CHARLOTTE, N.C. — There is no elephant in the room, not there ever was.
From the final-second decision in the season’s opening game, Broncos first-year Nathaniel Hackett has been spotlighted for public criticism.
After back-to-back losses to the heretofore 2-7 Las Vegas Raiders and 3-8 Carolina Panthers the past two weeks, the harsh grievances directed at Hackett seem to be affecting the team’s will and discipline.
Of all the disappointments in what is now a 3-8 season for the Broncos, the most embarrassing effort was here Sunday with the downtrodden Panthers whipping visiting Denver, 23-10, on what turned out to be an otherwise spectacular final Sunday-in-November afternoon before a relatively sparse crowd at Bank of America Stadium. (Tickets distributed were 70,644. At least 25,000 were counted by tickets, not bodies in seats).
It's tough to win when you can't score and for all the Broncos surrendered to acquire Wilson to fix six years of bad offense, the offense is somehow worse. Historically worse. As in 14.3 points per game that is worst in the NFL and worst by a Broncos team since 1966 -- 56 years ago.
"Yeah, it's unacceptable,'' said Wilson, who again only played well in the final minutes of each half but otherwise struggled from the pocket during the meat of the game. "Bottom line. This organization, this tradition here, we got to honor it. We got to honor it by winning. We got to honor it by our work ethic. Continue to work hard.
"I think at the end of the game there, the best thing I saw was we didn't give up. ... Just, it’s unacceptable."
The game's most dramatic moment occurred early in the fourth quarter when Broncos' defensive tackle Mike Purcell chewed out Wilson, his own quarterback, on the sideline. Wilson flinched as he was initially caught off guard by the tantrum from Purcell, who had just received an unnecessary roughness penalty for throwing a fist at a Panther lineman, Austin Corbett, during a short Carolina field goal that put Denver down, 20-3.
Wilson was looking at Purcell as the defensive tackle was coming off the field, but it's unclear whether the quarterback said anything to his heated teammate. Something triggered Purcell, who bee-lined to the right to give the what-for to Wilson, with the exchange occuring directly behind Hackett, who was wearing a headset. Afterwards, both Purcell and Wilson downplayed the exchange.
“He just said we gotta Eff-ing go,'' Wilson said. "And I agreed. Me and him were on the same page. There’s no animosity there at all.”
"Frustration,'' Purcell said. "We want a spark on something and we are on this together. Period.''
At least the Broncos didn't lose another close one. They were down, 23-3 late in the fourth quarter before a bizarre drive kept alive on a fourth down roughing-the-passer penalty led to Wilson throwing his 300th career touchdown pass -- tying a guy named Elway for 13th on the all-time list -- to rookie Brandon Johnson, who caught his first, with 3:19 left in the game.
"I thank God for it because I was just at home a couple weeks ago,'' said Johnson, who missed the first half of the season with a high-ankle sprain suffered in the Broncos' final preseason game. "Obviously, it wasn't fun, not playing, but I trusted that I was where I was supposed to be and look at where I am now.''
The Broncos then recovered an onside kick but any hope of making it still another one-score game evaporated with four consecutive incompletions. Even if it looked like the Broncos didn't play with much inspiration or energy, they never stopped playing.
“I give so much credit to the team,'' Hackett said in his postgame interview with 9NEWS. "They stick together. They’re competitors. Even when it gets wild those guys keep fighting. The offense keeps fighting. They tried to do everything they could to give us an opportunity to score. It was a great onside kick they recovered. These guys fight to the end.’’
Hackett is not the first, first-year coach to start 3-8. In fact, the Broncos’ previous two head coaches, Vance Joseph and Vic Fangio, also started 3-8 in their first seasons. And both of them survived to coach the Broncos again another year – Joseph for one more season and Fangio for two.
The difference is those two were defensive-bent head coaches whose defenses generally played well. And neither coach had Wilson at quarterback. A quarterback who the Broncos acquired from Seattle in return for -- gasp! -- two first-round draft picks, two second-round picks, two starting players (tight end Noah Fant, defensive lineman Shelby Harris) and a backup quarterback (Drew Lock) whose skill set seems better by the day. Hackett is an offensive-minded head coach whose offense has been the worst in the past 50-plus years of Broncos’ football. And Wilson, while demonstrating incredible physical toughness and heart, has not been playing effective quarterback.
Think of what Justin Simmons must be feeling. He's a good player, an accomplished safety who's been a starter since 2017. And once again he's on a 3-8 team.
PHOTOS | Broncos at Panthers
“Yeah it’s frustrating,'' Simmons said. "But there’s nothing I can change about that. We are where we are. We’re 3-8. We’re not even cloxe to where we thought we would be It’s draining. But nobody cares.''
Wilson entered play here Sunday as the NFL’s 28th-rated quarterback with an 83.3 rating and just 7 touchdown passes. He posted an 73.7 rating against the Panthers on 19 of 35 passing for 142 yards and the touchdown, numbers that slipped his overall ranking to 29th at 82.3.
Which was robust passing production compared to what the Broncos’ offense looked like for most of the first half. With all but 1:42 left in the half, the Broncos with Wilson at quarterback had -1 yard passing.
Wilson had actually completed 4 of 6 for 10 yards at that point but when two Brian Burns sacks were counted, the losses offset the gains.
Burns this week. Raiders’ defensive end Maxx Crosby last week. In neither week did the Broncos’ offensive front have an answer to these terrific edge disruptors.
Meanwhile, Sam Darnold, a former hot quarterback but often benched in recent years, was the Carolina Panthers third starting quarterback in three weeks. Darnold completed 11 of 19 for 164 yards and a touchdown to put the Panthers up 20 late in the game.
It poured rain overnight and was steady until about 90 minutes prior to kickoff. It was dry, partly sunny and temperatures in the upper-60s throughout the game with the artificial turf at Bank of America Stadium having no problem repelling the moisture.
Perhaps, the morning weather chased the crowd away. The Broncos played before the largest no-show crowd of the season although the Panthers, unlike the Broncos, don’t announce the missing count. A fair share of the gathering that did attend were wearing Broncos’ orange jerseys.
It was another dreadful performance by the Broncos’ offense. Although Wilson came up with a nice scramble and throw for a 22-yard completion to Courtland Sutton with 3 seconds left in the half, it turned out to be too little, too late as Brandon McManus’ 56-yard field goal attempt missed.
The Broncos did get a 52-yard bust out from running back Latavius Murray, but that scoring opportunity was ruined when Burns stripped sacked Wilson for a lost fumble.
“It’s the same story,'' Murray said. "Not capitalizing. Third downs. In the red zone. Had the turnover. Not any touchdowns when we got there. Again same song.’’
The first quarter went like so many others for the Broncos. Their defense forced two punts off the opponents’ first two possessions – only for the Broncos’ offense to answer with back-to-back, three-and-outs. Carolina would have had three punts in a row but on fourth-and-1, interim head coach Steve Wilks authorized a fake puke and upback Sean Chandler plowed ahead for a first down.
Darnold then took advantage of great pass protection by connecting with a wide-open DJ Moore for 26 yards. That seemed to break the Denver D’s spirit. Eventually it became second and goal at the 5. Darnold stopped his rollout left amid pressure, set his feet and threw a wonderfully, accurate touchdown pass to Moore midway through the end zone.
It was 7-0 Carolina.
The Broncos had to punt again to cap their third possession, but this time they got a huge break. Corliss Waitman’s low, short punt caused returner Raheem Blackshear to sprint up and ill-advisedly try to snag it. He muffed it and Broncos’ rookie Dellarin Turner-Yell recovered at the Carolina 27.
An end-round, 13-yard run by receiver Kendall Hinton set the Broncos up nicely but on third-and-2 from the Carolina 6, Murray was crushed behind the line and the Broncos settled for a 27-yard Brandon McManus field goal.
The Broncos were within, 7-3 with 10:11 left in the second quarter. That was it for the Broncos scoring until the back end of the fourth quarter when the Panthers' defense backed up into a prevent with a 23-3 lead.
Murray had 92 yards rushing off 13 carries while the Panthers’ got very good rush production from their tailback duo of D’Onta Foreman (109 yards, 23 carries) and Chuba Hubbard (65 yards, 17 carries).
In the second half, Bronco veterans Courtland Sutton, a receiver, and Purcell picked up unsportsmanlike penalties.
"Frustration,'' Purcell said.
The Broncos play at 8-3 Baltimore next Sunday.
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