DENVER (AP) — After changing his head coach or starting quarterback each of the past five winters, John Elway seems to have finally hit on rookies Vic Fangio and Drew Lock.
A second-round draft pick from Missouri, Lock has won three of four starts, injecting a mix of nerve, novelty and mobility into a position that's been a torrent of trouble in Denver ever since Peyton Manning's retirement.
Since a winless September that featured two last-second losses, the Broncos have gone 6-5 under Fangio, a first-year head coach at age 61.
While the Broncos are finally feeling good about the two most important positions on the team, their ugly 2-6 start has doomed Denver to a third consecutive losing season for the first time since the Nixon administration.
A loss Sunday to Oakland (7-8) would give the Broncos a third straight season with double-digit losses, something that hasn't happened in more than half a century.
Only two other Super Bowl winners have followed their victory parade with four consecutive non-playoff seasons — the post-Vince Lombardi Green Bay Packers and the New York Giants following Eli Manning's second upset of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in 2012.
"It's like eating at a five-star restaurant and then next thing you know, you're eating at McDonald's every day," defensive end Derek Wolfe said.
“When you're winning, everybody loves you. When you're losing, everybody's looking at you, like 'Oh, maybe it's his fault.' And you take burden on yourself, you take that loss on yourself," said Wolfe, who's on IR with an elbow injury. “A true leader points fingers back at himself. So, it's like I'm taking responsibility for all these losses, and it's like, man, what more can I do?"
The Packers and Giants also posted three losing records during their four-year playoff drought following Super Bowl wins, but Green Bay (.452) and New York (.438) had better winning percentages during their skid than Denver's .428 winning clip since 2016.
"It breaks your heart to keep losing like this," Wolfe said after a loss at Buffalo last month.
"It just defeats my soul," suggested linebacker Von Miller after a loss at Kansas City two weeks ago.
There are three other starters still on the roster who won Super Bowl 50 rings and all of them said they understand such deep feelings over the Broncos' 27-36 record since beating Carolina for the title.
"Oh yeah, definitely. I hate to lose," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. "They definitely dig into me."
Inside linebacker Todd Davis said lots of teams go through tough times but when they follow a successful Super Bowl run, the losing is harder to take — and shake.
"They say the worst feeling is to have something and then lose it," Davis said. "If you've never had it, you don't understand the feeling. If you've been there and you won it, that's all you want. All you want is that feeling again."
Kicker Brandon McManus said the precipitous decline is what bothers him the most.
"I think it hurts even worst for the fact that we won the Super Bowl and didn't even make the playoffs the year afterward, even though we were 9-7," McManus said. "So you went right off the mountain down to the bottom, so you didn't even slope down the hill. It was more of just you crashed.
"So, losing now obviously I definitely agree it hurts because we know the work we put in during the week and the grind is the same, it's just that we're not getting the same results."
Unlike Davis, who said it hurts too much to watch the playoffs, McManus can't turn away from the postseason.
"Yeah, I watch every game. I'm a football fan at heart," said McManus, who set an NFL record by going 10-for-10 on field goals in the Broncos' run to their most recent title. "It's difficult not playing in the playoffs because we've done it and that's all our aspirations is to get there and to play in the big game.
"There's nothing we can do about it now. Obviously, we didn't do enough early in the season to give us a chance here down the stretch, but we're looking forward to figuring out the best way to make sure we're not sitting here in the same position next year."
All five of those Super Bowl 50 veterans said there's reason for optimism in Denver — even more so if Harris and Wolfe don't leave via free agency — because the Broncos finally have stability at head coach and quarterback.
“It's a stepping stone in the right direction,” McManus said. “Now you know who you're rolling with."
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