Perhaps Sean Payton now understands the plight of Nathaniel Hackett better. On Sunday, when the Broncos took a commanding 21-3 lead against Washington, it seemed like a surefire win for Payton, who has never lost a game with a lead of 18 points or more. Russell Wilson’s teams in Seattle had never blown such a big lead either. Denver’s defense was strong, sacking Sam Howell three times, and the offense was firing on all cylinders with touchdown passes from Wilson to Marvin Mims Jr., Jaleel McLaughlin, and Brandon Johnson. The Commanders couldn’t generate any offense and were forced to punt, with Mims returning the ball to the Washington 40-yard line. The Broncos were in complete control. However, things took a turn when Wilson fumbled at midfield, giving Washington the chance to mount a comeback.
“We gave them the ball at midfield, and that fumble shifted the momentum,” Payton expressed frustration after the Broncos’ devastating 35-33 loss. All the problems that plagued Denver in their season opener against Las Vegas resurfaced: penalties, ineffective pass rush, poor pass protection, and an offense that stalled. The frustrated fans at Empower Field were reminiscent of last year when they counted down the play clock for Hackett. Payton admitted, “There were drives where we lacked organization and efficiency. We took too long in the huddle and had to burn timeouts in the first half. We need to improve. I need to improve. Russ needs to be sharper with his play calls, and we need to evaluate our offensive strategy.”
Last season, when Hackett struggled with game management, general manager George Paton brought in Jerry Rosburg to assist him. After Hackett was fired with a 4-11 record, Rosburg took over temporarily, recording a 1-1 record as interim coach before Payton stepped in. Payton publicly criticized Hackett for his poor coaching performance in the NFL, stating that it was one of the worst in history. But now, Payton finds himself in a worse position than Hackett, starting the season 0-2. The only other Broncos head coach to begin with such a losing streak was Vic Fangio, who lost his first four games in 2019 but finished with a 7-9 record. Mac Speedie lost his first two games in 1965 and ended the season with a 4-10 record.
Returning to Wilson’s costly fumble, which was one of his two turnovers in the game, the Commanders capitalized on the opportunity and scored 32 of the next 35 points. This loss marks the first time in Broncos history that they have started a season with back-to-back home losses. Payton takes responsibility for the team’s performance, saying, “We need to be better, and it starts with me.”
During the offseason, the Broncos signed Jarrett Stidham to a lucrative two-year, $10 million contract as a backup. Stidham impressed towards the end of last season when he played for the Raiders. If the Broncos’ 0-2 start continues to worsen, Payton’s patience with Wilson might come into question in Denver. Their upcoming game against the undefeated Dolphins in Miami will be another tough challenge for the struggling Broncos.
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