DENVER — In early August, cornerback Chris Harris Jr. was so impressed by Denver’s revamped offence directed by new quarterback Case Keenum that he declared the Broncos would score more points in 2018 than they had in five years.
Thirty a game, 480 total, something the Broncos hadn’t done since 2014 when they tallied 482 on the heels of the Peyton Manning-fueled, record-breaking 606-point season.
Harris saw Keenum, who had just guided the Minnesota Vikings to the NFC championship game, developing a quick rapport with Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas. He witnessed great promise in rookie receivers Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton and marveled at tight ends Jake Butt and Jeff Heuerman.
So, 30 points a game seemed realistic, especially “because we have Bill Musgrave, a great offensive co-ordinator,” Harris said in training camp. “We used to hate going against him. We used to call him ‘Mad Scientist’ when he was in Oakland. … So, I don’t see why they can’t average 30.”
He couldn’t foretell the Broncos (6-10) losing their top two tight ends or their two veteran receivers, one to injury and another to a trade. Nor could he predict season-ending injuries to three interior O-linemen.
He couldn’t predict Keenum reverting to his journeyman ways with just 18 touchdown throws and career highs in interceptions (15) and sacks (34).
He didn’t foresee Musgrave doing the exact same this thing that got his predecessor, Mike McCoy, fired last season — stubbornly sticking to three-wide receiver sets in spread formations when the tactic did little to ignite a stagnant offence or force defences to quick stacking the box.
The Broncos punted on their first possession in each of their last nine games.
That’s an indictment of Musgrave’s script, which includes the plays that the offence practiced the most during the week and which Keenum felt most comfortable calling on game day.
The offensive ineptitude seeped into the second, third and fourth quarters as the rookie receivers had trouble getting defenders’ hands off them in the type of press-man coverage they rarely saw in college.
The Broncos averaged just 20.5 points a game, a major reason they posted double-digit losses in consecutive years for the first time since 1966-67, an ignominy that could cost coach Vance Joseph his job when he meets with general manager John Elway on Monday.
Case Keenum, Von Miller and Derek Wolfe, among others, all lobbied for Joseph to get a third year following the Broncos’ 23-9 loss to the Chargers on Sunday.
“I love Vance. He’s a hard worker, he’s a really good guy,” linebacker Brandon Marshall said afterward. “In the locker room when we huddled up, everybody was saying, ‘We love you, Coach.’ You know, ‘Thank you.’ So, he’s a great coach. I don’t think this is entirely his fault. And I hope everybody else could actually see that.”
Elway, who would be searching for his fourth coach in six seasons should he decide to fire Joseph, bears much responsibility for the Broncos’ three-year playoff drought. He hired some of the coaching staff and saddled Joseph with a roster that lacked depth because of poor draft classes before hitting the 2018 mother lode.
If cornerback Bradley Roby and linebacker Shane Ray leave in free agency in 2019, as expected, only three of Elway’s first-round picks will remain on the roster: left tackle Garett Bolles, who has a whopping 21 accepted holding calls in two seasons, and outside linebackers Bradley Chubb and Miller.
For the third consecutive season, the Broncos’ offensive ineptitude negated their biggest strength — a superb pass rush by Miller, who hasn’t been back to his playoff playground since his MVP performance in Super Bowl 50 three years ago.
Had they averaged 30 points a game like Harris predicted, the Broncos would be heading back to a post-season filled with possibilities instead of careening into another off-season packed with uncertainty.
Joseph is 11-21 in his two seasons, but when the Broncos score 24 points he’s 7-1.
Eight players who started multiple games on offence in 2018 weren’t in uniform for their finale Sunday, including rookie running sensation Phillip Lindsay , whose surgically-repaired wrist will keep him out of the Pro Bowl, too.
“You go into the year and you’re counting on D.T. (Thomas) and E. (Sanders), those are your two primary receivers,” said Butt, who tore his left ACL in practice in September. “You’re counting on Jeff and I, your two primary tight ends. You lose all four of those guys, that’s tough. Now, you lost Ron, Matt, Max, those are three of your top four interior O-linemen. That’s tough.
“That’s a lot of shuffling and a lot of pressure on guys that may not have had the playing time,” Butt added. “Case is new to our system, it’s his first year. He’s still trying to figure everything out. It’s a lot of changes. It’s not an excuse. It’s the reality of it. It’s the reality of the game. We’ve got to find ways to win and find ways to have a productive offence. But it certainly doesn’t help to have that many injuries.”