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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Even with Bradley Chubb out for the season, even with an eight-game losing streak that is the NFL’s longest active skid, these Broncos are not the league’s worst team.
They may not even be among the five worst right now.
And history shows that they’re among the best “bad teams” through four games.
It’s a backhanded compliment. It’s not one the Broncos welcome. But it’s important to remember that while this team isn’t good, it’s not the pits of the earth, either.
The Broncos and their 0-4 brethren from Cincinnati, Miami and Washington joined 171 other clubs who started their seasons 0-4 from 1960 — the first year of the Broncos and the American Football League — until today. The Broncos’ point differential of minus-23 in those four games is the 11th-best of those teams.
One of the teams that was even better? The 2017 Los Angeles Chargers, who turned a minus-21 point differential in an 0-4 start into a 9-3 record the rest of the way, which they followed by going 12-4 in 2018.
How did they do it?
“We just didn’t flinch, and just stayed true to the process,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. “We kept re-emphasizing things, because at that point in time, you need clarity, and the guys need to understand exactly what the expectations and standards are.
“As long say you do that, it’s going to turn. I knew then it was going to turn, and I’m pretty sure Vic [Fangio] knows it’s going to turn with his squad. I’m just hoping that it doesn’t turn this week.”
It’s easy to say in retrospect that the Chargers knew it would turn. But at the time, they were a team that had just moved from San Diego and had already tasted the home-field disadvantage of their shared home with the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer, losing their first three games at Dignity Health Sports Park in front of throngs that were, at best, neutral.
“Just kind of some crazy things where you look up, and you’re 0-4, and you know that you’re better than that,” Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said this week. “And I know that’s what we see on tape, is a good Denver Broncos team.”
HISTORY SHOWS THAT THE FIRST WIN COULD BE COMING SOON
Let’s start by isolating the 22 previous 0-4 teams since 1960 that had a point differential of minus-7 points per game or better (minus-28 in the aggregate).
First of all, those teams usually broke out the skid quickly. On average those 22 teams got their first win in their sixth game. Nine of the 22 broke through immediately after being 0-4; five more got their first win in their sixth game, giving the Broncos a 68.2 percent chance of stopping their skid in Weeks 5 or 6.
So when the Broncos maintain that they’re “close,” there’s some actual data to prove that they are correct.
Just three of those 22 teams waited until the second half of the season to get their first win: the 1983 and 2013 iterations of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the 2017 San Francisco 49ers.
Of course, those 49ers proceeded to win six of their final eight games in the wake of their trade for Jimmy Garoppolo, and considering that they are 9-2 in the games started by their 27-year-old quarterback, it’s pretty clear where their turning point rests.
THE AVERAGE TEAM LIKE THE BRONCOS PLAYS AROUND .500
None of these 22 0-4 teams with a minus-28-or-better point differential recovered to make the playoffs. So while there is a first time for everything, there is no justification for realistic expectation of a postseason appearance.
Second, even a winning season is a remote possibility.
In this group, only the 2017 Chargers and 2004 Buffalo Bills finished the season above .500. One other team, the 1974 Detroit Lions, rallied for a .500 finish.
But the average winning percentage for winless teams with a minus-28-or-better point differential after their 0-4 start is .448 — which translates to 5.38 wins the rest of the way.
Twelve of the 22 previous teams in this 59-season sample size finished with between five and seven wins.
Such a win total over the next 12 games would offer some encouragement in the locker room. A .500 mark in the next 12 games would also offer the young players a building block heading into next year; it would likely come with an improved offense and a defense that would be grasping Fangio’s concepts.
But fo Broncos fans who want the team to nosedive for draft position if the playoffs are an impossibility that could be the last thing they want to hear.
If they are an average team in this sample size, the Broncos would finish 5-11. With a schedule likely to be among the most difficult, the Broncos would lose draft-pick tiebreakers, so even that mark could have them picking seventh or eighth. A 6-10 or 7-9 finish would likely push them to 10th or lower.
In other words, exactly where you don’t want to be — stuck in the muddled middle.
ARE THEY REALLY LIKE THE 2017 CHARGERS?
Let’s go through the checklist:
- Both teams had/have long losing streaks: Chargers 9, Broncos 8
- Both teams had/have poor form in the previous 32 games: The Chargers were 7-25; the Broncos are 8-24
- Both teams lost two games decided on the final play in their 0-4 starts
- Both teams had/have first-time head coaches
“For us that year, we finally won that first game, and then we won two in a row, and then we finally turned it around and fought our way back to win nine of the last 12,” Rivers recalled.
But the peril of the 0-4 start is that the Chargers spent the rest of the season chasing. An 0-4 record requires perfection to overcome, and inevitably, the imperfections that led to the lousy start in the first place arise again.
Unless the NFL comes up with some protocol to allow a hot late-season team into the playoffs — say, to give the final seed in each conference to the team that has the best record over the final four games of the season — any Broncos revival is likely to end like those of their 0-4-with-close-losses peers. It would offer promise for the future, but nothing for the present.
A revival can help you win from “now on.” It could start in the next two games. It can lead to some unexpected wins down the stretch.
Just don’t expect it to stop the playoff drought “now.” And, of course, a revival will cost them draft position. That doesn’t matter in the locker room, of course; those guys are playing to win.
But it will do nothing to douse the burning debate in Broncos Country as to the ideal outcome of the rest of the season: win to build confidence in the core already with the team, or tank for draft position.