LONDON – The Broncos’ six days in England have been full of, by NFL game week standards, abnormalities.
The eight-hour, overnight flight – high knees included. The seven-time zone change and training camp-esque week-long hotel stay. Fan events. Fish and chips. A 450-year old prep school as a practice site — and all the rest.
At Wembley Stadium on Sunday afternoon, though, the pressure’s on Denver to end a four-game losing streak.
This one, though, feels like more than just the difference between 3-5 and 2-6. Try as they might to keep the focus on the Jaguars, the powers that be in the Broncos organization have arrived at the first real inflection point of Nathaniel Hackett/Russell Wilson era in Denver.
But if the Broncos have to come all the way here to kick this losing streak to the curb and, as general manager George Paton told The Post, “win a (blankety bleep) game,” then so be it. It’ll have been well worth the trouble.
“We’ve been in every game as you guys have seen,” Paton said. “It hasn’t always been pretty, but we’re right in it and we just need to come out the other side.”
Paton voiced support for both this past week amidst the Harrow School greenery. Coaches and players have said that the week together has been good for camaraderie and that the prep has been crisp. Spirits are, relatively speaking for a last-place team, in pretty good shape.
“I do believe in our football team, I do believe in the people in our building, our coaching staff, that we can turn it around,” Paton said. “It’s only seven games, obviously we’ve been in every game and that’s not what it’s all about. It’s about winning games and we need to learn how to win football games.”
By the time the group reconvenes at Dove Valley after the bye week, however, how much will have changed?
Will Bradley Chubb’s locker be emptied, his leadership and production on the field swapped out for draft picks? Will the entire coaching staff remain intact and forging forward into preparations for the Tennessee Titans? Will the play sheet still be organized just the way Hackett likes it or tailored for someone else?
A win or a loss against Jacksonville isn’t necessarily the difference between Paton deciding to trade anybody to an eager suitor, standing pat or adding a player before Tuesday’s deadline. It’s not necessarily the difference between everybody keeping their job and major changes arriving on the other side of customs back in Denver.
But the result of Sunday’s game is the last piece to the puzzle before two major milestones arrive: the trade deadline and the bye week, which represents the last best chance to make changes before a brutish second half of the regular season begins.
“This one is the biggest game, by far,” safety Justin Simmons while also laying out how badly he hopes to keep playing alongside Chubb. “A chance for us to get a win heading into the bye, hopefully get some guys back that are kind of dinged up and injured. Get them back healthy and make a late run here in the latter half of the season to give ourselves a fighting chance to get into the playoffs. But all that starts with this game, on Sunday. Finding a way to win.
“We have to walk out of this stadium with a win.”
Team president Damani Leech said this past week that, within 48 hours of each home game, he and his team has a raft of data analyzed and uploaded to a dashboard that helps guide decisions for not only the next week but the next month and next year.
General managers undoubtedly do their own version of that, too. So while Paton said Sunday’s result won’t determine how he approaches the trade deadline – “Really we’re just trying to win this game. It shouldn’t have any impact on what we do,” he said. – it is the next waypoint in trying to chart this franchise back on course.
Here is Paton’s reality: With a league-average offense, his team would likely have five wins minimum and perhaps more. With even the No. 25 scoring offense, he likely isn’t thinking about trading core players or being pressed on his support level for his hand-picked coach and quarterback.
A play here and a play there, as the old football adage laments, would have made all the difference. But Indianapolis’ Stephon Gilmore made those plays. As did Las Vegas’ Josh Jacobs, and New York’s Sauce Gardner.
Paton believes an offensive turnaround is coming. So do Hackett and Wilson. But because it is taking longer than expected for that side of the ball to show signs of life, decisions have to be made based in some part on a bet of whether it’s actually going to happen this season and if it’s going to happen quickly enough for Denver to get on a run back toward playoff contention. Each scoring-deficient loss, then, is like compounding interest on the negative side of the ledger.
“It’s not just one thing, as you can see,” Paton said of the offensive malaise. “A lot of newness. A new coaching staff, a lot of new players, new quarterback, new schemes. It doesn’t come all together. I knew it wasn’t going to be a well-oiled machine, I thought it would take time and obviously it has. There’s a lot we have to work on. Then you have some injuries on offense. Our staff’s trying to learn each other. Our players are trying to learn each other. So it’s just a lot. No excuses, we need to play better.
“Obviously, the offense isn’t good enough to win games. The defense has kept us in it, but the offense has to play better.”
The ability to do that will be impacted at least to some degree by whether Paton decides to ship wide receiver Jerry Jeudy or KJ Hamler, left guard Dalton Risner or any other offensive players to other teams ahead of Tuesday’s deadline. The defense’s ability to remain “borderline elite,” as Paton proclaimed it, will also be impacted by trade decisions.
And yet, Paton’s capacity to retool a 2022 roster that has obvious needs for 2023 and beyond will be impacted by whether he can add to the team’s stash of just five draft picks for next spring.
Sunday, then, is not a referendum on whether Wilson’s seven-year contract will hold up over the long term as Paton believes it will. And it’s not likely the decider between whether Hackett works out as the team’s head coach. That’s support the general manager had to show this past week, but those decisions will play out – and improvement from Wilson, of course, can only aid Hackett’s standing – in their own time.
Sunday is about the tension between the short-term and the long-term that all teams feel pressing harder in some moments than in others.
In this case, the short-term and long-term solutions are one in the same. Paton identified it six times in an answer to one question.
“I want to see growth and I want to see wins,” he said. “We all want to see wins. I think it’s really important for the growth of the offense and growth in special teams, but we want to win. We’re all in this to win, we’re all here to win.
“It’s great to be here, but we all want to win.”
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