DENVER (AP) — Deion Sanders sauntered into the Arrow Touchdown Club for what felt more like an old-fashioned tent revival than a news conference to introduce the University of Colorado’s splashy new hire of “Coach Prime” as its new head football coach.
At that very moment Sunday afternoon, the Denver Broncos were predictably blowing another late lead in their death spiral under Nathaniel Hackett and Russell Wilson, who this time couldn’t even reach the red zone much less the end zone in a 10-9 loss at Baltimore.
Folsom Field has been college football’s wasteland for the better part of this century but a perfect storm has brewed over Boulder that could allow the Buffaloes to turn things around overnight from a 1-11 team that was one of the worst in the nation to a relevant program again.
The NCAA now allows athletes to cash in on their exploits and transfer schools without having to sit out a season. And the university has relaxed its stringent credit transfer regulations while creating a pool of donations to parcel out to players.
Combine that with the home run hire of Sanders and Colorado can suddenly compete with traditional powerhouses in luring five-star recruits and prominent players in the transfer portal.
Suddenly it’s cool to be at Colorado, and with Coach Prime’s arrival, the Buffs have swiped the buzz that the Broncos have owned in the Centennial State for decades.
Now, it’s the Broncos who are at the bottom of the barrel in the NFL. At 3-9, they’ve lost 13 of their last 16, the franchise’s worst such stretch since the 1970 merger.
It was the state’s professional football team and not it’s flagship university that had all the buzz this spring.
When the Buffs were embarking on a season that would see them win just one game and fire their head football coach Karl Dorrell midseason, the Broncos were boasting about their acquisition of Wilson, a Super Bowl-winning quarterback supposedly still in his prime at 33, whom they would reward with a contract extension before the season that was worth just shy of a quarter billion dollars.
Broncos fans were thrilled that the team’s new owners were members of the wealthiest family in America. Walmart heir Rob Walton, the oldest child of Walmart co-founder Sam Walton, bought the Broncos along with his daughter, Carrie Walton Penner, and her husband, Greg Penner, for $4.65 billion, a global record for a professional sports franchise.
Suddenly, the NFL’s wealthiest owners by a mile were in the Mile High City.
Things were looking up in Denver, where Hackett was plucked off the Packers staff to replace Vic Fangio.
But things took a bad turn from the start, when Hackett settled for a Brandon McManus 64-yard field-goal attempt in Wilson’s horrible homecoming at Seattle in the season opener.
McManus missed, just as he did Sunday when he came up short on a 63-yarder at Baltimore, leaving the Broncos still without a win on American soil since Sept. 25.
Wilson has thrown just eight touchdowns in 11 starts and the Broncos have reached the end zone three times since Halloween.
Detroit Lions running back Jamaal Williams has as many touchdowns himself — 14 — as the entire Broncos roster this season.
The Broncos managed just three field goals Sunday but still throttled the Ravens all afternoon before allowing Lamar Jackson’s backup Tyler Huntley to drive them 91 yards in 16 plays for the game’s only touchdown with 28 seconds left.
The Dallas Cowboys scored 33 points in the fourth quarter Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts, or 18 more points than the Broncos have managed in the third quarter all season.
It’s “Groundhog Day” in Denver with the Broncos’ maladroit offense unable to score and its stellar defense incapable of closing out opponents. Every Sunday, they trot out the same tired offense behind a patchwork line, revamped backfield and reserve receivers.
Every Monday, Hackett is peppered with questions about why this has been such a poor fit with Wilson and the elusive fixes to this mess.
“We’re evaluating everything,” has become his mantra as Hackett dodges straightforward answers better than Wilson eludes the pass rush.
One longtime fan who’s been a season ticket holder for nearly four decades told The Associated Press that while he won’t sell his tickets for fear of having them revoked by the Broncos, he cannot even give them away, even to this weekend’s game against Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs.
Not helping matters was a rare slip-up by the Broncos’ social media team over the weekend after the week’s poster on the team’s official Twitter account showed Denver’s leading tackler Alex Singleton alongside Jackson, Baltimore’s dynamic starting quarterback who went out in the first quarter with a knee injury.
Critics wondered why they highlighted Singleton rather than say, star cornerback Patrick Surtain II or star safety Justin Simmons, who would record two interceptions Sunday.
“Looks like we made some new friends with our game poster!” read the team’s response on Twitter. “Shoutout to the real fans who know we do this every week & always feature a different player.”
Parsing the “real” fans during a seven-year slide that includes six straight losing seasons isn’t the best bet for a team that’s experiencing such a disappointing 2022 season as Denver is.
Especially on the weekend that Sanders arrived to much fanfare at Folsom Field — and during a Broncos game, no less.
For once, the first question at Hackett’s Monday news conference wasn’t about the team’s myriad problems. Instead, he was asked about Sanders’ arrival 30 miles away in Boulder.
“I congratulate him—what a great opportunity,” Hackett said. “What he did at Jackson State was unbelievable. It shows how good of a coach he is. I’m very excited for him and the state of Colorado to have him here.
“I met him one time when I was a kid. I remember that, but he probably wouldn’t remember that. It’s Prime Time. He’s one of the best to ever play this game, and it’s great to have him here.”
Thing is, it’s fair for football fans to wonder if Hackett is saying hello when it’s time to say goodbye.