ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — There were only several thousand throaty wisecrackers at first.
Eight! … Seven! … Six! …
Russell Wilson had his Broncos’ offense lined up to run a second-and-16 play with 7:45 left in the fourth quarter. It was the series directly after tight end Eric Saubert had caught a 22-yard touchdown pass from Wilson that finally put the Broncos ahead of the underdog Houston Texans, 13-9.
Denver’s defense got Wilson the ball back, and now the play clock was ticking down inside of 10 seconds when a smattering of descending time calls came from the audience. FOUR! … THREE! … TWO!
Despite the crowd’s warning, the play clock was going to expire before center Lloyd Cushenberry III snapped the football to Wilson. The Broncos called timeout to prevent their third delay-of-game penalty. Instead of their third delay-of-game penalty, the Broncos surrendered their third and final timeout. There was 7:38 left in the game. No more timeouts. All were wasted on operations missteps.
The crowd turned from teasing to hostile. BOOOOOOO!!!
After the timeout, Wilson drew Texans’ outside linebacker Jerry Hughes offsides, then hit Kendall Hinton for a 20-yard completion. So nothing hurt. But as the Broncos’ series continued, the play-clock countdown had spread throughout the stadium. Every time the play clock ticked inside of the 10 seconds, the jeering countdown was on.
"When it comes to the fans they were awesome," Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett said Monday in his day-after-game press conference. "I mean, golly, they’re loud. It was great for the defense.
"The countdown and all that kind of stuff I mean they’re smart. There were some issues that were going on and it was great warning for us. I love that environment. That place is just, it’s awesome. I think it’s going to be hard for people to come in here and we want to continually win at home."
Burning that final timeout was one of six game-management issues the Broncos had Sunday, the embarrassing optics of which brought boos and the mocking play-clock countdown from fans.
"I don't blame them," Hackett said Sunday after the game. "I mean heck, I'd be booing myself."
Hackett didn’t need this. Not after the Broncos’ head coach was heavily criticized for his end-of-game decision to attempt a 64-yard field goal instead of having Wilson attempt a fourth-and-5 play from the Seattle side of the 50 in Denver’s season-opening, 17-16 loss last week.
Moreover, the first-time head coach is the Broncos’ offensive play caller and his team has gone 0 for 5 in goal-to-go possessions through its first two games. Oh, and the 25 penalties enforced against the Broncos is the largest opening two-game total in the 63-season history of the franchise.
"When it comes to the operations that’s something we’re talking about quite a bit," Hackett said. "We’ve got to make sure the communications is clear and concise. I have to do a better job of making decisions faster and quicker and get that information to the quarterback and being on the same page with him. That’s something we’re talking about this morning, all the way to this evening and that’s something and making sure its … it’s got to improve."
Still, the Broncos defeated Houston, 16-9, to move their season record to 1-1. That makes reviewing those six management issues a less irksome exercise:
1. The Denver D was penalized for having 12 players on the field. It turned a third-and-10 at the Denver 27 to a third-and-5 at the 22. It didn’t hurt as Texans’ QB Davis Mills threw an incomplete pass and Ka’imi Fairbairn kicked a 40-yard field goal he probably would have made from 45, anyway.
2. The Broncos had first and goal to go at the Houston 5 yard line. Three plays later it was fourth and goal at the 1. It took a few seconds for Hackett to send his field goal unit on the field.
“I get excited. I get a little aggressive at times and sometimes that may not be the right decision,’’ he said. “So I need to be sure all the right information is given to me at the right time to make the right decision.’’
The decision to go for 3 points brought huge boos from the crowd. The indecision was long enough to bring a delay-of-game penalty. BOOOO some more. Brandon McManus made it from 24 yards, anyway, so again nothing hurt except Hackett’s feelings.
3. Houston coach Lovie Smith surprisingly declined a holding penalty on Cushenberry, taking the fourth-and-2 at the 50 instead of third and 12 at the Broncos’ own 40. Hackett was surprised enough he didn’t come up with a fourth-and-2 play quick enough. He would take a timeout to think it over. There was 6:35 left in the third quarter and the Broncos had burned their first timeout. Wilson then hit Courtland Sutton for a 6-yard completion and first down so nothing hurt.
“When it comes to Russell and me, it’s just going to be a continual growing process,’’ Hackett said. “It’s all about Russ. Wanting to be sure that he’s comfortable and he’s feeling good and I’m getting the play as fast as I can to him. And we want to do what’s right for him. So I think that’s going to be something that we’re just going to grow as the season goes on.’’
4. Later in the same drive, it was fourth and 2 again, this time from the Houston 36. McManus was brought out for a 54-yard field goal. The ball was snapped and McManus crushed it through the uprights, pounding the net that was 10 yards past the goal posts.
But wait. Another delay of game penalty on the Broncos’ field goal team. The Broncos went 5 yards back.
“That’s brutal. That is absolutely brutal,” said TV play-by-play announcer Andrew Catalon.
Instead of attempting the 59-yard field goal, Hackett made the unpopular choice of playing for field position. Corliss Waitman delivered his best punt of the game, pooching the ball to the Houston 9. BOOOO!!
This was the most egregious error for it cost three points.
5. The Broncos had to waste their second timeout with 9:55 remaining because rookie returner Montrell Washington didn’t go on the field even though it was fourth and 14 and the Texans were punting.
“Unbelievable,’’ Catalon said. “How does that happen?”
Hackett indicated there was too much celebrating going on after defensive lineman Dre’Mont Jones sacked Mills to bring about fourth down.
“We just have to be more mature as a group and understand the situation and celebrate when we can but then make sure the right people are out there,’’ Hackett said.
Washington made a fair catch at his own 14. Nothing hurt.
6. Even with the fans trying to “help” by counting down the play-clock, the Broncos used their third and final timeout on second-and-long with 7:38 remaining. Oh, how the BOOS reigned.
It was at the 6:12 mark, when the ball was snapped with 4 seconds left on the play clock, that half the stadium joined in on the countdown. SEVEN! … SIX! … FIVE ! …
Running back Melvin Gordon gained 9 yards for a first down.
From there more, more and more fans joined in on every play that the play clock ticked inside 10 seconds. The countdown chants only went on for this one series but it was a 12-play, 6 minute, 12-second drive so there were numerous clock chants.
It ended with a 50-yard McManus field goal that gave the Broncos a 16-9 lead, which turned out to be the final score. So nothing hurt.
Did you catch the pattern? While the operational errors were embarrassing, five of the six weren't fatal. In all, they cost 3 points -- the delay of game penalty that wiped out McManus' field goal. Against a tougher opponent those mistakes figure to become more costly. The idea is to make corrections before the 49ers come to town for another game played before a primetime viewing audience.
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