As the Denver Broncos prepare for a Week 7 game that could go a long way toward determining whether they’ll stay on their trajectory of the past several seasons or drop to a level where a playoff spot isn’t a certainty, they’ll face their once-presumed quarterback of the future while their situation is as uncertain as ever.
Paxton Lynch hasn’t seized the job from Trevor Siemian yet, but after the latter’s shortcomings in Week 6, signs point to that date nearing. It was coming anyway, but Siemian can put this off with a solid outing against Brock Osweiler.
This impending quarterback debate hovers where it does in the NFL consciousness thanks to what previous Broncos quarterback battles created.
After nearly 25 years of unquestioned starters, the Broncos have featured four seasons with uncertain quarterback situations in the past 11. Those shaped the franchise and can help explain what to make of this latest debate — which features the lowest-profile combatants but on a bigger stage thanks to last year’s Super Bowl title.
That both Siemian and Lynch entering the Texans tilt on the heels of poor performances displays a unique wrinkle in this latest muddled depth chart.
Osweiler staying would have eliminated any such controversy. You could argue that the Broncos would be better off — on the field in 2016 only, as Osweiler’s contract is approaching albatross territory with how he’s functioning with a new team — with their previous backup. But this being the 2010s’ Broncos, there are going to be headlines that spawn from unpredictable occurrences.
Previous such attention was hard to come by from 1983-2005, when John Elway, Brian Griese and Jake Plummer held the job mostly without question, Griese’s premature promotion in 1999 notwithstanding. Peyton Manning enjoyed this status for 3.5 years as well. Not coincidentally, the Broncos’ offense was at its best during these years.
In between, some critical names in the franchise’s history proved to set up the current roster with its latest dilemma.
The 2006 transfer from Plummer to Jay Cutler proved to be the most awkward, with Mike Shanahan likely depriving his team of a fourth straight playoff berth by plugging the soon-to-be polarizing passer into the lineup late in the season. This kind of serves as a higher-end Siemian-Lynch scenario, but Plummer had accomplished far more in Denver than Siemian obviously has. Like Lynch, Cutler required the Broncos to trade up in the draft. His selection also led to the end of one era and laid the groundwork for the Broncos’ rebirth years later.
Denver picking Cutler and putting pressure on its solid incumbent helped stall a veteran team, with Cutler going 2-3 in his late-season debut. The last such start knocked the Broncos out of the playoffs, where they wouldn’t again appear for five years. Just 32 at the time, Plummer then retired, and Cutler led two middling Broncos teams before being traded and leaving the Broncos without a franchise quarterback.
This vacancy proved quite important since the franchise isn’t on the level it is today if Cutler had stuck around and prevented a realistic run at Manning.
The 2006 switch proved to be the most mishandled of these job transfers and showed what can happen when a perceived higher ceiling commodity takes precedence over stability a bit early.
Kyle Orton-Tim Tebow came with by far the lowest stakes of these situations. Moving to Tebow looked like a stealth tanking job by Elway and John Fox. The unconventional quarterback looked prime to place the Broncos on course to land a top-10 quarterback in 2012. It also proved to be the easiest call since the team, then 1-4, had little to lose in Fox’s first year and had seen all it needed to see from Orton.
Tebow surprising the football universe with well-timed spurts of competency lifted the Broncos away from the Andrew Luck/Robert Griffin III/Ryan Tannehill range and into a late-first-round window. The result of this competition reverted Orton back to the journeyman route after two-plus seasons of mediocrity, and Elway correctly identifying that Tebow’s paths to victory were unsustainable led to him going all-in for Manning.
This was the flukiest of the franchise’s major in-season transfers, but the subsequent offseason showed Elway to be a bold decision-maker after a first year that didn’t involve those kinds of splash moves.
Manning-Osweiler ending how it did changed this year’s Broncos signal-caller makeup exponentially.
The future Hall of Famer resuming his post helped guide Osweiler to Houston, and Denver going on to win the Super Bowl magnified this transition period. Had the Broncos faltered, their post-Manning plan wouldn’t have been as scrutinized. The team winning a title moved 2016’s events onto historic ground due to a previous defending champion never conjuring up any solution quite like this.
Last year’s multiple substitutions illustrated Gary Kubiak’s instincts and solidified him as the kind of leader the Broncos haven’t had since Shanahan. How Kubiak managed Manning’s removal and reinsertion should instill a sense of confidence among Broncos fans in the coach’s grasp of his current quarterback quandary.
How Siemian performs Monday night will also show what kind of impact Kubiak’s absence had on the offense against the Chargers.
It was likely a big deal, Kubiak being the primary game-planner and play-caller and all. Rick Dennison operates in the shadow of Kubiak much like the current sideline boss did when he was offensive coordinator under Shanahan, who held total control over the Griese-, Plummer- and Cutler-era attacks. Now that Manning’s retired, Kubiak wields the same kind of power — and had the team on course for another run at a first-round bye before Siemian’s injury.
If Siemian can shake off an outing that appeared to show the kind of limitations that caused him to be a seventh-round pick, it will give the Broncos the kind of stability they currently lack. Another shaky showing accelerates Lynch’s clock, and as Plummer-Cutler showed, that’s not a good recipe for a veteran to succeed.
Denver will have to deal with this at some point this season just as it did in 2006, 2011 and 2015.
How the current quarterback looks against the player who was supposed to be this year’s starter will help determine when this issue will morph into a controversy.