Jussel: Offseason now the focus for Broncos
The Denver Broncos are starting their offseason one week early — an odd feeling with one game remaining in the regular season, an odd feeling after a Super Bowl title in February, an odd feeling after being in the playoffs every season since 2010.
Reasons for the stumble are many.
Getting back into the playoff grind will not be an easy task, not with AFC West opponents Oakland and Kansas City not likely to takes steps backward over the next few years.
Let’s, for now anyway, forget about Denver’s home finale against the Raiders, the result of which matters mostly for the Raiders in terms of hosting upcoming playoff games.
The purpose here is to figure out what went so wrong with the Broncos after a smiley-face 4-0 start (4-7 of late) and to look at possible solutions.
Starting at the top, General Manager John Elway has been lauded for his acumen. Fair enough. But we do need mention (not for the first time) that he signed off on bringing in two offensive tackles as his big free agent moves — Russell Okung and Donald Stephenson.
The twosome deserves plenty of blame for Denver ranking near the bottom of the league in virtually every offensive category.
That’s Problem No. 1 for Elway to solve.
Elway’s agenda should also include upgrading the defensive interior, finding another quality wide receiver and, yikes, maybe reworking his coaching staff.
Speaking of which, head coach Gary Kubiak was on top of the mountain in February. He has tumbled since. His gaffes are plenty. Still, he is 1 for 2 from the sideline in terms of winning it all. He’s not going anywhere.
Kubiak, however, has some serious soul searching to do.
He has to decide if he has the coaches he needs and, if so, are they in the right positions. Rick Dennison is the offensive coordinator and has been with Kubiak for eons. But whoever is directing the offense isn’t doing a good job. Kubiak also needs to look at his special teams, which were terrible late in the season under Joe DeCamillis.
Some of this comes down to Kubiak and his reliance on the zone-blocking scheme. Kubiak wants to run the ball, but to do that, the offensive linemen need be quick, agile and smart. Hard to find in 300-pound-plus quantities.
Part of Oakland’s resurgence has been in acquiring big, relatively slow monsters and simply pushing hard in one direction or another. Might Denver be able to find more of those types than those who succeed as zone blockers?
Which brings us to Kubiak’s next big decision for next season: Is Trevor Siemian the quarterback, or do all the eggs go into the Paxton Lynch basket?
If the Broncos are going to continue to struggle to run, why try? Instead, go with huge pass blockers up front and let Lynch, last spring’s No. 1 draft pick, go all Peyton Manning on everyone and throw the ball from the shotgun formation as he did in college?
The quarterback situation — two youngsters who appear to have good futures — will play itself out next training camp barring another monumental decision from Elway (Tony Romo?).
We should also note that Kubiak’s decision-making was altered late in the season as injuries started to mount. Denver went into Sunday’s loss against Kansas City essentially with one tight end, no fullback, a waiver-wire claim running back and backups playing at linebacker, safety and on the defensive line.
Although that bodes well for depth in the future, it does not do much for present-day victories.
Good news for Elway and Kubiak is that with the offseason nearing, the big news won’t be on free agency defections. Most of the Bronco standouts are good to go for at least another season. The only starters who will be free agents are outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware and nose tackle Sylvester Williams.
Ware made $10 million this season in a part-time role and will likely make his exit. Youngsters Shane Ray and Shaq Barrett are not a dropoff.
Williams ranks 104th among interior defenders this season, says Pro Football Focus. Bye, bye Sly.
As mentioned, another dependable wideout needs to be brought in to play the slot or to allow Emmanuel Sanders to move into the slot.
Denver targeted both Demaryius Thomas and Sanders 139 times in 15 games, Thomas catching 86 passes, Sanders 79. Next best wide receiver? Jordan Norwood caught 21.
Yes, lots to do and plenty of time to do it.
The clock is ticking, already.