Upgrade Your Fandom

Join the Ultimate Denver Broncos Community!

The faces changed, but the Broncos' loss to the Chargers was more of the same

Andrew Mason Avatar
January 3, 2022

INGLEWOOD, Calif. — In a way, the Broncos’ 34-13 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers was their bottle episode.

Like most bottle episodes in television, it was put together with a limited cast that featured plenty of bit players. COVID-19 and injuries combined to leave the Broncos without 10 starters by the time they kicked off at SoFi Stadium. Then, left guard Dalton Risner injured his elbow, giving the Broncos backups at half of the spots on offense and defense.

Bottle episodes also often feature plots that don’t fit into the general context of plot threads that run through an entire season of a show. Thus, you can miss a bottle episode, but you will still be able to follow the general season-long plot arc.

To wit: The Broncos have an outstanding defense. While it is not in the class of the 2015 and 2016 units — a difference revealed by DVOA and per-possession metrics — it is among the NFL’s stingiest this year.

Conceding 27 points to the Chargers offense without 11 of 22 players on the defensive two-deep doesn’t change that.

As the COVID-19 positive tests accumulated for the Broncos, it was clear this game was going to be its own unique entity. The Chargers returned players to their roster this week as quickly as the Broncos lost them. Drawing conclusions from this game, positive or negative, looked like it would be a stretch.

And that’s where this game deviated from the template.

Because while many characters Sunday were different from the norm, Sunday’s 16th episode of the Broncos’ 62nd season fit neatly in the overarching plot and narrative of the Broncos. Not just for this season, but the three years of the Vic Fangio era and the five consecutive losing seasons that followed Gary Kubiak’s departure on Jan. 2, 2017.

It became a bottle episode that left fans reaching for the nearest bottle.

Penalties at the worst possible time? We’ve seen that before, and it happened again when the Broncos drew an illegal-formation penalty on a fourth-and-goal penalty to open the fourth quarter.

Melvin Gordon’s 1-yard touchdown run was erased, and the Broncos settled for a ho-hum 23-yard field goal instead of seven points that would have given them a fighting chance in the final 15 minutes.

Curious play-calls? You can make a lengthy list over the years, from the tight-end end-arounds of 2019 to the Broncos dusting off the “Philly Special” play of Super Bowl LII fame on fourth-and-goal from the Los Angeles 2-yard line in the second quarter Sunday.

Lock handed it to Mike Boone, who gave it to Kendall Hinton on a reverse, who promptly got drilled by Chargers safety Nasir Adderley. The harried, hurried throw wobbled toward the roof, and while Lock was able to lean down and grab it, he didn’t get far; he was stopped a yard short of the goal line.

It was a questionable call considering that Lock had injured his shoulder a quarter before, requiring a painkilling shot in order to return. It was also a play that Lock said the team wasn’t able to practice at full speed last week, given that the COVID-19 breakthrough positive tests forced the Broncos to stay home Thursday and only conduct a walk-through Friday.

And then there were special-teams woes galore.

On a day that saw kicker Brandon McManus drill a career-long 61-yard field goal just inside the right upright as the first half ended, the special teams’ day was defined by three other moments that exacerbated the multi-year malaise of the unit.

The most dramatic results were two Chargers kickoff returns of of 47 and 101 yards, the latter going for a touchdown. The havoc of COVID-19 and injuries on the roster was a factor; with so many players on the two-deep sidelined, backups became starters and practice-squad players filled in for the afore-mentioned understudies on special teams.

But the 101-yard touchdown return by Andre Roberts began when kicker Brandon McManus didn’t place the ball in the correct spot.

“The [kickoff] put us at a deficit early, but we need to find out how to not let it go the whole way,” Fangio said. “No excuses, we need to play with what we got. We need to figure out how to cover kicks better.”

And the Chargers effectively put the game out of reach with a 49-yard touchdown drive at the end of the first half that followed Diontae Spencer’s muff of a Ty Long punt.

Coordinator Tom McMahon’s special-teams units have allowed five touchdowns on kickoff and punt returns in the 48-game Fangio era. No other team has allowed more than four in that span.

There was even a failed replay challenge, taking Fangio to 1-of-8 on challenges this year and 4-of-16 for his three seasons on the job.

And therein lies the point. Yes, many characters were different Sunday. But the plot arc remains numbingly familiar.

The Broncos are now 1-4 in AFC West games this season and 2-9 over the last two seasons. A loss next week to Kansas City will make this the worst two-season stretch of AFC West play in team history. Win or lose, the Broncos’ three-year run in the Fangio era will be the second-worst in club history, with only the 1970-72 Broncos — who went 4-13-1 in AFC West play — separating them from the wooden spoon.

The Broncos are 4-0 against teams that are 4-12 or worse this season. Against everybody else, they’re 3-9 — a group that includes the Chargers, who next week will face the Las Vegas Raiders with a playoff spot on the line.

Finally, this is the third consecutive losing season under Fangio.

This makes him the 39th coach since the AFL-NFL merger to open his tenure with losing seasons in his first three permanent (non-interim) seasons on the job.

Twenty-one of those previous 38 coaches were dismissed during or after their their third seasons. And of the 17 who kept their jobs, they have one thing in common: None of them had a winning record with that team after surviving three consecutive losing seasons to start their tenure.

Those 17 coaches collectively had a winning percentage of .400 from Year 4 and onward when keeping their jobs after three losing seasons — which averages out to 6.4 wins per 16 games. Only one of those 17 coaches even managed a .500 record when keeping the job: Bill Belichick in Cleveland, who followed three losing seasons with a 16-16 mark in 1994 and 1995.

This was a bottle episode of “Vic and the Broncos.”

But it also was exactly what observers have come to expect from the series.

Cancellation could be imminent.


Share your thoughts

Join the conversation

The Comment section is only for diehard members

Open comments +

Scroll to next article

Don't like ads?
Don't like ads?
Don't like ads?