OAKLAND, Calif. • This wasn’t the same. This clunker of a season opener may have looked and felt like death by kilometers, not inches, but it still wasn’t the same.
Telling you, it wasn’t. Losing 24-16 to the Raiders at the dump they call Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum wasn’t the same as the Vance Joseph-Case Keenum-Paxton Lynch era that all of Colorado wants to forget. It had many of the HUH? moments that forced the Broncos to make yet another coaching change, yet another QB change. It had a holding penalty that nudged them out of field-goal range. It had crummy special teams, same is it ever was, that allowed a 72-yard kick return just when the Broncos were threatening to douse the Black Hole’s annual party at the Broncos’ expense.
“I was extremely disappointed in the loss, but not discouraged,” Vic Fangio said of his message to the Broncos after his head-coaching debut ended in a thud on “Monday Night Football.”
It wasn’t the same, because the Broncos finally are being real with themselves. They’re not close. They’re not close to the Patriots, Chiefs and the other big-wigs in the AFC. They know this is going to be a long haul back. That’s new and different. As players left the cramped, dingy locker room at a dump that needs to make friends with a stash of dynamite, they didn’t pretend otherwise.
There was accountability, for one. Phillip Lindsay shouldered the loss, saying he should’ve broken outside on several runs. DaeSean Hamilton blamed the loss on his dropped touchdown that would’ve trimmed the deficit to 14-10, Raiders. (“That play, obviously, will stick with me,” Hamilton said.) The real head-turner — the moment that proved this isn’t the same once and for all — came when wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, whose frustrations tend to run hot, blamed himself for the ugly loss.
“I feel like I let my teammates down,” said Sanders, who earned only seven targets on offense, and that’s not enough. “I felt like there were times early in the game where I could’ve made plays and the ball was supposed to be going to me, but I kept slipping on the damn grass.”
That’s new. The Broncos took responsibility for a bad loss. Baby steps. There were losses last season, like the one at San Francisco, after which players were dancing and laughing.
That was rock bottom. This wasn’t the same.
OK, so it was jarring to see the Broncos come out in the season opener against the archrival from the AFC West and play like they’d rather be somewhere else. They also sleepwalked against the 49ers in a joint practice at UCHealth Training Center.
Where’s the juice?
But watch their actions, not their words. Almost everything the Broncos have done since hiring Fangio has been a drawn-out suggestion the Broncos were in dire need of a cultural overhaul — from the bottom on up. Removing finger-pointers Shane Ray, Brandon Marshall and Su’a Cravens from the locker room. Plucking seven players off other rosters at the roster deadline. Throwing the roster into a 56-day preseason to weed out who should go and who should stay. The result was a locker room that was quiet and introspective after a forgettable loss to the Raiders in their final trip to the Coliseum. Thank goodness, by the way. This place needs to go. Blow it up. Burn it down. Bring on Vegas, baby, or anywhere else.
“Did coach say we should wear ties?” one Broncos player asked out of respect for the new guy in town.
Respecting the coach’s wishes was a too-rare occurrence when the old regime was running things.
If the 2019 Broncos are going to keep this interesting into November and December, the big-money stars better wake the heck up and perform like big-money stars. If you can point to one reason Raiders coach Jon Gruden was able to take a victory lap through the Black Hole, it’s that too many of the big-name Broncos practiced their vanishing acts. The guys you pay to see were nowhere to be seen.
Take Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, for example, who didn’t sack Derek Carr or even knock him to the turf (or the dirt infield that had Broncos swearing its name). Carr completed 16 of his first 17 passes like it was a 7-on-7 drill.
“They were throwing it quick, which was a part of it,” Fangio said.
If Broncos Country sought fire-and-brimstone speeches from the beloved after a fourth straight loss at Oakland, they weren’t going to get it. Can’t emphasize this enough: the Broncos over the last two years were in a dark place. A game like Monday night’s would’ve snowballed into a two- or three-touchdown loss. Then we’d hear about the great week of practice surely in store.
“It’s disappointing, but we can’t get discouraged,” Miller said after this one.
Instead, this sounded like an 0-1 team that’s realistic, that knows there will be some nights when it gets worse before it gets better. The Broncos sounded like a team that stunk up the joint, but believe in the Fangio program and direction they’re headed. That’s not the same.
From Broncos quarterback Joe Flacco to Colin Kaepernick to the Super Bowl-bound Dallas Cowboys, Paul Klee predicts the 2019 NFL season.