It took a truly woeful opponent to appreciate just how terrible the Denver Broncos have become.
The Miami Dolphins, owner of a sieve defense, little running game and a five-game losing streak, nevertheless whipped the Broncos, 35-9 here Sunday at Hard Rock (formerly Pro Player) Stadium.
"We just want a win,'' said Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas, who was held to two catches for 27 yards. "But at this point, (shoot) we can't beat anybody.''
Even though the Dolphins were up 33-9 in the fourth quarter, Miami head coach Adam Gase ordered an onside kick.
"He loves to win and he loves to embarrass people,'' said Broncos' receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who had no catches until he got two for 11 yards in the final minute or so. "So that didn't surprise me at all.''
No, that wasn't it. Gase appeared to have been rubbing it in to Broncos general manager John Elway, who fired Gase as offensive coordinator despite a successful run after the 2014 season.
Elway had to fire Gase because his new head coach, Gary Kubiak, had his own West Coast offensive system. One source also told 9News that Gase thought Elway didn't do enough to help his cause when Gase was a hot head coaching candidate in 2015.
Gase also ordered a go route on third and one with 3:20 left in the game. Everyone in the NFL carries a grudge. Almost everyone is more subtle about communicating it.
"He has some bad blood, I guess,'' said Broncos' cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who had an interception. "He's mad at somebody in the organization. ... He was trying to embarrass us. They haven't won too many games so it was a big game for him. Must have been personal.''
The Broncos were down, 19-3 midway through the third quarter when safety Justin Simmons gave the visitors a boost with a 65-yard interception return for a touchdown. But just when it appeared the Broncos had a chance to get back in the game, they took a delay of game penalty while lining up for an onside kick. Broncos kicker Brandon McManus said the Dolphins were substituting late and the play clock was down to 4 seconds before he was allowed to kick.
Then the Denver defense gave up a 42-yard touchdown run to Kenyan Drake, who broke a couple arm tackles through the line before bursting into the open.
Joe Ellis, the Broncos’ chief executive officer and president, will soon be confronted with a real dilemma.
Are the Broncos a bad team? Or are they a team that is much better than the way it has been performing? Unfortunately for Ellis, the answer may be, “yes” to both questions. Well after head coach Vance Joseph was finished speaking to his team, Ellis stood in the back center of the visiting, and losing locker room. He appeared to be reading the room, getting a feel for how the players were reacting.
"That's a good question,''Joseph said when asked if its lack of talent, or underperforming. "I'll say this: We have guys that push every day,and they work hard every day, and they want to win. I can't speak to our talent. That's an offseason question. We can't fix that now. We'll see.''
If the problem is talent – and a strong argument can be made this is true on the offensive side of the ball – then its Elway’s responsibility to get Joseph a better roster next year.
Starting with a new starting quarterback.
"This has been our fourth starter on the year today and it's been hard to find a guy who can operate efficiently for us and we can win a football game,'' Joseph said in counting Trevor Siemian twice.
If the Broncos are better than how they’ve been playing – and there is an embarrassing overall sloppiness in their execution in all three phases to make a compelling case – then Joseph, a good man with strong leadership characteristics, better win a game or two in the final month of this already dismal season.
Or he will be on the hot seat. Change that. Joseph and just about everybody not named Elway employed in the Broncos' football department is already on the hot seat.
"Everybody's responding to coach Joseph,'' Harris said. "I don't think he's lost the locker room, or anything like that. I think everybody's still with him, but ... we've just got to find a way to overcome some of these turnovers.''
The Broncos are 3-9 with an eight-game losing streak. The last time the Broncos were 3-9, head coach Josh McDaniels was fired before he had a chance to go 3-10 in the 2010 season. (McDaniels was dismissed as much for his role in an illegal videotaping incident, as the team’s performance).
"We're a great team that just can't win,'' said Simmons, a second-year safety who always has a positive spirit. "Can't find a way to win. I know defensively we're fighting our tails off. And I know (the offense) is too. There's just times we can't close it out.''
"We're performing terribly,'' said running back C.J. Anderson, who had 67 yards rushing and 43 yards receiving in vain. "We've got the talent. We're not doing the little things right, consistently, play after play after play. It used to be we'd do eight things right and have one or two mess-ups. Now we're doing two things right and having eight to 10 mess-ups.''
What can’t be disputed is the Broncos have not been getting good play from their quarterback position. There was hope the return of Siemian to the starting lineup would calm the
Broncos’ stomach-churning disaster, especially after he threw two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter of the Broncos’ 21-14 loss at Oakland last week.
Instead, the Broncos got the Siemian who was fighting a week-long flu bug and shaken confidence.
"I can't speak to his confidence,'' Joseph said. "I can speak to how he played and he wasn't very good today.''
He threw two interceptions in the first half, including one that was returned 30 yards for a touchdown by Miami quarterback Xavier Howard. Siemian was intercepted by Howard again in the fourth quarter, a turnover Dolphins’ quarterback Jay Cutler quickly converted into a touchdown with a 23-yard pass to Kenny Stills.
After that touchdown, Gase ordered the onside kick and the Dolphins wound up with the ball.
“Just playing 60 minutes,'' Gase said. "We’re not going to slow down. I don’t care what the score is.”
Uh-huh. Although the Miami offense didn’t do anything with it, the ensuing punt was fumbled by rookie Isaiah McKenzie during his return. McKenzie recovered in this own end zone for a safety. Ugh. It was McKenzie’s sixth muffed or fumbled punt of the season.
Siemian is usually poised and accurate on throws between the 20s when his receivers are open but after that pick, he started missing easy throws.
"Disappointing,'' Siemian said. "There were a handful of throws I feel pretty good about making consistently, and I didn't make them.''
He completed 19 of 41 for 201 yards with three interceptions. The Broncos' two star receivers, Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, had zero catches midway through the third quarter. Thomas couldn't blame anyone but himself as he had two drops. He wound up with two catches for 27 yards. Sanders got two late catches for 11 yards.
The Broncos entered this game with a seven-game losing streak – their longest skid in 50 years – yet they were 1.5-point favorites on the road because the oddsmakers figured the Dolphins were a bigger mess.
The end of the first quarter had an appropriate score for two struggling teams trying to snap lengthy losing streaks: 2-0.
The Dolphins got the 2-point safety when Broncos center Matt Paradis snapped it over shotgun-positioned Siemian and into the end zone. Siemian retrieved the ball and shoveled it beyond the end line for the safety.
"I snapped it fast and snapped it too high, it was completely my fault,'' Paradis said.
Siemian brought the Broncos back on their next drive, though, completing passes of 36 yards to tight end Virgil Green and 23 yards to Bennie Fowler III.
The red zone possession, however, ended like so many others: With a short Brandon McManus field goal. The Broncos were up 3-2 early in the second quarter.
The Denver defense played inspired against former offensive coordinator turned Dolphins’ head coach Adam Gase, and former quarterback turned Miami quarterback Jay Cutler.
Defensive end Shelby Harris, subbing for the injured Derek Wolfe, had a sack and tackle for loss. And cornerback Bradley Roby, starting for the suspended Aqib Talib, did a nice job covering Dolphin receivers Kenny Stills and Jarvis Landry. Roby also forced Kenny Stills to fumble, and recovered it, to prevent Miami from scoring a game-clinching touchdown midway through the third quarter.
And there was the Simmons’ pick six in the third quarter that briefly gave Denver hope.
But the Dolphins were able to put together a 75-yard drive in the second quarter that culminated with a 9-yard touchdown pass from Cutler to another former Bronco, tight end Julius Thomas.
That play gave the Dolphins a 9-3 lead. The next play gave them a 16-3 lead. After a touchback, Siemian on the first play of the next series tried to hit Demaryius Thomas on a sideline route.
Howard read it, stepped in front of Thomas and caught Siemian’s pass in strike. It was an easy 30-yard return for a 16-3 lead.
It's unfortunate the Broncos have four games left to play, beginning Sunday against the New York Jets in Denver. Then its back-to-back road games at Indianapolis on Thursday, December 14 and at Washington on Christmas Eve before finishing up at home New Year's Eve against the Chiefs.
Soft as that schedule is, the Broncos are so bad it would be a surprise if they won one more.
So what is it: Bad team? Or team performing badly?
"I think we've just played badly,'' Siemian said. "It's hard to believe we started 3-1, right? Felt pretty good where we were at. It's gotten away from us a little bit.''