DENVER -- It is far too late to stop pessimism, but Sunday seemed like one last chance to keep hope flickering, to prevent talk radio from morphing into a dumpster fire of anger.
The Broncos arrived at Empower Field at Mile High, disappointed by injuries, but hardened by close losses. Two by a combined six points. Oh, for those salad days.
Needing a win to change the current mood and brighten the longterm view, the Broncos failed to clear that bar, drummed by Tampa Bay 28-10 on a cool 55-degree afternoon.
"We’re not going to allow it to feel the same as last year. I still think there is a lot of optimism. What you’ve got to realize is, every man in that locker room is still fighting his tail off every day," said Broncos defensive end Shelby Harris, who finished with two sacks. "I have no doubt in my mind we are going to get this turned around.”
In this season of COVID-19 and no offseason training and no margin for error, the Broncos are at risk of scattering to pieces. They trailed by 20 points in the second quarter. Quarterback Jeff Driskel started, but Brett Rypien finished. It leaves the quarterback for this week uncertain with Driskel, Rypien and possibly even Blake Bortles as options. If anyone but Driskel gets the call, it will represent the Broncos' ninth starter since Peyton Manning retired.
"Obviously we were struggling," said coach Vic Fangio, whose team finished with 226 yards of net offense. "Our pass offense in particular, but we didn’t run it well either. I just wanted to get a new guy in there. See if he can get it out of his hand a little quicker, direct the protections and see if he could provide a little spark there. We’ll make that call quickly (on who will start). We’ll talk about it as a staff and move forward."
This Thursday at the New York Jets provides a warning. If the Broncos don't win this game, then they are a ripe contender for a top five draft pick, if not in the race for coveted Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. The reasoning is this: the Jets are awful, and if the Broncos are not better than them, then who can they beat on this schedule?
Six AFC West games remain, plus a home matchup with the New Orleans Saints. One thing remains certain after watching Sunday: no victory is guaranteed at this point. Not when the offense cannot score 20 points. Not when the third-string quarterback entered the game in the fourth quarter. Not when the defense can't get off the field in key moments.
There was a fleeting moment of relevance on the first drive of the second half.
With 5,700 grump fans in attendance, the Broncos needed a drive to keep their interest. The Broncos trailed 23-10, and forced the Buccaneers to punt, a worthy achievement after Tampa converted seven of its first 10 third downs.
This is what happened next: two drops by promising tight end Noah Fant, a holding call on right guard Graham Glasgow and a Shaquil Barrett sack for a safety. A team praised for its resilience now sits in the NFL's basement with an 0-3 record. Only four of the past 146 teams with this record have reached the postseason. This represented the Broncos' goal before Von Miller (ankle), Courtland Sutton (knee), Drew Lock (rotator cuff) and A.J. Bouye (shoulder) went down with injuries.
Now, it's not about playoffs. It's about a win as the Broncos look to avoid back-to-back 0-4 starts. No Denver team has begun a season 0-5. That provided little solace on another cringe-worthy Sunday.
Denver made the game competitive late in the second half, which felt like a participation ribbon for this once-proud franchise.
Staring at a 23-3 crevice and riddled by the ageless Tom Brady, the Broncos made a smart move, switching to uptempo on their final first-hald drive. Either that or the successful wedding proposal on the Jumbotron proposal inspired them. Whatever the case, Jeff Driskel finally looked like the reliever he was at Pittsburgh. He converted a third-and-20 to receiver Tim Patrick, and found his footing after a forgettable first 25 minutes.
With Tampa confused by the hurry-up offense, Driskel completed 6-of-8 passes for 74 yards on the final drive of the first half, connecting with Patrick for a 7-yard touchdown with 14 seconds left. He had 55 yards through the air before this. It delayed channel surfing. Driskel finished 17 of 30 for 176 yards with an interception and was sacked five times. Denver had allowed 13 sacks over the past two games with five minutes remaining. He is now 1-8 as an NFL starter.
"We’ve had a tough couple weeks here in regards to the amount of blitzes and the type of blitzes we’ve been getting. Stuff that requires a lot of people to bump stuff up, come back, pick up guys that aren’t their guys essentially to help make the quarterback not hot. And when you’re running into that type of stuff, 10, 12, 15 times a game, that’s something that’s very tough for us and that’s something that were working through and getting better at," Glasgow said.
"But you need to look yourself in the mirror and you need to address the reality of the situation. I know that we have a young group, and not even just on the offensive line, but on the offense as a whole. I think that we are not where we can be. Frankly that is a case for optimism, but at the same time the reality of the situation is that we are underperforming and we’re underachieving and that’s something that we need to work through as a group."
There are reasons this team remains winless. They are hurting and are overmatched at multiple positions, and find creative ways to lose. Sunday was no different.
The Broncos must excel in the margins. Instead, the special teams units continued to sabotage Denver. One week after a dropped snap on a punt led to a safety, the roller coaster ride plummeted toward the earth again as Tampa Bay blocked Sam Martin's first punt. The blame shifted from him to longsnapper Jacob Bobenmoyer, who was beaten by Patrick O'Connor. O'Connor smashed the punt, and recovered the ball at the 10-yard line.
Special teams boss Tom McMahon said his group was terrible last week with a capital T. Sunday, the group told him to hold their Gatorade.
Tom Brady, mocking his 4-7 record in Denver, wasted no time capitalizing on the blunder. He connected on a 10-yard score to Chris Godwin that featured a blown coverage, shoving Tampa ahead 7-0 with 9:58 remaining in the first. The Broncos defense -- needing dropped fangs -- could not get off the field. The Bucs converted 6 of 9 third downs in the first half.
"We’re getting there. It’s a long process. Like I said last week, this would have been our third preseason game. There’s still a lot to learn, a lot to grow. There’s a lot of room for improvement and I know everyone feels that way. We’ve got to get to know each other, what we’re trying to do and what we’re trying to accomplish and make it happen," Brady said. "We’re only going to – I think – make improvements as we keep going.”
The Bucs don't need help. The Broncos offense requires a life raft every week, it seems, since 2016. Denver responded to Tampa's gift score with back-to-back three-and-out drives as Driskel struggled. Rypien went 8-for-9 for 53 yards, a sack and an interception.
"It’s obviously up to the coaching staff. I don’t really have any control over (starting), but whatever they decide I’ll be ready for sure," Rypien said.
Driskel, if only briefly, gained traction after Harris thwarted a Tampa Bay drive with a deflection, leading to a 43-yard field goal. Down 10-0, Driskel connected on 15-and 18-yard gains to Jerry Jeudy and Noah Fant. His eyes lied or didn't see corner Antoine Winfield Jr. blitzing, a sack that submarined the drive. Brandon McManus salvaged it with a 56-yard field, booming it through the uprights as the cartoon character cutouts from "South Park" watched on happily.
As with most things over the past four seasons, the joy prove shortlived. Brady began aging like Benjamin Button -- even something Fangio could see clearly through his new gameday visor after last week's $100,000 face covering fine. He became clinical in his execution of a 12-play, 75-yard drive. Brady punctuated it with a 1-yard scoring dart to Mike Evans.
It began an odd statistical trend. Moments later, Brady floated a pass to Evans in the corner of the end zone -- he appeared to push off on safety Justin Simmons -- for another 1-yard score. Evans stat line read at that point: two catches, two yards, two touchdowns.
The Broncos' numbers are more sobering: three losses. Zero wins. And hope becoming a stranger.
"Overall, we just have to, honestly, I can't really answer that. I think we've just all got to look in the mirror and just figure it out because we're way too talented to be 0-3. We're way too talented to be losing these games and like what I told you guys earlier, close games? Whatever. A loss is a loss," receiver Tim Patrick said. "Thank God we've got this quick turnaround so we can get this losing taste out of our mouths."
After fines totaling $350,000 -- $100K for the coach, $250K for the team -- Vic Fangio wore a visor on Sunday. It eliminated the need to remember to pull up his mask when calling defensive signals ...
Defensive end Shelby Harris continued the strong start to his season, notching two sacks, four quarterback hits and a pass deflection. ...
Tom Brady on a catching up with Peyton Manning before the game. "It was good to see him. He’s familiar with a lot of guys that we have on our staff. I’ve known Peyton for a long time – almost 20 years. It was great to see him and his kids, and I just love seeing him. It was expected, but great for me to be able to see him and his kids.” ...
After Sunday's ugly loss, the Broncos have gone from a favorite to 2.5-point underdog vs. the Jets, per @SuperBookSports. The Broncos play Thursday night on Denver7. ...
The Broncos' inactive list included one surprise, tight end Nick Vannett. Jake Butt has moved ahead of Vannett on the depth chart as the Broncos best blocking tight end through camp and the first two games. Joining Vannett were Drew Lock, Blake Bortles, Davontae Harris, Phillip Lindsay, Netane Muti and Albert Okwuegbunam. Lindsay made great progress last week with his turf toe and is expected to play Thursday against the Jets. ...
Tight end Noah Fant was targeted 10 times and finished with catches for 46 yards.
It’s a season of big sports events airing this fall on Denver7. Check out our upcoming schedule:
- Sept. 29: MLB Wild Card Series
- Sept. 30: MLB Wild Card Series
- Sept. 30: NBA Finals Game 1 on Denver7
- Oct. 1: Broncos vs Jets on Denver7
- Oct. 1: MLB Wild Card Series (If needed)
- Oct. 2: NBA Finals Game 2 on Denver7
- Oct. 4: NBA Finals Game 3 on Denver7
- Oct. 6: NBA Finals Game 4 on Denver7
- Oct. 9: NBA Finals Game 5 on Denver7
- Oct. 11: NBA Finals Game 6 on Denver7
- Oct. 13: NBA Finals Game 7 on Denver7