MERILATT MONDAY

Unfortunately, the Broncos are polar opposite of the Niners model

Jan 29, 2024, 4:00 AM


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When it comes to rebuilding an NFL franchise, the San Francisco 49ers provide the perfect template. In 2016, the storied franchise finished a dismal 2-14. In the seven seasons since, they’ve made the postseason four times, played in three NFC Championship Games and will be making their second Super Bowl appearance in 13 days.

That’s a remarkable turnaround. It’s a case study for any franchise looking to go from the outhouse to the penthouse.

Unfortunately for the Denver Broncos, their current setup doesn’t look anything like what the Niners have done. In fact, it’s the polar opposite.

It all starts in the front office. After their two-win season, San Francisco broomed general manager Trent Baalke and head coach Chip Kelly. They replaced them with two people who were brought in to work together.

John Lynch was hired to replace Baalke. Kyle Shanahan was brought in to take Kelly’s place.

The GM and head coach were hired at the same time. They were in sync from the get-go.

Contrast that what’s happened in Denver. After John Elway stepped down as general manager, the Broncos hired George Paton. In part, he was selected by Vic Fangio, the Broncos head coach at the time.

It was an awkward alliance from the start. Fangio wasn’t Paton’s choice, but he felt obligated to keep him around. The marriage last one season.

Paton then got to make his own hire, but it was a disaster. The general manager chose Nathaniel Hackett to replace Fangio, in part because he thought the former Packers offensive coordinator could help lure Aaron Rodgers to the Mile High City. It was a disaster; Hackett was fired after just 15 games.

Then, Paton has his wings clipped. New ownership was in place and they handled the next head coach hire. Greg Penner and company went with Sean Payton.

As a result, the Broncos have a situation where the head coach has more power than the GM. They also have a dynamic that doesn’t have both parties on equal footing.

Lynch and Shanahan were brought in at the same time. They were each given long-term contracts. They were going to sink or swim together.

In Denver, Paton is on the hot seat, while Payton is still in the grace period. If things go wrong, the GM can be the scapegoat, saving the head coach’s hide.

Penner should’ve started over at the end of the 2022 season. He should’ve parted ways with both Paton and Hackett. He should’ve done what San Francisco did six years earlier.

That would’ve been the wise move. But the Broncos didn’t follow the Niners model.

The owner also didn’t get it right when it came to hiring a head coach. When they had their opening in ’16, San Francisco hired the hottest coordinator in the business. Shanahan was fresh off helping the Falcons reach the Super Bowl, thanks in large part to him guiding Matt Ryan to an MVP season.

If Penner had followed that example, he’d have gone after Shane Steichen last offseason, the OC who was a part of the Eagles run to the Super Bowl and the coach who helped turn Jalen Hurts into a big-time quarterback. Steichen went 9-8 during his first season with the Colts, despite having to play most of the season with Gardner Minshew behind center.

Or he would’ve made sure that he didn’t get outdueled for DeMeco Ryans, the defensive coordinator who built a group in San Francisco that helped the 49ers reach the NFC title game last year. Ryans landed in Houston, where he went 10-7, won a playoff game and is likely going to win NFL Coach of the Year honors.

Instead, Penner went with a retread. He gave up a first-round draft pick and a reported $90 million contract to lure Payton out of the television studio and back to the sideline. He swung big for a head coach with an impressive resume, going with a known commodity over someone with huge upside.

Payton went 8-9 during his first campaign in Denver, extending the Broncos streak of losing seasons to seven and their non-playoff stretch to eight years. He also showed plenty of signs of rust, making multiple in-game blunders. And he bristled with Russell Wilson, creating a situation where the team is going to have to eat $85 million in dead cap to move on from their quarterback.

Denver should’ve gone with a young, up-and-coming coach. They should’ve hired Steichen or Ryans.

That would’ve been the wise move. But the Broncos didn’t follow the Niners model.

It doesn’t end there, however. Denver’s approach to roster building is also a mess.

San Francisco is headed to the Super Bowl because they have a dynamic offense. They finished the regular season second overall on that side of the ball, averaging the third-most points per game in the league. And they did it with a seventh-round pick at quarterback.

How? By surrounding their QB with the best weapons in football.

Christian McCaffrey is a first-team All-Pro running back. He’s the favorite to win the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year award. He finished the regular season with 21 total touchdowns.

George Kittle is also a first-team All-Pro. The tight end had 1,020 receiving yards and six touchdowns this season. He’s also a beast of a blocker, helping the Niners ground game dominate opponents.

Brandon Aiyuk was a second-team All-Pro at wide receiver, following a season in which he had 75 catches for 1,342 yards and seven touchdowns. And he isn’t even the best wideout on San Francisco’s roster. Deebo Samuel is arguably the most-dynamic weapon in the NFL; he’s probably the most valuable player on the 49ers offenser.

Contrast that to what the Broncos have done. They’ve put together one of the most-anemic collection of skill position players in the league.

Javonte Williams is Denver’s featured running back. He averaged 3.6 yards per carry in 2023.

The Broncos have the most-expensive wide receiver room in the NFL. Courtland Sutton is the only member of the group to earn a Pro Bowl invite; it came back in 2019.

And Denver’s tight ends were the least productive in the league this season. Adam Trautman and company were dead last in receptions and receiving yards.

The Broncos needed to realize that their roster was devoid of big-play ability, especially after Tim Patrick was lost for the season once again during training camp. They needed to address running back, tight end and wide receiver in free agency, the draft and via trade.

That would’ve been the wise move. But the Broncos didn’t follow the Niners model.

Many in Broncos Country will lament the fact that Denver didn’t hire Shanahan when they had the chance. They interviewed him in 2016, but chose to go with Vance Joseph instead.

While that was a blunder, it wasn’t the move that ultimately put the franchise into the abyss where they currently reside. It was just one of many missteps that led to their dire situation.

The Broncos could’ve rectified their mistakes at any point. They didn’t have to compound.

After all, it’s not as though the 49ers have been flawless. After all, they signed Jimmy Garoppolo to a five-year, $137.5 million contract prior to the 2018 season. They also traded the 10th, 29th, 101st and 29th overall picks across three drafts in order to move up to take Trey Lance.

Neither quarterback is still with the team. San Francisco managed to move on from their mistakes, without them derailing the franchise.

That’s because they have a good structure. That’s because they are built the right way. That’s because they know what it takes to build a winning team.

Denver could’ve put something similar in place. They could’ve set themselves up to not be hamstrung by passing on Josh Allen, missing on Paxton Lynch and trading for Wilson. They just needed a solid foundation in place.

That would’ve been the wise move. But the Broncos didn’t follow the Niners model.

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Unfortunately, the Broncos are polar opposite of the Niners model