ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos' search for a quarterback in the post-Peyton Manning era has been a costly affair.
Costly in a record that has leaned decidedly toward a growing pile of losses, costly in the erosion of any sort of patience among the team’s faithful and costly to the head coach.
Sunday morning Vic Fangio became the second Broncos coach fired in the past four years because the offense was too stubborn, too tepid and too big a problem. The Broncos lost five of their last six games, scoring 13 or fewer points in four of those losses to go from the wild-card hunt to out of the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season.
The uncertainly at quarterback and inability to match the starter with the playbook could be seen almost as soon as Gary Kubiak -- who helped the Broncos win Super Bowl 50 -- stepped away due to health reasons after the Broncos’ 9-7 finish in 2016. It was the last season Denver finished with a winning record.
The Broncos lost four of their last six games that year, scoring 10 or fewer points in three of the last four games. Vance Joseph fired an offensive coordinator during his first season (2017) and was fired himself after the 2018 season.
Fangio fired an offensive coordinator after his first season (2019) and has now been fired two seasons later with the same problems staring the Broncos in the face. If it feels familiar, it is: The Broncos' strategy of replacing coaches until they get the quarterback question answered enters its third edition.
The numbers are well worn at this point. There have been 10 different starting quarterbacks since the midway point of the 2016 season -- 11 if you count running back Phillip Lindsay, who started the 2020 game against the Saints in which all three of Denver's quarterbacks were out because of COVID-19 issues -- and the team has not averaged more than 23 points a game since 2014.
They’ve tried the trade/free agency market with Case Keenum and Teddy Bridgewater. They’ve tried premium draft picks with Paxton Lynch in the first round (2016) and Drew Lock in the second round (2019).
They’ve tried late-round pick Trevor Siemian (seventh round in 2015). They’ve tried training camp competitions and midseason flip-flops.
They’ve tried building and maintaining a defense good enough to have been tied for No. 1 in scoring defense with three weeks to play in this season. (The Broncos will likely be No. 3 when the games are finished Sunday.) They’ve tried first-time head coaches with defensive backgrounds in Joseph and Fangio.
They’ve also tried, over and over again, to play offensive schemes they didn’t block particularly well. They’ve tried to keep bridging the gap between "playoff team" and "close" or "right there."
The tenuous nature of it all was demonstrated by the 2015 Broncos. That team that won Super Bowl 50 scored only 20 more points than this one, in 16 games (1.2 points per game more). The 2015 Broncos won nine games in the regular season by seven or fewer points with a generational defense.
They’ve had defenses that were good at times over the past six years, even very good at times, but never replicated that close-game, big-moment performance of the 2015 group. As a result, more close games got away, in between an ugly rout or three, with an offense that didn’t help.
General manager George Paton issued a statement Sunday morning that looked much like the ones John Elway did before him.
Paton said, in part: “Our search to find the next head coach of the Broncos will be a comprehensive, collaborative process. We’re approaching it with an open mind and look forward to spending time with some outstanding candidates. With the foundation in place, the progress that’s been made and the resources we have to get better, I’m excited about the future of our team. We will find an outstanding leader and head coach for the Broncos and our fans.’’
If Paton chooses another Broncos coach with a defensive background, he should have a PowerPoint presentation ready about how he envisions the offense. And if Paton picks a first-timer, he should be ready to explain why this one will be different.
And if he picks an offensive wizard, he should be ready to explain how the team will cover for the inevitable step back on defense. That comes with the job and it will all be asked of Paton in the weeks ahead when he introduces the next guy in line.
The bottom line: The next person on the job won’t fare much better than the previous two if they don't match a quarterback with an offensive playbook that suits the rest of the players on the depth chart.
If they don’t, they can just keep the statement they released Sunday morning handy, because they’ll need it again in two or three years.