When a season doesn’t go the way anyone wants, there’s almost always a scapegoat. If postseason aspirations turn into another losing season, someone is going to be the fall guy.
In Broncos Country, that’s shaping up to be Rich Scangarello.
Right or wrong, Denver came into the 2019 campaign thinking they were a playoff team. They broomed Vance Joseph and his coaching staff after last season, signed former Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco to be the team’s quarterback, and brought in a mix of free agents and rookies that were supposed to be difference makers.
The 11-21 record of the previous two seasons were going to be a thing of the past. The Broncos would return to glory under new head coach Vic Fangio.
Not so much. The team started 0-4, stumbled to 2-6 before Flacco was lost for the season to a neck injury and currently sit at 4-8. They’ve officially turned the page into rebuild mode, using the final four games of the season to get a look at rookie quarterback Drew Lock and other young players.
That’s not going over very well at Dove Valley. The Broncos are an organization used to winning, so a third-consecutive losing season, something not seen in the Mile High City in nearly 50 years, will most likely prompt some sort of change.
John Elway, the architect of the roster, isn’t going anywhere. And most likely, Fangio is safe, as well. That leaves Scangarello, the Broncos embattled offensive coordinator, as the No. 1 candidate to lose the blame game.
At the moment, the prevailing wisdom around town is that Scangarello has the final four weeks of the season to prove he’s the right man for the job. With Lock behind center, the OC needs to show that he can devise an offense that will accentuate the rookie’s strengths and hide his inexperience.
That’s not an impossible mission. Lock is a talented player, giving Scangarello plenty to work with as he tries to save his job. But it’s still a tall order. The rookie will be facing two likely playoff teams the next two Sundays, both on the road; that’s not a perfect recipe for success, by any means.
The fact that Scangarello is on the hot seat is understandable. After all, the Broncos offense has sputtered most of the season.
Currently, Denver is averaging just 16.5 points per game. That’s 30th in the NFL, ahead of only the lowly Bengals and Redskins. They’re also 27th in yards per game, averaging just 295.8 every time out.
Clearly, that’s not good enough. No one would suggest that this is acceptable in the long run. In the modern NFL, scoring less than 17 points and racking up under 300 yards per game isn’t a winning formula.
But in all fairness to Scangarello, it’s not far from the game plan heading into the season.
During training camp and the preseason, everyone described the Broncos formula for success the same way. They need to play to their strength, which was clearly their defense. That’s where their best players resided; that’s where they had invested the most draft picks and money.
That meant Denver’s offense simply needed to not get in the way. Scangarello’s group was tasked with not putting the defense in a bad position. If they could avoid turnovers, and score enough points to give the Broncos a late lead, the Broncos could win.
For the most part this season, that’s exactly what they’ve done.
In losses to Chicago, Jacksonville and Indianapolis, the offense stake the Broncos to a late lead, only to watch the defense surrender drives to Mitchell Trubisky, Gardner Minshew and Jacoby Brissett that resulted in game-winning field goals for the opposition.
At Minnesota, Denver had a 20-0 lead at halftime and a 23-7 margin heading into the fourth quarter. The defense surrendered four touchdowns on four drives in the second half, however, allowing the Broncos to become the first team in 100 games to blow a halftime lead of 20 or more points.
It’s hard to see how those losses are on Scangarello and the offense. They didn’t commit late-game blunders that made life tough on the defense. In fact, they did the opposite; they scored late and pinned the other team deep in their own territory.
Other than the Packers game, the Broncos offense hasn’t hurt the team’s defense. For the most part, they’ve done a great job of taking care of the football.
So far this season, Denver has lost just five fumbles, the fifth-lowest total in the league. They’ve also thrown just eight interceptions, despite playing three quarterbacks, two of whom had never played in an NFL game prior to this season.
That’s 13 total turnovers in 12 games, which almost any coach in the league would take. Yet the Broncos are still a -2 in turnover differential.
How can that be? Because their defense has only managed to recover four fumbles and haul in seven interceptions.
This from a group that is supposed to be full of playmakers. By and large, however, the Broncos defense has been unable to make things happen.
They don’t make big plays late in games. They don’t force turnovers that put the offense in great field position. And they certainly don’t help the cause by putting points on the scoreboard.
That’s what great defenses do. That’s what everyone expected Fangio’s much-ballyhooed group to do. But they’ve failed miserably.
What makes this such a glaring problem is Denver’s insistence on playing to their defense.
In the first quarter of games this season, the Broncos offense has been pretty effective. In the final three quarters, however, they’ve been downright anemic.
Since Week 5, the Broncos’ offenser ranks fourth in the league in first-quarter yardage and 5th in first-quarter points.
It ranks dead last in both categories for quarters 2-4 in that same span.
— Andrew Mason (@MaseDenver) December 4, 2019
That’s not good, obviously. But who’s to blame?
Most point the finger at Scangarello, saying he’s unable to adapt once his scripted plays are completed. When he has to adjust on the fly to what the defense is doing, the offensive coordinator goes in a shell.
That seems a little too convenient. It’s hard to fathom that he’s so good at coming up with a game plan out of the gates, yet can’t do anything once the game starts. Are we really to believe that his football brain stops working on Sundays?
More than likely, this statistical discrepancy is just as much to blame on the Broncos conservative approach. And that comes from Fangio, a defensive-minded coach who would love to win every game 3-0 if he could.
Fangio wants to keep his team in the game until the end. He doesn’t want their offense to beat them. So he turtles in the second half, especially with a lead.
Was it Fangio or Scangarello who irritated Flacco in Indianapolis by not going for the win on third down at the two-minute warning? Everyone assumed it was the offensive coordinator, but the head coach was just as likely to be the one who decided making the Colts use their last time out prior to a punt that would pin them up against their own goal line was the best approach.
Yet Fangio gets none of the blame. Not for his decisions. Not for his approach to football. And not for his defense blowing multiple games late.
That seems a bit unfair.
The numbers are what make Scangarello the easy target. But it’s not as though Denver’s offense just went into the tank this year.
The Broncos have surpassed 24 points only FOUR times since the start of the 2017 season.
No other team has fewer than nine.
The average NFL team has 17 such games in that span. https://t.co/pCmCRDYPgS
— Andrew Mason (@MaseDenver) December 2, 2019
This problem dates back nearly three seasons. It stems from a lack of talent and continuity, as well as an insistence that defense wins in the NFL.
The Broncos have started seven different quarterbacks since the start of the 2017 season. Their offensive line has been a revolving door of free-agent busts and underachieving draft picks. They traded away two of the best receivers in team history, sending Demaryius Thomas to the Texans last year and Emmanuel Sanders to the 49ers in October.
Denver has also had three different offensive coordinators during this time. Mike McCoy and Bill Musgrave had the job during the Joseph era, with Scangarello taking over this season. None of them had a great hand to work with, while each was told to rely on the team’s strength.
Since winning Super Bowl 50, a championship that clearly came as a result of an elite defense, the Broncos have believed the best way to win was to rely on that side of the ball. Unfortunately, that’s not a sustainable model. NFL history shows that defensive-oriented champions (think Bears, Buccaneers and Ravens) are typically one-and-done teams, with the Broncos becoming the latest example.
This is all part of the reason why the pitchfork crew in Denver seems a bit misguided. They’re going after the wrong guy.
Scangarello has managed to coach an offense that scored 23 points in two games where his quarterback was making his NFL debut. He’s staked the Broncos to leads late in four games that turned into losses. He’s turned Courtland Sutton into a star, generated flashes out of rookie Noah Fant, and is on pace to produce a 1,000-yard season for Phillip Lindsay behind a patchwork offensive line.
How is he to blame for all of the Broncos woes?
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