The Broncos are a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside bubble packaging.
We all want to believe coach Nathaniel Hackett is an offensive guru and Russell Wilson is the next great quarterback in franchise history.
But we’ll have to take that on faith. Why?
Hackett refuses to play his starters during a patty-cake exhibition football slate in which an unproven NFL coach with a lot of unproven offensive personnel has tried way harder to not get hurt than to get better.
There is certainly stuff to like about some of the basic offensive philosophies Hackett has revealed. Keep DangeRuss clean and upright in the pocket. Lean on the running backs Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon to pound the rock. Scheme to get young receivers like Jerry Jeudy and Montrell Washington the ball in space on quick-hitting routes.
But do I trust the Broncos will be ready to light up the scoreboard with at least 25 points against Seattle in the season-opener and operate at pedal-to-the-metal efficiency against weaker teams during the early stages of a 17-game schedule, when Denver needs to pile up victories?
No. Nobody, least of all Hackett, can guarantee the Broncos will be a finely tuned scoring machine.
This Denver offense is a riddle with big questions that can’t and won’t be answered until every touchdown and turnover counts for real.
When my esteemed colleague Ryan O’Halloran asked Hackett on Thursday if it was accurate to label his offensive unit sloppy in a practice a day earlier, the coach responded: “I would say that’s being nice. I lost my voice, again. In the end, we have a standard. They didn’t live up to that standard yesterday and they owned up to it. They understood it. It wasn’t just one guy. That kind of stuff is unacceptable.”
OK, let me offer a tip of the cap to Hackett. He isn’t all hugs and smiley faces. He’s willing to hold players accountable and call out unacceptable work in public.
But can we agree this is also fair: Hackett might have his standards, but a rookie head coach and the Broncos haven’t established themselves as a dangerous NFL offense, much less a legitimate playoff contender. With 17 days until they take the field Sept. 12 in Seattle, there’s simply too much about this Denver offense we don’t know.
Entering his fifth year as a pro, after battling hard to return to top form from a major knee injury suffered in 2020, we need to see if Courtland Sutton is ready to step up and truly become an elite receiver in this league.
During his career Sutton has caught 12 touchdown passes and never had more than 72 catches in a season. Can he give Wilson that dangerous target that Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen enjoys in Stefon Diggs or Derek Carr has in Las Vegas with Davante Adams?
When dropping back to pass, Wilson does live dangerously in the pocket. During a decade in Seattle, he was sacked on 8.3% of his drop-backs, a significantly higher rate of punishment than the 6.6% a tough, rambling, gambling quarterback named John Elway endured in his Broncos career.
Left tackle Garett Bolles must prove he’s worth a contract that demands he perform at a Pro Bowl level. And do the Broncos really know what they have in right tackle Billy Turner? If the offensive line can’t keep Wilson clean, Russ won’t cook.
Tight end? That position is a hope and a prayer for the Broncos. Albert Okwuegbunam and Greg Dulcich might be loaded with potential, which might or might not result in consistent red-zone production.
Good news: Williams and Gordon could become the most effective one-two punch on the ground in the league. Bad news: All we’ve seen from reserve offensive linemen after Denver averaged a paltry 1.82 yards per carry in preseason games against Dallas and Buffalo, indicates that the Broncos can ill-afford any injury to an offensive lineman.
This Denver offense is developing an identity. But it has no proven identity. Hackett sees promise. He notes: “We’ve had a couple of those ‘aha’ moments.”
Uh-huh. All we ask is four touchdowns in the season-opener against a bad Seattle team. Is that asking too much?