Broncos: 19K no-shows and the cruel side of history on the horizon

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- At 4-8 and nowhere near the grown-up table of the playoff conversation, the Denver Broncos find themselves fighting to hold off a slice of team history even many 50-somethings haven't seen.

That's because the Broncos, who finished 5-11 in 2017 and 6-10 last season, haven't had three consecutive seasons of double-digit losses since they had five in a row from 1963 to 1967. Let that sink in for a minute.

Lyndon B. Johnson was president. The Big Mac was introduced. Carl Yastrzemski finished with baseball's triple crown. And the Beatles released "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."

Oh, and No. 7, John Elway, was 7.

So, yes, it has been quite some time since the Broncos have been flailing in the choppy waters the way they are now. More than 19,094 decided not to use their tickets for last Sunday's win over the Los Angeles Chargers. For perspective, 12,073 failed to show up for the season finale last season, and Sunday's game is believed to be the most no-shows since at least 2010. The Broncos, in a nod to late owner Pat Bowlen, announce no-shows and post the number on the stadium's enormous video screens during every game.

"Obviously, you notice it because people talk about it, but I thought that the crowd that we had there was great," first-year Broncos coach Vic Fangio said. "It's become very evident to me how much the fan base here loves the Broncos and depends on them. Our previous home game against Cleveland, it felt like a playoff game -- the atmosphere in the stadium, the electricity. It's disappointing that there were so many no-shows, but we're happy [with] the ones that did come and we're working hard to get the ones that didn't come to feel better about coming."

This is largely uncharted ground for most in the Broncos' complex and for most in their coveted fan base, which has purchased every ticket for every seat since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. The team had only seven losing seasons between Elway's rookie season as a player in 1983 and last season's last-place finish in the AFC West.

Elway, who is now the team's chief football decision-maker, has consistently talked in recent months about "working hard to turn it around" or to do "everything we can to get it right."

Fangio opened his first season with plenty of optimism. The defense, behind Bradley Chubb and Von Miller, had plenty of potential and the Broncos had a veteran at quarterback in Joe Flacco. Chubb is now on injured reserve, Flacco is on injured reserve, Miller has missed one game because of a knee injury, the Broncos are on their third starting quarterback in rookie Drew Lock and their offense is 30th in the league in scoring, ahead of only Cincinnati (1-11) and Washington (3-9). Toss in that two of their top free-agent signings, cornerback Bryce Callahan and tackle Ja'Wuan James, have played a combined 32 snaps all season because of injuries and it's easy to track where the dominoes started to fall.

There are times when the Super Bowl 50 win to close out the 2015 season seems like eons ago -- Miller, Chris Harris Jr., Derek Wolfe, Todd Davis and Brandon McManus are the only players still on the roster who played in that title game (Jeff Heuerman was on injured reserve). And there are times when players like Harris and Davis have said it can still be a reference point.

"I think so, I think this team still has some juice, we've played better in spots, we're fighting," Davis said. "I think we're fighting through the tough spots ... you don't see that from teams if they've lost fight in them."

Fangio was asked after Sunday's win if his postgame smile was more happiness or relief.

"Unfortunately, in this profession relief is a big emotion you feel, some of it was that," Fangio said. "I was happy for the guys. This team has fought pretty hard through thick and thin. Even in last week's game against a good Buffalo team up there, [it was] 6-0 at halftime, we haven't had a clunker yet. I know you might say the Kansas City game was [a 30-6 loss], but that was a game with a bunch of short fields. They scored a touchdown on defense. These guys have been fighting and playing their butts off all year."

The Broncos must go at least 3-1 over their final four games to avoid a return to their AFL beginnings, when the fledgling franchise lost at least 10 games in six of the first eight seasons of their existence from 1960 to 1967.

The Broncos will need to find those three wins amid a closing stretch that includes three teams playing for postseason position -- Houston (8-4), Kansas City (8-4) and Oakland (6-6) -- with the game against the Texans and Chiefs on the road.

The only team struggling as much as the Broncos in Denver's closing stretch is Detroit (3-8-1)

"I think that we just keep on pounding," Broncos rookie guard Dalton Risner said. "That's what coach Fangio says and we just respect him so much. We bought into what we're doing here in Denver and we're just going to keep doing that every single week because we have faith."