Trailing 13-0 early in the second half, the Denver Broncos’ fate rested on the results of a key drive.
While Denver’s defense had been mostly stellar — holding the Bills’ third-best red zone offense to a mere two field goals on two red zone trips before halftime — the Broncos gave up a touchdown early in the third quarter. And the offense failed to even show up.
Still, Denver managed to work the ball down the field and into the wind thanks to a big run by Phillip Lindsay and then catch-and-run by Royce Freeman. They moved it to the Bills’ 24 yard line, the farthest Denver had penetrated into Buffalo territory. The Broncos simply had to find a way to score a touchdown.
On first down, Lindsay carried inside for two yards. And then the most ridiculous play of the day was called by Rich Scangarello.
“Scangs” tried to get too cute and do too much; Diontae Spencer motioned as if he were going for an end-around, and put his hand in the air as if to call for a screen pass before Brandon Allen turned 180 degrees and tossed the ball to tight end Noah Fant who was hit immediately for a five-yard loss.
The drive fluttered and died just like Allen’s pass on third down to the boundary and near Courtland Sutton, falling far short and out of bounds due to the stiff wind. And after Denver postured they would go for it on fourth down, the Broncos elected to kick the field goal.
Sure, Denver was trailed by a smaller margin of 13-3 at that point, but settling for the field goal signaled the game was over, the Broncos had flown the white flag.
That drive — which was deeper into Buffalo territory than any other — had to end with a touchdown if Denver wanted to win. Scangarello called the worst play of the day, the tight end screen misdirection, which ended up losing a whole bunch of yards for the Broncos.
Following that failed attempt, the Broncos offense went 3-and-out four straight times.
The incredibly bad play call by Scangarello wasn’t the first of the year, not by far.
Last week, while allowing the Minnesota Vikings to come all the way back from 20 points behind to win, the Broncos ran the ball with rookie tight end Noah Fant on a crucial third down late. Earlier in that game, the Broncos settled for a field goal and threw an interception in Minnesota’s red zone on two separate drives.
In another comeback loss, this time to the Indianapolis Colts, Scangarello called a draw with the small back Phillip Lindsay on 3rd and 5. If the Broncos converted on that play, they would’ve won the game. Instead, Indy answered with a dynamic drive to steal the win.
And it’s not just Scangarello, the young and inexperienced offensive coordinator, but head coach Vic Fangio who made a head-scratching call himself on Sunday.
Late in the third quarter, with Denver’s improved and highly competitive defensive unit on the field, Fangio inexplicably called a timeout with two seconds left in the quarter. Denver, still trailing by 10 points, needed to save those timeouts in case they made the game close late.
Instead, following the timeout, Buffalo converted their 3rd-and-2 before the quarter ended, making the called timeout even more laughably bad in terms of clock and game management.
Rewind to the 30-6 loss to the Chiefs, Fangio also elected to go for a 2-point conversion after the team’s only touchdown, which was failed. Not even a Kansas City penalty, moving Denver to the one yard line, could help the Broncos convert on that one.
Look, this is Fangio’s first year as a head coach, and even all those years as a defensive coordinator couldn’t fully prepare him for the deluge of decisions he has to make during a game. Likewise, Scangarello is a rookie offensive coordinator, and mistakes have been plentiful for the NFL’s 30th-best offense.
However, there’s no making any excuses for Fangio nor Scangarello. If they want to step up from just being NFL coaches to being one of the best coaching staffs, their situational coaching and game management must improve.