The Broncos remain in a ‘world of suck,’ and it’s deeper than any coach and any player
DENVER — Some 1,145 days have passed since Emmanuel Sanders said the Broncos were in a “world of suck.”
In that span, the world went through a pandemic, the Broncos went through four offensive play-callers and eight starting quarterbacks — including one who wasn’t actually a quarterback. They’ve been deadline sellers three times — including a trade of Sanders himself. All that prevented Denver from selling a key player at the deadline for five consecutive seasons — including 2018 — was the afore-mentioned pandemic.
The roster turned over so thoroughly that just nine players who suited up on that soggy Wisconsin afternoon in 2019 remain on the roster. Sanders now works in broadcasting. Joe Ellis was the man in charge of the entire operation that day; by Sunday, he was just a fan in the stands, seen bundled up in an orange puffer jacket on the 300 level, one of 69,094 who took in the proceedings.
The world has changed.
The Broncos haven’t.
Oh, the faces behind the facemasks and the nameplates on the jerseys have. They changed head coaches once; unless they make a U-turn in the next seven weeks, it seems increasingly likely that they’ll do so again. They have a new owner and a general manager now facing the same scrutiny as his predecessor.
But they’re still stuck in that world.
The “world of suck.”
Justin Simmons mentioned “culture” in his locker-room Q-&-A tonight. And that got me thinking. We can talk about the numbers & details, but at the core of all the struggles is that the Broncos have a losing culture that built over 5-plus seasons. And it might take a while to fix. pic.twitter.com/haAxuLIDfU
— Andrew Mason (@MaseDenver) November 21, 2022
It’s bigger than a single defeat, the latest of which is Sunday’s 22-16 overtime loss to the Las Vegas Raiders.
It’s bigger than a 6-losses-in-7-games skid. Bigger than the quarterback who seemed to find a rhythm at times Sunday, but remains on firmly pace for his worst season. Bigger than beleaguered head coach Nathaniel Hackett, who handed off play-calling to passing-game coordinator Klint Kubiak, only to see the offense end up with 16 points for the fourth time this season and exactly one touchdown for the seventh time this year.
It’s a world in which as your foes find ways to win, you find ever-more-painful ways in which to lose.
Being in that world means that it takes just one pull of the thread to cause the whole thing to unravel. Because one miscue becomes two, three, four or more before it becomes too much to overcome.
Being in that world means walking on the precipice of disaster. If you’re the Buffalo Bills, Philadelphia Eagles or one of the other members of the NFL’s elite tier, you can foul up once and it’s OK; the odds are pretty good that you’ll be able to get back on track.
But when you’re in the “world of suck,” all it takes is one fumble — even one that you recover — to start sending you over the edge.
And with that, all the work and preparation ends up being wasted.
“It sucks. It is probably one of the best locker rooms I’ve been in and with one of the greatest coaches I’ve been part of — and with them being so young,” defensive end Dre’Mont Jones said. “It just sucks because part of it feels like all of our hard work is for nothing a little bit.”
THE FUMBLE WAS ONLY THE BEGINNING
The thing is, the Broncos recovered Melvin Gordon’s fumble. It came as he was fighting for extra yardage. Most of his fumbles happen that way, when his legs churn, defenders’ arms fly, and his arm or the football gets jostled.
Maxx Crosby punched the ball loose. The crowd, pregnant with expectation of a touchdown, gasped, groaned and then rained a storm of boos upon Gordon. But Quinn Meinerz alertly fell on the football. The Broncos lost a touchdown, but still had the chance for a field goal and a 13-7 lead.
It shouldn’t have been a lingering issue.
And then Crosby — probably the best player on the field Sunday, on either side — blocked Brandon McManus’ 25-yard attempt.
Then the unrelated miscues began to accumulate.
This is the way of things when you’re in the “world of suck.” One mistake becomes another, and another, until by the end of the game, even the most reliable aspects of the operation crumble.
So, it goes beyond Gordon. It’s more than allowing a field-goal attempt to be blocked. Or likely Pro Bowl cornerback Pat Surtain biting on a double-move from Davante Adams that left him so wide open, no one was within 10 yards.
“It’s not all on one guy. It never is,” safety Justin Simmons said. “There’s plays all around today that multiple of us could have made. And who knows how that would change the outcome of the game?”
And it’s more than calling for a pass on third-and-10 with under two minutes left when a run would have safely drained the clock down to where Las Vegas only had about 60 seconds for a last-gasp, game-tying drive.
“Had the defense been able to get a stop in a two-minute situation … we win the game — point-blank, period,” Simmons said. “It doesn’t matter what the offense does.”
It’s an avalanche of mistakes — some self-inflicted, some forced — that led the Broncos to the same sad outcome they’ve come to know so well. They’re 3-11 in their last 14 games, 7-17 in their last 24, and 11-22 since the infamous no-quarterback game of 2020.
What’s more, they’re 35-62 since starting the 2016 season 7-3. That averages out to a 6-11 record per 17 games. And if the New York Jets make the playoffs, the Broncos are likely to inherit the league’s longest active streak of missing the postseason.
WHEN IT HAPPENS SO OFTEN, IT’S DEEPER
It’s easy to dive into the minutiae of each defeat. Yes, every interception has a story, as the cliche’ goes. So does every fumble, every missed tackle, every lapse, every shortcoming.
But something appears clear, and serves as the connective tissue of all of the defeats, all of the sub-17-point outputs for the offense, all of the opportunities lost.
(As noted last week, the Broncos had better than a 50-percent win probability at some point in the second quarter or later of each of their defeats this season; Sunday against the Raiders, they had a 90-percent win probability at the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter.)
The connective tissue is the culture.
Yes, this locker room appears to be together. Finger-pointing is non-existent. But the losing continues.
“It sucks,” Simmons said. “A big talk we have had recently is culture. As players, taking onus. It’s Year 7 for me. Coack Hackett is my fourth head coach. And that is just wild to think about.
“And there is so much turnover. Everyone wants to point the blame on certain people. I was just having a talk with a lot of the guys that have been here — the select few that have been here over the years — and we talk about culture.
“We have a tight-knit group, but something’s not going right, obviously. It’s our job — my job — a guy that has been here now for a while, to figure that out.”
Simmons is one of the few people in the locker room who know what a winning Broncos culture is like. He arrived just in time for a 9-7 season that seemed to be a disappointment in the moment, but now stands as the crowning achievement to date of the post-Peyton Manning era.
But still, he saw it. So, it was worth asking: Is there anything he can take from being exposed to a Super Bowl-winning culture that can possibly help these Broncos now?
“I’ve been trying. I’ve been asking,” Simmons said. “Trying to figure out — you know, Russ says it all the time. He says he’ll do whatever it takes to win. I’ve been trying. I’ve been asking.
“I’ve been trying to learn and grow. You know, it’s not easy. If it was easy, everybody would do it.”
Simmons mentioned Wilson. And with him, the Broncos have a quarterback who experienced just one losing season in his first 10 years — and that came when he missed three games with a finger injury.
He, too, has been dragged into the muck of a losing culture.
Wilson is now part of the “world of suck.” And if he’s going to be worth the Broncos’ investment in him, ultimately he must help guide the team out of it — before it consumes him, too.
“You always have to remind yourself that we’re a team and [that] we can bounce back,” Jones said. “[There are] more weeks to be played.”
More weeks, yes, but dwindling opportunities to avoid a sixth consecutive losing season and seventh year out of the playoffs.
The “world of suck” might take much longer to escape than anyone realized.