Expectations were high for the Denver Broncos coming into this season. After acquiring Russell Wilson via trade and hiring former Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett as their new head coach, the Broncos looked like they could at least make things interesting in football's best division -- the AFC West. Maybe they wouldn't finish ahead of the Chiefs or Chargers, but they'd at least make them sweat, and be among the league's most electric offenses due to all the talent on hand.
Through five weeks, things have gotten off to more than a bit of a rocky start. The Broncos lost the season opener to the Seahawks in embarrassing fashion. They trailed the Texans for much of their Week 2 game (with Wilson looking horrendous along the way) before finally getting their act together in the fourth quarter. They scored just 32 points combined in those two contests. They barely hung on against the 49ers in Week 3 (11 points), slumped for much of the game against the Raiders in Week 4 (23 points, but only thanks to a prayer of a deep ball late in the game), and looked like an absolute disaster against the Colts on Thursday evening (nine points).
But are things really as bad as the surface level results would indicate? After Week 5, it seems safe to say that yes, they are. Despite playing one more game than 30 of the league's 32 teams, the Broncos are 31st in yards, 31st in points, 32nd in first downs... you get the picture. From where we sit right now, let's take a gander at what has gone right, what has gone wrong, and what has been downright awful -- specifically for the offense for which there were such high hopes -- through the first five weeks of Denver's new era.
Javonte Williams looked decent before he got injured. He gained 203 yards on 47 carries, caught 16 of 22 passes thrown in his direction, and was finally separating himself from Melvin Gordon in the timeshare before his season was ended. Mike Boone has showed off some pass-catching chops in his limited opportunities to date. Courtland Sutton has a career-best 63% catch rate and is back up to 14.4 yards per reception. He's done a strong job of winning in contested-catch situations and is already more than halfway to last year's total of only 135 yards after the catch. Brandon McManus is 11 of 12 on field goals shorter than 50 yards. Honestly, that's about it.
We have to talk about the red zone/goal line stuff first. The Broncos are pathetically just 3-for-10 in turning red zone opportunities into touchdowns. That 30% conversion rate ranks dead last in the NFL -- by a lot. Williams and Melvin Gordon each fumbled away potential touchdowns in Week 1. Denver has kicked field goals of 26, 20, 24, and 28 yards. On nine goal-to-go opportunities, the Broncos have scored just 29 points. That's flat-out unacceptable.
The early-down passing attack has been abysmal, with Wilson completing just 65 of 114 passes (57%) for 775 yards (6.8 per attempt), two touchdowns and an interception on first and second down. He's 25th in EPA per dropback among 32 qualified quarterbacks. On plays where he has not been blitzed, he's been off target with 13.8% of his throws, a mark nearly three percentage points worse than league average. Worse yet, the pass catchers are not really getting open: Wilson has had to throw into tight windows on 18.2% of his throws, according to NFL.com's Next Gen Stats -- the ninth-highest rate in the NFL.
Wilson has struggled with play-action passing (24 of 46 for 421 yards, one touchdown, one interception and a dropped interception, and he's just 21st out of 32 qualifiers in EPA per dropback); passing against defenses that do not send a blitz (81 of 138 for 885 yards, two touchdowns, two picks, two dropped picks, 22nd in EPA per dropback); and especially throwing against zone coverage (83 of 135 for 879 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions, two dropped interceptions, 28th in EPA per dropback).
Gordon has been dreadful, with a 3.7 yards per carry average, four fumbles (one of which was returned for a touchdown by the Raiders), a 21% negative rush rate (league average is 18.7%) and just two explosive gains on 52 carries (a 3.8% rate that ranks 41st out of 50 players with at least 25 rushing attempts this season). Albert Okwuegbunam has basically been benched in favor of Eric Saubert and Eric Tomlinson. Jerry Jeudy has a 48.3% catch rate and just 14 receptions in five games, and has shown essentially zero chemistry with Wilson. K.J. Hamler has two catches all year and showed up Wilson on Thursday night by slamming his helmet into the ground and telling reporters he would have if Wilson had just looked in his direction. (Russ failing to see receivers over the middle and/or in the red zone, period, has been a recurring issue.)
Injuries have been a major issue, with Tim Patrick tearing his ACL during preseason, rookie tight end Greg Dulcich opening the year on injured reserve (he has still yet to make his NFL debut), Hamler missing Week 2 (apparently as part of his injury recovery but who knows) and playing only 23 total snaps across Weeks 3 and 4, Jeudy suffering a chest/shoulder injury against the Texans, and Williams tearing his ACL against the Raiders.
The coaching (Hackett) and game management (Hackett and Wilson) have been an absolute disaster so far. If there were just one or two miscues, that'd be one thing. But this is like an avalanche already.
Let's start with Russ. As you can see from a video on the Seahawks' official YouTube page, Wilson's usage of the same hand signals that he had in Seattle tipped off the Broncos' Week 1 opponent to what routes were coming, and when. That's ... not great.
Wilson has missed several open receivers with passes, and simply not seen others as they were running open. Some of that is progressions taking him to the other side of the field, and some of it is his seeming inability to see anything over the middle, as well as a tendency to freelance away from what is called.
The Broncos as a whole have been incredibly lacking in discipline, which has to fall at least in part on Hackett. In Week 1, they took 12 penalties for 106 yards. In Week 2, it was another 13 penalties for another 100 yards. They were whistled five times for 30 yards in Week 3, seven times for 50 yards in Week 4 and seven times for 49 yards in Week 5.
They have also been unprepared to handle multiple situations and taken so many delay-of-game penalties that their home crowd started counting down the play clock in unison during their Week 2 game. Then there was the calamity at the end of the game against Seattle, where the Broncos let 40 seconds run off the play clock on fourth-and-5 and then tried to kick a 64-yard field goal instead of letting Wilson try to pick up a first down and make things easier. In Week 2, they took way too long to decide whether or not to kick a 53-yard field goal against the Texans, ultimately taking a delay penalty. Instead of trying a 58-yard kick, they chose to punt. (And that came after they tried to run it with fullback Andrew Beck on third-and-short.) They also had to burn a timeout because the punt return team did not have a punt returner on the field.
Even after hiring a game-management consultant, the Broncos have done things like punt on fourth-and-1 when down by 5 points in the fourth quarter, attempt a 53-yard field goal on fourth-and-4 from the opponent's 35-yard line when the score would have made a one-score game into a... one-score game, and on Thursday night, called for a pass on third-and-4 from the opponent's 13-yard line when they had no timeouts left and a field goal would have pushed the lead to 6 points, resulting in an interception and then the defense giving up the game-tying score. And then whatever the heck happened on the final sequence inside the 10-yard line to end the game.
I feel exhausted just listing all of those things, and I'm still pretty confident that I'm forgetting some stuff. It's been that bad. If it doesn't improve, and quickly, the things the Broncos do well elsewhere on the field won't matter nearly as much.