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3 Reasons 2021 Broncos Never Were a Super Bowl Contender

Don't make us laugh.

During the offseason, after the Denver Broncos completed their run in free agency, some were tapping the team as being just a quarterback away from being a Super Bowl contender.

Some questioned the Broncos passing on a quarterback in the first round of the 2021 NFL draft, but there was still praise for the class overall. And it only added to the claims that the Broncos just needed the right QB to contend for the Super Bowl in 2021.

Fast forward to today and it's clear that wasn't the case. You can hold your opinion on whether the Broncos should have traded for a QB other than Teddy Bridgewater, or drafted Justin Fields or Mac Jones, or started Drew Lock to open the season, but none of it would have mattered. None of it.

The truth is, this team had more issues than just the quarterback position. Those issues have become more evident after the Broncos took a licking at the hands of the Las Vegas Raiders on Sunday.

Let's go over those issues and why they meant that, even if the Broncos got the QB that could make them a Wild Card contender, were never going to put them in pursuit of a Super Bowl.

1. Coaching

I've tried to be diplomatic when it comes to the coaching, and I do think Vic Fangio does a good job with calling defensive plays. However, he has been bad when it comes to managing the game overall.

Case in point is his usage of challenges. I can understand, to a point, him challenging the call of an incomplete pass on Noah Fant's catch in the end zone. One angle seems to suggest he might be inbounds, but another angle showed he wasn't. It's possible Fangio and whoever signaled him didn't have access to the angle that made it clear he had one foot out of bounds.

However, his second challenge may have been the most inexplicable one he has made to date. Nothing on the replay suggested Henry Ruggs didn't catch that fourth-quarter pass, and Fangio challenged it for — what reason, exactly?

On top of that is Fangio and his coaching staff not making adjustments during the game — and by that, I mean early in the game when certain things aren't working as expected. Denver's coaches seem to be more content to adjust at halftime when it needs to happen earlier than that.

To that end, offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur calling for deep shots seemed to be about attacking the Raiders secondary where it was weak. But with  Bridgewater under pressure a lot, he got jittery on those deep throws and couldn't connect.

Switching earlier in the game to shorter passes might have helped Bridgewater settle down and create a better opportunity to hit those deep throws later in a drive or in the game. Instead, we didn't see the adjustment until the second half, when it was too late. And that falls on Shurmur.

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2. Certain Players Regressing

There were several additions in the offseason that made some people think the Broncos would be much improved, but some of those additions aren't paying off as expected.

That brings us to Kyle Fuller, who has been beaten badly in coverage multiple times this season. He wasn't bad against the Raiders, but in the previous two games, he wasn't good at all. Broncos fans can at least feel fortunate that he's on a one-year deal and that GM George Paton didn't give up a draft pick for him.

Kareem Jackson may be a good influence on the locker room, but his overall play hasn't been good. Paton wasn't wrong to decline his option, but now we have to ask whether it was worth bringing him back at all. Jackson is clearly nearing the end of his career and, while he was great in 2019, he's not the same player.

It was understandable to bring in Bobby Massie at right tackle when the Broncos parted ways with Ja'Wuan James, but Massie has been struggling in run blocking. His pass protection has been merely passable, but not enough to justify starting him. At least he's also only under a one-year deal.

It's not just those player additions who are regressing, but certain younger players on the roster for whom improvement was expected, but it hasn't happened.

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Left guard Dalton Risner has failed to improve from his rookie season, center Lloyd Cushenberry III continues to struggle and Massie isn't getting it done in run blocking. Right guard Graham Glasgow and second-team All-Pro left tackle Garett Bolles have had their issues, too, though they might improve if the Broncos get in players with more upside such as rookie third-rounder Quinn Meinerz, Netane Muti, and Calvin Anderson (meaning, you move Glasgow to center and at least have a veteran there).

Finally, Fant is having issues with holding penalties. He has five for the season, with just six games played, already matching his penalty total from last year. Blaming Shurmur for not using Fant more as a receiver is one thing, but the penalties are on Fant, not Shurmur.

With some of these players, they'll be free agents in 2022 and are already trending toward "won't be back." For younger players, they need to step it up or they could go on the trading block in the offseason.

3. Costly Injuries

The injury bug I've talked about remains and it's really hit the Broncos at positions at which they could least afford to lose players.

Linebacker Josey Jewell gets a lot of criticism for his coverage ability, but it's clear he had become an important cog in the Broncos' defense. His ability to recognize plays and alert his teammates is sorely missed.

And the Broncos' depth at linebacker wasn't in that good of shape, because Justin Strnad has shown he has plenty to learn while rookie Baron Browning has been relegated to special teams.

When Alexander Johnson went down against the Raiders, the results were immediately noticeable, as the Broncos gave up a touchdown right away. Johnson was the only other player who could recognize plays and alert teammates, thus forcing the Broncos to blitz more often.

Linebacker depth wasn't the only thing the Broncos lacked. They also lacked wide receiver depth for two of their top young targets.

Jerry Jeudy's absence has been huge because the Broncos had nobody else who could run routes as well as he does. KJ Hamler meant the Broncos lacked a good receiver with breakaway speed. Diontae Spencer just isn't comfortable out there, David Moore has brought nothing to the table, and it might take a while for John Brown to get up to speed.

And with Bradley Chubb out, the Broncos don't have the pass rusher who can truly complement Von Miller. Malik Reed is strictly a depth/rotational player and he's not the guy who can add to it on every down.

Super Bowl contenders can overcome injuries as long as they don't lose their most significant players or have a stronger depth to help out. But the Broncos lost too many players at positions in which the depth wasn't that strong.

Bottom Line

In short, the claims that the Broncos were a quarterback away from being a Super Bowl contender were never the reality. The claims came from looking too much at the talent of starters and the play of most of those guys in 2020 (or 2019 for those who missed 2020 because of injuries).

Furthermore, the rule of thumb to remember is you have to become a playoff contender before you become a Super Bowl contender. It's easy to look at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2020, except they had better depth and a head coach who is good at managing the game and adjusting during the game.

Better QB play this season might have helped to a degree, but it wasn't enough by itself to put the Broncos in the mix at the top. The shortcomings listed above would have prevented this team from achieving anything of note. 

Follow Bob on Twitter @BobMorrisSports.

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