Eleven months ago, Case Keenum engineered the “Minneapolis Miracle.” Now, he’s one of the architects of the “Denver Debacle.”
The Broncos’ 27-14 loss at Oakland ensured the franchise of its first back-to-back losing seasons in 46 years and further frayed the chances of the quarterback and his coach, Vance Joseph, returning for a fix-it in 2019.
The Broncos (6-9) won’t have rookie sensation Phillip Rivers (wrist) this week when they finish the season against the Chargers (11-4).
Denver is in danger of posting double digit losses in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1966-67, which would be an embarrassing indignity just five weeks before ailing owner Pat Bowlen is expected to earn his Hall of Fame enshrinement.
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“We all want to play better,” Keenum said after the Broncos’ third consecutive loss to a sub-.500 team. “Nobody likes not winning. We all hate losing. We all want to play hard and we all want to win for Coach Joseph. We all love him. He’s an incredible human and a great football coach.
“I want to play hard for him and I want to play hard for everybody in that locker room. That’s a big part of our team and our identity that we stay together, we all like and respect each other and we all fight for each other. But it’s a production league. When you’re not winning, it’s tough.”
General manager John Elway was shown during the broadcast with Scrooge-like scowls as his team’s forgettable Monday night appearance against their rival began with a botched special teams play that led to a 99-yard punt return touchdown, continued with 11 penalties and was capped by two fourth-quarter interceptions by Keenum.
The Broncos appeared to have a gilded path to the AFC wild-card round earlier this month after snapping six-game winning streaks by the Chargers and Steelers in consecutive weeks.
Then, they lost their defensive and offensive sparkplugs in a brutal 72-hour stretch.
Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. fractured his right fibula when a player fell on him in a 24-20 win at Cincinnati on Dec. 2, and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders ruptured his right Achilles tendon in practice three days later.
They haven’t won since, losing to the 49ers, Browns and Raiders — and their rookie sensation, Phillip Lindsay, injured his right wrist Monday night, ending his season and endangering his Pro Bowl trip after becoming the first undrafted offensive player ever to earn a Pro Bowl selection.
The Broncos might have been able to survive the injuries to Harris and Sanders had Elway not traded away cornerback Aqib Talib to the Rams in the offseason and wide receiver Demaryius Thomas to the Texans in October.
When Harris got hurt, the Broncos were left to rely on Bradley Roby, who’s been a disappointment as a starter after four stellar years as a nickel back playing alongside perennial Pro Bowlers.
Without Sanders, the Broncos were left with a bunch of rookies, none of whom could force teams to move an eighth man out of the box and clear the running lanes for Lindsay, just the third undrafted rookie ever to run for 1,000 yards.
Keenum also is working without his top two tight ends and three O-line starters.
After guiding the Vikings to within one win of the Super Bowl last season, Keenum has thrown just 15 touchdown passes and he’s set career highs with 14 interceptions and 33 sacks.
That’s not what Elway had in mind when he signed Keenum to a two-year, $36 million deal with $25 million guaranteed.
Instead of leading Denver back to respectability, Keenum has joined the heap of QBs who haven’t lived up to Elway’s expectations: a list that features the underwhelming Brock Osweiler, Mark Sanchez, Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch and Chad Kelly.
The Broncos are missing their third straight postseason following Peyton Manning’s retirement a month after their Super Bowl 50 title.
Harris said he’ll play in the Pro Bowl next month in Orlando, with reigning MVP Von Miller.
Before then, Miller will try to help Denver avoid double digit losses again.
“Like Case said, you want to win. You want to go out there and win every game,” Miller said. “It’s tough especially being a part of an organization that’s so used to elite play and get elite wins.”
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