ENGLEWOOD — The reality clobbers them.
The Broncos are better this season, most noticeably because of a strong rookie class. However, their improvement will result in no difference. The Broncos missed the playoffs for the third consecutive season. They are not good enough to play in the playoffs, but not bad enough to own a top draft pick. They sit 12th in the first round with two games remaining. Despite a more competitive team, the Broncos find themselves in a familiar position: facing an expected coaching change and uncertainty at quarterback.
In his second season, Vance Joseph showed growth, but brutal losses make a third season unlikely. The New York Jets blistered the Broncos, part of a two-game stretch when they allowed the most rushing yards in NFL history in back-to-back games. And the Broncos fell to Houston and Cleveland at home when play-calling and clock management were panned. Rather than push for more yards against the Texans, the Broncos let the clock tick and trotted Brandon McManus out for a 51-yard field goal against Houston. He missed as time expired -- at that point he was under 50 percent from 50-yards plus over the past two seasons. It was amplified by Joseph's decision to try a 62-yarder before halftime that led to a Houston score.
In the Cleveland game last Saturday, Joseph ditched his aggression over the previous month and elected to kick a field goal with 4:39 remaining rather than go for it on 4th-and-1. According to sports data scientists at edjsports, Joseph's choice to kick reduced the Broncos' chances of winning by 33.1 percent. Joseph defended the decision by saying he trusted his defense. The Broncos have played well defensively over the past five games, but they were playing with one healthy cornerback. Joseph has remained professional as he is peppered with questions about his future, which is bleak. Not only his he 11-19 overall -- 10 losses are by double digits -- but he owns a losing record at home (7-8).
If the Broncos make the change, general manger John Elway will be seeking his fourth coach in six seasons, following the exits of John Fox (let go), and Gary Kubiak (exited because of health issues).
The new coach could find an old problem: questions at quarterback. Case Keenum has been upgrade over last year's triangle of despair -- Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch and Brock Osweiler -- but not what Denver expected. He ranks 24th in touchdowns (15), and is tied for seventh most with 12 interceptions. He posted 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions last season with the Vikings. The Broncos offense has improved slightly, but ranks 21st in scoring at 21.9 points per game. The Broncos signed Keenum to a two-year, $36-million deal with $25 million guaranteed. The Broncos could move on from him after one season, absorbing a roughly $10 million cap hit. Of Keenum's remaining contract, $7 million is guaranteed with an offset if he signs with another team. Denver could also keep Keenum as a placeholder for a drafted or younger quarterback until his deal expires.
Regardless, the Broncos need better at the position. Keenum reduced turnovers from the quarterbacks a year ago -- 22 picks. He has not made many mistakes, but has failed to make plays as well. He has played his best in the second half, but slow starts have plagued him. Keenum has provided leadership, toughness and experience to the offense. All things the Broncos sought when he was signed. However, he has not matched last season, leaving the Broncos in the position where quarterback remains a question.