Fangio Puts Pat Shurmur, Drew Lock on Notice: Fix Broncos' Passing Offense
Going into Week 7, the Denver Broncos' passing attack was ranked 27th in the NFL, averaging 204 yards per game. From total yards, to scoring, to net-yards-per-play, to rushing — the Broncos have been ranked in the bottom-5 in the NFL this year.
Adding insult to injury, the Broncos entered Week 7 ranked 29th and 30th in third-down and red-zone efficiency, respectively. There's no way to sugarcoat it; Pat Shurmur's first six games as Denver's offensive coordinator have been woeful.
Shurmur has presided over one of the worst offenses in the NFL in a 2020 season that has seen a proliferation of yardage and points and the emergence of a few dynamic young quarterbacks. In Week 7's 43-16 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, the Broncos posted 411 total yards — the most by the team in nearly two calendar years — but it was a slapdash affair that gave fans the sickening feeling of watching an offense that felt totally out of control.
And not in a good way.
Shurmur's play-calling, especially situationally, was alarming and only had an intensifying effect on quarterback Drew Lock's unraveling at the hands of the Chiefs. Lock turned in easily the worst single-game performance of his young career, replete with sloppy mechanics, undisciplined play, and ineptitude.
The Broncos finished the day converting only 5-of-14 third downs for a success rate of 36% — right where the offense averaged entering Week 7. Denver also went 0-for-2 on fourth down.
There were only two modest achievements, neither of which were worthy of writing home about: red-zone efficiency and rushing proficiency. The Broncos only made it to the red zone twice all game, one of which was off a turnover, and on both possessions, Shurmur's unit managed to punch it in for a touchdown.
Thanks to some inspired running by Phillip Lindsay in the first half, the Broncos also finished with 177 rushing yards, averaging 5.4 yards per clip. But you'd never know it upon first glance at the final score because of the four turnovers and the offense's inability to move the chains on third down.
On Monday, nearly 24 hours removed from the cold elements and the bitter disappointment of a 10th consecutive loss to the Chiefs, head coach Vic Fangio was asked what Shurmur and Lock have to do in order to improve the Broncos' passing attack. Fangio's answer was an indictment both on the play-caller and the triggerman.
“I think as a team we just need to fix our entire passing game," Fangio said Monday. "We just haven’t thrown it very efficiently the last two weeks."
Fangio was quick to point out that a passing offense is the sum of its parts and that all cogs — from the coaching to the execution — have to work in unison.
"That’s an 11-man operation, that’s us as coaches—we’re all in it together and we have to go to work on that," Fangio said. "It has to improve, no doubt about it."
In Week 6's victory over the New England Patriots, Lock was on-point for most of the game, but his receivers let him down with four end-zone drops, which illustrates Fangio's "11-man" point.
But what about Lock? After all, Lock has absorbed the brunt of the criticism from the fanbase and the media, and for good reason. He was atrocious out there vs. the Chiefs and showed alarming signs of regression in his ninth career start.
Suffice to say, Fangio isn't ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater, while recognizing the A.) Lock has to be better and B.) it's on the coaches to help him improve.
"As the quarterback, he’s the main focus as always, but I think we all need to keep in mind that it is an 11-man operation and us as coaches are involved too," Fangio said. "We have to make improvements there, there’s no two ways about that.”
Sitting at 2-4 and coming off a bad loss, Fangio knows that the only way out is through. There's no quick-fix solution or unicorn savior coming to Denver's rescue. Unless his name is Lock.
“He’s got to get through these games," Fangio said of Lock. "The only way he’s going to improve is to play, there’s no other way to improve.”
The Broncos drafted Lock and invested in him by hiring Shurmur and QBs Coach Mike Shula while drafting a veritable arsenal of weapons and paying running back Melvin Gordon. There are changes Shurmur and Shula can make schematically and from a coaching-emphasis perspective to help Lock stabilize and bounce back from this game.
At the end of the day, though, Fangio knows that the only prescription for Lock is more time on task. And with 10 games left to go in the season, he's going to get it. Lock has to work through these ups and downs and find his way back to consistency and that onus starts with him.
But the Broncos can help him with smarter coaching and better game-planning. The talent and tools are there. 2019 offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello found a way to extract those talents from Lock over the course of a season that saw the young QB exiled on injured reserve for 12 weeks before entering the starting lineup in Week 13. Lock would lead the Broncos to four wins in his five starts.
Fast forward to 2020, and the expectation was that Shurmur and Shula, with their combined experience and accomplishments as NFL coaches, could accelerate Lock's development and guide him through the second-year learning curve at a faster clip.
Perhaps due to Lock's Week 2 shoulder injury that cost him nearly a month of real time, or simply a lack of coaching wherewithal, that clearly hasn't happened. But there's time yet to turn the ship around.
“Like I said earlier, it’s an 11-man operation as far as the players go," Fangio said. "We as coaches are involved with that. We have to do our job better, but Drew is going to have to play better and eliminate the negative plays. We need to complete some more balls, obviously. The only way you do all of that is to play.”
Make no mistake; Fangio is putting pressure on Shurmur by saying what he did on Monday and speaking it into the court of public opinion. The message? Lock has to be better, but so does Shurmur.
Perhaps Fangio will have to insert himself more into the offensive game-planning and tactical decision-making, even if it means handing over some of the day-to-day defensive workload to his top lieutenant Ed Donatell. Whatever it takes, Fangio's star is hitched to Lock's wagon so if the head coach doesn't take Week 7's loss as a wake-up call to make the necessary changes, it could end poorly for him, the team, and the young QB whose potential was hinted at last year down the stretch with Scangarello holding the reigns.
Lock has potential in spades. Even in Week 6, that was on full display with how well he played until the fourth quarter, which saw a three-play series result in a muffed snap and back-to-back interceptions. Still, he became the youngest QB to ever win at Gillette Stadium, overcoming +9 odds to beat the Patriots.
Against Tennessee in the season-opener, Lock played well enough to win if Shurmur calls a better four-minute offense, if Jerry Jeudy doesn't drop a third-down pass to give the ball back to the Titans, and if Fangio's defense gets one last stop. There is truth to Fangio's "it takes all 11 guys" ethos but I would add at least one more digit to include the play-caller.
What Lock needs now is consistency and coaching to help him reach the potential fans have glimpsed at different points in his young career as a Bronco. Fans shouldn't lose sight of that potential despite the poor handling of this season. After all, Lock will be making just the 10th start of his career in Week 8.
After Sunday's humbling loss to the Chiefs, Lock took ownership and resolved to improve. Would that Shurmur and Shula can have a similarly frank conversation with themselves in front of the mirror and help this pressing, but talented, young quarterback get back on track.