*Photo Credit: Eric Hartline, USA Today Sports
If you looked at the Broncos today, you’d find it unfathomable that they won the Super Bowl not even two calendar years ago. After a promising start, they dropped eight straight to fall to 3-9, and have been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs despite their Week 14 win. Incumbent QB Trevor Siemian has fallen off a cliff after showing promise last year, 2016 1st-rounder Paxton Lynch has sustained shoulder issues and has barely progressed enough to even see the field, and retread Brock Osweiler has looked every bit the part of the haphazard dumpster fire the Texans gave a draft pick to get rid of after just one season. The defense has deteriorated from one of the best in the league in points allowed to one of the worst. Things are bleak, and they don’t seem to be getting better any time soon.
Since Peyton Manning’s record-setting 55 TD season in 2013, the Broncos have had a plethora of jokers at the position. Manning himself regressed rapidly between 2014 and 2015, finally losing his surgically-delayed battle with Father Time; somehow Denver won the Lombardi trophy in spite of him.
Siemian, a former 7th round pick, massively exceeded expectations with 18 TDs and just 10 picks last year. This season, however, his play has regressed to that of a man who was barely drafted. In all fairness, he was only really expected to be a stopgap for Paxton Lynch, but Lynch has struggled mightily when called into action; at this juncture, he might just be a bust. Things got bad enough that Denver came crawling back to Osweiler after choosing Siemian over him before the 2016 season, but he’s been no better.
Consequently, the running game has suffered. Workhouse C.J. Anderson has been merely average after having dipped his toes in the league’s upper echelon — he’s posted just 4.1 yards per rush after netting a stalwart 4.7 during the 2015 season. Former Chiefs superstar Jamaal Charles has been slightly more effective, posting a 4.3 YPC figure, but he’s only been used sparingly due to his decaying knees. It’s not fair to put the onus solely on the backs though; with a nearly non-existent passing threat, opponents have the luxury of stuffing the box with 8 or 9 defenders. Anderson is a good enough runner to at least tread water, but only the best of backs could truly thrive under such conditions.
The defense, however, is the most surprising disappointment. They’ve been an utter turnstile all year long, particularly in the red zone. Denver has actually had the majority of time of possession in their games, but opponents have found the end zone nearly two-thirds of the time when they’ve gotten into the Broncos’ red zone. The secondary was expected to carry more of the load after key front-seven cogs Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan departed from the championship squad, but it has actually been the worse of the two units — Denver has allowed a league-high 26 passing TDs.
The primary culprit in this regard is new defensive coordinator Joe Woods. Former DC Wade Phillips was certainly the brains behind the operation of the Super Bowl ensemble. Dating back further, he guided the Cowboys to 33 wins in 3 seasons before getting the ax after a 6-10 campaign in 2010; his successor Jason Garrett was .500 in aggregate up until last year. Woods simply has not lived up to that standard. Considering that he was originally a defensive backs coach, the secondary’s corrosion is particularly alarming. The personnel there remains largely unaltered since Phillips’ tenure. Each cornerback in the triumvirate of Aqib Talib, Chris Harris, and Bradley Roby has had a down year by their standards, and it’s hard to believe that’s merely coincidental.
Perhaps using the 2015 Broncos as a standard for this year’s team isn’t totally genuine. Those Broncos, though 12-4, had just 9.7 expected wins. Without divulging too much granular detail, the “expected wins” statistic measures how a team should’ve fared in the standings based on various factors pertaining to its level of play. All things considered, Phillips’ departure has probably proved the most detrimental. If Denver’s defense were playing at the level we’ve become accustomed to from them, they’d probably be right around .500, even with brutal QB play. In the ramshackle 2017 AFC, 7-6 would leave them just a game out of the playoffs, and 6-7 does not constitute a lost cause. Instead, with nine losses stacked against the Broncos, the focus has shifted to 2018.