and went three-and-out. Wilson stirred up some cobwebs with a 22-yard completion to Sutton. McManus pushed a 56-yard field goal wide left at the buzzer. It should not come as a shock. McManus has converted 9 of 17 attempts of 50-plus yards over the past two seasons.
The Broncos finished the half 1-for-6 on third down — they finished 4-for-14 — with the teams combining for eight punts. Murray was the lone flickering light with 81 yards rushing on nine carries. Wilson did not settle comfortably over 100 yards passing until the fourth quarter.
Late in the fourth quarter, Wilson fired repeatedly to the end zone. The drive extended on a roughing-the-passer penalty. Ultimately, he lobbed a short pass to Brandon Johnson. It was Johnson's first touchdown, and Wilson's 300th, tying him with John Elway for 13th on the NFL's all-time list. These are moments to cherish. Unfortunately for both it came during a forgettable performance that has placed even more scrutiny on Hackett.
There are losses. And then there's what happened Sunday.
"It sucks to lose," safety Justin Simmons said. "Obviously it wears on you. But it doesn't matter. No one cares. We get paid to win and we are not winning."
Part of the Broncos' issues can be traced to lacking depth from the most recent disappointing draft class. Sunday's inactives and practice squad included: receivers Jerry Jeudy (ankle) and K.J. Hamler (hamstring), cornerback Michael Ojemudia (healthy scratch), center Lloyd Cushenberry (groin, injured reserve), guard Netane Muti (PS), receiver Tyrie Cleveland (PS) (linebacker Derrek Tuszka plays for Chargers). ...
Broncos reserve safety Anthony Harris walked around the field and played catch with little kids.