As a self-appointed scholar of what "one of the worst coaching jobs in the history of the NFL" looked like for Nathaniel Hackett and the Denver Broncos in 2022, Sean Payton didn't need to be told where Sunday's tectonic debacle ranked. But he was reminded anyway, because this is how it works in the NFL. It's a contact sport. If you throw hands (or words) off the field, you're liable to get paid back on it, especially in a league that thrives on scoreboard karma.
Payton's comeuppance arrived fast this season, following Sunday's 70-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins. The defeat dropped Denver to 0-3 and the Broncos are unexpectedly reeling. The problems? We'll get to that. First, about that karma, here's the snippet that Payton had to live through in Sunday's news conference.
Reporter: “I know you said it’s embarrassing, but this is kind of a historic game.”
Payton: “I’m aware.”
Reporter: “Third time a team has scored 70 points and had over 700 yards … "
Payton: “What’s the question? What’s the question?”
Reporter: “How do you feel about it being historically embarrassing?”
Payton: “I just finished telling you. Next question.”
It was the kind of terse exchange you’d expect when a member of the media makes sure the head coach is acquainted with a butt-whooping. Payton reacted the way most pissed-off head coaches would. For the record, he called Miami’s total dominance (726 total on offense, 10 total touchdowns) “embarrassing," which is about half the picture. In the microcosm of just Sunday’s loss, it looked like whatever the coaching staff was preparing for on defense was entirely wrong-footed. Payton appeared to allude to that when speaking to the team’s flagship radio station KOA 94.1 FM after the loss, asking rhetorically, “Were we in the right stuff? Both sides of the ball.”
“I’m at a loss for words because I’ve never been in — I’ve been on the other side of some games like that,” Payton said. “And then every once in a while in this league, you get your butt whooped — but this was more than that.”
“Today was not a growing pain,” offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey added. “Today was unacceptable.”
Taken in the wider context of league history, it should concern everyone in the organization, from Payton and the locker room to the front office and ownership. The last two teams that gave up 70 points or more — the 1950 Baltimore Colts and the 1966 New York Giants — finished those seasons a combined 2-23-1. Seventy-point scoring binges and 50-point losses (and that deficit is the worst of Payton’s career) don’t just happen. There’s always other underlying issues inside a team that flops that badly.
That 1966 Giants team finished 1-12-1 and underwent a major roster renovation the following offseason, which included trading for a 27-year-old Fran Tarkenton. That 1950 Colts team was so bad that the league dissolved the franchise after the season, leaving Baltimore without an NFL team until the Colts were rebooted in 1953. I guess the glass half-full takeaway is that the league office won’t be canceling the Broncos entirely. But aside from that? It will all depend on whether Denver can pick itself up after this one.
If Sunday was some kind of mismatch between scheme and talent, then it means the word “rebuild” is going to become more prominent if additional losses mount. If it was simply a matter of being completely out of whack in building a plan for the Dolphins, then it means a wrench will be taken to the assistant coaching staff or preparation. If it’s a little bit of everything, then these Broncos are in for the type of pain that might match last season’s massively disappointing 5-12 finish.
Of course, there’s a chance that more of this was about the Dolphins than we realize. Even playing on Sunday without explosive No. 2 wideout Jaylen Waddle or waiting for a major offseason addition like cornerback Jalen Ramsey to make his season debut, Miami has looked remarkably tough this season. Not only did the Dolphins come into this weekend with an impressive 2-0 record (both victories were on the road), they featured an offensive gear that looks special. And against Denver, that unit hammered the pedal to top speed on the speedometer, looking faster and more decisive on every drive.
Whether that’s effort-related will be a question Payton has to sort through, but he is already being zinged by some of his former peers — most prominently former Dallas Cowboys head coach and current NBC analyst Jason Garrett, who pulled no punched Sunday night.
“Sean Payton’s got a lot of soul searching to do with that football team,” Garrett said on NBC’s "Sunday Night Football" broadcast. “Because they quit. They didn’t compete.”
It didn’t stop there. Patrick Surtain II’s father chimed in on X, tweeting that his son “deserve[d] better”. In the opposing locker room, Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard reportedly labeled it “totally disrespectful” that Denver kept quarterback Russell Wilson in for the entirety of the loss. And inside the Broncos, offensive tackle Garett Bolles let a pair of expletives fly when asked about his emotions following the loss, then punctuated it with a sentiment that likely resonates with longstanding members of the organization.
“I’m tired of losing, man,” Bolles said to reporters. “I’ve been here for seven years and all I’ve done is lost. It’s frustrating.”
Where do the Broncos go from here? Payton said he will start with an assessment of his performance Sunday, then move on to his staff. Eventually, it will trickle down to the players and the game tape, which Payton said the Broncos would absolutely be watching.
“It’d be one thing to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to get on to the next game,’” Payton said. “But we have to watch that tape. [Monday] will be tough for a lot of players. Tough for us, too, as coaches. … We’ve got to look closely at what we were doing. When someone runs the ball up and down the field like those guys did and throw it up and down the field, it’s not acceptable. We just gotta get to the tape.”
If the preseason was any indication, it will be a grinding week for the players and the staff. There’s a seemingly soft spot in the schedule to be had with the Chicago Bears coming to Denver on Sunday. Chicago is a franchise that is arguably as rocked as Denver right now. And at this point, it has to be embraced as the first and best opportunity to get a foothold after a disaster.
As Wilson put it, “The reality is it’s a 14-game season. That’s what we’ve got to focus on moving forward.”