DENVER — The fans entered the stadium in waves at 5 p.m. Hope followed suit, Broncos' supporters smiling without crossing their fingers behind their backs. Everything about this night brought a reminder of the fresh start. A new owner — Greg and Carrie Penner received a warm first-quarter ovation — new coach — Nathaniel Hackett likes to stand ahead of the action when he calls plays for the record — and a new quarterback. Russell Wilson provided a memorable pregame, going through red zone drills and signing countless autographs.
And then came the irresistible opening as Wilson led the Broncos out of the tunnel and into the open arms of 64,541 fans on an 84-degree Saturday night at Empower Field at Mile High Stadium. It was just a tease. Though Wilson was in full uniform, there was no plan for him to play.
Ultimately, a pair of clumsy first two drives gave way to an entertaining second quarter as Josh Johnson and Baron Browning simmered, catapulting the Broncos to a 17-7 victory.
"Guys were flying around and making plays," Browning said.
Preseason games are cotton candy, empty calories. But this one will stand out because it was Hackett's first time in charge at any level. There was a general curiosity about Hackett's debut. Would the Broncos run a clean operation, look organized, play with energy befitting a team that has throttled down training camp to emphasize health over everything else? For the most part, the answer was yes.
The first two drives totaled minus-1 yard, conjuring memories of the past six forgettable seasons where the Broncos made passing a kidney stone look easier than passing to a receiver. It took 41 minutes to play the first quarter, an ugly mess of penalties and mistakes, namely from the undisciplined Cowboys. Then Johnson, 36 years old and drafted in 2008, hit his stride as young receivers shone.
Johnson connected on 13 of his final 14 passes. The Broncos opened the scoring when Johnson lofted a 1-yard rainbow to former Auburn star Seth Williams. Brandon Johnson, an undrafted free agent and son of former Rockies catcher Charles Johnson, who was one of 10 family members at the game, provided a boost with a 40-yard reception down the left sideline.
Kendall Hinton responded with the type of catch that continues to distance him from his emergency-COVID quarterback day against the New Orleans Saints. He has turned into a solid receiver, demonstrating as much as he made a leaping 24-yard score in the end zone. That shoved the Broncos ahead 14-0 with 5:24 remaining in the half. And Johnson wasn't done. He ran a crisp seven-play, 56-yard, 1:02 minute two-minute drill, culminating with a 52-yard Brandon McManus field goal after given a mulligan on a 57-yard miss because one of the Cowboys' record-setting penalties.
Johnson finished 16 of 23 for 172 yards as Brandon Johnson (four catches, 64 yards), Hinton (3-53) and Williams (4-29) made strong opening arguments. Receiver Jaylon Virgil remains in the mix as well after hauling in a 42-yard strike from Brett Rypien as he was leveled and held onto the ball.
"I have never been around a young receiver group like this. They put in the extra work and act like professionals," Johnson said. "And it's paying off. They all showed they belong out here."
Browning showed why defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero was among those advocating for him to move from inside to outside linebacker. He has natural bend, as scouts say. Browning melted the Cowboys offensive line on multiple occasions, finishing the first half with three tackles, a tackle for loss, a sack and a pass deflection. Browning's burst helped soothe the pain from the Cowboys' first drive.
A great vibe became acoustic, if not quiet, as linebacker Jonas Griffith injured his left elbow on the second the play from scrimmage. Griffith held his elbow up against his chest as walked to the locker room, hinting of a potential signficant issue. Griffith told Denver7 after the game that he dislocated his elbow, which will sideline him indefinitely.
"I reached out for the tackle and just kind of got my arm pulled," he said.
Griffith is competing with Alex Singleton for the starting linebacker job opposite of Josey Jewell. While Griffith has evolved from a special teams contributor, there have been enough questions surrounding him for the Broncos to attempt sign Anthony Barr and work out veteran Joe Schobert over the past two weeks.
A steady rain defined the second half. Browning remained in, an added a few pressures. Rypien showed flashes, but nearly was picked off twice on a drive that ended at the 3-yard line. Mostly, it was a slogfest as the Cowboys seemed bent on having more penalties than the Broncos had points.
It was August, a game no one will remember in a few weeks. But as first impressions go, it was encouraging for a franchise that needs momentum given its recent past.
Rest is best
Hackett believes in his summer plan with two days on, third day light day. Health remains paramount. So it should come as no surprise that a laundry list of starters did not play Saturday. It included receivers Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, Tyrie Cleveland (throat), K.J. Hamler (hip/knee), who believes he will be ready for the season opener, Garett Bolles, Dalton Risner, Lloyd Cushenberry, Quinn Meinerz, Ben Braden, Netane Muti (knee), Melvin Gordon (foot), Javonte Williams, Greg Dulcich (hamstring), Justin Simmons, Kareem Jackson, Ronald Darby (chest contusion), Josey Jewell, Jonathon Cooper (finger, could return in about a week), Dre'Mont Jones, D.J. Jones, Mike Purcell and DeShawn Williams. Among notable starters who played were linebacker Jonas Griffith, who hurt his left elbow, and edge rusher Malik Reed.
In the first half, cornerback Michael Ojemudia, looking to restart his career this season, hit hard and was sent to the locker room for a concussion evaluation but he was later cleared to return. ...
With Griffith hurt, there will be some connecting the dots to the Broncos pursuing the Bears Roquan Smith, who has requested trade. But it would be hard for Denver to have the draft assets to swing a deal. ...
There were 11,935 no shows.