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Broncos’ flat finale brings one note of clarity: The offensive offseason to-do list is as critical as it is long

LAS VEGAS — Sean Payton considers himself a planner.

The Broncos’ offseason schedule, he said Friday, is essentially in place through mid-June, when the NFL takes its summer break.

Turns out, Denver’s offensive offseason to-do list is also mostly finalized.

Oh, it hasn’t been put to paper or saved to a top-secret Google doc?

No need, really. The Broncos put it on film Sunday in their 27-14 season-closing loss to the hated Raiders.

The overall season tallies: 8-9 overall, 3-3 in the division and losers of eight straight to the silver and black.

“You are what your record is in our league,” Payton said. “That’s just the truth.”

You are also what your film says you are.

And the Broncos’ offense? It plunges into 2024 with more questions than answers.

More head-scratchers than headliners.

More chopping blocks than building blocks.

At least, that’s the initial post-mortem read from Payton and company. Maybe the days and weeks of meetings and reviews will cool heads and result in a slightly adjusted set of answers.

On Sunday, though, every element of the Denver offense combined to turn in one, final underwhelming performance under the direction of a coach hired at least in part to make sure those stopped.

“That’s where we’re moving,” Payton said. “There’s a lot that goes into that. I’m a little — it’s our offense and it evolves wherever you go. It’s not, ‘this is it.’ I’ve told you guys, we’ve had different quarterbacks play, we’ve had different running backs over the years.

“Part of our job is to build our offense around the ingredients that are in the building. We’ll continue to do that.”

The Broncos had most of their ingredients stocked in the pantry and available for most of the season, blessed with good health and the kind of continuity most teams don’t get over a 17-game schedule.

They tweaked and tinkered and ultimately dropped one big bomb — benching Russell Wilson for Jarrett Stidham the final two games — but regardless of what moves Payton and the offensive staff made, middle-of-the-pack output continued to follow.

That’s what makes Week 18 more a season snapshot than an anomaly borne of a meaningless finale.

The quarterback question is the elephant in the room and Stidham didn’t do anything over the final two weeks to settle the matter, not that he was realistically expected to.

In two games, he threw for 496 yards, two touchdowns and an interception and was sacked seven times. The Broncos in his two starts scored 16 and 14 points, two of their four lowest scoring marks of the year.

How about the other positions?

Denver Broncos running back Javonte Williams (33) has nowhere to run during the second half of the game at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Nevada on Jan. 7, 2024. The Las Vegas Raiders beat the Denver Broncos 27-14 during week 18 of NFL season. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)
Denver Broncos running back Javonte Williams (33) has nowhere to run during the second half of the game at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Nevada on Jan. 7, 2024. The Las Vegas Raiders beat the Denver Broncos 27-14 during week 18 of NFL season. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Javonte Williams rushed for 32 yards on nine carries (and caught seven passes for 43) on Sunday.  He didn’t surpass 65 rushing yards or 3.9 yards per carry in any of the Broncos’ last seven games and over the last four averaged 31 yards per game and 2.6 per carry. Williams playing in 16 games is a testament to his remarkable recovery from a brutal 2022 knee injury, but the production waned substantially down the stretch.

Payton said Sunday he didn’t think Williams ran out of gas.

“I thought we got beat up front,” he countered. “I was disappointed in how we played up front, I’ll be honest with you. I thought we’d be able to run the ball better.”

That, too, was supposed to be a strong suit of this team.

The Broncos spent $81 million guaranteed in free agency this spring on Mike McGlinchey and Ben Powers and currently have three players with $15 million-plus cap numbers on the books for 2024. McGlinchey didn’t play Sunday, but the Broncos gave up five sacks and 11 hits on Stidham and averaged 2.4 yards per carry.

After rushing for 169 yards against a stout Cleveland defense in late November, the Broncos over their final six games averaged 89.8 yards per game and 3.3 per carry.

“I would say I don’t think were consistent enough on offense and as an entire team,” right guard Quinn Meinerz said. “The games you look at that we won, we played really good complimentary football. The games we lost, we didn’t necessarily play that complimentary football.

“That’s what you’ve got to do, especially late in the season.”

Early in the season or late, the Broncos’ tight end group didn’t do much in the passing game after Greg Dulcich’s season got marred by hamstring injuries that cost him all but parts of two games.

Adam Trautman’s 21-yard grab Sunday gave him 22 for 204 and three touchdowns.

The Broncos’ top pair of receivers, too, had bright spots during the season but not enough overall production. Courtland Sutton made several highlight-reel plays among his 10 touchdowns but one catch for two yards Sunday and 59 for 772 on the season. Jerry Jeudy had 79 yards and a touchdown Sunday in perhaps his best outing of the year, and finished with 54 catches for 758 yards and two touchdowns.

League-wide, 57 players entered Week 18 with 59 catches or more and 41 had more than 772 yards.

The Broncos haven’t had a 1,000-yard receiver since Sutton in 2019, and yet he, Jeudy and Tim Patrick at present combine to count more than $46 million against the cap for 2024.

Change is likely coming at that position. Change is perhaps coming at all of Denver’s offensive skill positions and, clearly, at quarterback, too.

Denver Broncos wide receiver Courtland Sutton (14) is upset on the sidelines during the second half of the game at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Nevada on Jan. 7, 2024. The Las Vegas Raiders beat the Denver Broncos 27-14 during week 18 of NFL season. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)
Denver Broncos wide receiver Courtland Sutton (14) is upset on the sidelines during the second half of the game at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Nevada on Jan. 7, 2024. The Las Vegas Raiders beat the Denver Broncos 27-14 during week 18 of NFL season. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

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