The 5-11 Denver Broncos finished 2017 with their worst record since 2010, when the team finished 2-14 on the year and ended up drafting Von Miller with the second overall pick in the following spring.
As the Broncos gear up for their most challenging offseason since then, their fans are left to ponder not only who the team might take with with the fifth overall pick in the 2018 draft, but also try to understand what happened — how this crown-jewel NFL franchise could have fallen so far, so quickly.
The biggest area of weakness was obviously the offensive side of the ball, as the Broncos’ punchless and turnover-prone offense led directly to nightmarish season. The Broncos’ offense simply refused to play to its strengths, failing to stay committed to the running game throughout the season. In the 10 games Trevor Siemian started and played throughout, he attempted more than 25 passes in nine games. Brock Osweiler threw more than 25 times in all four of his starts. Comparatively, running back C.J. Anderson, who would go on to become only the 15th running back in Denver Broncos history to rush for 1,000 yards in one season, only saw 20 or more carries in just five games this season.
As a result of the Broncos’ coaches continuously abandoning the run, they would go on to finish 18th in the NFL in terms of total offense. Their trio of quarterbacks would go on to take 52 sacks, throw 22 interceptions and finish with an average quarterback rating of 73.0, ahead of only 0-16 Cleveland’s 61.4 rating.
Somewhat improved with the additions of rookie tackle Garret Bolles and free-agent guard Ron Leary, the offensive line still loomed as one of the Broncos’ weakest units in 2017. The Broncos brought in former Raider Menelik Watson to start at right tackle and spent their first-round draft pick on Bolles, who would go on to start every game at left tackle. Watson struggled mightily at right tackle, and would play in only seven games before a foot injury ended his season. Bolles had a strong start to his rookie campaign, but struggled at times down the stretch, finishing the season as the third-most penalized offensive tackle in the NFL with 12.
The Broncos had also missed on numerous opportunities to put the right players on the field — and keep players who continued to struggle off of it. Rookie punt returner Isaiah McKenzie was expected to take the Broncos’ special teams unit to the next level with his breathtaking speed and ability as a returner. Instead, McKenzie continued to make inexcusable mistakes, fumbling the ball six times, tied for third-most in the NFL among non-quarterbacks. Yet, McKenzie continued to be tasked with punt return duties, even seeing playing time at wide receiver.
McKenzie eventually lost his punt returner duties to Jordan “Sunshine” Taylor, who entered the season with an expected larger role after a preseason of hype. Despite his freakish size, speed and catches-everything-thrown-at-him hands, Taylor played in only ten games this season, often being made inactive in favor of McKenzie. In the final game of the season, Taylor led all Broncos receivers in receiving yards. Another young, talented player the Broncos failed to utilize was rookie De’Angelo Henderson, opting instead for the aging veteran Jamaal Charles. Henderson saw action in only five games this season. In the Broncos’ final regular season game, Henderson made an incredible 29-yard touchdown reception in which he broke three tackles on his way to the end zone. Henderson also averaged an impressive 29-yard average on kickoff returns.
Furthermore, perhaps if the Broncos would have made the switch from the struggling Siemian to Osweiler sooner, the season could have been salvaged long before it spiraled out of control. Failure to put the better players in positions to make a difference further contributed to the complete collapse of the 2017 Broncos.
The Broncos suffered defeats of double digits in eight of their 11 losses this season, leading many to believe that the defense had struggled mightily all year. Despite the misleading box scores, the Broncos’ defense finished as the third-best defense in the NFL in 2017, allowing only 290 yards per game. The two statistics that often contributed to these losses were that the Broncos’ offense committed 34 turnovers, allowing opposing offenses to start their average drives at the Broncos’ 34-yard line. Only the Cleveland Browns committed more turnovers in 2017.
It’s easy to pin the Broncos’ lost season on the quarterback. Or the coach. Or the O-line. Or… it might be all of those things and more. The Broncos’ ‘quarterback of the future’ played in only two games, and looked lost and unprepared in both. It could be that their head coach was way in over his head, that the team failed to improve the offensive line enough, missed on too many picks in their 2017 draft — or perhaps it was that no tight end on the roster registered more than 225 yards on the season.
For the Broncos? Maybe it’s best to leave that question open-ended, and start searching for ways to prevent it from happening again in 2018.