MINNEAPOLIS — You can dwell on the crummy loss, 27-23 to the Vikings. Boy, was it crummy.
You can nitpick the failed 2-minute drive scratched together by backup quarterback Brandon Allen, one gutsy son of a gun. You can fault the Broncos for one of the great collapses in franchise history. All those things are fair game, no doubt about it.
“There are no moral victories,” Von Miller said in the locker room after a stadium-record 66,883 came in from the cold to turn U.S. Bank Stadium into a rock concert. “We lost. It sucks.”
But this was a moral victory. Sorry, it was. This was the Broncos showing progress against a team with real, live Super Bowl dreams. Like it or not, this was the Broncos steering in the right direction, and if you don't believe yours truly, believe Miller: “Nobody hates losing more than Von. All y'all know that. But I’m not depressed. I’m not down. I love the guys that I went out there with.”
The 2019 Broncos are all about moral victories. That’s their jam, and you know what? Given the dreadful state of the operation over the past three years, there’s nothing wrong with that.
The rules of what constitutes a Broncos win have changed. These aren’t your uncle's or your aunt’s Broncos. They’re not in win-now mode at all hours of the day. They’re not playoff-bound just because that's what the Broncos do. These Broncos are building from scratch with a recipe that's a work in progress.
To that end, Sunday was quite close to a best-case scenario for the Broncos. They maintained their lofty draft position while watching a bunch of young fellas roll into the loudest NFL stadium this side of Seattle and not blink: Courtland Sutton (the best player on the field again with 113 receiving yards, 38 passing yards and 10 rushing yards), Noah Fant (set the seasonal record for rookie receiving yards by a tight end) and Phillip Lindsay (4.2 yards per carry) showed there’s finally hope for the offense. Go ahead, hate the latest frustrating loss. But add some context to the sentiment. This was progress.
“I love coaching these guys. I love the way they prepare and play. We didn’t lose that game because we didn’t play hard enough or got outplayed from a physical standpoint,” said Vic Fangio, whose debut season has been stained by four losses suffered in the final minute.
OK, so you say the Denver Broncos don’t do moral victories. They're above that! Well, these Broncos need to. It’s not the late '80s anymore, or 1998, or 2005, or 2013 or 2015. It’s Year 4 of a serious rebuilding job after Super Bowl 50, and, at last, the Broncos finally seem to grasp their status in the NFL hierarchy. That’s exactly where they are, rebuilding with young talent.
They’re learning Brandon Allen needs to stick around for a while. Forget the stats (240 yards, one touchdown, one interception, yada, yada), and credit Allen for a pair of fourth-down conversions when U.S. Bank Stadium sounded like old Mile High sounded back in the day. Fourth down to Tim Patrick. Fourth down to Fant. The Broncos have seen enough in a home win against the Browns and a road loss to the Vikings to believe Allen should be the backup quarterback for the foreseeable future. But it's still important the Broncos get a respectable look at Drew Lock, who is healthy but remains among the injured reserves.
Play Lock against the Chargers in Week 13. That’s two weeks from now, affording Lock three weeks of practice time before his first career start. If Lock shows signs that he's up to the task, you’ve found your QB1 and QB2 to ease the pain of another losing season. If Lock obviously isn’t the guy, there’s still a high pick in a draft thick with promising quarterbacks.
Allen showed some serious — how do I say this in a family publication? — huevos Sunday. If not for a ridiculous interception to close the first half, Allen is sipping his morning coffee as a 2-0 quarterback. But he threw that ridiculous interception, and it likely cost Denver a win.
Thanks to the pick, instead of going up 27-0 or 23-0, the Broncos entered halftime ahead 20-0.
“I think that was on me, forcing it,” Allen said.
A 20-0 lead still should be more than enough, and of course the Broncos should have closed this one out. Teams that trailed by 20 or more points at halftime were on a streak of 99 straight losses. The Vikings stopped the streak at 99. Or was it the Broncos who stopped the streak at 99? Either way, ugh.
But there has been precious little hope for the Broncos offense since Peyton Manning went from Broncos starting quarterback to Broncos season-ticket holder. What unfolded Sunday brought at least a smidge of hope. The go-to guys were a second-year receiver (Sutton, who said he was double-covered on all three snaps of a goal-line stand in the final minute), a second-year wide receiver who had been injured since Week 1 (Tim Patrick), an undrafted running back (Lindsay) and a rookie tight end (Fant, who had 60 yards and, more telling, 11 pass targets).
Oh, and a quarterback making his second start.
Once you toss pride aside, moral victories for this bunch are a thing.
“We’re turning the corner,” Miller said.
“We lost, but I had fun for once. It wasn’t just all depressing: 'Please, don’t get this first down.’ There wasn’t none of that,” Miller said. “It was just hanging out with my guys, having fun, really enjoying it. It took time for me to get here, but I’m happy.”
What the Broncos need now is continuity, not another offseason of massive change. Find an awesome talent evaluator to pair with John Elway. Find out if Lock can play. Continue to empower Fangio to build a program as the 61-year-old coach wants to build it. Go from there.
“We’ll eventually get it done. These guys are good guys that are working their butts off. We’ll just keep grinding and keep pounding and eventually we’ll get through (this),” Fangio said.
Moral victories? That’s where the Broncos are.