5-12 doesn’t mean Broncos’ next coach can’t win ‘now’

Whether it’s Sean Payton, Jim Harbaugh or Vince Lombardi reincarnate, or somebody else, the next head coach of the Broncos will not find the cupboard as bare as this 5-12 season would seem to indicate.

In fact, Denver’s situation is ripe for a dramatic reversal of fortunes rather than the start of an arduous rebuilding process.

In the wake of Sunday’s season-ending 31-28 victory over the Chargers, a quick postmortem on 2022 produces several hopeful findings:

INJURIES

While no incident—thankfully—even approached the level of Damar Hamlin’s brush with death, casualties nonetheless severely impacted Denver this season.

The Broncos led the National Football League in the number of players on Injured Reserve with 22 and had the most salary paid to players who couldn’t play: north of $33 million.

More than two dozen names long, the list of players lost for the duration and those who missed a game or more represents the nucleus of a playoff contender on its own.

OFFENSE

Yes, through 17 weeks the Broncos were last in the league in scoring with an average of 16 points per game, then virtually doubled that on Sunday. 

And mega-millions quarterback Russell Wilson had the worst season of his career. His quarterback rating was almost 20 points under his previous low.

But why?

Well-documented coaching issues aside, injuries in the backfield and along the line are obvious reasons.

Denver utilized nine running backs. (The Chiefs used five, Cincinnati only three; the league average is four.) And seven other players—five wide receivers and two quarterbacks—carried the ball, too. 

Behind a patched-up line that was missing, at various times, tackles Garrett Bolles, Billy Turner, Calvin Anderson and Tom Compton, guards Dalton Risner and Quinn Meinerz, and center Lloyd Cushenberry, Wilson was sacked a career-high 55 times in 15 games, which tied him for the league lead in this ignominious category. His previous high was 51 in 16 games in 2018, the only other time he topped 48.

In addition to Tim Patrick, whose importance to the passing game was evident all season, the receiving corps was without—again, at various times—Courtland Sutton, K.J. Hamler, Jerry Jeudy, Kendall Hinton and nearly every tight end, including rookie Greg Dulcich, who emerged as a potential future force.

RESULTS

A loss is a loss, BUT . . .

This decimated, mismanaged outfit nonetheless defeated three playoff teams, among its five measly victories.

Among its dozen defeats, NINE were by no more than a touchdown. FIVE were by a field goal or less.

And once the head coach was replaced, the team’s last two games, a loss to Kansas City and a hard-earned victory over the Chargers (both playoff qualifiers), were arguably their best performances of the season.

So, given the above autopsy of 2022, what awaits Mr. New Coach?

FUTURE OPPONENTS

Thanks to the National Football League’s desire for league-wide parity, which is encouraged in part by ensuring that, as much as possible, teams with poor records are scheduled to play other teams coming off poor seasons, the next head coach should face a manageable slate of opponents.

PERSONNEL

Injuries are a part of this sport, but if the Broncos catch a break in terms of games lost by key players, that will make a huge difference. 

And if the Wilson who shone in the second half on Sunday shows up regularly under more experienced coaching and better game-planning and game management, the offense should look more like it did against the Chargers.  

The NFL Draft doesn’t offer as much potential for help as in past years because of trades involving draft choices.

But the new ownership group already has shown a willingness, and the wherewithal, to spend—i.e. a hundred million-dollar renovation of Empower Field at Mile High that’s to be ready by fall, and $400,000 worth of new sod for the last game of this season, to be followed by another re-sodding before next season begins.

So, maybe that draft-day deficiency will be offset by signing marquee free agents. Tops on the list would be offensive linemen and a running back to pair with Williams, or with Latavius Murray if Williams doesn’t recover fully or is slow to return. (League-leading rusher Josh Jacobs is available.)

We all know Vince Lombardi isn’t coming back. But don’t rule out Payton, or Michigan’s Harbaugh, just yet.

With better luck in the health department, a sound coach and leader, and a few strategic improvements in personnel, this Broncos squad is capable of reaching the playoffs under new management as soon as next season.

Denny Dressman is a veteran of 43 years in the newspaper business, including 25 at the Rocky Mountain News, where he began as executive sports editor. He is the author of 15 books, nine of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at dennydressman@comcast.net.