ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — It started with a loss, as it so often has with the Broncos over the last three seasons. The Broncos crumpled to the Minnesota Vikings, squandering a 20-point lead, the largest ever in a regulation defeat. In the lockerroom afterward, the reaction proved a bit surprising. Disappointment remained a common thread, but optimism lingered.
This is a 3-7 team that feels like the good bones are beginning to fall into place in a makeover project that has been ongoing, yet never announced. The defeat left the Broncos angry, but hungry. After arriving back from Minneapolis, Von Miller set up an 8:30 p.m. dinner at Del Frisco's for the team. With the help of veterans like Derek Wolfe, Kareem Jackson and others, almost everyone came.
For those who believe in the absolute truth of numbers, eyes roll at these events. However, multiple players believe it provides evidence of a strengthening chemistry as the team looks to finish games. They have been lost four times in the final minute to the Bears, Jaguars, Colts and Vikings.
"I've never seen anything like it. What are we, 3-7? ... I think it was one of the best things I've seen in all my football life," safety Will Parks said. "It was a family affair. It was special. It was something, since I have been here, we haven't done. That speaks to No. 58. He got up and said, 'The energy we had at practice last week, the energy in the game, let's keep it going.'"
It represented a bonding exercise, not uncommon at younger levels when the players traversed their high school and college careers. It offers a time to learn about each other with the idea, as Phillip Lindsay explained earlier in the season, that if you get to know the guy next to you, you play for something bigger than yourself. The conversation Sunday centered on family, life, football. This is a team that could represent the start of a U-turn.
"We don't want to sit here and have moral victories. We are paid to win games. Unfortunately, you are not going to be in it every year unless you have the foundation, and that continuity of this is how it's done, that this is our mantra for success. Vic being a first-year head coach, installing a new defense, you can see that guys are buying in," safety Justin Simmons said. "For us, it's about us figuring out how to come together as one and close games out defensively. The energy (this past week) felt different. The vibe felt different. … It felt like we were gelling more and more as a team.”
I have been around this team since July 17 in training camp, and there is a something unique about this group. Young leaders have emerged -- Lindsay, Courtland Sutton, Bradley Chubb and Dalton Risner -- who are not clashing with veterans (Emmanuel Sanders did with Sutton in training camp, but was traded three weeks ago). As I have written, if you view this team through the prism of a rebuild, reasons exist to remain encouraged. The Broncos defense ranks in the top 10 in several statistical categories -- passing yards (fifth), third down conversion percentage (seventh), red zone touchdown percentage (second) -- and sits tied for sixth in points allowed per game (19.7).
The hard part will be keeping the group together as Chris Harris Jr., who has excelled in Fangio's defense and appreciates the coach's straightforward approach, Derek Wolfe, who is in line for a career-high in sacks and is having his best season since 2016, and Simmons, a Pro Bowl candidate, will all be free agents.
"We were all sitting around (at the team dinner) talking, 'Imagine if we could get another year together with this defense,'" Wolfe said on KOA radio. "But this is a business and not everyone can get paid. It's the sad part because it takes time to build a team and build trust in the guys who are playing next to you."
Offensively, problems are evident. The team has shown flashes -- especially in the first half against Minnesota -- but continues to struggle to convert third downs and put games away. Another season in the same system should help -- the Broncos are on their third offensive coordinator in three years -- as the team looks to build continuity.
Until the quarterback position is solidified, however, improved chemistry can go only so far. The quarterback question hangs over the franchise moving forward. Brandon Allen is 1-1 as a starter --the team's sixth since Peyton Manning retired -- and rookie Drew Lock could still be the future. There's no guarantee Lock backs up Allen this week, meaning he might only get a few starts before the season ends. Figuring out a longterm answer, whether that's Allen, Lock, a first-round pick or a free agent like Teddy Bridgewater, is paramount.
Yet, as Simmons said, this year feels different. A bond is starting to form. The team dinner after the season's most brutal loss showed a lot about where this team is foundationally, and where it wants to go. Can they get there? For the first time since 2016, slivers of hope frame that answer.
The Broncos signed TE/FB Orson Charles, who was with the team in training camp, and placed Andy Janovich (elbow) on season-ending injured reserve. ... How rare was Denver's loss last Sunday? Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins was 0-27-1 when his team trailed by 10-plus points in the fourth quarter.