ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — As the Denver Broncos sift through their third consecutive playoff miss and their third coaching change in the last three seasons, the offense is the problem that just won’t go away.
So much so that when wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders was asked recently about potential new playcallers or schemes who might be on the way, he went right to the bottom line.
“It really doesn’t matter to me, as long as it’s somebody who can score points, score touchdowns, right?” Sanders said. “Passing touchdowns, run touchdowns, the goal is touchdowns and explosive plays.”
This isn’t a new problem, however. It is an issue that has simmered on the front burner for the Broncos since Peyton Manning injured his foot in the 2015 season.
Even in that Super Bowl-winning season of 2015, the Broncos were 19th in scoring and pounded their way to the title with the league’s best defense and Brock Osweiler starting seven games behind center in place of the injured Manning.
Since the title they’ve finished 22nd (2016), 26th (2017) and 24th (2018) in scoring, but even this year’s subpar finish was a bit of a mirage. Take out the 45 points scored against the Arizona Cardinals, who finished with the league’s worst record, with two defensive touchdowns, and the Broncos scored 18.9 points per game in the other 15 games — that would have been 29th in the league.
With four different starting quarterbacks over the past two seasons, along with injuries and turnover in the offensive line, the Broncos’ insistence to be a predominantly three-wide receiver offense has yielded little but inconsistency and battered passers.
And when newly hired coach Vic Fangio makes his pick for the team’s offensive coordinator, that coach will be the fourth different playcaller in a four-season span.
“That starts with some continuity,” said Broncos president of football operations/general manager John Elway. “It’s going to be very important for us to get some continuity on the offensive side … That is something that we’re really going to concentrate on, getting some continuity. That’s what comes with the same system and finding the right guys.”
So, find the new guy with the call sheet in his hand and determine what you’re going to be on offense. Many defensive coaches have said the Broncos’ plan on offense didn’t match their personnel, especially in terms of the struggles to move the ball as well as protect the quarterback when they opened up the formation.
Also, in the two times in the game when a team’s ability to plan and adjust is quickly on display — the opening drive of the game as well as the first possession of the second half — this past season’s Broncos were dismal. The Broncos didn’t score on their first drive in 13 games — they had six games when they didn’t score in the first quarter overall — and there were eight games when they didn’t get a first down on the game’s first possession.
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They also had 14 games when they didn’t score on the opening drive of the second half after any halftime tweaks, eight games when they didn’t get a first down on their first possession of the second half.
Some of it was injuries — the Broncos had seven players who started multiple games on offense finish the year on injured reserve, including three offensive linemen, Sanders and running back Phillip Lindsay. But overall, their plan on offense has not meshed with their quarterback play or overall personnel since Manning retired.
“I think offensively, we got decimated with injuries, especially late,” Elway said. “We lost Emmanuel, that hurt, (tight end Jeff) Heuerman hurt. Those types of things hurt you, but that can’t be an excuse. We still have to figure out ways to get the job done.”
For his part Fangio has used the word “balance,” but not in the classic run-pass sort of way. Fangio said he wants an offense that can attack all parts of a defense and that it was his message to Elway during his interview to be the head coach.
“There are other things that need to be balanced in offensive play,” Fangio said. “Do you throw it short, intermediate or deep? Do you run in inside, outside or have deceptives? Do you run gap schemes and zone schemes? Are you play-action, movement passing game? When I say balance, I’m not necessarily talking about how many runs and how many passes. You need to have balance within your passing game and in your running game.”
In the end the Broncos are looking to crack the code, something they haven’t done effectively, without Manning at quarterback, since 2005. Since 2005, the highest they’ve finished in the league’s scoring rankings, without Manning on the roster, is 16th in 2008.
“We just need to score points,” Sanders said. “However we do that — score points, score touchdowns, get the ball in the end zone. That’s what we all want.”