An Autopsy of the Denver Bronco’s 2018 Season

Roughly three years ago, you probably could have floated a ballot initiative in Colorado about renaming Denver International Airport after John Elway. After wining the Superbowl with a crippled Peyton Manning and one of the most historically lethal defenses ever seen in the NFL, Elway was riding high, going on to sign long-term deals for Von Miller, maybe the best pass-rusher since Lawrence Taylor, and Emmanuel Sanders, the league’s most underrated and consistently productive wide receiver.

That goodwill is long, long squandered.

Today, Elway finds himself without a head coach, having fired Vance Joseph after months of presumptive anticipation. There was some speculation last night, after losing to division rivals the LA (SAN DIEGO) Chargers by a score of 23-9, that because Joseph was allowed to speak to the press and state that he wanted to return next year to “make things right,” that Elway might hold off on his termination after all. The logic behind this is actually pretty sound and definitely what was parroted by a lot of people last year after calls for heads to roll went unheeded: it’s very difficult to attract coaching talent to a franchise if the GM could throw you out after a single losing season. Nobody wants to relocate their family, teach their playbook, and develop a staff if you’re a few bad games away from the chopping block without being given any real time to gel within a franchise.

That said, Joseph was proven to be absolutely abysmal at clock management, timeout strategics, and calling for challenges. Basic game management skills eluded him and penalty flags were called constantly based on his ineptitude. Vance, despite being a basically affable guy, well liked in the locker room, that seemed willing enough to take risks and had a playbook that seemed to work for a Broncos team shedding veterans and rudderless without a stable quarterback situation into at least losing games by a closer margin that the blowouts of 2017. After a short winning streak, it even looked like he might have locked down the job for next year, but then they lose to both of the Bay Area’s sorry offerings and shut down by Phillip Rivers, villainized by Bronco fans everywhere. Vance had to go. It’s the third non-interim head coach in eight years, but he had to go. That’s not great for any franchise.

The replacement candidates don’t really matter to me right now. Interviews take forever, a lot of options are on the table, it’s too early to tell. Elway, as his politics would belie, has become a tin-pot dictator nobody, even the fans, can really say “no” to. With absolutely no real ownership to speak of, Mr. Bowlen being presently incapacitated and his family fighting it out in the courts for control of the team, Elway as a GM is basically completely unaccountable for his failures and is 100% running the team himself. This ultimately might be better than the alternative: NFL franchises have become billion-dollar assets since Bowlen’s entrance and the prospect of a “non-football” owner looking to run the team is exactly what has ruined Denver’s baseball team just across I-25. Winning is second priority to keeping payrolls down, filling the stadiums with ritzy concessions and distracting attractions, and keeping working-class fans priced out of the stands. We’ll see if whichever family member that wins really cares enough about Pat’s legacy to operate it as the storied football team that’s the pride of a region or a theme park ride designed to be milked cynically for nostalgia.

THE STADIUM DOESN’T EVEN HAVE A SPONSOR.

Case Keenum sucks, and the caution many of the better analysts had during his signing was proven correct. He lost several weapons over the course of the season, as WR1 Thomas left for Houston and WR2 Sanders tore his Achilles in practice just as Denver seemed poised for a season-saving run to sneak them into the playoffs, that’s true, but Keenum showed poor QB IQ, getting sacked consistently even with an obviously-improved offensive line. It was largely his own fault. He rarely seemed to see the blitzes coming (even on fourth fucking down plays), threw plenty of avoidable picks, and held onto the ball in hopeless situations even worse than Trevor Siemian did. The main difference is Trevor didn’t cost $18 million a year. If it weren’t for the fact that promising back-up Chad Kelly got himself arrested on felony charges after a team Halloween party at the Gothic Theater and it wasn’t such a cap hit, I’d say Keenum should be following Joseph right out the door.

The prospect of bringing in another veteran QB and trying to catch what was an unlikely second wind of Manning again is also, in my opinion, inadvisable. Flacco, newly disrespected in Baltimore by a Ravens team that has decidedly moved on, has always been overrated. Getting Peyton’s less talented, less charming brother (clone remnants?) out of New York seems like a terrible idea as well. Elway, having probably ruined Brock Osweiller’s career and potential by shattering his confidence in 2016 and going bust on Paxton “Fortnite is my Real Passion” Lynch, is probably too gun shy to confidently be able to draft another gawky, gigantic white man out of college again (CFB looking like a thin 2019 QB draft class anyhow) and he’s too big of a donor to the Republican party to get Colin Kaepernick, who surely deserves to be on the squad that let Trevor start for two years.

Not having Talib in the corner position was another sore spot. After choosing not to renew Aquib, now-head CB Bradley Roby seemed to lead the once-legendary “No Fly Zone” defense into what’s now a shell of itself. This a defense that couldn’t stop the run, couldn’t stop special teams’ return plays, and couldn’t cover receivers in a smart enough way to keep games close or hold tight leads. While injuries were a huge part of why the 2018 Broncos stalled out, it’s really hard to discount what not paying Wade Phillips what he was worth did to one of the best defenses of all time. Pouring salt into the wound, they still played alright and got potentially game-changing turnovers, but an anemic offense and an overrated, non-producing quarterback could never capitalize on any of it, making what’s still an above-average defense essentially irrelevant.

Claiming, as Derek Wolfe did in yesterday’s post-game locker room interview, that the team is still “in rebuilding mode after losing Peyton Manning” just doesn’t work anymore. It’s been three years. Even if fans were comfortable with a “long rebuild,” and they’re not, as there were 12,000+ no-shows to yesterday’s season finale, the bright spots like hometown hero Phillip Lindsay or Sanders taking point in the receiver’s corp are dashed by heartbreaking injuries. There just isn’t any luck to be had in Denver.  The only thing I’m sure of anymore is that Brandon McManus is probably the most reliable kicker in the league and I (almost) never worry about him.

There’s a certain degree of personal responsibility that I take for this. I really, really needed Superbowl 50, and I might have made some dark bargains to beat the Panthers. It’s a blurry time in my life, so I’m not quite sure what was dealt, but there does seem to be a bit of a curse ever since, and for that, I apologize.

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