Prior to the start of the NFL regular season, many pundits considered the Denver Broncos a Super Bowl favorite after their heavy investment in Russell Wilson as their franchise quarterback. Yet these observers failed to appreciate that the Broncos were a flawed football team that had endured five-straight losing seasons. Denver was not a football team that was simply a plug-and-play quarterback away from instantly being on the same level as the Kansas City Chiefs and the Buffalo Bills.
There are depth concerns at wide receiver after Tim Patrick suffered a season-ending injury in the preseason. Wilson was already getting a downgrade at wide receiver after enjoying the talents of Tyler Lockett and D.K. Metcalf. Jerry Jeudy did not have a touchdown pass last year and Courtland Sutton has failed to seize the mantle as a number one receiver for this team.
The Denver defense was overrated from a season ago with good frontline numbers bolstered by a ball control offense. The Broncos' offense under head coach Vic Fangio ranked 5th in the league by averaging 29.45 seconds per play last year. Their opponent’s average starting position was on the 26.0-yard line, the second-best mark in the league. Denver ranked 3rd in the NFL by allowing only 18.9 Points-Per-Game but they also lead the league by holding their opponents to just 16.2 drives per game. They ranked 8th in total defense — but the DVOA metrics at Football Outsiders ranked their defense as 20th in the league which is probably a more accurate measure as to what to expect this season.
Now a rookie head coach takes over the team with first-time offensive and defensive coordinators. Maybe this team makes a deep playoff run — but at the very least I expected some growing pains. Boy, did I get that one right with Nathaniel Hackett now being torched nationwide for his decision-making and clock management skills. At this point, I think the avalanche against him is overblown. The Hot Take sports media always wants to find a whipping boy. That said, his hire perplexed me at the time. Why was he the boy genius as the Green Bay offensive coordinator who gets none of the blame for the Packers' postseason issues while all the blame goes to Aaron Rodgers and head coach Matt LaFleur? It seemed a pretty convenient rationalization at the time — along with Sutton and Jeudy being innocent victims of bad quarterback play. And, of course, Russell Wilson is the only reason why Seattle enjoyed nine-straight winning seasons with Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll holding him back from even more success because he simply would not “let him cook.” To buy into the Denver preseason hype, one seemed too willing to assess all blame elsewhere. I was skeptical that such extremism was that simple.
The Wilson acquisition could still elevate this franchise into AFC Super Bowl contenders. But if Wilson has lost a step with his mobility and has to rely more on his dropback skills, he may not be quite as good as he was in the past. His size prohibits him from making certain throws on the field. That is not a death knell — Drew Brees was quite effective even in the latter years of his career. But Wilson does not have Brees’ accuracy. Wilson tends to not see open receivers and can be too “all-or-nothing.” Maybe that changes with a better offensive line — but he is adjusting to a new system. Yes, Wilson had input in the offense to have it tailored to his expectations — but that was exactly what we heard last year when Carroll hired Shane Waldron as his offensive coordinator from the Los Angeles Rams (Sean McVay! Sean McVay!).
NFL Films guru Greg Cosell commented this week that Wilson is failing to identify open receivers and responded too slow to defensive coverages. These are fixable issues, as are the game management problems that Hackett has dealt with in the first two regular season games of the season. And as the pendulum of the fickle betting market swings the other way, the Broncos may offer value with where their number lies. Remember, we bet numbers, not teams.
But the reasons for early-season skepticism regarding the Denver Broncos appear to have had merit with the benefit of hindsight.
Best of luck — Frank.