INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Desperate times called for an unorthodox measure when the Broncos faced fourth down from the Los Angeles Chargers’ 1-yard line on Sunday. Minus key players up and down their depth chart and trailing by 10 points, offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur called a gadget play.
Tailbacks Mike Boone and Melvin Gordon flanked quarterback Drew Lock in the shotgun. Boone received the hand-off and flipped it back to receiver/former college quarterback Kendall Hinton as Lock ran to the right flat. But safety Nasir Adderley blitzed unblocked and was immediately in Hinton’s face, forcing him to flutter a pass to Lock, who was unable to cross the goal line.
“It was there, it was open,” tight end Noah Fant said. “It was a well-designed play.”
Such is the Broncos’ 2021 fate: Even the best-designed plays fail. On a must-get-points-possession, the Broncos got nothing, a turning point in a 34-13 loss to the Chargers at Stan Kroenke’s Los Angeles palace.
A game of nothing (the Broncos never led and trailed for the final 56 minutes, 49 seconds) in a season of nothing (no playoffs and no winning record).
Early-afternoon losses by Baltimore and Miami kept Denver’s slim postseason hopes alive, but the scoreboard confirmed the disparity in available players between the Broncos (7-9) and Chargers (9-7).
And so with one game remaining (will it be the last for coach Vic Fangio?), the Broncos know they will be watching the playoffs. Again. The six-year playoff drought is the second-longest in franchise history, behind only the bad, old days of the team’s existence (1960-76).
The loss also clinched the Broncos’ fifth consecutive losing season, also the second-longest in team history (10 years — 1963-72).
“It (stinks),” safety Justin Simmons said. “It’s tough. You put in so much work and go out there and have that type of performance all-around … I don’t know if I can even put a word on it for how guys are feeling.”
The focus now turns squarely to general manager George Paton. If he looks at Fangio’s entire three-year body of work and not just the last 11 months he observed in-person since replacing John Elway, some of the data is damning.
Through two offensive coordinators and three Week 1 starting quarterbacks, Fangio could never find the right answers. The Broncos have failed to score more than 20 points in 29 of his 48 games (60.4%) and are 6-23 in those games. As this season crumbled, they scored nine, 10, 13 and 13 points in their last four losses.
Just as concerning is how Fangio and his staff were unable to stem the proverbial losing tide. The Broncos have five losing streaks of at least three games since the start of 2019. For context, Mike Shanahan had only seven in his 14 years. The Broncos started 0-4 in ’19, 0-3 in ’20 and are now limping to the finish line.
“Very disappointing,” Fangio said simply.
Fangio should be proactive this week at the Broncos’ facility. Delegate some of the game-planning for Kansas City to his staff and start grinding away on a plan to keep his job, one he can present to Paton well ahead of the traditional day-after-the-season ax-falling.
Have a plan for staff changes on offense, defense and special teams and present a list of names he can pursue to call plays or coach up position groups. Be honest about his shortcomings in game/clock/timeout management. And promise to be more team-wide hands-on instead of waiting for things to unravel to get involved (like after the Week 7 loss at Cleveland).
If this season ends with a four-game losing streak, it becomes hard to justify progress was made.
“We started off 3-0 and we should have been 3-0,” Fant said. “We had a better team than the teams we were playing. We went against some tougher teams and we got some and lost some. The biggest thing is, you get into some of these tight games, we have to pull those out. It feels like we haven’t answered the bell in that aspect this year. That’s on the players.”
True and true. The Broncos are 1-4 in one-possession games.
The players deserve criticism, but this falls on the entire organization. The book on this team will be that it pounded bad teams (six of their seven wins were by 10 or more points), but weren’t good enough when punching up in class, save for Dallas.
The other issue is their inability to win in the AFC West. Fangio is 5-12 in division games.
“When you lose a lot of division games, it doesn’t help and that’s what we’ve done the last bunch of years,” said kicker Brandon McManus, the last remaining player from the 2015 Super Bowl champions.
It’s not good when McManus represents the offensive highlight. His 61-yard field goal to close the first half was the longest of his career and the third-longest in Broncos history.
The first-half goal-to-go issues returned in the second half when the Broncos were poised to stay in the game. But on fourth down from the Chargers’ 1, Melvin Gordon’s touchdown was wiped out by an illegal formation penalty. McManus was good from 23 yards and his ensuing kickoff was returned 101 yards by Andre Roberts for a touchdown to make it 27-6 Chargers.
The addition of a 17th game only prolongs the misery for teams like the Broncos.
“We still have another game to play,” Fangio said. “Hopefully, we’re going to have a normal week of practice and put our best foot forward, compete and try to win that game.”
The Broncos were eliminated from postseason contention Sunday, making their sixth consecutive year out of the playoffs. A look at the longest streaks in franchise history:
|First 17 years of franchise’s existence.
|Three coaches have led team during streak.
|This was followed by five consecutive AFC West titles.
The Broncos’ loss to the Chargers on Sunday clinched their fifth consecutive losing season. A look at the longest streaks in franchise history:
|Streak included five consecutive years of at least 10 losses.
|Two for Vance Joseph, three for Vic Fangio