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Changes due after Broncos' 5-11 collapse
Less than 23 months after general manager John Elway held aloft the Vince Lombardi Trophy after Super Bowl 50, his team collapsed completely in a 5-11 season that saw the Broncos lose 10 of their last 12 games. The carnage did not claim head coach Vance Joseph, but is likely to result in significant changes to the roster, starting with the quarterback position, where neither Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler or Paxton Lynch distinguished themselves enough to hold on to the job, as the starting gig changed hands five times.
Denver's offense was inconsistent at times and inept at others, at one point suffering its first shutout in nearly 25 years. Only the Browns had more turnovers than the Broncos, who gave away the ball 34 times. As a result, the Broncos were dead last in opposing drive-start position, leading to short fields that opponents often capitalized upon for touchdowns.
Defensively, the Broncos remained among the league leaders in total yardage, but buckled under the weight of carrying the team because of its scattershot offense and mistake-prone special teams. The Broncos allowed 92 points in a two-week stretch against Philadelphia and New England, each conference's top seed in the playoffs, and those games showed just how far the Broncos have to go in order to return to contention. Joseph will get the chance to fix the problems, but first, he and Elway must solve the quarterback riddle that has bedeviled the Broncos since Peyton Manning's retirement.
WHAT WENT RIGHT: Denver's run defense showed marked improvement after struggling in 2017, finishing the season first in the league on a per-carry basis and fifth on a per-game basis. Nose tackle Domata Peko showed he had plenty of gas left in the tank in his 12th NFL season, and spearheaded the improvement in the defensive line. C.J. Anderson stayed healthy and posted his first career 1,000-yard rushing season, becoming the Broncos' first running back to hit that milestone since Knowshon Moreno in 2013.
WHAT WENT WRONG: Just about everything else, starting with the quarterback position. The Broncos cycled through Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler and Paxton Lynch, but none proved up to the job. None of them threw more touchdown passes than interceptions. The Broncos' pass defense ranked fourth in yards allowed, but surrendered 29 touchdowns, more than all but four teams. Denver's special teams were a disaster, struggling with turnovers, poor decisions and execution, leading to coordinator Brock Olivo's dismissal one day after the season ended.
MOST DISAPPOINTING PLAYER: Quarterback Trevor Siemian won the starting job in training camp and showed promise in the first two games, but began to spiral with two second-half interceptions at Buffalo in Week 3 and never regained his form. He ended the season injured and with an uncertain future.
MOST SURPRISING PLAYER: Defensive end Shelby Harris was signed to a reserve-future contract after being waived six times in two and a half years and quickly worked his way into the defensive-line rotation, finishing second on the team behind Von Miller with 5.5 sacks. Harris also had a blocked field-goal attempt that preserved a Week 1 win over the Chargers.
ASSISTANT COACH ON THE RISE: Defensive backs coach Marcus Robertson handled the talent and egos in the Broncos' secondary room well, while also guiding the transition at safety from the released T.J. Ward to second-year veteran Justin Simmons. Robertson's experience as a Pro-Bowl safety helped him guide Simmons and late-season starter Will Parks, who filled in for Simmons after an ankle injury.
Rumors went back and forth throughout the day Sunday, and at 10:22 a.m. MST on Monday morning, Denver Broncos general manager John Elway put out the only statement on Vance Joseph that mattered: that the embattled head coach will return for a second season on the job.
"We believe in Vance as a head coach," Elway tweeted. "Together, we'll put in the work to improve in all areas and win in 2018."
Retaining Joseph was what most of the locker room wanted.
"Most definitely," running back C.J. Anderson said before Elway's announcement when asked about the possibility of Joseph returning. "Coming in with a veteran locker room and talent, I think it's on us as players. We didn't hold up our end of the bargain to help (Joseph) and all the coaches. I definitely hope he gets a second chance.
"I can promise you, sitting right here, you can put it on record if he does get a second chance, we will not be 5-11. We won't have a losing season."
Everything came apart for the Broncos after a 3-1 start that had them thinking that the 2017 season would end in the postseason and with a sixth consecutive winning campaign. Instead, the Broncos came out of their Week 5 bye with a thud, enduring their longest losing streak in a half-century, plagued by turnovers, inefficient quarterback play and an inability to stop opponents' momentum.
Nine of their 12 losses were by double digits, including the first six defeats of that half-season skid that took the Broncos out of the running. Few of their players knew what such a run of futility felt like, having been accustomed to winning seasons and Super Bowls.
"Brock (Osweiler) said something that hit me. He said, 'Now we know what it feels like to have a bad NFL season. We know what it feels like, we know what it looks like, we know what's involved with it, how does it get there we know,'" Anderson said. "So now that we know and we've seen it, we can nip it in the bud.
"I think it was hard for all of us to get a grasp of it and change it during the season, because a lot of us had never seen it. A lot of us had played here. You had other vets who came from other situations, that their team wasn't winning, but when they got here, they got adapted to winning. So we've just got to get back to doing what we do best, and that's winning games and trying to win championships."
Part of that is by identifying issues when they arise.
"I think you talk to certain players that are having those moments or having those tough stretches early, before it gets bigger," Anderson said. "Like Isaiah (McKenzie), dropping six punts and then having a fumble. You get on him on the second punt he muffed. The first punt, you might let him pass. After the second one, you start letting him know, that's not how you do things.
"You find a way to talk to your quarterbacks, to say, 'Hey, what are you looking at here? What are you reading here?' and let them tell you what's going through their head so you can see how you can help them so you don't see us throwing into double coverage, triple coverage."
But it is at quarterback where change is likely to rock the roster first. Other areas could be primed for an overhaul, but it starts at a position where the Broncos had the second-lowest team-wide passer rating, second-worst touchdown-to-interception margin (minus-3) in each case, better than only the lowly Browns and the fewest passes of 40 or more yards of any team this season (three).
Joseph survived a frustrating first year. But if they don't fix the quarterback position, he may not last beyond a second.