ENGLEWOOD, Colorado — If there’s one defining moment that encompasses the Denver Broncos’ frustrating season so far, it was penned by wide receiver KJ Hamler.
Hamler took off his helmet and kept slamming it on the turf after the Broncos failed to score a game-winning touchdown in the final seconds of a dismal loss to the Indianapolis Colts last Thursday.
The Broncos are rarely scoring touchdowns this season — playing six to five games — and the lack of consistency offers little hope for a turnaround. Coach Nathaniel Hackett, quarterback Russell Wilson, and the rest of the offense aren’t on the same page often enough, and sometimes they don’t look like they’re reading the same book.
Every migraine-inducing kahn sounds familiar to Denver legend John Elway. He felt the same pain when former head coach Mike Shanahan arrived in Denver in 1995. He brought with him the playbook that Hackett and so many others have built on since.
“I even got into my freshman year in the program after getting a little exposure to some of the components of it at Stanford and while on it [Jim] Fassel at the calf [Phillips] was that [Broncos] head coach,” said Elway. “I felt like I had a certain background, but the timing, the precision, there’s an adjustment for everyone on offense, not just the quarterback. That exists in everything you do, no matter what offense you’re in, but in the version of that scheme that we did, those first few games, what really struck me was how much customization there was for all 11 guys.”
The roots of what Hackett is trying to achieve with the Wilson and the Broncos offense go back to one of the franchise’s defining eras — the Elway-Shanahan pairing in 1995, which led to back-to-back Super Bowl wins around the year 1997 to complete and 1998 seasons. It was also the start of a coaching tree that eventually branched out to include Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco, Matt LaFleur in Green Bay, Sean McVay in Los Angeles and Mike McDaniel in Miami.
Five games into his Broncos tenure, Wilson is where many other quarterbacks — even some of the best to have played in the NFL — have been. The point at which they wrestle with what they hope for is short-term pain on the way to long-term gains.
Consider LaFleur’s first season with the Green Bay Packers in 2019. With Hackett as his offensive coordinator, Aaron Rodgers had nine games with one or no touchdown passes and four games in which he did not complete 60% of his passes. even as the team rolled to a 13-3 finish.
He went on to win the league’s MVP award in 2020 and 2021.
Talk to those who have been on offense or coached them, they all trace many of the problems down to two key issues – footwork at each position to stay on schedule and running back timing to pick a run Lane or the quarterback to see the right receiver when he breaks free.
“I always [like] Bringing formations into play, the staff that was in play at that moment as I was working things through,” Elway said. “The hardest part for me was making small adjustments for everyone in these concepts. And the footwork from you as a quarterback, in the bootlegs and game action and timing is so important that’s the best I can say I guess guys can’t open too early or too late.
“As a quarterback, you have to work your progressions, and as a receiver, you have to maintain your timing so that you’re open at that exact point of the progression, not before, not after.”
That timing wasn’t there for the Broncos, especially when Wilson targets players other than Courtland Sutton, who leads the team in goals, receptions and yards. Overall, the Broncos have 16 or fewer points on offense in four of five games, and they rank 30th in the standings, 30th in third-down conversions and last on offense red zone.
With the advantage of 11 days between a loss to the Colts on Thursday and Monday’s Los Angeles Chargers game (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN+), Hackett said he and the coaching staff had Wilson and the offense up to that point even rated digging into the video from the exercises at the training camp.
“Right now everything is more growing pains. We’re five games into the season, five games that we’ve all worked together, we’re all still getting to know each other, Russell is getting to know the team, the team is getting to know him,” Hackett said. “Same with me, when you’re in these highly critical situations, how people are going to react. What pieces maybe our goals, what we want to achieve… it’s about understanding where we want to go and when we need to.”
Former Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer echoed this view. He joined the Broncos in 2003 as a freewheeling scrambler eager to start all the off-the-cuff pitches.
“Suddenly [then-offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak] and Mike [Shanahan] walk me through all the different footwork combinations in game action from a three-step drop, to a five-step drop, depending on the look,” Plummer said. “And you learn it, you think ‘this is crazy,’ and then when it hits you, when you get to that level of comfort … you just see what it can all do.”
Plummer had the three seasons with the fewest interceptions of his career during his four with the Broncos and advanced to the AFC championship game to wrap up the 2005 season.
How the offensive line goes into the scheme is just as crucial. In zone run play, especially outside zone run play where linemen are asked to block areas or zones in lieu of specific defenders, the need to maintain proper spacing and not leave gaps for defenders is of highest importance. When done correctly, running backs have three choices — called “bounce” (outside), “bang” (cut upfield), or “bend” (cut back across the formation) — to find the best running lane.
If the linemen don’t keep their distance while moving, they leave gaps for the defenders. Or if they make the wrong choice of defenders in one of the zones, it doesn’t take much for the game to unravel.
“Every move on the defense changes what’s going to happen to you on the fly,” said Mark Schlereth, a former Broncos guard who played six seasons at Denver beginning in 1995. Every time the defensive front moves, it’s all my footwork, all my starting points different for each of them. … You can’t deal with it, you have to study it.
“Until you get to the point in the middle of a cadence where someone shifts into the defensive front, it can be as little as eight inches that you immediately understand how things are changing for you before the ball gets snapped, it will not be as effective.”
Schlereth said he went so far as to write down every step he had to take every game and where he wanted his hands to make contact with the defender “for every single adjustment that the defender could make when I was in a Game came I didn’t think about it. To deal with the level of detail you have to think before you play so you know when you play.”
One might question why so many teams and coaches, especially those who have worked with Mike Shanahan or Kubiak, are running a difficult offense.
Elway, who has had three of his four career seasons with at least 25 touchdown passes in the final four years of his career following Shanahan’s arrival, and Plummer each have an answer.
“I’m just looking at my own experiences,” Elway said. “I never thought it would be difficult because we couldn’t learn it, but putting it into practice, with every game with the right timing that you need, with each one exactly where it’s needed for me, me included, then you can do great things. I’ve played some of the best football games of my career, although physically I might not have been able to do some of the things I did 10 years earlier. The payout is huge and all you have to do is look around and see how many people are now running versions of it.”
“Why? Why go through it?” Plummer said. “Because it’s best when it works.”
https://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/34810424/russell-wilson-not-first-qb-struggle-denver-broncos-scheme Russell Wilson not the first to struggle in Broncos scheme