DENVER — As Courtland Sutton, Adam Trautman and Brandon Johnson all neared the end of their routes on a final, desperate play Sunday, they shot a glance at the glistening 72-foot-high, 225-foot-wide video board positioned behind the south end zone at Empower Field. The vantage point below the massive new screen gave the Broncos’ receiving targets a timing advantage, allowing them to see exactly when quarterback Russell Wilson was preparing to launch the ball in their direction.
It gave those players a chance to reach their landmarks on the field in a way they have practiced in painstaking detail since the offseason began, a staggered alignment that would theoretically give multiple players a shot at catching the heave, depending on how it caromed.
“There’s strategy to it,” said Johnson, the second-year wide receiver. “Those Hail Marys aren’t just, ‘Run down the field and get somewhere.’ Guys are supposed to be in certain positions and it worked.”
A HAIL MARY AS TIME EXPIRES
— NFL (@NFL) September 17, 2023
It’s the plan for everything else that is already falling woefully short in this young season for the Broncos, who suffered a 35-33 loss to the Commanders despite a wild, double-tipped, 50-yard touchdown catch from Johnson as the clock expired. The score pulled the Broncos to within two points, but the two-point conversion attempt failed — a perfect microcosm of the small failures that have already threatened to poison this young season.
The two-point conversion attempt came with a dash of controversy. Sutton ran an out route in the end zone and appeared to be contacted by defensive back Benjamin St-Juste before the ball reached him. No flag was thrown, and the elation of a successful Hail Mary quickly melted into the dejection that marks an 0-2 team, one that dropped both of those games at home and has set itself up for a heady battle with history. The Broncos are the 52nd team since 1966 to begin a season with losses in consecutive home games, according to Pro Football Reference. Only two of the previous 51 made the playoffs.
New head coach Sean Payton made the playoffs a barometer by which to judge his team when he said on the eve of training camp that he would be “disappointed” if his first team in Denver did not reach the postseason. But after Sunday’s loss, a defeat that came after the Broncos built a 21-3 lead, Payton spoke like someone who is still fully coming to terms with how big the renovation job ahead will be. Even as the Broncos jumped out to that 18-point lead, scoring three touchdowns within their first 17 plays, there were red flags. The Broncos were slow to get in and out of the huddle and had to burn all three of their first-half timeouts due to miscommunication or confusion that put the offense up against the play clock.
“There were a number of drives where we were late with personnel, getting out of the huddle we took a while. That has to change,” Payton said. “We had to burn timeouts in the first half, and I’m not used to doing (that). We have to be better. I have to be better. Russ has to be sharper with getting the play out, and then we have to look at how much we have in. If we need to wristband it (for play calls), we will.”
It wasn’t the only not-so-subtle criticism Payton reserved for his 34-year-old veteran quarterback after the game. He called Wilson’s fumble near midfield midway through the second quarter a point where “the momentum shifts” in the game. The Broncos were leading 21-3 at the point Wilson was sacked by Jamin Davis and fumbled the ball. The Commanders recovered and then unwrapped a nine-play, 49-yard touchdown drive to kick off a run of 18 unanswered points.
“The No. 1 key in this game with this team … every one of their games last year where they didn’t have a takeaway, they lost the game,” Payton said of the Commanders. “We give them the ball at midfield, and that momentum shifts at that point with the fumble.”
Wilson completed 18-of-32 passes for 308 yards and three touchdowns, but 113 yards came on two passes to speedy rookie wide receiver Marvin Mims within the first 11 plays of the game (60-yard touchdown catch included) and 50 yards coming on Johnson’s Hail Mary catch. In between, Wilson was sacked a staggering seven times — a review of the film will surely reveal multiple guilty parties — and threw an interception in the second half. Payton also suggested Wilson missed an open Jerry Jeudy on the failed two-point conversion turning to Sutton instead.
The bottom line: after scoring touchdowns on their first three drives, the Broncos managed only a single field goal across their next six possessions.
“We’ve got to get substitutions in the right way, get calls in the right way and communicate the right way and make sure when we do those things, we have enough time on the play clock,” right tackle Mike McGlinchey said. “I don’t think we were sound enough. I don’t think we were composed enough when things were going wrong. You can’t let that linger for as long as we did in this football game. We started way too good. We had them on the ropes right from the jump and we stalled. We stalled way too long. That’s just not OK. You can’t take your foot off the gas pedal the way we did today.”
The wristband for Wilson became a hot topic during his career-worst season in 2022. He began the season without using the play-calling sheet on his arm, but former head coach Nathaniel Hackett urged Wilson to use one going into Denver’s Week 8 game in London against the Jaguars — one of Denver’s few bright offensive performances. Payton made it clear Sunday that he won’t tolerate continued breakdowns in communication, but a wristband is also not going to be a magic salve for the Broncos’ long list of issues. It also won’t fix a defense that had no answers after the first quarter for a second-year quarterback in Sam Howell who was making his first road start in the NFL.
Howell completed 8-of-9 passes for 121 yards and a touchdown in the second half. More importantly, he was sacked only once after being taken down three times in the first half. In part because the Commanders dropped into a 21-3 hole, offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy had called 30 passes for Howell in the first half and the Broncos teed off on the young passer. But the Commanders closed the deficit to 21-14 at halftime and after Denver went three-and-out on its opening drive of the second half, Washington altered its approach. Bieniemy turned to running back Brian Robinson (18 carries, 87 yards, two touchdowns) and used the running back’s early down success to set up a devastating series of screens for which the Broncos had no answers. It certainly didn’t help that the Broncos, already without safeties Caden Sterns and P.J. Locke, lost Kareem Jackson when the veteran was ejected in the second quarter after a targeting call that knocked Commanders tight end Logan Thomas out of the game with a concussion.
“I thought we were poor,” Payton said of his team’s defensive performance. “We didn’t help them with the field position with the turnover, but our red-zone defense was poor. First-down defense — we’re not fitting certain pressures. We have to look at how much do we have in, defensively, same way. I didn’t think we played well, and we’re going to see a lot better offenses than that.”
Payton also has to figure out a way to devise a game plan that more frequently includes Mims, Johnson and running back Jaleel McLaughlin, who scored his first career touchdown on Denver’s opening drive but didn’t have another touch in the game. Mims caught the two deep passes early — he also added a 45-yard punt return — but he wasn’t targeted again the rest of the game.
“Some of it’s coverage-driven, and some of it is just based on what we’re in,” Payton said when asked about Mims’ usage in the second half. “We ended up in a couple different personnel groupings. Part of that is coincidence, I would say. We had a number of guys we were trying to get the ball to and we’ll keep doing that.”
— David Aldridge (@davidaldridgedc) September 18, 2023
The Broncos have already shown a one-step-forward, two-steps-back pattern early in this season. The operational issues were largely non-existent in the Week 1 loss to the Raiders, but the Broncos struggled to hit explosive plays. On Sunday, the Broncos ripped off one big shot after another on their way to three early touchdowns, only to have their rhythm halted by communication failures. Wilson rushed for a team-high 56 yards, going over 5,000 for his career, but also matched a career-high with seven sacks taken.
The Broncos reveled in the ecstasy of a Hail Mary touchdown. Then felt the agony of final-play failure.
It leaves them at 0-2, insisting this season is not like the six losing seasons that came before it.
“Everybody’s going to look to slam us down because it’s the same old thing, but it’s not,” McGlinchey said. “It’s not the same old thing. I can promise you that. There’s too many good people, too many good coaches. We’re going to get this thing right. It’s just a matter of when.”
Until they can start plugging leaks without taking on more water in new spots, the case that this is a new Broncos team will be a hard one to make.
(Top photo: RJ Sangosti / Getty Images)
The Football 100, the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, goes on sale this fall. Pre-order it here.