DENVER (AP) — The Sean Payton era in Denver began with an onside kick.
It didn’t work.
This just looked like more of the same for a franchise that has gone seven seasons without a playoff appearance and six straight without a winning record.
At least the crowd didn’t need to count down the play clock for Russell Wilson and the offense like it did under Nathaniel Hackett last year. That’s some sort of progress.
Beleaguered by costly penalties and special teams blunders, the Broncos opened Payton’s tenure with a 17-16 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders on Sunday. That’s seven straight losses to their AFC West adversary.
“We just didn’t execute. End of story,” said defensive back Justin Simmons, whose team had 10 penalties that led to six first downs. “We’ve got to find ways to do that, and we will.”
Payton made his return to the field after spending last season in the broadcast booth for Fox. He’s trying to turn things around following a dismal season under Hackett, who was fired after a 4-11 start in his first heading coaching job.
Electing for the element of surprise, Payton called for an onside kick to begin his Denver debut.
He famously called one to start the second half of the Saints’ Super Bowl win over the Colts to cap the 2009 season. And this one nearly worked, too, with Essang Bassey recovering the ball and celebrating with his teammates and rocking Empower Field.
Only, the ball hit teammate Tremon Smith a yard shy of the requisite 10 yards. So, Las Vegas had a short field to work with and soon went up 7-0 with that 44-yard touchdown drive.
It got worse.
Kicker Wil Lutz missed his first extra point attempt and also a 55-yard field goal attempt. This on a day when the kicker he was replacing, Brandon McManus, was 5-for-5 on extra points and a field goal in Jacksonville’s 31-21 win over the Colts.
“My job is to make field goals,” said Lutz, who also kicked for Payton in New Orleans and was acquired from the Saints for a draft pick two weeks ago.
To comfort Lutz, lineman Garett Bolles ventured over and interjected, saying the Broncos love him.
Although the words meant a lot, Lutz quickly countered: “I didn’t hold up my end of the deal today. … My job is to make kicks and to lose game by one and you leave four points on the board, I didn’t do my job.”
The penalties proved costly, too, including a roughing the passer call and two unnecessary roughness flags.
On the final drive, the Broncos appeared to have stopped the Raiders short after a third-down catch from Jakobi Meyers. But Broncos defensive back Kareem Jackson was flagged for a hit up high on Meyers, who stayed down for a moment before heading to the locker room. The penalty gave the Raiders a first down and when quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo scrambled for another first down on third-and-7, it allowed the Raiders to run out the clock.
“Look obviously, disappointing loss,” said Payton, whose team hosts Washington next Sunday. “We didn’t make enough plays.”
Or score enough points.
The Broncos averaged a league-low 16.9 points last season — and a little over 15 under Hackett, whom Payton earlier this summer criticized for doing one of the worst coaching jobs in NFL history, something he later said he regretted bringing up.
Wilson got off to a great start, completing 17 of 19 passes, two for touchdowns, in the first half, for 125 yards. One of those misses was a spike, no less.
A different story in the second half. The loss of tight end Greg Dulcich to a leg injury on the first drive hurt an offense already missing No. 1 receiver Jerry Jeudy (hamstring).
“I thought overall our tempo was decent. I think it can be better,” Payton said. “We were a little sporadic in the second half.”
This, against a Raiders team missing pass rusher Chandler Jones, who’s involved in a feud with the front office. Garoppolo played with precision and poise as he went 20 of 26 for 200 yards. He wasn’t sacked once and was hardly even pressured.
“Everyone in the locker room is feeling that grit and that hurt and understanding that it’s not just another game. We have to own this division,” receiver Courtland Sutton said. “It’s not like we went out there and got beat 30-0.”
Maybe that’s progress, but Payton was hired to fix an offense that’s been touchdown-challenged for a while and has had issues on special teams, neither of which looked much different under his watch.
“The only thing I’m disappointed (about is) we didn’t come up with a win,” Wilson said. “That’s really all that matters and it’s all we really care about.
“We’ll get better next week.”