Tuesday November 18th, 2014

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It is the Monday after the Denver Broncos’ 22-7 loss to the moribund St. Louis Rams, and the team’s locker room is empty, save for one player. It is Douglas McNeil, a wide receiver signed to the practice squad in October, and he is on his phone, on Facetime. He’s showing off the locker room, looking left to Aqib Talib’s and Demaryius Thomas’ lockers, right to DeMarcus Ware’s, showing a friend or relative the stars. 

Those lockers, though, are unoccupied. They will remain that way for the rest of the team’s availability period, apart from one quick, silent appearance. Players don’t like to show their faces on Mondays after wins, so after losses? Not a chance. There is only McNeil, on his phone, a little bit star-struck by the men who want nothing to do with parsing the previous day’s game, the men who matter.

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Coach John Fox tells the media no one is panicking. Tight end Jacob Tamme, quickly circled at his locker, dutifully echoes the coach’s sentiment, as does cornerback Chris Harris. But that’s it. That’s all there is to learn, really, about how these Broncos feel a day after the most unexpected loss of the Peyton Manning era, how they plan to adjust, what they might have learned.

This isn’t an accountability problem, though. Manning’s mere presence requires players to take agency, and not an hour after the game, the quarterback had already called himself out as culpable in the loss. “I thought we didn’t execute very well,” Manning said after the game, “and just think I didn’t play very well, so usually you can kind of wrap it up into that.” 

So as much as you’d have liked to see the biggest names on the Broncos grace the locker room on Monday, their collective absence and reticence isn’t a product of not caring, not accepting blame. They will say that it’s “on to Miami” not because they can so easily move on from a loss, but because that’s simply what’s done, the next line in the weekly script of NFL life, where to dwell is to be left behind, to deviate from the season-long gameplan is to drown.

Instead, the borderline awkward atmosphere around the team’s facility is a product of novelty, of not really having any precedent as to how to behave after your powerhouse offense is held to just seven points and barely touched toe to turf in the red zone. And who can blame them? These Broncos have never had a game like Sunday’s, not this season, not last year, not the one before. A September loss to the Seahawks in Seattle? Nothing to be ashamed of there, especially after pushing the game to overtime. A November drubbing at the hands of the Patriots in Foxboro? That’s not exactly a shock. 

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Even a year ago, the Broncos could explain each of their losses: The Colts game was a consequence of Manning’s homecoming nerves and Indianapolis’ dominant offense. The Patriots, well, you’ve heard that story before, and the Chargers loss, the most mystifying of the bunch, was a Thursday night game against a division rival playing the best football of its season. The Super Bowl was perhaps the simplest to address: the Seahawks were much better, and instead of having to rebound, Broncos players got to go on vacation and watch their front office empty the wallet to build a better contender. 

So really, the last time Denver felt this kind of uncertainty, this question of whether something was wrong, whether something should change, was early in the 2012 season, when it remained to be seen whether Manning could still do Manning things. It’s been two years, then, since the Broncos last wondered if they were a true threat to win a championship -- and if they aren’t wondering now, they should be.

On Sunday against the Rams, Denver’s offense -- the very offense that turned NFL record books to ashes a year ago -- saw Manning make it into the red zone exactly zero times. The Broncos’ one score was a 42-yard touchdown pass to receiver Emmanuel Sanders, and apart from that, the closest Denver came to the end zone was St. Louis’ 28-yard line -- and when they got that far, St. Louis defensive tackle Aaron Donald summarily sacked Manning for a 12-yard loss.

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“I think we had opportunities in the game because our defense did hold them to five field goals when they were in scoring position,” Fox said Monday. “The flip side is offensively not being in the red area. We did not have a red area attempt.

“I think, not just the O-line, but offensively, we didn’t execute consistently enough,” Fox said. “And it’s not all on the O-line. I want to make that point.”

Even so, Denver’s offensive line has taken the brunt of the criticism in recent weeks. In Week 7, relative unknown Paul Cornick replaced Chris Clark at right tackle, but after Week 9, that substitution was deemed a bust. Coaches weren’t ready to give Clark another try, though, and in lieu of that, they moved Manny Ramirez from center to right guard, Louis Vasquez from right guard to right tackle and inserted veteran Will Montgomery at center. That combination hasn’t been the solution either, to the point that the Broncos worked out Richie Incognito in Week 11. Denver hasn’t signed him (yet), and as it enters its Week 12 game against Miami, the reshuffled line seems to remain intact, perpetuating the team’s rushing woes and Manning’s seemingly hurried passes. (Manning has always been known to release the ball quickly, but after averaging 2.32 seconds from snap to release for the first nine weeks of the season, the Broncos’ quarterback averaged 2.17 seconds the past two games, perhaps feeling the pressure from his makeshift line.) 

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Adding to the team’s concerns is the rash of injuries it suffered in St. Louis. Sanders is going through the league’s concussion protocol, tight end Julius Thomas is day-to-day with a sprained ankle and running back Montee Ball will likely miss time with another groin ailment. Whether any of those players will be ready for the Dolphins game will go a long way in righting the Broncos, but no matter what, they’ll have to figure out some kind of solution along the offensive line and in the running game in order to quell the sense that something is not quite right in Denver.

For now, though, that feeling will linger. It’ll take a win against Miami and another against Kansas City to quiet the notion that the Broncos are just one among the league’s good teams, rather than a cut above. It’s not time to panic, not yet, but it’s time for the Broncos to act like something might be off, to act like they know how to right it.

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