The Broncos blew an opportunity to pick up a crucial loss in the race for Caleb Williams. Maybe that's a good thing.

Henry Chisholm Avatar
October 23, 2023

DENVER, Colo. — The music in the Broncos’ locker room after their win on Sunday was audible from the hallway, the press conference room and just about everywhere else, too. When the door to the locker room cracked open, fog from the celebration leaked out.

The scoreboard said the Broncos won, and they celebrated like they won, but did they actually win?

The Giants beat the Commanders.

The Bears beat the Raiders.

The Patriots beat the Bills.

With three of the league’s four other one-win teams finding a second win on Sunday, the stage was set for the Broncos to gain ground in the race to the bottom. They could have held the No. 2 pick in the draft as of Sunday night. They could have sat a half-game back from the first overall pick.

Instead, the Broncos pulled out a 19-17 win over a 2-3 (now 2-4) Packers team. They dropped a couple of spots in the draft order, and their hopes of earning a place in the postseason are still dead. On paper, the Broncos might have actually been the losers.

Or, maybe, they took a necessary step forward.

Tanking for Caleb Williams sounds great. USC’s star passer might be the best quarterback prospect in the past decade. He’s been a lock to be the first player off the board in April for two years. He’s accurate, mobile, creative and fearless. If he was a couple of inches taller, he’d be the prototypical modern quarterback.

The Broncos could bottom out, earn the first pick in the draft, and bring in their quarterback of the future. Williams might only be worth a couple of extra wins in his rookie season, but by 2026 he’d lead the Broncos into championship contention. They’d be off and running for the next decade or more.

But going “Winless for Williams” is a fairytale.

The last No. 1 pick to lead his team to a Super Bowl win was Matthew Stafford, who was drafted in 2009. (He was sandwiched between JaMarcus Russell in 2007 and Sam Bradford in 2010.)

Before Stafford, the previous Super Bowl winner to go first overall was Eli Manning in 2004.

Before Manning, it was David Carr in 2002, but his Super Bowl ring came as Manning’s backup.

Before Carr, it was Peyton Manning in 1998.

Which first-overall quarterbacks in that time didn’t win a Super Bowl? Tim Couch, Michael Vick, Carson Palmer, Alex Smith, Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Jared Goff, Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, Joe Burrow and Trevor Lawrence. It’s still early for a few of those guys, but to say a rookie—even the most-prized rookies—is a sure-thing is a bad idea.

For all we know, Williams is Baker Mayfield, not Patrick Mahomes.

And Drake Maye is Mitch Trubisky, not Justin Herbert.

And Michael Penix Jr. is Kenny Pickett, not Tua Tagovailoa.

And Shedeur Sanders is Teddy Bridgewater, not Drew Brees.

Does that mean you pass up on a chance to take one of them? No. But hoping that the 53 Broncos already on the roster are bad enough to earn the opportunity is dangerous.

Like it or not, about half of the current team will still be around next season. And a third of it will be around the year after that. The majority of the change will come at the back of the roster, not in the starting lineup.

If the Broncos are as bad as they looked in the first month of the season—and as bad as they’d need to be to finish dead last in the NFL—no quarterback could save them.

But if the Broncos can win a handful of games between now and the end of the season—an unlikely outcome given their performance so far—they might be salvageable.

Would you rather be the 2022 Panthers or the 2022 Lions?

The Panthers bottomed out, found their way to the top pick in the draft, found their rookie quarterback, and are still winless in 2023.

The Lions started 1-6 but won eight of their final 10 games. A 9-8 record wasn’t enough to make the playoffs, but it provided momentum that carried into 2023. They’re 5-2 and leading the NFC North.

The Broncos’ offensive line has quietly become one of the league’s premier run-blocking units. Entering the game against Green Bay, the Broncos were fourth in the NFL with 4.9 yards per carry. On Sunday, they ran the ball 25 times for 5.8 yards per carry, and they’ll probably climb even higher in the rankings. What if the group is good enough to carry Denver to a .500 record the rest of the way, and the Broncos can build around their running game in 2024?

What if PJ Locke is a legitimate starting safety? The fifth-year special teamer was great in a limited role last season. PFF called him the Broncos’ second-best defender behind Pat Surtain II. On Sunday, he filled in for Kareem Jackson after Jackson’s ejection. In the final minutes of the game, he was playing deep-half coverage but saw that he wasn’t needed in his own zone, so he broke across the field to undercut a pass and pick it off. It was a great, heads-up play. It wasn’t luck. And it won the Broncos the game.

Locke’s emergence alone wouldn’t be worth losing the opportunity to nab a top draft pick, but if the Broncos win more games, it will be because more players are proving themselves. That’s a good thing.

It’s the path the Broncos are hoping to take.

“We want the momentum to roll this over to next week,” Courtland Sutton said after the game. “We get to go see the Chiefs again, one week removed from playing them boys in a tough game on Thursday night. So trying to use this momentum to roll into this weekend. Go take care of business and get the ball rolling in the division games.”

They don’t care if you cheer for them or not.

“It’s just us guys and everyone else can count us out, whatever,” Alex Singleton said. “Do whatever you guys want. We’re going to keep coming to work, and we’re going to keep playing, and if we keep doing what we’re doing, we’ll continue to win.”

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