DENVER — Sean Payton, for reasons truly known only to him, decided to put a bullseye on his back in late July. The rest of the league has been happy to line up and take shots ever since.
After a lifeless, 31-21 loss to the New York Jets and old friend Nathaniel Hackett on Sunday at Empower Field, Payton’s Denver Broncos are 1-4. The record includes a 50-point loss and an 0-3 record at home. It now also features a defeat at the hands of Hackett, the Jets offensive coordinator who, in Payton’s words, turned in “one of the worst coaching jobs in NFL history” last season when he led the Broncos to a 4-11 record before being fired.
But if that was one of the worst coaching performances authored during the long history of America’s most popular sport, how do we qualify Payton’s nightmare start during his first season as the head coach in Denver? And with a combined three meetings with superstar quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen on tap the next month, is there any way this isn’t all getting worse before it gets better?
“This one hurts,” Payton said afterward.
when you lose to the “offseason champs” pic.twitter.com/FzNIqGWZks
— New York Jets (@nyjets) October 8, 2023
Let’s get the “Jets fiasco stuff,” as Payton called the furor around his comments to USA Today criticizing Hackett and the Jets, out the way off the top. Yes, it was clearly a motivating factor for the Jets. That was evidenced by the pregame speech given by Jets tight end C.J. Uzomah as he led the offense onto the field, the audio picked up by NFL Films cameras.
“Their coach made this personal,” Uzomah hollered. “So f— him and f— them. Let’s go win this b—- for Hackett.”
But comments from July actually affecting a football game in October?
“I don’t think it made a difference,” veteran Broncos safety Kareem Jackson said. “At the end of the day, regardless of what was said, we’ve got to go and play. I don’t think that played a part in it at all.”
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No, this Broncos loss had the hallmarks of the other defeats this season that have already piled up, essentially cutting off the road to the playoffs before the toughest stretch of the schedule has even arrived. The comments from Payton were merely a distraction from the issues that have poisoned his highly anticipated first season in charge. For starters, the Broncos have a defense that is fundamentally unable to stop the run. The Jets piled up 234 rushing yards Sunday, highlighted by Breece Hall’s 72-yard touchdown run that gave New York the lead early in the third quarter.
Since holding the Raiders to 61 yards rushing in Week 1, the Broncos have surrendered 877 yards on the ground across the last four games and an astonishing 6.8 yards per rush. Overall, the 938 rushing yards the Broncos have allowed are the most by an NFL team through five games since the Jets allowed 954 through the same stretch back in 2002, according to TruMedia.
“It’s a couple guys out of place every single time, it seems like,” linebacker Josey Jewell said when asked to put his finger on why the Broncos have played so poorly against the run. “We’ve got to be able to have that communication and execution to stay in our gaps and play football.”
Through the first four weeks of the season, Payton could at least point to the fact that he was cleaning up the offensive mess Hackett, who coached the NFL’s lowest-scoring unit in 2022, had left behind. Quarterback Russell Wilson, on the heels of the worst season of his career, entered this week’s game with the NFL’s third-best passer rating, having already thrown nine touchdown passes.
Consider that another peg on which Payton can no longer hang his visor.
Below are the results from Denver’s first five offensive drives of the second half Sunday. Warning: Avert your eyes if you have a sensitive stomach.
• Three plays, 4 yards, punt.
• Three plays, minus-4 yards, punt.
• Three plays, minus-6 yards, punt.
• Two plays, minus-10 yards, fumble.
• Three plays, minus-2 yards, punt.
That’s 14 plays for minus-18 net yards, in case you didn’t want to do the math. The Broncos did not pick up a first down until their sixth drive of the second half when Wilson hit Jerry Jeudy for a 23-yard completion on third-and-11 with six minutes, 47 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. And that failure came on the heels of a first half in which the Broncos moved the ball consistently, only to settle for field goals on two drives that reached the Jets’ 5-yard line.
“That decided the football game,” right tackle Mike McGlinchey said. “We’ve got to be better in the red zone. There’s no excuse for that.”
The Broncos trailed, 24-13, midway through the fourth quarter when Wilson completed the big pass to Jeudy, followed by a roughing-the-passer penalty on the Jets. The Broncos scored four plays later on Wilson’s 3-yard touchdown pass to Adam Trautman, and fullback Michael Burton ran in the two-point conversion to cut the lead to 24-21. Cornerback Pat Surtain II came up with an interception of Zach Wilson after the Jets drove into the red zone on their ensuing possession, giving the Broncos a chance to drive for a tying or go-ahead score.
But Russell Wilson was sacked twice by Quincy Williams during Denver’s last-ditch series. The second of those sacks came on second-and-10 from Denver’s 41-yard line, the linebacker chasing Wilson from behind and stripping the ball loose as he tackled the quarterback to the ground. It was scooped up by cornerback Bryce Hall and returned 39 yards for a game-sealing touchdown. Wilson was sacked four times Sunday and the Broncos were routinely burned by penalties and negative plays in the second half, producing few answers for a Jets defense that was “hellish” off the ball, as McGlinchey put it.
“I felt like we were in third-and-long too much,” Payton said. “The part I’m frustrated with myself is that we became one-dimensional, and I know better. I have to be more patient relative to how we run the ball. It was that type of game.”
Turnovers certainly didn’t help. The Jets were gifted an opening field goal after rookie Marvin Mims Jr. muffed a punt early in the first quarter. Mims was also involved in a gadget play gone wrong in the third quarter when he came across the formation to take the ball on a reverse but couldn’t handle a high pitch from running back Samaje Perine, a fumble recovered by the Jets. The Jets also notched a safety in the first quarter when Wilson was flagged for intentional grounding in the end zone.
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The three turnovers led directly to 15 Jets points, a too-generous gift for a Hackett-coached offense that has struggled to generate momentum for much of the season.
“It’s hard to win a game like that,” Payton said, who must now prepare his team to face the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs on Thursday night.
Payton continues to put together impressive opening scripts. The Broncos reached the end zone on their opening drive for the fourth time in five games this season. Jaleel McLaughlin (89 total yards on 13 touches) made an eye-popping one-handed grab near the line of scrimmage and then evaded the defense on the way to a 22-yard touchdown. But save a comeback victory against the Chicago Bears in Week 4, the Broncos have routinely trudged through quicksand in the second half, their extended lulls flipping the momentum of games. The Broncos led 13-8 at halftime Sunday and then gave up 16 unanswered points before they even picked up a first down.
This was absurd, @Speedkills2k_ 🤯
📺: CBS pic.twitter.com/gQbZtYDhQT
— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) October 8, 2023
“It’s frustrating and you’re definitely not happy with stuff like that,” Mims said, “especially with the bar we hold ourselves to as an offense.”
Payton declined to comment further after the game about the ramifications of his comments. Those were buried back in July, he said. His first Broncos team? It’s buried by the second week of October.
Jets head coach Robert Saleh handed the game ball to Hackett in the visiting locker room Sunday, his players rejoicing around him. None of them care what happened in Denver last year. Only that they helped him leave the city with a happier feeling than he did when he was fired two days after Christmas.
“Better coach with the better team won,” Breece Hall said afterward.
Right now the Broncos, at the bottom of the conference standings and with seemingly more pain on the horizon, are in no position to argue with that.
(Top photo: RJ Sangosti / Getty Images)
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