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The Broncos Are in Free Fall—How Did That Happen?

After losing six straight, this looks like a lost season in Denver, and John Elway will have some tough questions to address this offseason

Denver Broncos general manager John Elway Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The wheels have officially come off in Denver.

The Broncos started fast this year, carrying a 3-1 record into a Week 5 bye, and they looked like a team primed for a postseason run with a typically stout defense and surprisingly explosive passing attack under quarterback Trevor Siemian. But over the past month and a half, Denver’s season has taken an abrupt and dreadful about-face: Siemian turned back into a pumpkin, throwing six picks in a three-game stretch, and was benched; the defense fell apart; the special teams faltered; general manager John Elway called his players “soft”; and there’s growing frustration in the building, per’s Ian Rapoport, that offensive coordinator Mike McCoy’s scheme is too complex. It’s a mess.

Denver’s 20-17 loss to the Bengals at home Sunday marked the team’s sixth straight defeat, the franchise’s worst losing streak in a single season since a 30-year-old Elway was throwing passes for the team back in 1990; it’s a stretch of games that includes double-digit losses to the Giants and Chiefs, blowout defeats to the Patriots and Eagles, and Denver’s first shutout loss in 25 years—a humiliating 21-0 defeat to the Chargers. The Broncos are now 3-7, alone in last place in the AFC West, and currently in line for the fourth overall pick in next year’s draft. So what the hell happened?

There is no one thing that serves as the root cause for the Broncos’ tailspin, because they’ve struggled pretty much across the board. The offense has been terrible, averaging 14.2 points per game during the six-game slide to drop the team’s season-long average to 18.3 (24th in the NFL). Those struggles start with the quarterback spot: Siemian got seven starts before the team turned to Brock Osweiler, and things haven’t gone much better for the former Texan and Brown on his return tour in Denver, where he’s completed 53 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and four picks in three starts. Combined, the Broncos’ quarterback duo has averaged just 216.9 pass yards per game (18th) at 6.5 yards per attempt (27th) on the year, with 12 touchdowns to 14 interceptions (31st) and a 73.2 passer rating (30th).

Of course, Osweiler and Siemian shouldn’t be given all the blame. Denver’s offensive line came into this week ranked 27th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate, and after giving up another three sacks to Cincy’s pass rush unit, have surrendered 31 on the year (25th). The running back committee of C.J. Anderson, Jamaal Charles, and Devontae Booker hasn’t picked up much of the slack, as the rushing attack is averaging 112.9 yards per game (15th) at 4.1 yards per carry (tied for 15th), with five touchdowns (tied for 23nd) and just six rushes of 20-plus yards (tied for 15th). The team’s top two wideouts, Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, both rank in the top 10 in drop rate among receivers. Meanwhile, the Broncos’ tight-ends group hasn’t been much of a factor in the passing game, and the team just cut A.J. Derby, their leading pass catcher at that spot (19 catches, 224 yards, and two touchdowns), just a year after trading for him.

With two more turnovers this week (an Osweiler pick and an Anderson fumble), the Broncos increased their giveaway total this year to 23, second worst in the NFL, behind only the Browns. The offense’s ball security problems have strained the relationship between the offense and defense all year, but lately, the normally dominant defensive group hasn’t been in a position to be pointing fingers. The once-fearsome Von Miller–led pass rush came into this week as a bottom-five group in pressure rate. The team’s linebackers and safeties have been picked on over the middle of the field, and even the vaunted cornerbacks group, the backbone of the “No Fly Zone” moniker, has looked like a liability during the team’s losing streak. Chris Harris, Aqib Talib, and Bradley Roby have already given up a combined nine touchdowns this year after surrendering just six all of last season. In total, Denver’s given up 22 touchdown passes on the year (tied for the league worst), and, over the last six games, the Broncos have surrendered an average of 30.8 points per game to drop to 27th in that metric on the year (25.9). Defensive coordinator Joe Woods’s play-calling has come under fire: Against the Patriots last week, Miller was inexplicably asked to drop back into coverage instead of rush the passer 13 times—a whopping 40 percent of his passing down snaps—and, unsurprisingly, that tactic did not work. The superstar pass rusher gave up a touchdown to tight end Dwayne Allen in coverage on one play, and on the snaps that he dropped into coverage, Denver got zero sacks.

Let’s not forget about a special teams group that came into this week ranked dead last per Football Outsiders DVOA. That unit saw one punt blocked, another one dropped (now-benched returner Isaiah McKenzie’s fifth muffed punt of the year), and gave up a 103-yard kickoff return to Dion Lewis in the blowout loss to the Patriots last week—and got another field goal blocked Sunday against the Bengals.

Of course, Elway deserves a major piece of the blame for the team’s precipitous free-fall over the last six weeks. Not only is the Hall of Fame quarterback ultimately responsible for the Broncos’ quagmire at his former position (which has been a major problem not just this season, but for three years now, including the team’s Super Bowl season in 2015), but he’s the guy that hired head coach Vance Joseph, let top-tier defensive coordinator Wade Phillips leave for the Rams (Woods replaced him), and signed off on both McCoy and special teams coordinator Brock Olivo (who’s come under fire because of the team’s terrible special teams play). Instead of taking responsibility for many of the team’s problems this year, Elway put the blame on the players, with a very liberal use of the word “we.”

“I think we got a little bit soft,” he said. “To be dead honest with you, we got a little bit soft. We went 4-0 in the preseason, we started out 3-1, then we get a bye week, and if you exhale in this league, you’re in trouble. To be dead honest with you, I think we exhaled, and it’s hard to recover from that.”

Predictably, Elway’s decision to question his players’ mental and physical toughness didn’t go over well with the coaching staff and team. Joseph said he was offended, while begrudgingly conceding that Elway may be right, and plenty of the team’s star players voiced their displeasure with their GM’s assessment. And besides, Elway’s little pep talk attempt didn’t work, as the Broncos came out this week and lost to a middling Bengals team at home.

The Broncos’ top-to-bottom dysfunction not only pushes them into the realm of playoff long shots (no team has ever started 3-7 and gone on to make the playoffs), but it puts the franchise at a crossroads. Will Elway fire Joseph, clean house, and start from scratch? Will he wait until the offseason to make a change? Or will he stick with the current coaching staff and hope for a big jump forward in 2018? Past that, Elway must find out what he has in quarterback Paxton Lynch, the team’s 2016 first-round pick. Lynch struggled in two starts last year and missed the first 10 weeks of this season with a shoulder injury before being active this week as Osweiler’s backup. Now that it’s clear that neither Siemian nor Osweiler is a long-term solution, Elway must decide whether to roll with Lynch in 2018 or spend big in free agency during the offseason—perhaps pursue Kirk Cousins or Tyrod Taylor should either hit the open market—or use another first-rounder on the quarterback of the future. At the team’s current pace, Denver could secure itself a top-five pick and a shot at a few of the top college quarterbacks set to enter the draft this year. The season’s last six weeks should have a major impact on the direction the franchise goes in 2018.