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Russell Wilson and the Broncos Look Cooked

Bryan Armetta examines a question that has frustrated Denver fans and fantasy managers alike: What’s going on with the Broncos’ offense?

Bryan Armetta examines a question that has frustrated Denver fans and fantasy managers alike: What's going on with the Broncos' offense?

There should be reasons for optimism in Denver. The Broncos are 2-1 after Week 3, enjoying their most recent victory over a solid 49ers squad on Sunday night. The defense has been one of football’s best, holding opponents to an average of 12.7 points per game. As many predicted, the roster has talent and depth, a combination that can serve a contender well over the long grind of the regular season. 

So, why is it that the vibes in Colorado feel downright gloomy? The 900-pound elephant (er, horse) in the room: Denver’s absolute inability to move the ball. The Broncos have been downright inept at putting points on the board; they’ve scored the third-fewest points in football, behind offensive juggernauts like the Texans and Bears. 

How have things gotten this bad? Who is to blame for the slow start? Is there still time to turn this plummet into a Rocky Mountain high for Denver and fantasy managers?

Keep Russ Out of the Kitchen?

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Not after Broncos general manager George Patton shipped out three players and five draft picks to Seattle in order to secure the services of quarterback Russell Wilson. Wilson, an All-Pro and Super Bowl champion, had been rumored to leave the Emerald City for years, but only for a notable roster upgrade. Russ was being held back by some combination of his fellow Seahawks and poor coaching. A move to Denver with offensive guru Nathaniel Hackett would unlock a side of Wilson football fans hadn’t seen in years. At long last, Russ would be able to cook

What Broncos fans have seen from Wilson thus far has looked more like fast food than filet mignon. Every Broncos possession, even the game-winning drive against San Francisco last night, has felt tiring. Wilson is averaging a paltry 7.0 yards per completion, a mark that would be the worst of his career for a full season. Over 41% of Wilson’s passes have gone to running backs. This has been a dink-and-dunk offense, not the explosive one analysts expected during the preseason.

The Broncos’ offense was supposed to reflect the best parts of Seattle’s while Wilson was there; a pair of dominant wide receivers in Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy, an explosive run game and a quarterback who could make magic happen on any play. So far, things have felt incredibly bland; that’s a scary thought for a team that still has to go toe-to-toe against the Chargers and Chiefs four times.

Hack-ing Away

There’s never a “main” reason for a team-wide struggle, but Hackett has borne the brunt of the criticism for the offense’s ineptitude. Looking back at the team’s first three games, it’s somewhat deserved. 

Things got off to a precarious start for the first-year head coach in Week 1. Baffling clock management and a decision not to go for it on fourth and five led to a failed 64-yard field goal attempt. The following week, at home against the Texans, was the kind of game most expected the Broncos to dominate. Instead, Denver trailed well into the fourth quarter, set back by red zone inefficiency and penalties, frequent occurrences thus far. In just 180 minutes of play, questions are already swirling about Hackett’s ability to lead a disciplined offense, especially in those all-important late moments of the game where head coaches make crucial, on-the-spot decisions.

Despite fantasy hopes that this would be a high-octane, pass-first attack, Hackett’s strategy to start the season shouldn’t be a surprise. As Green Bay’s offensive coordinator in 2021, he consistently put the ball in the hands of his two star running backs, AJ Dillon and Aaron Jones. Denver’s duo of Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon have been utilized in a similar way, even at the cost of the passing game; the Broncos are 19th in pass play percentage through three weeks. However, Williams’ snap share is slightly concerning; easily the most talented member of the Denver backfield, he played on less than 50% of offensive snaps on Sunday night. That’s a troubling real-life and fantasy statistic; for a struggling offense, high-end talent should be kept on the field at all times.

It’s no debate where the Broncos have struggled most: scoring touchdowns. They rank last in the NFL in red zone efficiency. As the field has shrunk, defenses have been able to stifle Denver’s steady diet of screens and short passes. Some bad luck and unfortunate penalties on fourth downs haven’t helped matters. Without elite touchdown upside, the team will struggle to stay in games, and their offensive stars won’t live up to lofty preseason draft rankings.

The talent in Denver hasn’t gone anywhere, and it’s only Week 3. With that being said, there needs to be some kind of spark to ignite a dormant Broncos offense. It might be the end of yesterday’s game, in which Wilson led the team on an 80-yard touchdown drive in just over six minutes. Those are the kind of sustained momentum shifts fantasy managers need to see more of before feeling confident in the Broncos – even then, some willingness to air it out from Wilson and Hackett would be nice. Before they ride, the Broncos need to get back in the saddle.