By Arnie Stapleton, The Associated Press
ENGLEWOOD — Nathaniel Hackett lost his job a day after the Denver Broncos showed more fight on the sideline and in the postgame handshake line than they did in their 51-14 loss to the Los Angeles Rams.
With the embarrassing loss, the Broncos fell to 4-11 and prompted CEO Greg Penner to part ways with the rookie head coach whose mishandling of the offseason and mismanagement of games were hallmarks in a lost season that featured a shocking nosedive for quarterback Russell Wilson.
Ensuring Hackett would get no mulligan, the Broncos cratered on Christmas when the only fight they showed came during the postgame handshakes when Randy Gregory interrupted all the holiday cheer by throwing a punch at LA offensive lineman Oday Aboushi.
That, and guard Dalton Risner’s sideline shove of backup QB Brett Rypien for walking over to the O-linemen after back-to-back sacks of Wilson and imploring them to give their quarterback a hand and help him up instead of just staring at him.
Risner chalked that up to miscommunication and hugged it out with Rypien.
Gregory had no real answers for his actions, which led to a retaliatory punch from Aboushi and prompted the NFL to suspend both of them for one game.
“Y’all want to know if I hit him in the mouth, I did,” said Gregory, who also lost his cool during the game, throwing his helmet after the Broncos fell behind by three touchdowns in the second quarter and later hitting quarterback Baker Mayfield in the head in the fourth quarter.
Gregory has had a rough first season in Denver. He got a five-year, $70 million deal in free agency from Denver despite missing 31 games in five years in Dallas because of injuries or suspensions and never collecting more than six sacks in a season.
After undergoing a shoulder operation that sidelined him for the entire offseason, Gregory has missed more games (nine) than he has played (six) because of a knee injury suffered in Week 4, and he has as many sacks this season (two) as he had 15-yard penalties Sunday.
What looks even more like a blunder with each passing week is the $245 million extension Wilson signed before he threw a single pass for the Broncos that counted.
Wilson is 3-10 in his first season in Denver. He has thrown just a dozen touchdown passes to go with nine interceptions and he has been sacked 49 times, a big percentage of which are the result of him holding onto the ball for too long and having lost some of his famed ability to escape.
Like Gregory’s, Wilson’s dreadful season also hit rock bottom Sunday. He threw interceptions on his second and third pass attempts, putting the Broncos in an early 17-0 hole from which they never recovered.
Rypien led Denver to a season-high 24 points in a win over the Cardinals a week earlier when Wilson was sidelined with a concussion. Under Wilson, the Broncos are averaging 14.8 points per game.
Denver’s defense finally faltered, allowing Mayfield to complete 24 of 28 passes, surrendering 230 yards on the ground and failing to force a single punt all afternoon.
“I let us down,” said Wilson, who had never before thrown three interceptions and been sacked six times in a game.
“The reality is it’s been a storm,” Wilson said. “It’s been a storm all year. Not what we hoped for, not what we dreamed for. But it doesn’t mean it’s going to end that way for years to come. We’ve got to change it and it starts with me.”