ENGLEWOOD – Vic Fangio’s Denver Broncos look a lot like Vance Joseph’s Denver Broncos.
Head-scratching decisions. Unceasing special teams gaffes. Substitution problems. Wretched quarterback play.
All of these factors preceded Joseph’s firing from his first head coaching job after he went 11-21 in 2017-18 and was replaced by Fangio, another first-time head coach, who is now 10-15.
The Broncos are 3-6 for the fourth consecutive season.
Last year, Fangio turned to rookie Drew Lock in December and the Broncos closed out the season by winning four of five to finish 7-9 and seemingly on the upswing.
Now, Lock is among the biggest bugaboos on a team that’s digressing on all fronts after being hit hard by injuries (Von Miller, Jurrell Casey, Mike Purcell, Courtland Sutton) and COVID-19 (Shelby Harris, Ed Donatell, Graham Glasgow, Mike Munchak).
With four interceptions in Denver’s 37-12 loss at Las Vegas, Lock has now been picked off 10 times in five games since returning from a strained right rotator cuff that sidelined him for a month.
Fangio appeared to put offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur on notice when he was asked after the game how Lock could regain his confidence.
“You’ve got to go back to work and he’s got to start experiencing good play,” Fangio said. “We’ve got to devise our passing game and our offense and our running game to where he can be more successful.”
Even if Shurmur tweaks his schemes to better fit Lock’s skills, recovering from another slow start to post their first winning season since 2016 looks like a daunting task for the Broncos.
Their remaining opponents are a combined 39-26 and include Miami (6-3), New Orleans (7-2), Kansas City (8-1), Buffalo (7-3) and Las Vegas (6-3). The only games against teams with losing records are both on the road, against the Panthers (3-7) and Chargers (2-7).
“We’ve got to get regrouped and refocused and get our energies and our emotions pointed in the right direction,” Fangio said.
A lot of jobs could depend on it.
From bad returns to poor punts and awful coverage, special teams blunders under assistant coach Tom McMahon have become a weekly expectation.
“We’re not playing well enough now in the special teams area as a whole,” said Fangio, adding, “we aren’t in any of our three phases.”
CB Bryce Callahan returned from an ankle injury and provided just about the only highlights, continuing a solid season after he missed all of last year with a foot injury.
“It would be a lot better if we were getting wins, too, because then I could celebrate it,” Callahan said.
Lock, who is now 6-6 as a starter with 14 touchdowns and 13 interceptions and is regressing in way too many categories.
Despite Lock’s steep regressions from 2019 in winning rate (80% to 29%), completion rate (64.1% to an NFL-low 55%) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (7-3 to 7-10), Fangio said he sees growth in Lock’s game.
“I see definite improvement,” Fangio said. “There’s no question he has the talent to go out there and do a good job for us. He’s just going through the growing pains of being a young quarterback. We’re going through the growing pains of adjusting the offense to him.”
Fangio insists he’ll let Lock play through his struggles — bruised ribs willing.
58.6 — Lock’s career completion rate, which is worse than Paxton Lynch (61.7), Trevor Siemian (59.3), Brock Osweiler (59.3), Case Keenum (62.3) and Joe Flacco (65.3) posted during their stints in Denver.
144 — points the Broncos have allowed to their past four opponents, an average of 36 a game.
21 — giveaways by the Broncos, five more than all of last season.
4 — carries by RB Phillip Lindsay, who gained just 2 yards Sunday.
1. Come up with a better game plan for Lock knowing Brett Rypien might get the start if Lock’s bruised ribs keep him off the practice field too much.
2. Prepare for Tua Tagovailoa and the resurgent Dolphins knowing Harris likely will miss his third straight game and Donatell his fourth because of the novel coronavirus.
3. Clean up special teams play so the struggling offense and defense have a chance.