I do this really stupid thing every year. As a Denver native who now lives on the East Coast, I pick a Denver Broncos road game to hit before each season, when I’m still feeling relatively optimistic and hopeful. I do this stupid thing because I made a promise to myself at around 10 years old that I’d see a game in every NFL city, and it’s a ritual that used to be a lot of fun. Back when Pat Bowlen owned the team. And guys like John Elway and Peyton Manning played quarterback. And Garett Bolles wasn’t false starting on every third-and-short.
Over the years, I’ve watched the Broncos play as the visiting team at 26 stadiums, and I’ve suffered plenty. I’ve had the charcoal from a grill dumped on my rental car in Oakland. Had my back windshield busted out at Foxborough during the playoffs of that crazy Tim Tebow season, and watched Denver blow a 24-0 halftime lead to the Patriots there a couple of seasons later. I proposed to my wife on a cool moonlit night in Baltimore, right before Chris McAlister ran back a 107-yard missed field goal attempt by Jason Elam. I’m a guy who writes about fights for a living, but it wasn’t at UFC where my then-5-year-old son saw a nasty brawl. It was at a Broncos-Lions game in Detroit on a Sunday night. We’ve sat through a maelstrom in Tampa, withstood merciless taunting in Buffalo, and had a guy hike a leg to pretend to pee on us—my then-6-year-old son and me—in Philadelphia.
All I can say is that I hope my 10-year-old self is happy because it’s been a lot of unnecessary abuse … yet this weekend at Soldier Field was a new low.
It was very difficult explaining to people why I was taking this trip to Chicago. To see the Broncos? The team that just gave up 70 fucking points to Miami? Who allowed 10 touchdowns and 700-plus yards? To the same Miami team whose coach used to be a Broncos ball boy, who took mercy on us by not kicking the field goal at the end to break the scoring record? The Dolphins team that had Uncle Vic Fangio up in the box, smirking like a baby every time Courtland Sutton fumbled? And wait, the Broncos are playing the Bears? A team that has a copyright on the adjective “hapless”? A supposedly professional football franchise that, even though it was 0-3 and got bombed in Kansas City 41-10 the week prior, was a three-point underdog at home to the laughingstock of the league?
That was the ass game I was flying out to see?
Calling it the Futility Bowl doesn’t even begin to describe things. Abject hopelessness comes closer. Still, if nothing else, I am loyal. Whether I am loyal to the “kid me” or the old Orange and Blue, an idiot was afoot in Chicago. I asked the Uber driver on the way to Soldier Field whether he was a Bears fan. He said, “Well, no,” and then thought it best to explain himself. “It’s just that the Bears haven’t been good since I’ve been alive,” he said. He was 27 years old.
The thing is, when I picked this game for my 2023 road trip, I thought it would be safe. Early enough in the year that true catastrophe wouldn’t have struck the Broncos yet. Denver plays in Chicago once every eight years, so this was the chance to see a game at Soldier Field, with all its proud columns and ancient glory, before the Bears do away with it and move to the suburbs. I’d assumed the Broncos would be 3-1 heading into this game or, at worst, 2-2.
Yet losing the opener at home to the Raiders 17-16 in coach Sean Payton’s debut was a gut punch not felt since … well, a year earlier, when Denver lost 17-16 against Seattle in Nathaniel Hackett’s debut. As they say in Chicago, “Deja Blue.” In the latter, Hackett played for a 64-yard field goal to the astonishment of, well, everyone. Then that 2022 Broncos team just got more and more inept, Russell Wilson’s ridiculous contract looked more and more like a maximum sentence, and a familiar dejection set over the franchise, which not only fired Hackett before the season was over but also missed the playoffs for the seventh straight year.
So when the Broncos blew a 21-3 lead against Washington a couple of weeks ago, it was like Denver’s own Requiem for a Dream. It was clear that that playoff drought would be extended to eight and that the Broncos’ downward spiral would drill right through rock bottom to the town of Miami. That 70-20 South Florida massacre was a little too close to the 55-10 Super Bowl loss against San Francisco back in 1989. You get to reflecting after a loss like that. It was supposed to be different with Payton at the helm. It was supposed to be better. It was supposed to be a return to competence. It was supposed to be a year in which Vance Joseph couldn’t haunt us anymore. We were supposed to be safe.
The great thing about being among the more matured losing cultures, like Chicago, is that a kind of psychic dread hovers in the air that makes you feel better about your own. It’s the anticipation of total collapse from a fan base that’s used to disappointment. Lately, it has felt like the Broncos will find a way to lose every close game, yet it was immediately clear on Sunday that Chicago would not be so easily outdone.
No matter what was happening in this ridiculous game between winless teams, there was an unspoken fear from both sides that it was the wrong thing. That everything was headed for disaster. When the Broncos scored a touchdown on their first offensive possession, a familiar hush fell over the Chicago crowd. You could hear the resolve in that quiet. And I knew what they were thinking because it was also what I was thinking about the Broncos—all of this ineptitude could lead to the no. 1 draft pick next spring. That was the little ember protected in the depth of Chicago’s heart. People had been talking about Justin Fields as a bust for weeks leading up to this game, so all of this was just a dress rehearsal for Caleb Williams. But in a football town fueled by silver linings, even that felt doomed. Chicago never gets the guy, and there were a few Mitch Trubisky jerseys around to pound home the point.
Yet it wouldn’t be the Futility Bowl if the visitors didn’t contribute. The second quarter was the worst kind of hell for a Broncos fan. The first play of the quarter: a Fields–to–D.J. Moore touchdown. On the ensuing kickoff, Broncos rookie Marvin Mims Jr. fumbled and fell on the ball inside the 5-yard line. Three-and-out, a bad punt, and now Chicago had the ball in Denver territory again. Existential vertigo began to creep in. These are the coming-apart-at-the-seams sequences Denver has known all too well ever since Manning retired after the 2015 season. The gaps in the Broncos’ defense were a black hole, sucking the meaning out of life. And there was fucking Vance Joseph patrolling the sideline, miraculously still part of the team after Miami hung 70 on his defense. Still looking bewildered. Before I knew it, Bears tight end Cole Kmet scored a touchdown as if he were on a vacant field. The nearest Denver defender might’ve been 50 yards away. Who knows.
Now it was 14-7 Bears, and Chicago fans were giving up the big-picture draft dreams to revel in the moment. The weather was beautiful, and the beer buzzes were kicking in. Fields, who was 31st in the league in completion percentage coming into Week 4, looked like Joe freaking Montana. And when the Broncos gave the ball back to Chicago, he found Kmet again to extend the lead. It was like 11 on seven out there, a bloodbath. Yet in my head, I got a new idea: Caleb Williams would be a Denver Bronco, baby! Just tank was all I was thinking. Justtankjusttankjusttank. With no defense, best to settle for defensive coping mechanisms. Caleb Williams. That’s the little ember that now glows Broncos orange.
Fields’s first incompletion was a Hail Mary at the end of the half. Otherwise, he’d thrown for 250 yards and three touchdowns. Between that and what Tua Tagovailoa did with the Dolphins the previous week, the Broncos had given up a total of 56 first-half points.
I could feel my phone buzzing in my pocket, but why bother looking? It was just people laughing. Apologizing. Either rubbing it in or sending hugs. Getting blasted by Miami is one thing, but making Fields look like a Hall of Famer? Next time I pick an away game to attend, somebody just kick me in the groin, please. Why do I do this to myself? Why do I put my son and wife through such things?
When the Bears made it 28-7, the fiasco turned into a comedy. Bears fans were enjoying the rare good fortune of finding a team in deeper shambles than they were. I found myself waiting for Denver to show some, what, pride? Interest? Ability? Through the coaching carousel over the last eight seasons, the quarterback mistakes, the free agency busts, the piles of injuries, the clock mismanagements, the 15-game losing streak to the Chiefs, the errant throws, the blown calls, the single-digit losses, the Garett Bolles whistles, the Jerry Jeudy drops, and the endless stream of Wilson platitudes … nothing had felt as helpless as this.
Getting trounced in Chicago.
All I could think was that I should find something more nourishing to do. I should read more. Get involved in an artistic project. Stop giving my attention to this stupid sport. This made me feel better. I would try to lead a better life when I got home. At least it was definitive. The Broncos were the NFL’s worst team.
Only, not even that held!
There’s this part in Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road where the starving father and son stumble on a bunker full of food in the hellscape they are traversing. To the reader, it is a relief. The suffering is temporarily halted. Yet there’s a point a little while later when the father wishes they’d never found that bunker. It just prolonged the agony of a journey that would end in tragedy anyway.
I was thinking about that as I walked out of the stadium. The Broncos somehow won 31-28, and I was trying to piece together what the fuck I’d just watched. At one point, undrafted rookie running back Jaleel McLaughlin provided a little spark when he came in for Javonte Williams. I remember muttering that McLaughlin was a bright spot. There was that seemingly face-saving touchdown to receiver Brandon Johnson, then a Sutton touchdown to cut the lead to 28-21. The defense, which couldn’t have been more offensive the whole way, finally got to Fields. Jonathan Cooper strip sacked Fields and rambled in from 35 yards out to tie the game.
The score was tied, 28-28, but Bears fans had begun streaming out of the stadium. They’d seen this movie before. When the Bears went for it on fourth-and-1 rather than kick the go-ahead field goal, there was a bracing for the letdown like I’ve never encountered. When Denver linebacker Alex Singleton stuffed the run play to turn the ball over on downs, it wasn’t a groan—it was an understanding. Nobody can out-hopeless Chicago. When the Broncos kicked a field goal to take the lead just inside the two-minute warning, winning and losing felt the same for both fan bases. No matter what direction, it felt like the wrong direction. Everything was headed for disaster for everyone involved.
And when Broncos safety Kareem Jackson intercepted Fields to bring an end to the most epic, meaningless game to happen so early in an NFL season, the long-suffering Bears fans who were left headed for the exits. A chant broke out on the ramps: “CAY-leb WILL-iams! CAY-leb WILL-iams!” If nothing else, the Caleb sweepstakes is alive in Chicago.
As for the Broncos? Hope has never been so confused.