The Tennessee Titans handed the depleted Denver Broncos a gift in Monday night's season opener at Mile High, and a Denver team that many expected to break out in 2020 responded by doing what it did best in 2019.
Despite the fact that Stephen Gostkowski missed three mid-range field goals and an extra point to cost his team double-digit points in the legendary kicker's Titans debut, the Broncos found a way to lose just their third home opener in the last 21 years.
It marked the fourth defeat in the Broncos' last 16 games in which they lost the lead in the last 30 seconds, but that might not have been the case if no-longer-a-rookie head coach Vic Fangio didn't make a rookie mistake by refusing to use his timeouts on defense when the Titans moved inside the red zone in the final 90 seconds of the fourth quarter.
When Gostkowski was given a chance to redeem himself with a chip-shot, go-ahead field goal, the Broncos had only 17 seconds with which to work.
Fangio's multiple explanations—that he didn't want to extend Tennessee's drive, that Titans back Derrick Henry went out of bounds anyway on one particular play, and that the Titans were having kicking problems—were both confusing and an indictment of his confidence in his defense.
Those explanations also didn't account for that fact that he should have used at least one timeout well before Henry went out of bounds with 24 seconds remaining. His clock mismanagement wouldn't have been substantially less egregious had he opted to stop the clock just seven seconds earlier than the Titans ultimately did with the incomplete pass that preceded Gostkowski's potentially career-saving game-winner.
Cedric Golden @CedGolden
Vic Fangio has been in this league for 35 years and that was some of the worst clock management in league history. The Broncos leave the field with two timeouts remaining, the timeouts he should have used when Tennessee was running down the clock. Sorry but that's inexcusable.
But Fangio's puzzling decision to save all three of his timeouts for Hail Mary attempts doesn't come close to covering the chokery that occurred late Monday evening in the Rockies.
The Broncos put on a foot-shooting clinic that also included:
- A Melvin Gordon fumble inside the Denver 25-yard line that directly led to a first-quarter Tennessee touchdown.
- A series of questionable play calls that put too much on young quarterback Drew Lock and led to a Titans goal-line stand and zero Denver points late in the first half.
- A brutal third-down drop from rookie wide receiver Jerry Jeudy that killed Denver's opportunity to set the tone on the first series of the second half.
- Two third-quarter personal fouls on defense, one of which—a flagrant face mask on Josey Jewell—came on the Titans' second touchdown drive.
The Broncos didn't perform poorly on either side of the ball, and they actually flashed more frequently than one might have expected from a team already down superstar edge defender Von Miller (leg) and Pro Bowl receiver Courtland Sutton (shoulder) before losing key starters Phillip Lindsay (toe) and A.J. Bouye (shoulder) prior to crunch time.
They averaged 5.5 yards per play (compared to 4.8 for Tennessee), they maintained balance on offense and didn't allow a sack.
But that's what makes this such a fail. Denver didn't fall to 0-1 because it was without Miller, Sutton, Lindsay, Bouye, promising rookie wideout KJ Hamler or COVID-19 opt-out tackle Ja'Wuan James. Outside of some poor coaching moves and a few careless mistakes, the Broncos played well enough to defeat a feisty opponent that fell one game short of the Super Bowl last year.
That opponent tried its best to hand the Broncos yet another home-opening victory too. As The Athletic's Matt Schneidman noted on Twitter, Gostkowski's performance was the worst single-game showing by a kicker in nearly two years.
But the Broncos were unable to take advantage.
This remains a young team that is, unfortunately, less healthy than many others. But that doesn't change the fact that these Broncos have yet to discover how to do one very important thing.
They can run, they can cover, they can apply pressure, and it even seems they've learned how to pass protect and get the ball downfield. They've got most if not all of the key ingredients to be a winner.
Now, if they could just figure out how to win.