CENTENNIAL, Colo. -- In a calendar year, the Broncos moved from an NFL team to an HGTV program. The question is which one? Is this roster a "Fixer Upper" or more along the lines of "Love it or List It" (with an emphasis on the latter)?
The Broncos sit with their noses pressed against the postseason playoff window pane for the second consecutive season. While intrigue existed last season until the 15th game, this year's Broncos were finished unofficially as a contender after the Philadelphia Eagles boxed their ears at the midway point.
An eight-game losing streak, matching the longest since 1967, and a one-win road season, third worst in franchise history, raise questions about the head coach, roster, and most salient, the quarterback position moving forward.
I see next year as a transitional season. The Broncos need to identify who they are offensively, and as much as signing a high profile free agent is good for the news business, they would be well-served to find a longterm solution under center. It's possible they can accomplish both -- sign a bridge quarterback like Teddy Bridgewater, and draft Baker Mayfield, for example, later in the first round. Regardless, as receiver Demaryius Thomas admitted Wednesday, "I am not the GM, but I have played football long enough to know that one of my main focuses would be trying to find our starter for 16 games, not just four games. Start with that and go from there."
OK, let's do that.
1) QB certainty
The Broncos face an interesting situation: go all in on a high-priced free agent like Kirk Cousins or Drew Brees -- if they become available -- identify a placeholder for a rookie, or hand the keys over to a kid and show patience with his development.
I slightly prefer Plan C because I believe if the right guy is chosen with an offense geared around his strengths it provides the best chance for longterm success. Maybe that's Mayfield or UCLA's Josh Rosen. Get the guy you want, and build around him. There's two paths this way. The Bears showed one, signing a veteran in Mike Glennon only to turn the team over to Mitch Trubisky. The Eagles, meanwhile, pushed all their chips to the table with Carson Wentz, living with his rookie growing pains to accelerate his growth in his second season.
Listen, the team improves immediately with Cousins or Brees. And Alex Smith and one of Minnesota's three quarterbacks -- Case Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford -- represent a significant upgrade. They would require a huge financial commitment that might make it more difficult to keep veteran players around them. That can work if you hit on the draft -- see the Saints this season -- but that has not been Denver's strength in recent years.
2) Faith in coach
The expectation remains that coach Vance Joseph will return. However, general manager John Elway has admitted he's "embarrassed" by this season, and if the Chiefs' second-stringers rout the Broncos on Sunday with a half-empty stadium watching in the second half it could spell trouble for Joseph. It's not the losses that have hurt Joseph. It's the nature of them. Eight of the 10 have come by double figures, and two home losses were to the hapless Giants and Bengals.
The argument for keeping Joseph falls along these lines. The Broncos don't want four head coaches in five seasons. It has created an island of misfit toys with draft picks selected for different systems and playbooks. Look at teams that consistently fail, and you will find a quarterback and coaching carousel. Also, Joseph walked into a quarterback mess. Only the Browns have thrown more interceptions than the Broncos' 20. Does Joseph deserve a season with a better option and plan at the most important position? Players, on and off the record, vouch for Joseph, but they put him in a tough spot with too many cringe-worthy performances.
3) Offensive identity
I remember talking on 104.3 The Fan last summer saying what a crime it would be if the Broncos ended this season without an identity. Well, here we are. Fifteen games later, the Broncos remain, for the most part, shapeless. They win when they run. But initial offensive boss Mike McCoy refused to commit to the ground game, relying on a three-wide attack as if Peyton Manning or Philip Rivers was calling the signals. Interim OC Bill Musgrave has been a better fit with Joseph. McCoy is well-liked around the league. But, in my opinion, he operated as if he was still a head coach and or looking to return to that spot. He and Joseph did not collaborate well. I pin part of that Joseph for not being more assertive in game plans. Whether Musgrave is back or the team goes with a new OC, the team requires an identity that, minus the signing of a Cousins or Brees, should focus on a solid ground game.
4) O-Line dance
This is the problem with missing on quarterback and right tackle. The Broncos enter this offseason needing upgrades at those positions for the third consecutive season as holes emerge at other positions. I would attempt to sign a veteran left tackle like Nate Solder, if he's available. If not, and a QB is landed in free agency, a tackle makes sense in the draft. This class is much better than a year ago. Also, depending how the offseason shakes out, I would strongly consider moving Garett Bolles to right tackle and letting Ron Leary know in January whether the plan is to play him at right or left guard (my choice). He has earned the right to know, and should not have to move to accommodate a younger player.
5) Money matters
A concern of mine with the Broncos chasing free agents: They become Denver during Mike Shanahan's last few seasons. Always feeling like his team was close, Shanahan signed players who turned the Broncos into a more expensive mediocre bunch. For me, the Broncos' issues go beyond quarterback. Could they reach the playoffs next season if they figure out that position? In a weak AFC West? Of course. However, is the goal to return to the postseason or make a deep run with a championship-caliber team? This is where the delicate balance exists. They need to get younger, but can they do that and remain competitive? Those goals don't always mesh.
6) Making tough choices
Who are the core players moving forward? Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. told me this could be the end of the No Fly Zone if the team moves on from Aqib Talib and asks safety Darian Stewart to take a pay cut. There will be multiple players, in my educated opinion, who will be asked to restructure (Demaryius Thomas, Brandon Marshall) or take pay cuts. I would humbly suggest any changes to the No Fly Zone take place early in the offseason, not on the final day of training camp cuts.
7) Bulk up the front office
The Broncos need to add at least two positions in the front office, which is one of the smallest in the NFL. A fresh set of eyes can help hit the reset button and improve talent acquisition. The Broncos' misses on draft picks the past few years continues to haunt them. Multiple mistakes have left them not only without capable, affordable starters, but lacking in much-needed depth. I would also let Gary Kubiak be involved in helping identify the next quarterback, whether that's a high-profile free agent or top draft pick.