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Here's how one decision might have sealed Vic Fangio's fate as Broncos head coach

Andrew Mason Avatar
January 9, 2022

DENVER — It was one decision, but it spoke volumes.

It was a decision in a game that meant nothing to the Broncos in the standings, but meant everything to the players themselves. Propelled by a stirring halftime speech from safety Justin Simmons, playing for themselves and bonds that have been forged by continued adversity, a lineup missing 10 starters nearly ended a Kansas City series winning streak that encompasses seven seasons and three Presidential administrations.

It was fourth-and-9, and the Broncos trailed by seven points, 28-21. Just four minutes and 45 seconds remained on the game clock.

The Broncos needed a touchdown before sending Brandon McManus onto the field for a 31-yard field-goal attempt.

They still needed one after McManus made it.

“It’s fourth-and-9, and your odds are very low, through analytics and all that,” Fangio said. “There was enough time left that gave us a chance to get a stop, and even if we gave up a field goal, we’d have a chance. If we go for it and don’t get it, and they get that same field goal, then we’re down two scores with not enough time.

“I understand the second-guessing there and going for it, but fourth-and-9, your chances are not great.”

Fourth-and-9, yes, the chances of conversion are not great. A 20-percent chance.

Success — even if the Broncos had only gained the minimum yardage to reach the line to gain — would have increased their chances of winning by 9.27 percentage points, from 10.28 percent to 19.65 percent, according to the win-probability calculator at pro-football-reference.com. In simpler terms, the Broncos’ chances of winning would have nearly doubled.

The field goal increased their chances by just 1.82 percentage points, to 12.1 percent.

But there’s something the probability calculator doesn’t incorporate: Patrick Mahomes.

Kicking meant giving the 2018 MVP and the Super Bowl LIV MVP the football without taking one more shot to keep alive a drive that could tie the game.

Fangio made a call to trust his defense to make a stop. A defense that has been mostly outstanding this year, overcoming the trade of Von Miller and the loss of its two starting inside linebackers to be one of the NFL’s stingiest on a per-game basis.

But that defense had also come up short in the four-minute drill on multiple occasions this season.

The four-minute offense and defense refers to the time of the game where burning off the clock, rather than scoring, is the top priority for the team in the lead. Success in this period is defined by how long you keep the football — not whether you score.

And against the Cleveland Browns and Las Vegas Raiders, the Broncos lost. Against the Cincinnati Bengals, it allowed a first down and didn’t give the offense a chance until it was too little, too late.

Two of those teams were led by Case Keenum and Derek Carr. So, what happened next came as no surprise given that Mahomes was at the wheel.

Before you could say, “That was a questionable decision,” Mecole Hardman was darting and dodging his way through the Broncos defense. One play into the Chiefs’ possession, and he had a 44-yard gain that immediately put the Chiefs into field-goal range, summarily wiping out McManus’ field goal.

Then, the Chiefs went into clock-killing mode, and the 2021 Broncos never saw the football again.

Chiefs 28, Broncos 24.

It was another piece of evidence in the case for moving on from their beleaguered head coach. There are the three losing seasons — and the damning track record of coaches who were brought back for a fourth after opening their tenures by being under .500 in those opening three campaigns.

There is the Broncos’ home form in 2020 and 2021, which is their worst two-year stretch at home since before man walked on the moon. Some 14,571 ticket-holders found some other way to spend their Saturday — the Broncos’ second-highest no-show count of the last 11 seasons. Many of those who did show up wore Chiefs red — more than this reporter has ever seen for any Broncos-Chiefs game in Denver.

But what is more damning is the trend: Over their last six home games, the Broncos averaged over 10,000 no-shows a contest.

The public has spoken. Emphatically.

And then there is the Broncos’ work against divisional rivals.

In the last two years, the Broncos went 2-10 in the AFC West — their worst two-year mark since the division was formed as a part of the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.

The standings say that the Broncos will finish two games back of whoever loses the Sunday night game between the Las Vegas Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers. The scoreboard says that two of the Broncos’ three season-ending losses to divisional foes were by four points apiece, and the blowout in between came when the Broncos’ already-injury-plagued roster was shredded by a cluster of COVID-19 positive tests.

But the overall arc reveals that the distance between the Broncos and their divisional foes isn’t a canyon; it’s an ocean.

And Fangio wasted no time pointing to the biggest reason when asked about it after the loss.

“Well, those other three teams have top-shelf quarterbacks — which is obvious to everybody,” he said.

He continued by noting that the Broncos “need to get a little bit better.”

But he knows that while it has always been about the quarterback in the NFL, success or failure has never been as dependent upon quality at the position as it is right now.

That remark certainly represents throwing his quarterbacks under the bus. It also isn’t wrong.

The Chiefs, Chargers and Raiders have it, proven over multiple years. The Broncos still do not. But other recent coaches with similar hands were able to find a measure of success in recent years that included making it to the postseason.

Buffalo’s Sean McDermott rode Tyrod Taylor to a wild-card appearance. Doug Marrone, who was dismissed by the Jacksonville Jaguars after the 2020 season, wrung a trip to the 2017 AFC Championship Game out of a team piloted by Blake Bortles.

Minnesota’s Mike Zimmer guided the Vikings to a division title with Teddy Bridgewater and a conference-title game with Case Keenum, both of whom are among the melange of quarterbacks who have tried to fill the massive void left when Peyton Manning said, “God bless football,” and walked into an orange sunset.

Fangio has not had elite quality at quarterback.

But others in similar scenarios found measures of success that his teams could not.

And in the end, he decided to put his chances of a comeback in the hands of an opposing quarterback whose collection of accomplishments in his first four seasons as a starter are unlike any other passer in the history of the smart.

It was the wrong choice.

And it, along with the other game-management snafus and issues that popped up, could prove fatal to his stint on the Broncos’ sideline.


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