Just three games into the season it might be too early to declare it as such, but the Denver Broncos' failure to convert a fourth-and-goal play in the fourth quarter could be one of the pivotal events of the season. Make it and the Broncos are up, 21-10 (after the extra point). Fail to convert and the Tennessee Titans, while at their own goal line, have momentum on their side. The third outcome, the one head coach John Fox elected not to go with, would also have added points to the Broncos' lead for 17-10 advantage.
As things played out, we all know by now, Willis McGahee ran under center when the play was supposed to be behind right guard Chris Kuper. No touchdown. While the Titans didn't score on the following drive, they did take advantage of the Broncos defense during the final minutes of the game to pick up the 17-14 victory.
Was it the right call? Fox's call is certainly defensible. While the old adage is to play for the tie on the road and go for the win at home, Fox saw his chance here. A two-score lead would have been the dagger to the Titans' hope of winning this game. Adding three points would have still set up the Titans for a chance to tie the game.
As Woody Paige wrote in the Denver Post, "The Broncos did the right thing, but it turned out wrong." And John Fox will continue to make that same call.
Aside from that play, what else should we take away from this defeat?
1. Kyle Orton Does Not Give The Broncos The Best Chance To Win, But I Don't Know Who Does
The sentiment before the season was that Kyle Orton as quarterback gives the Broncos the best chance to win. The locker room was behind him and ready to play the season with him. But for how much longer can that last? As Andrew Mason of MaxDenver.com points out, Orton has been a severe disappointment in close, late-game situations since 2010. Of course, the Broncos as a team have struggled in that regard at the same time.
Quarterbacks that give their team the best chance to win don't throw interceptions during the final minutes of the game. We saw that happen late on Sunday afternoon with the Chiefs' Matt Cassel, who threw one into the waiting hands of the Chargers' Eric Weddle. The Chargers ran the clock out after that for the 20-17 win.
It was the same thing for Kyle Orton earlier in the day. With one last drive to beat the Titans, Orton made a throw that was tipped at the line and wound up in the hands of Will Witherspoon, effectively ending the game. It was another in a long list of untimely interceptions by Orton (OK, all interceptions are untimely).
And so all the talk still remains on Orton's status as starter, while Tim Tebow, who might be no better than Orton, is waiting in the wings. But talk of Tebow as a savior is wrong. As Troy Hufford at Mile High Report writes:
Would it have been different if Tebow were in there? Who can say? It's all hindsight and hypotheticals, at this point. I can't tell you how many times I've seen "Tebow would have us at 3-0 right now". Can someone really say that? As the Big Lebowski would say "Yeah, well...that's just like, uh, your opinion, man."
The fourth-and-goal call was a bold decision for a conservative coach like Fox. Will he eventually make that bold decision to move beyond Kyle Orton and see what he has in Tim Tebow? Either way, he doesn't have much to lose.
Look at what happened when Carolina took a chance on Cam Newton in the first three weeks of the season. I realize they lost their first two games, but Newton put up crazy numbers and proved to all his haters and doubters that he could not only play in this league, but he has a bright future ahead.
Tim Tebow has all of three starts in the NFL and he went 1-2 in those games last season. We need to see more out of him to make a judgment on his future, but we know what Kyle Orton can deliver. Fortes fortuna adiuvat.
2. The Disappearing Running Game
A week ago against the Cincinnati Bengals, Willis McGahee pounded the ball 28 times for 101 yards on the ground. He didn't need to split carries with Knowshon Moreno since he was out with a hamstring injury. Then on Sunday, Moreno was active for the game but didn't receive any snaps, ready to go in case of an emergency.
McGahee received all but one snap on Sunday and struggled. As we already went over, McGahee failed to convert the goal line play, but he failed to crack 60 yards. He needed 22 carries to reach 52 yards for the game. As Andrew Mason at MaxDenver.com breaks it down, the Broncos last lost a game in which they had over 20 carries and less than 60 yards was in 1990. And from 1992-2008, the team did not even have a game like that.
If Moreno can play next week, let's hope he and McGahee can work in tandem as we thought they would during the preseason.
3. Is The Rush Defense Much Improved?
The Raiders' Darren McFadden blazed his way to 150 yards against the Broncos, an all-too-common experience lately, to open the season. Since then, however, the Broncos' defense has kept opposing running games in check. Bengals running back Cedric Benson averaged eight yards a carry on his first three attempts last week before he finished the game with 59 yards on 16 carries. Certainly a step forward from the previous week.
Then the Broncos faced Chris Johnson this week. One of the top running backs in the league, Johnson skipped training camp before reaching a contract extension in early September. He then struggled the first two weeks of the season, reaching 53 yards in Week 2. The game against the Broncos seemed like a good chance for a breakout, but he plodded along for just 21 yards on 13 carries (1.6 yards per carry).
The team is allowing 100 yards on the ground this season, a significant improvement over the 154.6 from last season. However, I'm not sold on the run defense being that good yet.
The Broncos now stand 1-2 on the season with a game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field next week. John Fox is going to have a tough time coming up with his first road victory.