DENVER — An unseasonably warm day and a loud crowd greeted the Broncos on the final day of a bitterly disappointing season.
December in Denver used to be one of the most coveted NFL destinations. It boasted drama, scenic views and breathtaking moments provided by players whose careers ended in Canton. The idea of irrelevance remained a foreign concept. No longer. Sunday, the Broncos' season ended without the playoffs for a third-straight season, focusing vitriol at coach Vance Joseph and quarterback Case Keenum.
The Broncos were not supposed to be here. They viewed themselves as a contender. That vision dissolved in four consecutive losses to the 49ers, Browns, Raiders and Chargers-- they were outscored 54-13 and went 5-for-29 on third downs in the first halves of these games -- and was affirmed with a season-ending 23-9 defeat.
Prior to the game, the Broncos were leaning on replacing Joseph, and nothing that transpired Sunday helped the embattled coach The Broncos were outplayed, finishing with double-figure losses in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1967. Joseph is 7-9 at home where fans rained boos on multiple occasions.
Joseph, who has handled his situation with class, was asked if he expects to stay for a third season.
"It's not my decision. My decision was to get out of bed every Monday and go back to work. I did that. Obviously, the first year winning five and winning six this year, by Broncos' standards, is not good enough," Joseph said. "I totally get that. I think we put a lot of work in. The foundation has been laid, and it will pay off in the future."
The Broncos players will begin locker clean out at 8 a.m. Monday. A move with Joseph could come before they arrive as he's expected to meet with general manager John Elway in the morning. The case for keeping him would center on continuity and slight improvement. Multiple sources told Denver7 they still expect the Broncos to part ways. Even some players, including safety Will Parks, admitted that they anticipated a change.
"It's hard to take," Parks said.
Added defensive end Derek Wolfe, "I love Vance. I feel like we let him down."
Joseph deserves blame. But Denver's underwhelming offense is also responsible for heavy doses of angst. Most people count sheep to fall asleep. The Broncos introduced them to keep their fans awake. The loudest cheers in the first half came from the mutton busting show.
Even if Joseph survives -- again, not expected -- the Broncos require a modern offensive makeover. Gary Kubiak has been mentioned as a possible offensive coordinator for Denver if Joseph stays, though sources say he's expected to take a job as OC elsewhere. Under Bill Musgrave, the Broncos' offense exposed flaws, and showed zero creativity. It's scary to imagine how the Broncos would have looked statistically if not for Pro Bowl undrafted free agent Phillip Lindsay.
The Broncos' hope resides with young players like Lindsay, outside linebacker Bradley Chubb and receiver Courtland Sutton.
"We won't be rookies anymore. We won't let things slide. We will speak up when things need to be said and let our voice be heard," Sutton said. "We won't be going 6-10 ever again while we are here I can promise you all that."
Chubb echoed the same sentiment.
"#BroncosCountry, y'all got my word that we won't feel like this again," tweeted Chubb, who finished with 12 sacks, two shy of the NFL rookie record.
Improvement is needed across the board. Wolfe, one of the longest-tenured players, offered a realistic assessment.
"We have a really good rookie class. And we can get some guys in this next draft. But at the end of the day, we are rebuilding. We won a Super Bowl. Guys got old. Guys had to move on. It's rebuilding. That's the hard facts," Wolfe said. "You lose a guy like Peyton Manning, that's a huge hit to the locker room. Identity wise you have to figure out what kind of team you are going to be."
The numbers are sobering on offense, where Denver ran the ball OK, but did little else well. The Broncos offense has averaged 19 points per game over the past two seasons. They punted on their first drive in 13 games this year, including nine straight. The Broncos scored 10 first quarter points in their final six games.
Keenum became a higher-priced version of Trevor Siemian.
"We didn't come away with enough wins to get in the dance, unfortunately. You have to play better. You have to do better," said Keenum, who completed 31-for-48 for 292 yards Sunday, finishing the season with 18 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. "I am going to do better. It was an incredible learning experience. It was a different situation as a quarterback than I've ever been in. I learned a lot."
The defense has issues -- a priority in the draft is adding a corner to pair with Chris Harris Jr. -- but has ranked in the top 10 in sacks and points allowed. There, however, remains no margin for error. Here's how bad it was. The Broncos ran 23 straight plays in the first half, and scored three points. The odd stat came as a result of a lateral pass that the Chargers converted into a touchdown -- that Broncos' drive featured four holding penalties, three accepted -- and a Los Angeles interception and fumble on the same play. The Chargers led 7-3 at half as quarterback Phillip Rivers continued his struggles against Denver, firing two picks to Isaac Yaidom and Parks.
As bad as the first half was, a fourth-quarter score symbolized a season gone sour. The Broncos turned a touchdown into four points. After Keenum connected with Andy Janovich on a 20-yard touchdown, shaving the deficit to 14-9, Denver attempted a two-point conversion. Keenum threw in Sutton's direction. He struggled to get separation against press coverage -- an issue he must work on this offseason -- as cornerback Casey Hayward stepped in for the pick. Sutton had him wrapped up, but he squirmed loose and raced 102 yards for two points.
It left the Broncos needing to throw to win. That's not a formula for success. They finished 1-10 in games when Keenum completed 21 passes. They were one dimensional, and it left them ineffective in the red zone. The Broncos could move on from Keenum -- they would absorb a $10 million cap hit -- or bring in a veteran to unseat him or stick with him to keep the seat warm for a drafted prospect.
"There's no excuses for me," Keenum said. "I hold myself to a high standard. I am going to make sure I come back next year with the resolve to make the plays needed of me. No matter who's out there."
Keeping Joseph would be an almost impossible sell to fans, who watched historical footnotes stain this franchise over the past two years. The Broncos suffered an eight-game losing streak in 2017, matching the longest in 50 years, they have won four road games, including one last season, and they posted 12 double-digit defeats.
Joseph should learn his fate early Monday. It was a somber locker room afterward for players bracing for news of upheaval.
In the end, the Broncos were bad, boring And bewildered.
The only thing certain is that change is coming, the only question is how far-reaching.
"The easy part would be to walk away and say, 'Hey, I am good. I have coached a long time in this league,'^" Joseph said. "The hard part would be to come back and try to finish this thing. I want the hard part."