With 18,000 empty seats, Broncos Country sent Greg Penner a message. Stand pat at your peril.


The Vigil Brothers, Orange & Blue to the bone, had enough elbow room to land a small plane.

Five open seats to the left. Five open seats to the right. For three cold hours Sunday afternoon, Section 541 at Empower Field was cleared for landing.

“Saw it on the news,” Tyler Vigil laughed. “’Buy your tickets now, 20 bucks.’”

“Bad as the Rockies,” Troy Vigil mused.

Tyler smiled at that one.

“We’re still fans,” he said. “Still coming to the games.”

Yet 18,423 chose not to. Denver 24, Cardinals 15 saw the third-largest collection of reported no-shows in Broncos franchise history. And the third game of at least 12,000 no-shows since December 2018.

“I think we’re down to the loyal fans, at this point,” Joe Juergensen of Lakewood sighed. He sat with his son Luke wearing matching Santa hats at the tippy-top of Section 540, where the elbow room was comparable.

“I’ve been a Broncos fan since I was a little kid. My son, he’s been a Broncos fan (all his life). And so a little downturn in how they’re doing wasn’t going to keep us from coming, that’s for sure.”

Memo to Greg Penner, the new Broncos CEO: Don’t you dare take the die-hards, the Vigils and the Juergensens, for granted. Ever. And don’t hand-wave all those empty seats as a cold-weather business casualty, either.

The disinterest was a plea for change, however subtle. For entertainment. For winning at best; competence, at worst. For a roster in which 21 second-half points is the norm — and not some freak exception against a bad, beat-up team in The Backup Bowl.

“It’s just growing pains right now,” Luke offered, hopefully.

“We had some big injuries in the beginning,” Joe added, “and I think it just takes time to build chemistry. We have a new coach, a new quarterback … it takes time. And when you throw injuries in there, that makes it take a little longer.”

It’s the holiday season, and Joe, cheering through chattering teeth in an orange John Elway replica jersey, was more forgiving than most. Especially when I asked for a 1-word description of a 2022 season that flexed the Broncos, with Russell Wilson in tow, back into NFL irrelevance.

“And you can’t use, ‘disappointment,’” I said.

Joe paused. He pondered. He scratched his Santa hat.

“How about ‘patience?’” he replied.


“It’s been an exercise in patience this year, for sure,” he continued. “But I’m still hopeful for the future.”

And give the Broncos credit for this much: For all those injuries, all those leaks, they’re not counting to Cancun as they break the huddle. Not yet.

The Cardinals? Oh, yeah. Completely. Get ’em down, and it’s 1-2-3 Cabo, baby. Trace McSorley, the backup to the backup, looked like a deer in headlights Sunday (two interceptions on 15 attempts). Only the deer has a better arm.

Temps aside, Week 15 felt like Preseason Week 4. Brett Rypien vs. Colt McCoy. Brett Rypien vs. McSorley. The Backup Bowl became The Backup To The Backup Bowl.

“They thought they had another Peyton Manning (situation),” Troy Vigil said of the Wilson trade. “And that wasn’t the case. Just too much money guaranteed right up front. They lose heart when they got their money.”

The die-hards along the back rows in 540 and 541 were in unison on three points: 1. They’re OK with Penner running it back one more time with George Paton at GM, Wilson at QB and Nathaniel Hackett as head coach; 2. They still like Paton’s trade for Big Russ but hate the contract extension that followed; 3. They all want to see Paton finally address the offensive line with draft picks or free-agent dollars.

“I also agree on building up the offensive line,” Tyler Vigil said. “You’ve got so much at receiver and QB. Definitely build upon the line. And maybe a little bit more on the defense, also.

“I’d give it one more year,” Joe Juergensen reasoned. “I just think that if you don’t run it back this year, then you’re starting over again.”

“The big guys like (Tim) Patrick got hurt really early,” Luke added. “And then I think, like, it’s Hackett’s first year as a head coach. So he’s still trying to figure everything out.”

He better hurry. For now, the Empower Field record for reported no-shows remains intact: Dec. 1, 2019, when 19,094 skipped out on Drew Lock’s first start, a 33-degree affair against the Chargers.

As fate would have it, the Broncos have one home game left. Against the Bolts. In January.

“The people here,” Joe said, “are the ones that really love the Broncos.”

Hey, a town could get used to this. If that town is Jacksonville.


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