DENVER – Three observations from the Broncos’ 45-10 shellacking at the paws of the Detroit Lions here Sunday:
1. DEFLATING THE BALLOON OF HOPE.
After eschewing individual introductions for the last two home games, the Broncos opted to have their offensive players run onto the field one-by-one before kickoff Sunday. The ovation for Tim Tebow was what you’d expect for a player proclaimed as a folk hero by many: loud, long and as warm as the sunshine that bathed the stadium just four days after a snowstorm. Orange balloons were released into the air; they seemed to symbolize the fans’ rising hopes that the Broncos had found their offensive savior.
With each drive that passed without a first down — seven in succession during the second and third quarters — a few breaths of hope seeped from the balloon. By the second half, a smattering of boos could be heard as the Broncos’ offense remained in hibernation mode. Whether they were for Tebow, the offense or the entire team was anyone’s guess; perhaps it was all of the above.
What was clear was that after the offense sprinted 63 yards on the game’s first four plays to the Detroit 17-yard-line, it barely moved from there, averaging just 1.4 yards per play the rest of the first half.
“He (Tebow) started out pretty efficiently,” Broncos coach John Fox said, “and then basically went into hibernation for about nine series.”
By the time Tebow missed badly on a red-zone out to Eric Decker in the fourth quarter, resulting in a 100-yard Chris Houston interception return, the reality of the team’s limitations — and Tebow’s, as well — had long since settled over the 72,953 in attendance.
Their team isn’t the league’s worst, and seems unlikely to challenge for the No. 1 overall draft pick. However, it is far closer to the league’s bottom than its top. The organization has changed quarterbacks, head coaches, personnel executives, defensive coordinators, stadium sponsors — even end-zone paint schemes. The results remain familiar, and for a frustrated fan base clutching Tebow close to it heart because of the hope he represented, Sunday’s result was devastating to its collective morale.
2. THE MISTAKES AREN’T ALL BECAUSE OF YOUTH.
Of the 138 plays from scrimmage, the one that best encapsulated the day came at the end of the Lions’ first possession, when Titus Young streaked past Andre’ Goodman, who assumed that safety Brian Dawkins would pick up the streaking rookie receiver. Dawkins didn’t, and seconds later, he stood in the end zone, no defender within 20 yards of him. Stafford found him, and Young grabbed a 41-yard touchdown pass on which he might have been able to call a fair catch.
Dawkins attributed the play to mis-communication — hardly what the Broncos need, or expect, from two of the senior members of their defense, players with a combined 26 seasons of experience who have been playing together since arriving as free agents two and a half years ago. The Broncos started four rookies and five second-year players Sunday; wide receiver Eric Decker acknowledged that, but added that “everybody’s athletic enough to do (their) job right (and) execute it, because the coaches always make a good game plan for you.”
The struggles only multiplied from there throughout the first half as an increasingly fatigued defense was diced up by the Lions, who at one stretch ran 31 plays while the Broncos could run just nine — three three-and-outs. During that span, the Lions ran 30 plays for 181 yards and gained 12 first downs while converting four of six third downs and controlling the ball for 12:44; the Broncos ran nine plays for 16 yards and didn’t move the chains once while holding possession for just 4:05.
The defense, to its credit, refused to use fatigue from its short rests as an excuse.
“I could care less. Our job is to come out here and not let anybody score,” said defensive end Robert Ayers, who had a sack.
3. WHAT NOW?
On Oct. 10, Fox changed quarterbacks to try and spark the offense. It worked for the fourth quarters of games — the Broncos have 36 final-quarter points in the final three weeks — but in the other seven quarters (not including an overtime), Matt Prater’s game-opening 39-yard field goal represents the extent of the scoring. That simply won’t work long-term.
When Fox was asked who would start at quarterback next week, Fox answered, “It’s too soon to say.” Nevertheless, it would be a surprise if Fox opts to change quarterbacks once again next week; if he went back to Kyle Orton, he’d be turning to a quarterback who had thrown five interceptions in a seven-quarter span from Week 3 in Tennessee to Week 5 against San Diego. Third-stringer Brady Quinn, who has been inactive the last two weeks, didn’t inspire confidence that he could be the answer based on his last preseason performance at Arizona on Sept. 1.
“People are probably going to be more patient with him (Tebow) than any other quarterback but everybody in this locker room knows you’ve got to win games,” cornerback Champ Bailey said.
But there were other personnel changes in recent weeks: Quinton Carter for Rahim Moore at free safety; Christopher Harris for Jonathan Wilhite at nickelback; Mario Haggan for Von Miller during the second half of the loss to San Diego. Others took place because of injuries, and another could be coming if right tackle Orlando Franklin’s groin injury suffered Sunday prevents him from playing at Oakland next week — an occurrence that capped one of the most frustrating days an offensive lineman can endure, in which he was beaten by Cliff Avril for two sacks — both causing fumbles, one of which Avril returned 24 yards for a touchdown.
The Broncos’ defeat Sunday was so total that no one can be absolved; thus, the depth chart could remain in flux.
“We just basically got whipped,” Fox said. “We got outcoached and outplayed, and we’ve got a lot of work to do. I think that’s very evident.”