ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Bye the bye, the Denver Broncos were good, then they were battered, then they were bad.
They regenerated hopes with a shockingly terrific performance against the heavily-favored Cowboys, only to deflate spirits once again with a terrible effort against the beatable Eagles.
When Broncos general manager George Paton addressed the media following his deadline trade of Von Miller, he said “we’re 4-4 and people think we’re 2-6.” Two weeks later, the Broncos have reached their bye week with a 5-5 record that feels like 3-7.
Through the ups and downs, the Broncos have not been lacking for stories. Here are the top 9 storylines from the Broncos’ 2021 season to date, starting from the first day of training camp until they were dismissed Wednesday for their bye break:
1. Von Miller trade
When a team gets rids of its most recognizable and often-best player, it’s going to shock the fan base no matter how logical the transaction may be. And it was logical. Miller is 32 and was going to leave for free agency at season’s end. After a nice start in his comeback from 2020-missing ankle surgery, Miller has not had a full sack since week 3.
The Broncos’ No. 2 overall draft choice in 2011 – the first draft pick in the 10-year general manager helm of John Elway – Miller cruised to 98.0 sacks through his first eight years. He has just 12.5 sacks, though, over his last 2 ½ injury-plagued seasons.
Despite diminishing returns, Miller’s reputation as a game-changing pass rusher brought back second- and third-round draft choices from the Rams, although the Broncos did have to essentially buy one of those picks by agreeing to pay $9 million of his remaining $10.5 million salary.
Still, to so many Broncos fans, losing Von hurt. It was another sign the team is closer to nowhere than it is a return to Super Bowl glory, which Miller gave the franchise with his iconic performance against Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers six years ago.
2. Teddy vs. Drew
Looking back, The Great Quarterback Competition probably wasn’t as close as Paton and head coach Vic Fangio portrayed it, nor as the local media described it during its daily coverage of training camp and the preseason.
Still, it was the longest story of the season with Teddy vs. Drew the No. 1 topic since Bridgewater was acquired from Carolina in a trade the day before the NFL Draft in late-April.
But once newcomer Teddy Bridgewater beat out the incumbent Drew Lock – and Teddy did clearly win the competition after two preseason games – the coaching staff never considered the runner-up once the regular season began. Lock did fill in for a concussed Bridgewater in the second half of a game 4 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. But Bridgewater was quickly cleared from the concussion protocol the next week for a game at Pittsburgh. Even when Bridgewater could barely walk following a loss to the division-rival Raiders, he played at about 75 percent health in a short-week game at Cleveland.
Even after the outrage of Bridgewater bailing from a tackle attempt during a game-changing fumble return last week, Fangio reiterated Teddy would be his quarterback on the other side of the bye week when the Broncos prepare to play the Los Angeles Chargers on Nov. 28 at Empower Field at Mile High.
3. Teddy’s non tackle
This story has yet to age so it may be listed too high. But I don’t think so. Bridgewater incited social media vitriol when he made little effort to stop Eagles’ cornerback Darius Slay Jr. during an 82-yard touchdown return of a Melvin Gordon III fumble Sunday.
It was 20-13 Eagles when Gordon fumbled at the Philly 22. It was 27-13 Eagles after Slay brought the fumble back the other way, Bridgewater simply nodding his head as the cornerback sped by. One of the most repeated Twitter comments accused Bridgewater of making a “business decision.”
To his credit, Bridgewater admitted his effort was poor during a Zoom press conference the following day. It took courage to admit he passed on making what would have been a courageous play against Slay – the speed variance between the standing still Bridgewater and full-sprint Slay would have put the QB in harm’s way.
The mea culpa on Monday was a good first step in regaining credibility, trust and respect from the fan base. But more needs to be done through performance.
4. 30-0 vs. Cowboys
This was the best game the Broncos played in years and it came out of nowhere. After a 3-0 start, the Broncos were in a deep dive. They lost four in a row, then nearly blew a win against cellar-dwelling Washington as the Broncos’ offense stumbled and bumbled while trying to run out the final seconds. The Cowboys, meanwhile, were 6-1, playing at home, and getting their star quarterback Dak Prescott back after beating the Vikings on the road the previous week with their backup QB Cooper Rush.
The Cowboys were established as 10-favorites. The Denver D stopped the Cowboys on fourth-and-short in back-to-back series to open the game and the Broncos’ offense had its most balanced effort in years as Javonte Williams and Gordon combined for 190 rushing yards and Bridgewater threw for 249.
The Broncos were up 30-0 with less than 5 minutes remaining when the Cowboys scored two touchdowns and two, 2-point conversions that seemed meaningless at the time, but may have carried over to the next week for both teams – the Broncos were drubbed, 30-13, Sunday by the Eagles while the Cowboys smacked the Falcons, 43-3.
5. Terrific Teddy and 3-0
Thanks to the splendid play of their new quarterback, the Broncos began the regular season with three consecutive wins. Yes, those wins were against three of the league’s weakest teams. But the Broncos also won all three games decisively as they whipped the Giants, Jaguars and Jets by a combined 50 points. This after the Broncos went undefeated during the preseason, with decisive road wins against the Vikings and Seahawks.
There was a rejuvenated confidence permeating Broncos headquarters. Near the end of the Broncos’ win against the Giants at New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium, a mic’d up Miller gushed over Bridgewater, telling the QB, “I haven’t felt like this since Peyton Manning.”
Bridgewater completed at least 76 percent of his passes in each of the Broncos’ first three wins and had four touchdown passes without an interception. The Broncos were on their way.
And then they weren’t.
6. 4-game swoon
Usually, the strength or weakness of opponents do not turn out as they seemed when the schedule was first released. The 2021 Broncos schedule was an exception. Those were three easy wins at the start. And it was a four-game gauntlet to follow.
In their first chance to prove they were good team, not just a team that could beat weak opponents, the Broncos were depressingly flat and unable to contain the surprising passing prowess of Lamer Jackson in a 23-7 home loss to Baltimore.
They continued to give up big passing plays on defense, and start slow on offense at Pittsburgh.
Again, they were torched deep before their home crowd by a Raiders’ team that had just lost its head coach under nefarious circumstances, while Bridgewater threw three interceptions.
And finally, a banged up Denver team was steamrolled before its only primetime audience of the season by the Browns, who had their own injury problems and were forced to play their second-string quarterback and third-string running back. Adding to the embarrassment, Miller had publicly promised two days before to have a big game, emphasizing he was “going to kill” the offensive tackle he went up against.
Miller had no sacks and left late in the first half with an ankle injury that sidelined him the next two games – his last one with the Broncos, and first one as a member of the Rams.
Like that, 3-0 became 3-4.
7. Devastating injuries
One by one, the Broncos lost key starters to injuries. It began in the opener when receiver Jerry Jeudy, who had six catches for 72 yards after 2 ½ quarters, was carted off the Giants’ stadium turf with a high ankle sprain that sidelined him the next six games.
Then in game two at Jacksonville, outside linebacker Bradley Chubb aggravated his ankle injury that would require surgery and inside linebacker Josey Jewell suffered a season-ending torn pectoral muscle.
Another receiver, KJ Hamler, suffered a season-ending torn ACL in game 3, and another starting inside linebacker, Alexander Johnson, went down with his own torn pec in game 6.
Cornerback Bryce Callahan, another inside linebacker, Micah Kiser, right guard Graham Glasgow and offensive tackles Garett Bolles and Bobby Massie also suffered significant injuries. It was the second consecutive season major injuries helped cripple whatever chances the Broncos had of having a successful season.
8. Fangio’s hot seat
After every loss, there were cries from some Broncos fans and media members to fire the head coach. Fangio’s Broncos went 7-9 and 5-11 in his first two seasons, putting him under pressure to start year three. Especially early. After starting 0-4 and 0-3 in his first two seasons as Broncos head coach, Fangio seemingly needed to go at least 2-1 through the first three games. He responded by guiding the team to 3-0.
The calls for his dismissal were resurrected with increasing weekly intensity during the Broncos’ four-game losing streak but they were quieted again after wins against Washington and Dallas.
With no change at the bye, it appears Fangio is again safe, although the Broncos most likely will have to win at least four of their final seven games for him to coach through the fourth and final year of his contract.
Four more wins is possible, maybe even expected. See the Broncos remaining schedule.
9. COVID-19 returns
No team was more negatively affected by the COVID-19 virus in 2020 than the Broncos. Besides losing several players and top assistant coaches for extended periods, the virus wiped out the Broncos’ entire quarterback position -- through one positive test and three close-contact designations – for a 31-3 home loss to New Orleans.
But just as it seemed the virus would not be an issue this season, the Broncos had seven players – including another final-hour unsettling result for Lock in Dallas – and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur miss at least one game because of a positive test. The team reacted by enhancing its protocols so that some meetings were held by Zoom and others were held in larger areas, and mask-wearing became closer to mandatory than recommended.
The Broncos held Zoom meetings Wednesday morning, and then the players were dismissed for the bye week. Their schedule on the other side: Chargers, at Chiefs, Lions, Bengals, at Raiders, at Chargers and home against the Chiefs.
The way the schedule sets up, the Broncos could well be 8-6 -- split with the Chargers and Chiefs, and beat both the Lions and Bengals at home -- entering its day-after-Christmas game at Las Vegas. More storylines to come.
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