Englewood, Colorado. Twenty-five years after the Denver Broncos’ first Super Bowl title, the team is writing a new chapter in history that probably won’t be celebrated two decades from now.
The 3-6 Broncos are last in the league in scoring with 14.6 points a game, last in the red zone offensive zone and second-to-last in third place. Collectively, the Broncos have scored just one touchdown (12) from the Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb.
Dig into the Broncos’ record book and there has been nothing quite like it since the early days of the NFL franchise. The 14.6 PPG is Denver’s lowest by nine games since 1966 — the first year the Super Bowl was played before it was called the Super Bowl.
“I was surprised,” coach Nathaniel Hackett said this week when asked about the problems. “Obviously, when you have the results that you have, you’re always disappointed as a coach … because it didn’t look like any of us wanted it to look.”
And according to ESPN’s Stats and Information Group, the Broncos’ 131 points is the fewest by an offense led by Russell Wilson in the first nine games of any season of his career.
Even as a rookie with the Seattle Seahawks in 2012, the team scored 170 points over its first nine games and went 5-4.
Perhaps the biggest football travesty of all of this, however, is that the Broncos waste the league’s leading scoring defense that has put eight opponents to 19 points or less. If the Broncos had even the 23rd-worst offense in the league—the Carolina Panthers score 20.4 points per game—it would probably be 8-1.
“The reality is we have to find ways to win these games,” said Wilson. “It was five or six games or so it was one game. I have to find a way for us to get two more goals.”
“We’re close, but that’s not what we’re here for,” Hackett said. “We are not here to be number 1 in close matches. We are here to win football matches… We have to fix these things.”
The Broncos, starting with general manager George Button and Hackett and down, made it clear that they wanted Wilson to be “comfortable” on offense, which led to him being on the gun most of the time with a three-dimensional receiver group. But there is little evidence that any of these things work well enough to continue doing them more often.
After an offseason program and a preseason filled with Hackett citing the importance of the passing attack, physical play, and winning line of scrimmage, the Broncos lined up at a three wide receiver assigned to at least 41 snaps, including penalty shots, in seven of their games.
In the two games Wilson was more under center than he was at gun, he only played 300 yards passing (Seattle) and one of the Broncos’ three wins (Houston). On Sunday against a Titans defense that surrendered five touchdown receptions to tight ends and a running back coming into the game, the Broncos lined up for a three-game combo on their first nine shots of the game, with Wilson on the gun. Wilson went 1 of 7 passes, and the Broncos had down first and chased twice.
The Broncos didn’t even try another set of personnel until over five minutes left in the first quarter.
And with Tim Patrick already on injured reserve since training camp, KJ Hamler on game day inactive and Jerry Goody injured on the first offensive batter of the game, Hackett and the Broncos chose to stay on that path. They have lined up by three lengths for 58 shots (including penalties) at least 38 more times than any other group of individuals.
In short, the Broncos play in single-result games, including two games where they have double-digit leads that turn into losses.
Against the Titans, Wilson sacked six times and struck out 18 times – both season highs. All six sacks came with Wilson on the gun, and five when the Broncos were on a three-sided combo.
The Broncos surrendered 24 of their 30 sacks when Wilson was on the gun, 23 of the sacks in a showdown of three. When asked earlier this week why they clung to that thinking on Sunday in particular, Hackett again referred to Wilson’s comfort level.
“We want to make sure we have the best people out there, the best player that Ross feels comfortable with to be able to move the ball up and down the field,” Hackett said. “We’re trying to do what we think is appropriate for the group and still at the same time mix up some of these larger individuals [groupings] In and some of these things are there for you to run the ball. I think for us, our lack was in third place. We wanted to try to pass the ball a little bit more so we wouldn’t necessarily be in third down situations and play a few sets like we did in the game before. ”
Asked if that affected how they opened the game, Hackett added: “Yeah a little bit. We really liked the package we were getting into the game with this set. Obviously, it was a little bit different when Jerry was [Jeudy] I got out.”
In the end, Wilson still believes they can find something to build on, even with some AFC power offense waiting on the schedule including a road trip to Baltimore as well as two games against the Chiefs.
“We will not give up or give up,” Wilson said. ‘This is not an option.’