Some Broncos fans were able to hold out hope.
They’d started the season with back-to-back losses at home, but both games showed signs of progress, like their league-leading offensive efficiency. Both games were close. Their minus-three point differential tied for the best mark ever for an 0-2 team. The other team found their way to the playoffs.
Disappointment was abundant, but hope wasn’t dead. With upcoming games against the Bears and Jets, an upset win over the Dolphins on Sunday would provide a clear path back to relevance. If those two losses were fluky, maybe the football gods would gift the Broncos a fluky win in Miami.
But those losses were no fluke. If anything, the fluke is that those games were so close.
The Dolphins beat the Broncos 70-20. Denver put up one of the worst defensive performances in NFL history. Only two other teams have scored 70 points in a single game, the 1950 Rams and Washington in 1966. If Miami had decided to kick a field goal on fourth down at the end of the game instead of kneeling and handing the ball back to the Broncos, they could have set a new all-time scoring record.
Dozens of stats could give you a window into the spanking at Hard Rock Stadium—only the 1951 Rams have posted more yards in a single game—but linebacker Alex Singleton summed it up simply.
“We sucked,” he said.
Losing is nothing new in Denver. Since their Super Bowl 50 victory, they’ve posted a 44-72 record. They haven’t made a playoff appearance in that time and they’re six years removed from their last .500 record. They’ve finished last in the AFC West in three consecutive seasons.
“I’m tired of losing, man,” Garett Bolles said. “I’ve been here for seven years and all I’ve done is lost. It’s frustrating.”
Despite the failures, an underlying sense that the Broncos were on the brink of success has remained. Trevor Siemian, Case Keenum, Joe Flacco, Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater all tried their hand quarterbacking the Broncos’ offense, but none of them could lead the Broncos to a top-20 finish in scoring. Meanwhile, the defense was holding its own week-in and week-out. The Broncos appeared to be “a quarterback away.”
So the Broncos gave up multiple first-round picks and $250 million for Super Bowl-winning quarterback Russell Wilson last offseason.
Despite the investment, Denver’s offense was the worst in the league.
Suddenly, the Broncos were “a coach away.” So they backed up the Brink’s truck for Super Bowl-winning head coach Sean Payton.
Now they’re 0-3 and coming off one of the worst performances in decades.
“I’m at a loss for words because I’ve never been in—I’ve been on the other side of some games like that,” Payton said on Sunday. “Every once in a while, in this league you get your butt whooped, but this was more than that.”
Through three weeks of the NFL season, Russell Wilson has been Russell Wilson; he has a 99.5 passer rating this season, and a 100.2 passer rating in his career. Has he lived up to expectations for the league’s fifth highest-paid quarterback? Maybe not. But he’ll rank in the top 10 in most major stats after this week, so he isn’t that far off.
Meanwhile, Payton has bumped up the Broncos’ scoring by nearly a touchdown per game. He deserves blame for other issues—he’s a head coach, not the offensive coordinator—but the offensive bump he provided is about what you’d expect from a big-name play-caller.
Even with a coach and a quarterback, the Broncos are still bad.
So now what?
The easy answer is to blow the roster apart.
The big contracts on an NFL roster are the team’s pillars, and it might be time to change the foundation of the Broncos. The Broncos could save about $10 million or more each in cap space if they move on from Garett Bolles, Justin Simmons, Randy Gregory, Tim Patrick, DJ Jones or Justin Simmons after the season. Some would be cut candidates. Some might bring a trade return.
But the big decision will be Russell Wilson. The Broncos’ quarterback hasn’t been the problem—not this year at least—but he’ll be 35 when the season ends. If Denver shoots for a rebuild, he’ll be at least 38 by the time they’re ready to compete again. The Broncos could move on this offseason, but they’d wind up paying about the same amount in cap space over the next two years as they would if he was on the team. The difference is that he would be off the cap sheet starting in 2026.
Regardless of what they decide, the Broncos won’t make any big roster changes this week. Those are decisions that come ahead of the trade deadline or after the season. Plus, no general manager is jumping to trade for a player who just contributed to 50-point loss. The only change that could be looming is the firing of defensive coordinator Vance Joseph. The Giants didn’t fire Frank Ivy after he allowed 73 points to Washington in 1966, but he probably wouldn’t have been surprised if they had.
As much as fans might want to skip to the end of the season, when debates about who to cut and who to keep will be rampant, this isn’t a video game. The Broncos need to suit up 14 more times before those decisions are made.
“It’s on us to make sure this loss is just this week,” tackle Mike McGlinchey said. “No matter what the score was or not matter how bad this one feels you can only lose one game a Sunday. Or you can only win one game a Sunday. We’ve got to make sure this stops here.”
The Broncos’ 2023 season isn’t technically dead—a handful of teams have rebounded from 0-3 starts to make the playoffs—but hope is absolutely dead. How could it not be?
Buckle up for 15 weeks of meaningless football in Denver.