The 2016 Denver Broncos Season: A Post-Mortem

Dec 25, 2016; Kansas City, MO, USA; Denver Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak talks with quarterback Trevor Siemian (13) during the first half of the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 25, 2016; Kansas City, MO, USA; Denver Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak talks with quarterback Trevor Siemian (13) during the first half of the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports /

Now that the defending champions are no more, it’s time to take a look back at what went right and what went wrong in an ultimately disappointing season for the Denver Broncos…

Well Broncos fans, that’s it. It may not have been the title defense that we wanted, but perhaps it was the one that we deserved.

Last season was defined by the defense scoring touchdowns that just squeaked the Broncos across the finish line–no matter if the opponent was the Chiefs, or the perpetually depressing Browns. Regardless of how bad Peyton or Brock and the offense looked last year, it seemed inevitable that a turnover from an all-time great defense would bail them out, and that’s exactly what happened against Pittsburgh (Bradley Roby forced fumble), New England (roughly 7,000 4th down stops before ending the game on a 2-point conversion*), and Carolina (Vonster) down the stretch.

*Keeping up with the “2015 Denver Broncos were lucky” theme, Tom Brady completely blew it on the final 2-point conversion. He chose to throw across his body, off his back foot, towards the middle of the field to Julian Edelman in double coverage, instead of floating a pass to a wide open and single covered Rob Gronkowski rolling to the same side he was rolling to. It is the most perplexing play of Tom Brady’s career, and empirical proof that he does not always come through in the clutch like the New England gospel preaches.

So, it seems fitting that the Broncos would have all the breaks fall against them this year: playing in the toughest division in football in a year where the AFC was especially weak, allowing a fraudulent team like Miami to luck its way into 10 wins by handing them five in the form of games against the Jets, Rams, 49ers, and Browns (who hold four of the top six picks in the draft).

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Don’t get me wrong, every Super Bowl champion gets lucky, as the last teams who are left are typically the healthiest. But the rate the defense scored at last year was completely unsustainable, and when they inevitably regressed to the mean, the warts in the offense grew even more apparent. Their subpar depth at defensive line and interior linebackers betrayed the run defense, but Broncos fans can comfortably call the #NoFlyZone an all-time great.

Now that we have some distance between Super Bowl 50, let’s admit that team was perhaps the most imbalanced Super Bowl champion ever. The defense is otherworldly, but the offense may as well have been a single celled organism. Yes, Peyton’s arm was cooked, but the problems ran deeper than that. Really all that changed when Brock Osweiler took over is they ran more and stopped turning the ball over every other possession.

Kubiak’s system called to run the ball behind an offensive line that could never generate any push. He certainly was willing to adjust and never fit in to the tyrant head coach mold that runs most of the NFL, but there are two kinds of coaches: those who tailor their system to the players and those who fit the players into their system. Gary Kubiak is certainly the latter, and those kinds of coaches can still be good, but they rarely can be great.

You can make the argument the Broncos have the best 1-2 wide receiver tandem in the NFL. This offense should be centered around the passing game. They have a gaping hole at #3, as the ghosts of Allen Robinson and Jarvis Landry will forever haunt Cody Latimer’s Denver legacy, and the complete whiff on Jeff Heuerman at tight end didn’t help things either. There isn’t a lot to criticize Elway about, but blowing an early wide receiver pick in what looks to be one of the greatest WR drafts ever created the Achilles in the passing offense. Teams can double Sanders and DT and the Broncos have no answer.

The offensive line took a lot of flak this year, for good reason, but it was not the nightmare in pass protection it was portrayed to be. Ty Sambrailo and Donald Stephenson combined to produce the most talked about right tackle season in Broncos history, and Max Garcia seems to have hit a ceiling that screams backup. Russell Okung is no longer the elite left tackle he once was, and the Broncos must seriously be entertaining the thought of getting out from underneath the rest of his mostly non-guaranteed contract.

That said, it all wasn’t a complete disaster. The Broncos were about a middle of the road squad in pass protection—the nightmare was in the run game. If you replaced the offensive line with a group of Smurfs, I’m not sure they would have run the ball much worse than they did this season.

Matt Paradis emerged as the lone anchor on the line, and Okung would be much better served by a move to right tackle—as he is ill-suited to sit out on an island for 60 straight minutes. Michael Schofield was salvaged, and proved himself a usable guard. Some of his issues with losing leverage against faster players still caused issues, especially in the run game–but there is reason to believe the Broncos may be set at right guard for the near future.

Ultimately, the two-year saga of this offense stems from the staff’s inability to craft an infrastructure suited to the best talents of the offense. Kubiak tried to meet Peyton halfway, despite the obvious folly of merging a zone blocking, multiple tight end offense with a shotgun, three-wide receiver set. Brock got all the credit last year simply because it was the first time they ran something resembling a normal offense. When Peyton came back in, it was clear that going all in on Kubiak’s system was the way to go, and the veteran contributed the only elite part of his skillset left: his brain.

I wrote a lot about Trevor Siemian here, some good, and some bad, so let’s clear this up before stepping into the piping hot take chamber that is the current Denver QB controversy. Here is the list of best QB’s that Kubiak coached in Denver (based on their performance under Kubiak):

  1. Siemian
  2. Osweiler
  3. Manning
  4. Lynch

Siemian also finished as PFF’s 32nd ranked quarterback, so he clearly did not win the 2017 gig either. At the very least, he looks like a competent backup—but it’s natural to wonder if he’s hit his ceiling, given that every other starting quarterback other than Tom Brady was drafted in the 4th round or earlier. Paxton Lynch has elite wheels and a cannon, and if he can figure out the minutiae of the position and dramatically improve his accuracy, he would be the obvious choice moving forward.

That said, Lynch is more of an athlete than a quarterback right now, and the gap between him and Siemian is quite large. There are certainly some things about Siemian and Lynch that were encouraging this year, but overall, the near future looks gloomy under the current QB regime.

I also wrote that Tony Romo talk was silly, and I still largely feel the same way. You can’t bail on a first round pick that you knew was going to be a project just because he looked like a project in his first year. And frankly, what the Broncos got out of Siemian is pretty remarkable, given the track record of 7th round picks and undrafted free agents playing early in their career.

However, if a desperate team were willing to make a Sam Bradford-style offer for Trevor Siemian, I’d have to imagine Elway would entertain the idea as he plotted out his call to Romo’s agent. If the Broncos had the Bills offense, they would be in the playoffs and maybe had even won the division. This defense completely shut down the outside passing game of every single team they faced, and teams junked it in favor of repeatedly attacking the safeties and linebackers in the middle of the field. Get this team one more anchor on the defensive line, and find a way to run a balanced offense, and they will be one of the Super Bowl favorites again.

The next head coach is obviously going to have a lot of say in where the Broncos are headed, but this roster is still one of the best in the league, even if the team didn’t make the playoffs. Given that the other vacancies are the dregs of the NFL, Elway and company should have their pick of the litter, and given their past judgement, the Broncos should wind up with a reasonable, competent head coach. The quarterback is a much more intriguing topic of discussion in my mind, and Broncos fans should no doubt set Google alerts for Tony Romo just to be safe.