ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos are in a freefall.
They are 3-4 after a 3-0 start, with growing despair among the team's faithful that the five-year playoff drought from 2006 to 2010 is about to be topped by a six-year hiatus.
The Broncos were 8-4 on the morning of Dec. 11, 2016 -- 75 games ago. They have gone 27-48 overall since then, a .360 winning percentage. They are 13-19 at home, with a turnstile at quarterback and a growing pile of frustration inside and outside the team's complex as solutions continue to be elusive.
Broncos coach Vic Fangio was asked hours after the loss to the Cleveland Browns last Thursday if he's had conversations with general manager George Paton about the team's current plight.
"Yeah, I've talked to George, talked to John [Elway], and talked to [team president and CEO] Joe [Ellis]. We've talked and it's all very constructive and productive. We all want the same thing. We want to get this team back to winning."
The Broncos have 10 games to scratch and claw their way back toward some short-term relevancy. The past five Broncos teams, however, didn't put the train back on the tracks after the losing started.
This is a roster that Ellis, Elway, Paton, Fangio and many of the players said had playoff potential, both in terms of skill and depth. So what happened and what's next?
Injuries? Fix the defensive line
Yes, cry you a river. Even Fangio said injuries are not an excuse. In the NFL they are inevitable and expecting them not to happen is unreasonable and illogical.
But the Broncos have seven linebackers on injured reserve, including three starters in Bradley Chubb, Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell. It has impacted how they can mix-and-match along the line of scrimmage. Opposing offensive coaches, though, are quick to say the Broncos defensive line -- one that hasn't been impacted much by injuries -- is not playing as well as last season. That combination has resulted in far too many second-and shorts and third-and-1s as Broncos' front seven has been overwhelmed at times.
Last Thursday, the Browns had six third-and-1 plays. In their four losses the Broncos have simply not held their ground along the line of scrimmage, as opponents have averaged at least 5.4 yards per play in each.
Sacks? Play under center more
The notion of running the ball 50% of the time or that "balance" is some 50-50 run/pass split is not relevant in today's NFL.
But when quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was under center -- on run or pass plays -- close to 50% of the time, the Broncos did everything on offense better, including throw the ball down the field.
In three wins, Bridgewater was in the shotgun eight more snaps -- TOTAL -- over three games than he was under center. In the four losses, most of which were still one-score or 10-point games into the second half, the Broncos have elected to be in the shotgun 121 more times (including penalty snaps) than under center.
And all you have to do is check the training room to see it hasn't been good for Bridgewater. Sixteen of the 21 sacks the Broncos have surrendered this season, and 11 of the 13 they've surrendered in four losses, are when the quarterback starts in the shotgun. Yes, they've been in throw-first mode because they've led for fewer than four minutes over the past four games combined -- and not at all in the last three -- but the source of 84.7% of the sacks over the past four games needs some attention.
This Broncos offense is better when Bridgewater is under center far closer to half the time. Most importantly, defensive coaches think the Broncos are more difficult to play that way. Defenses feast on the A gaps -- between the center and guards -- when the Broncos are in three-wide.
What now? Leaders must lead
Nobody is coming to save them. So the Broncos can collectively mope, pout and roll their eyes, or they can get to work.
Start with the high-profile guys who aren't on injured reserve. They have to play closer to their best. To their credit, safety Justin Simmons, linebacker Von Miller and Bridgewater have said as much.
And Fangio, especially given his long, successful history as a coordinator, has to be honest and astute enough to coach his coaches. There's a fine line between sticking with what you believe in and pounding your head against the wall. The Broncos have to find the line if they have any interest in digging out of this losing streak and being anything close to what they said they could be a month ago, when they were chiding the "doubters'' about their 3-0 record.
"I'm not worried about my coaching status," Fangio said. "What I'm worried about is this team and doing anything and everything we can to get our guys coached up to play better. That's my only focus. ... There's three things you can do. ... One, lineup changes. Two, simplify, or three, when you have a bunch of guys go down, recreate. The recreates are usually short-lived with success. We just have to do what we do better."