All week, the Broncos dragged their feet when deciding who to start at quarterback. They didn’t announce it on Monday, following an embarrassing loss to the Bills. They didn’t put out word on Wednesday, when they started practicing in earnest for the Chargers. And they didn’t make it official at any point during the holiday week.
Instead, Denver waited until nearly 10:00 p.m. on Saturday night to leak the news that Drew Lock would be making his first pro start. It gave the fan base a grand total of zero time to get excited about the move.
In part, that’s why more than 19,000 people didn’t show up for the Broncos-Chargers game on Sunday, a nearly unheard of number in the Mile High City. Yes, it was cold. Sure, Denver is languishing in the standings. But mainly, fans didn’t bother going to the game because they weren’t sure they would see anything compelling on the field.
After watching Brandon Allen score three points at Buffalo, on the heels of putting up three points in the second half at Minnesota, the prospect of watching more anemic offense wasn’t very exciting. In fact, it provided next to zero motivation to make the trek to Empower Field, other than not letting a ticket go to waste.
But at least some of the Broncos brass didn’t seem to grasp this concept. Based on reports, the front office and coaching staff were divided on who should start at quarterback against Los Angeles. Amazingly, there were some people in the building who truly believed wasting another game on Allen was more valuable than getting a look at the team’s potential “quarterback of the future.”
Leading 14-3 midway through the second quarter on Sunday, the Broncos had a golden opportunity to break the game wide open. When Chargers returner Troymaine Pope muffed a punt, it gave Denver the ball on L.A.’s 21-yard line with 7:39 to play in the half.
It was a moment to go for the jugular. All the momentum was on the home team’s side, thanks in part to a pair of touchdowns from Lock to Courtland Sutton in the first quarter. Put the ball in the end zone at that point, and the 55,000 people who bothered to come to the game would lose their collective minds.
Instead, Rich Scangarello decided to go run, run, run. It was three yards from Royce Freeman on first down, five on second and no gain on third. A 31-yard field goal by Brandon McManus split the uprights, but it kept the Chargers within two scores.
With a chance to put the game away, the Broncos offensive coordinator didn’t trust his rookie quarterback. Instead, he put the football in the hands of his backup running back on three-consecutive plays. Rather than seeing what Lock could do with the floodgates opened, Scangarello decided to rely on one of the team’s least-explosive players.
A few minutes later, Denver’s offense had a chance to redeem itself. With 2:24 to play in the half, they got the ball at their own 22-yard line, providing Lock the perfect opportunity to show what he could do in the two-minute drill.
Instead, the Broncos decided to once again keep the football on the ground. This time, it was Phillip Lindsey, who lost a yard on first down and then gained five on second. Lock would have to throw the ball away on third down when no one was open.
Five-straight running plays with a double-digit lead and a chance to break things open aren’t exactly an example of aggressive play calling. In fact, it’s the definition of conservative, as Denver seemed content to rely on their defense to hold onto the lead.
Almost on cue, the Chargers marched 82 yards on three plays to cut the lead to seven with under a minute to go in the first half. Instead of the game being a rout, it was suddenly tighter than it should’ve been.
But the Broncos weren’t done with mind-numbing decisions in the first half. After a 33-yard kick return by Diontae Spencer, followed by two completions and a scramble by Lock, Denver was in position with :01 on the clock to try a 65-yard field goal.
If he made the kick, McManus would’ve broken Matt Prater’s record for the longest field goal in NFL history. And he was certainly chomping at the bit to give it a try, running on the field to line up for the kick before anyone had decided what to do in that situation.
Instead of trying to make history, something that would’ve given everyone who is still bravely sticking with this season a positive moment to remember, Fangio called McManus back to the sidelines. The kicker was not happy, shouting in the head coach’s direction and throwing his helmet in disgust, a display that perfectly summarized the disconnect between the players and coaches in Denver this season.
On the final play of the half, Lock hit Sutton for a 33-yard completion across the middle of the field, which did little more than pad fantasy stats for both players. If the Broncos weren’t going to try the field goal, they should’ve at least gone for a Hail Mary.
All of these blunders and conservative decisions looked like they were going to come back to bite the Broncos. When Michael Badgley drilled a 46-yard field goal with :19 to play, which knotted the game at 20-20, it once again looked like Denver was well on its way to blowing another lead and losing a heartbreaker.
But then, something funny happened. After Spencer returned the ensuing kickoff to the Broncos’ 28-yard line, there were only eight seconds remaining on the clock. Most coaches would’ve taken a knee at that point, playing for overtime.
According to postgame comments, that’s what Scangarello wanted to do. But to his credit, Fangio overrode his offensive coordinator. Instead, the head coach decided not to waste the final ticks of the clock, giving his players a chance to make something happen.
Lock heaved a pass down the right sideline toward Sutton, L.A.’s Casey Hayward ran into the Broncos wideout and a yellow flag flew. The 37-yard pass interference penalty put Denver in position to attempt a 53-yard field goal as time expired, which McManus calmly booted right down the middle.
Finally, Fangio took the shackles off his players. He stopped thinking like a defensive-minded coach. He went for the win instead of playing not to lose. He was aggressive instead of conservative.
Hopefully, the positive result provided a good lesson. Thanks to finally getting out of his own way, the Broncos got a win.
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