In Week 6, the Denver Broncos fell to the Los Angeles Rams 23-20 in a game between franchises who have essentially swapped places over the last two years.
Entering 2016, the Broncos were the defending Super Bowl Champions. General Manager John Elway had put together one of the greatest defenses in NFL history in 2015, and most of their key players were back to defend their world championship.
The Rams, on the other hand, had moved from St. Louis back to Los Angeles, where they had played for nearly 50 years. The Rams finished the 2016 season with a 4-12 overall record, which led to the firing of head coach Jeff Fisher.
Let’s fast forward to 2018. Both teams have second-year head coaches — one owns a 17-5 regular season record and a trip to the playoffs, and the other has 7-15 regular season record and landed a top-five pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. How in the world did these two organizations flip flop?
Let’s take a look.
After the Broncos won Super Bowl 50 following the 2015 season, legendary quarterback Peyton Manning chose to ride off into the sunset with his two Super Bowl rings, five MVP awards, and practically every passing record a NFL quarterback can own. On top of that, Denver also lost two integral players off their historically great defense — Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan. Losing those three players drastically altered the immediate trajectory of the franchise.
While future Hall of Fame outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware and head coach Gary Kubiak returned following the team’s championship run, the Broncos were far from the same. stuck
Trevor Siemian, a former seventh round draft pick, beat out Mark Sanchez and Paxton Lynch, who the team had just traded up to select in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft, for the team’s starting quarterback job. The Broncos got off to a 4-0 start with Siemian playing like a Pro Bowl quarterback along the way. After that, everything went down hill. The Broncos ended the season at 9-7 and just missed the playoffs.
Following the 2016 season, Kubiak stepped down as the team’s head coach of the Broncos for personal reasons.
Denver turned to former Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator Vance Joseph to fill Kubiak’s vacated role. And in an incredibly unpopular move, the Broncos also decided to part ways with defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, promoting secondary coach Joe Woods to fill his vacancy.
Siemian won the starting quarterback job again in 2017, and the Broncos got off to another impressive 2-0 start to the season. Things went south in a hurry for the Orange and Blue. They went on to lose eight games in a row and had to play all three of their quarterbacks — Siemian, Lynch, and Brock Osweiler. Vance Joseph’s team finished 2017 with a 5-11 overall record and landed a top-five pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.
When free agency began in March of 2018, the Broncos signed Case Keenum to be their new starting quarterback. Denver followed that up by using the No. 5 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft on former N.C. State star Bradley Chubb, who was widely considered the premier defensive prospect in his class.
The Orange and Blue once again started off 2-0 beating the Seattle Seahawks in Week 1 and the Oakland Raiders in Week 2. As we now know, neither team is particularly good in 2018.
Fast forward to today, and the Broncos have now lost four games in a row — to the Baltimore Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs, New York Jets, and Los Angeles Rams. There is a lot of speculation that Vance Joseph is on the verge of losing his job. In fact, Joseph will likely be unemployed on Friday morning if his team loses to the Arizona Cardinals tonight.
Los Angeles Rams
In 2016, the Rams started the year off 4-9, fired head coach Jeff Fisher in Week 14, and would ultimately finish the season with a 4-12 record.
That same year, 2016 first overall pick Jared Goff started the final seven games season, completed only 54% of his passes with five touchdowns and seven interceptions, and failed to win a single game. At that point, it was safe to wonder whether the Rams screwed up by taking Goff over Carson Wentz, who went second overall to the Philadelphia Eagles.
To make matters worse, Todd Gurley, who has become one of, if not the, best running back in the NFL, played in all 16 games and only managed to rush for 885 yards. The offense didn’t look promising for the Rams, but at least the defense finished in the top 10 in the NFL. Still, something had to change. And it did — with the offseason hiring of wunderkind Sean McVay, who at the time was only 32 years old.
The first year head coach took the league by storm, helping Goff’s passer rating go from 63.6 to 100.5, and turning the worst scoring offense in the league to the best. Gurley’s numbers also improved, as he would lead the NFL in total yards from scrimmage. It was clear McVay was the answer Rams fans had been searching for.
The Rams finished the 2017 season with an 11-5 record and won the NFC West for the first time since 2003. Unfortunately, LA fell short of the ultimate storybook ending, losing to the Atlanta Falcons in the wild-card round of the playoffs. Still, it was clear the Rams were close, needing just a few additional pieces to take that next step.
In the 2018 offseason, Rams GM Les Snead took a page out of the Broncos’ 2014 playbook when they signed DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, TJ Ward, and Emmanuel Sanders, and went star hunting.
First, L.A. went out and traded for Pro Bowl cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters. Then they signed All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. And lastly, they added firepower to the offensive side of the ball by trading for wideout Brandin Cooks. The result: McVay’s offense leads the NFL in both points per game (34.0) and total yards per contest, and the defense remains a top-10 unit.
The reversal of fortunes of the Broncos and Rams is one of the reasons why the NFL is the most dominant and romantic sport in America. Teams can go from top to bottom, and vice-versa, at the drop of a hat.
The Rams started over. They snagged a young franchise quarterback and running back in the draft, built the rest through free agency, and over the last two years evolved into a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Just like the Broncos did in 2015.
Still, it makes you wonder where the Broncos would be right now had they been the ones to take a chance on McVay rather than hiring Joseph. Would they be the current odds-on favorites to win Super Bowl 53. Perhaps. But as it stands now with Joseph at the helm, they have a better chance at landing the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft than they do competing for their fourth Super Bowl title.
Now, it’s the Broncos turn to blow things up, and start over. After all, as we’ve seen time and time again, teams in the National Football League can go from the bottom to the top with one strong offseason.
Unless, of course, you’re the Cleveland Browns. But that’s a story for another day.
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