ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — It wasn’t much fun around Broncos’ headquarters the previous four losing seasons, but at least there wasn’t much finger-pointing, excuse-making.
Whenever a player messed up – and more than a few did as the team carried recent records of 5-11, 6-10, 7-9 and 5-11 into the 2021 season -- the Broncos made sure the game’s goat was held accountable by addressing his goof with the press, and by extension, the fans.
Even now that the 2021 season looks promising for the Broncos after they played well during an undefeated preseason and decisively won their opener, 27-13, Sunday at the New York Giants, there were three critical mistakes.
First-round rookie cornerback Pat Surtain II got beat on a crossing route by Sterling Shepard, then whiffed on the tackle that allowed the Giants’ receiver to score the game’s first touchdown.
On the Broncos’ following offensive series, second-year tight end Albert Okwuegbunam spoiled a drive by fumbling the ball away at the Giants’ 4-yard line in the second quarter.
And then on the first drive in the second half, KJ Hamler dropped a 50-yard touchdown pass from Teddy Bridgewater.
As Albert O would later score a redemptive touchdown on a second-effort, fourth-and-1 play to cap that second half-opening drive, he was the first to address his lost fumble following the game Sunday.
“Really, what it comes down to is I should have the ball on my outside hand,’’ Okwuegbunam told 9NEWS before he met the rest of the media horde Sunday. “I didn’t have it in my hand towards the sideline. The guy did a good job of punching the ball out. I just got to be better.”
Surtain and Hamler met the press Wednesday, the first of the weekly big press days. It was presented to Hamler that because he turned to make the catch, perhaps he didn’t get his hands up quick enough as the pass got in on his chest and bounced away.
“I dropped it,’’ he said bluntly. “It doesn’t matter if the ball came out late, the wind, whatever, it don’t matter. I dropped it.”
>> Video above: Mike Klis on Broncos rookie Pat Surtain II taking on an increased role, plus Teddy Bridgewater helping cancel out Denver's mistakes in Week 1 win
Some players say they need to look in the mirror. Hamler may have looked a little too long, blaming himself for teammate Jerry Jeudy’s high ankle sprain, which came four plays after the drop.
“At the time I was putting that on me, his injury, because if I would have caught that (touchdown) that probably would have never happened,’’ Hamler said. “But I can’t say that necessarily but we all wish Jerry a speedy recovery.’’
Surtain didn’t play much after Shepard’s touchdown but he will start in place of the injured Ronald Darby as an outside cornerback Sunday at Jacksonville. He will bring a lesson learned to his first NFL start.
“I could have squeezed it better,’’ Surtain said in reference to allowing Shepard space off the scrimmage line. “I should have know that route was coming based on the snap. I could have squeezed and initiated it earlier.”
Not only did those three players need to bounce back from their errors to produce last Sunday against the Giants, they’re going to be counted on this Sunday at Jacksonville. Hamler caught a third down pass for 22 yards after his drop. Albert O scored a touchdown after his fumble. Both can credit Bridgewater for words of encouragement and then backing those words by going to them on the field.
“'Hey man, it’s all right. We’ll get it,'’’ Bridgewater said Wednesday when asked what he said to his two players who had to rally from their mistakes. “The good thing about this team, there’s that mixture of older guys and young guys and you see the older guys on the sideline say, “Don’t worry, we got ‘em.’
“Defensive guys are like we’re going to go out there and get a stop (after the Okwuegbunam fumble). I think we forced them to go three-and-out right after that. Of course, we don’t want to put our defense on the field like that. But to see the defense go out there and stop them – I don’t remember if we scored after that (they did) but that’s just a sign of growth that we talk about. The leaders stepping up on this team, reassuring the guy that everything’s going to be all right.
“No one’s panicking, no one’s pointing the finger. You walk up to Big O, ‘Hey, don’t worry, we’ll get the next one. KJ, hey, no worries, it’s all right. We’ll hit the next one.’ And he comes up big for us on third down. It’s a game where you have to have a short memory. I think the guys did a great job of showing that on Sunday.”
About two weeks ago, Bridgewater, who is 28 and an 8-year veteran, arranged to have Hamler, who is 22 and is in his second year, locker next to his.
“He just wanted to take a young dude under his wing,’’ Hamler said.
Last season, when the kids made mistakes, the Broncos too often could not overcome. With veterans like Bridgewater on the team this year, mistakes went for naught. Not that improved in their respective areas won’t be emphasized during this week of practice.
“After the game, the next few days, it was still on my mind,’’ Hamler said. “I came out here on Monday and I told one of the assistants (former Miami University shortstop Mark Thewes) just throw me a 100 over-the-shoulder balls, deep balls. And the wind was blowing the same way it was when we were in New York so it was kind of perfect to get those repetitions so I won’t drop it again because that’s not my forte.’’