CARSON, Calif. • When the nightmare losing streak was over, God bless it, and the Broncos had their first win in 308 days, the giddy locker room handed over the game ball to Vic Fangio.
He gave it back.
“It’s for the players,” the 61-year-old football lifer explained Sunday evening here at Dignity Health Sports Park, a delightfully intimate soccer stadium to witness an NFL game.
Final: Broncos 20, Chargers 13. Kick that around. After eight straight defeats, the Broncos are winners again. Rejoice!
Fangio’s first win as an NFL head coach was the 500th win for the Broncos franchise — regular season and postseason. Fangio needs only 145 more to catch Mike Shanahan for No. 1 all-time.
He should have kept the ball. Up to Sunday, the Broncos had suffered from death by winces. They are not free of their sins but avoided the first 0-5 start in team history — not to mention serious questions about the choice of Fangio as the correct long-term answer for the Broncos.
It remains my firm belief the Broncos are in good hands with Fangio. He was being done in by a combination of many issues he inherited. But two whiffed drafts (only three players from the 2016 and 2017 draft classes were starters Sunday), key injuries to their newest free agent class (Ja’Wuan James, Bryce Callahan) and a pair of bizarre losses (Bears, Jags) offered loads of ammunition for critics to suggest that John Elway misfired again on a coach.
Draft and sign more good players, and Fangio will be A-OK as Broncos coach. Too many smart football people believe in Fangio to think otherwise. Still, he desperately needed a win to drive home the idea that his methods work. Without proof, Fangio had no case. His was fine work Sunday: subbing out Adam Gotsis in favor of Mike Purcell on the defensive line (the Broncos allowed only 35 rushing yards after the Jags punished them for 269 last week); moving Kareem Jackson back to safety, where he shined with 10 tackles and a forced fumble; and gifting the game ball to linebacker Alexander Johnson, who intercepted Philip Rivers and looks like a player.
“We let ‘em (the Chargers) know in the first quarter we ain’t having it,” said Johnson, who will have his 52 teammates autograph the game ball before storing it away for safe keeping.
The critical play of Denver’s first win since Dec. 2, 2018 — way too close to a calendar year — was a “great call” by Fangio, said the man who made it. Jackson tracked down Chargers blur Austin Ekeler, and it’s no small feat to track down a graduate of Eaton High. They are made bigger, stronger and faster up in Weld County. Even so, Jackson sprinted toward the pylon and jarred the ball from Ekeler’s hands on the final play of the first half. High drama, high reward.
“Great call by coach Fangio to put us in great position to be able to make a play,” Jackson said.
“It’s great to be able to get this first win for him, considering the way the first four went,” Jackson told me afterward.
The Broncos locker room remains a precarious place, and Fangio’s work is only getting started.
Emmanuel Sanders had one target Sunday. That’s a recipe for disgruntlement. The Broncos had 12 penalties. That’s a recipe for 1-4. This team does the silliest things sometimes, like taking a sack before a long field-goal attempt (Joe Flacco) and fielding incompetent special teams (the Chargers broke up the shutout on a 68-yard punt return for a touchdown).
They are still in the woods. Fangio’s the right guy to lead them out.
It still makes more sense for Fangio to coach from an upstairs booth rather than on the sideline. And it still makes more sense for the Broncos to consider all trade offers for the high-priced veterans before the Oct. 29 trade deadline — Sanders, Chris Harris Jr., and, sadly, even Von Miller. They are good enough to draw a haul of future draft picks to stock the cupboard.
Fangio’s success or failure with the Broncos will be determined by one thing, and one thing only: “It’s about players,” as Fangio said of Jackson. The Broncos still must stockpile many more good ones.
“I wanted to give him a game ball a long time ago,” Harris said of Fangio.
Any man would tell you this was actually Fangio’s second win of the season. He passed a kidney stone in August. And his first game in this soccer stadium was jam-packed with Broncos fanatics, a “home game,” Harris said.
“It speaks well of Broncos Nation — or what I am supposed to (say)?” Fangio said.
See, still getting the hang of it.
“Broncos Country, sorry.”
No need to apologize after a win. But it was telling Fangio handed the game ball to a player.
“That’s coach Fangio, 100 percent, to deflect the light to his players,” Miller said.
That’s the key here. Fangio’s ultimate fate with the Broncos is about the players they give him to coach. So, anyway, how will Vic celebrate victory No. 1? Nice bottle of red on the flight home? A plate of homemade gnocchi?
“To be honest with you, we’ll probably get back to the facility at whatever time we do, and I’ll probably go in and start working on Tennessee,” he said.