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Head coach Vic Fangio of the Denver Broncos reacts on the sideline late in a game against the Tennessee Titans at Empower Field at Mile High on September 14, 2020 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
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A season-opening loss shows that the Fangio formula isn’t working

(Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

This one was on Vic Fangio. Period.

Plenty of people will try to pin it on others. They’ll cite the Broncos offense only scoring 14 points, so they’ll blame Pat Shurmur or Drew Lock. They’ll remember the dropped passes that could’ve kept the chains moving, so they’ll look at Jerry Jeudy as a culprit. And they’ll recall dumb penalties and decisions, so they’ll talk about Josey Jewell, Alexander Johnson and Diontae Spencer.

None of those people did as much to cause the Broncos to lose their season opener as the head coach, however. Fangio did what Fangio does, ultimately costing his team a victory in the process.

First, the nitty gritty.

With 3:05 to play in the game, the Titans got the ball back at their own 10-yard line, trailing 14-13. The Broncos defense promptly surrendered a 12-play, 67-yard drive that burned all but 17 seconds off of the clock. Tennessee kicked the game-winning field goal at the end of that march.

Sound familiar? Denver did the same thing last year against the Bears, Jaguars and Colts, losing three times when they led in the final 30 seconds of the game.

They also blew a 23-3 halftime lead at Minnesota and surrendered a late scoring drive to Oakland that could’ve very easily turned into a fourth last-second loss if Shelby Harris hadn’t knocked down Derek Carr’s pass on the two-point conversion.

That unacceptable for a team that is built on their defense. Could the Broncos offense have done more in the game? Of course. But that’s not the game plan in Denver. They’re trying to win by relying on their defense.

It’s why they’ve spent two-thirds of their salary cap on that side of the ball. It’s why they hired a defensive-minded head coach.

If that group has the lead late in a game, no matter how many points have been scored in the process, they have to hold on for the win. The game is supposed to be in the hands of the Broncos defense late; that’s the formula.

So when they fail to hold up their end of the bargain, repeatedly, it’s on Fangio. That’s his group.

But it wasn’t just the last drive. Throughout the night, the defense struggled.

Yes, they held the Titans to 16 points, but that was largely due to Stephen Gostkowski missing three field goals and an extra point. And sure, they kept Derrick Henry relatively in check, holding the NFL’s reigning rushing champion to just 3.7 yards per carry. But once again, Denver’s defense failed to make any plays.

On the night, the Broncos sacked Ryan Tannehill just one time. They also forced zero turnovers.

Sound familiar? Last year, Denver became the first team in NFL history to open a season by posting goose eggs in those two statistical categories in three straight games. They’re starting the 2020 campaign in much the same way.

Again, a team that is built around their defense has to get some big plays from that side of the ball. The Broncos, as has been all too often the case under Fangio, didn’t make any on Monday night.

But it didn’t end there. Denver’s defense didn’t give their offense much of an opportunity.

In the third quarter, the Broncos only ran six offensive plays. That’s because they went three-and-out twice. But it’s also because their defense couldn’t get the ball back.

On three consecutive drives, spanning the end of the second quarter and all of the third, Denver gave up drives of 12, 14 and 15 plays to Tennessee. Those marches racked up 180 yards of offense and burned 16:42 off the clock. During that time, Lock and Company stood on the sidelines, waiting for another shot. They ran just six offensive plays, other than two kneel downs at the end of the first half, in more than 19 minutes.

Again, that’s not the performance of a dominant defense. If not for two missed field goals, the game gets blown wide open during that stretch of ineptitude.

But even that wasn’t Fangio’s worst moment on Monday. His decisions in the waning moments of the game were simply inexcusable.

With 49 seconds to play in the game, the Titans had a first-and-10 at the Broncos 16-yard line. They were clearly in field goal range, even for Gostkowski on Monday night. So when Tennessee ran up the middle and was stopped for a four-yard gain, Denver should’ve immediately called a timeout. They didn’t.

Instead, another 15 seconds ran off the clock before the Titans stopped the clock. Instead of getting the ball back with 17 seconds left, the Broncos could’ve had 32 seconds to get into range for a Brandon McManus field goal. That’s a world of difference.

That type of decision is what loses closes games. And since Fangio wants to win 17-14, which is why he keeps the reins tight on his offense, he can’t afford to be bad in those moments.

There’s no excuse for not calling a timeout with 45 seconds left in the game. There’s no scenario that could’ve played out that could’ve justified the move. Even if Gostkowski had missed again, it wouldn’t have exonerated Fangio from his blunder.

What makes Monday night so frustrating is that these problems are nothing new. The same things plagued the Broncos last year, when they finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs for a third-straight year. It’s déjà vu in Denver.

It’s hard not to imagine that former head coach Vance Joseph would’ve gotten roasted for these things. If his defense repeatedly blew late leads. If his team made silly mental errors. If he didn’t know how to manage the clock down the stretch.

Vic Fangio should be held to the same standard. The honeymoon is over. The learning curve has hit an end point. The head coach has to do a better job because right now, his formula isn’t working.