DENVER | Jerry Rosburg isn’t walking through that door to save the Denver Broncos’ head coach from himself like he did a year ago.
When the Broncos jumped out to a 21-3 lead against Washington on Sunday, it seemed the safest of bets that coach Sean Payton would improve to 73-0, including playoffs, when his teams held a lead of 18 points or more.
Russell Wilson’s teams in Seattle had never blown that big of a lead.
Denver’s defense had sacked Sam Howell three times, rookie speedsters Marvin Mims Jr. and Jaleel McLaughlin had scored their first NFL touchdowns and second-year speedster Brandon Johnson had caught Wilson’s third TD throw.
When the Commanders went three-and-out on their next drive, Mims returned the punt 45 yards to the Washington 40-yard line with 7:57 left before halftime.
The rout was on.
After burning his final timeout with 6:46 left in the first half, however, Wilson coughed up the ball at midfield and the Commanders recovered.
The comeback was coming up.
“We give them the ball at midfield, and that momentum shifts at that point with the fumble,” said Payton, who displayed an increasing sense of frustration with Wilson after the Broncos’ 35-33 loss to Washington.
All of the problems that plagued the Broncos in their season-opening loss to Las Vegas came roaring back: the costly penalties, the ineffective pass rush, the poor pass protection, an offense that suddenly looked like all those cars that got stuck in the mud at the Burning Man festival.
Another thing that returned: the frustrated fans at Empower Field counting down the play clock like they did for Nathaniel Hackett in Week 2 last year as the rookie coach struggled to get play calls in to Wilson on time.
General manager George Paton responded then by bringing Rosburg out of retirement to help Hackett with game management. When Hackett was fired with a 4-11 record, Rosburg took over and went 1-1 as interim coach before giving way to Payton, who famously criticized Hackett over the summer for doing one of the worst jobs in the history of the NFL.
Now, Payton is off to a worse start than Hackett, who began 2-1 before losing 10 of his last 12 games. The only Broncos head coach to start his tenure worse than 0-2 was Vic Fangio, who lost his first four games in 2019 on his way to a 7-9 record. Mac Speedie lost his first two games in 1965 and finished 4-10.
Back to Sunday and Wilson’s fumble, one of two turnovers he had to go with his three touchdown passes.
The Commanders scored 32 of the next 35 points, handing the Broncos back-to-back home losses to start a season for the first time in their history.
“We have to be better than that, and that starts with me,” Payton said.
Payton wasn’t pleased with his defense, either, but he seemed particularly peeved about his offense’s inefficiency after building the big early lead.
“There were a number of drives where we were late with personnel, getting out of the huddle we took a while. That has to change,” Payton said. “We had to burn timeouts in the first half, and I’m not used to doing that. We have to be better. I have to be better. Russ has to be sharper with getting the play out, and then we have to look at how much we have in. If we need to wristband it, we will.”
Mims had 168 all-purpose yards on just five touches. With catches of 53 and 60 yards, Mims became the first Bronco since the AFL-NFL merger to record multiple catches of 50-plus yards in the same game. Throw in his 45-yard punt return and Mims is the first Broncos rookie and eighth NFL rookie since 1998 to record three plays of 45 or more yards in a single game. The only one who could stop him was Payton, who had the second-round pick from Oklahoma stuck on the sideline for most of the second half.
WHAT NEEDS WORK
Communication. Payton’s suggestion that he might have Wilson wear a wristband of plays is a callback to last year. The quarterback began wearing a wristband after a tough stretch under Hackett.
Payton. So far it looks like the same old Broncos, who have committed 19 penalties so far, showing a lack of discipline that’s hurting their chances of a turnaround.
Payton provided no update on S Delarrin Turner-Yell, who was dinged up in the fourth quarter. He had gone into the game when S Kareem Jackson was ejected for launching himself at tight end Logan Thomas and hitting him helmet-to-helmet. Jackson faces a potential suspension from the NFL after his second concussion-causing illegal hit this season. He also hurt Raiders WR Jakobi Meyers in Week 1.
Wilson eclipsed 41,000 passing yards and 5,000 rushing yards for his career on Sunday when he threw for 308 yards and ran for 56 more. He’s the only player in NFL history to throw for 40,000 yards and run for 5,000.
The Broncos visit Miami (2-0) on Sunday.
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