DENVER — Come on, Broncos Country, it’s only been five years.
The search for a quarterback capable of guiding the Broncos back to the playoffs, much less the Super Bowl, could be worse. Ten times worse. The Kansas City Chiefs went 50 years between Len Dawson and their first Super Bowl appearance in 1969 and Patrick Mahomes and their second Super Bowl title in 2019.
The Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars have never had a quarterback carry them to a Super Bowl game.
Still, it’s more difficult for the Broncos to be patient than others. In the team’s 33-season run from 1983-2015, they had a combined 20 years of first ballot Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback play from John Elway and Peyton Manning. The Broncos went to seven Super Bowls in that period, winning three.
But in the five years since 2015, Elway the general manager was unable to find even an average NFL starting quarterback. (No Broncos QB since Manning in 2014 has finished among the NFL’s top 22 in passer rating.)
And now Elway is no longer the GM, moved upstairs while George Paton takes over following 14 years as an assistant GM for the Minnesota Vikings.
> Video above: Mike Klis speaks with Peyton Manning after the QB was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The first half of Elway’s GM term was terrific -- the Broncos won five AFC West Division titles, two conference championships and a Super Bowl in his first five seasons. The second half of his GM term, ironically enough, was marked by his inability to find a QB ranked among the league’s upper half. Elway went through 9 different starting quarterbacks in his final five seasons.
Paton picks up the search. Perhaps it would help if he understood recent history and where so many quarterbacks have gone wrong.
In his final season of 2015, he went 10-2, counting a 3-0 mark in the postseason, but threw just 11 touchdown passes against 18 interceptions. He finished ranked 35th among the league’s 35 qualifying quarterbacks. Manning’s beat-up, 39-year-old body simply didn’t mesh well with Gary Kubiak’s West Coast offense. And so, a couple weeks shy of his 40th birthday, Manning retired.
To repeat, the Broncos have since used 9 different starting quarterbacks in five seasons.
Prior to the NFL owners meetings in Arizona in late-March 2015, I had lunch with Osweiler, who had finished his third season as the Broncos’ quarterback. Even though he had yet to take a meaningful snap while backing up Manning, Osweiler told me if the team offered him a small contract extension, he would take it. We’re talking two years and $10 million, something like that, heading into the 2015 season.
His agent, Jimmy Sexton, may have discouraged such sentiment, rightly believing it would be best to let Osweiler’s final season play out. But the point is, Osweiler loved everything about the Broncos. He loved the city. Loved his teammates. He raved about the food in the newly renovated cafeteria. Loved everything about being a Bronco.
Luckily for Osweiler, a contract offer as a non-playing backup never came. When Manning went down with a heel injury midway through the 2015 season, Osweiler played well while posting a 5-2 record in the Broncos’ final seven games. He played well in his winning debut amid frigid temperatures against Vic Fangio’s Bears. He was gritty and effective in the Broncos’ home overtime win in a snowstorm against previously 10-0 New England.
In a loss at Pittsburgh, Osweiler at halftime was 14 of 18 for 214 yards with 3 touchdowns, no interceptions and had ran for a 7-yard score to put the Broncos up, 27-13.
In the season finale against the Chargers, Osweiler again came out firing, throwing for a robust 222 yards by halftime. But with his teammates playing sloppy, fumbling the ball away and clanking well-thrown balls into interceptions, Kubiak pulled him and inserted the veteran Manning. The offense shaped up, rallied to win for the No. 1 seed, then went on to win Super Bowl 50.
Manning rode off a hero. Forgive Osweiler if he believes the Broncos would have also won it all had he remained the quarterback.
A free agent after the season, Osweiler waited for the Broncos to offer him a contract before the market opened, but the team was uncertain about his market value and didn’t want to bid against themselves. He wound up taking a four-year deal, at $18 million per year, with the Houston Texans after the slow-moving Broncos offered $16.5 million per.
It didn’t work out for Osweiler in Houston as he was undone by Bill O’Brien’s massive ego. But Osweiler’s departure from Denver sent the Broncos off on a still ongoing quest to find a new starting quarterback.
Remember? After Osweiler picked the Texans, Elway and Kubiak set their sights on trying to acquire Kaepernick, the 49ers’ supremely talented but disgruntled quarterback. Kaepernick wanted out after the 49ers’ Jim Tomsula disaster in 2015. But he didn’t want to take a pay cut from his $14.3 million payout in 2019 that included $11.9 million in guarantee.
Elway tried to get him for $7 million with a chance through incentives to make the money back. In exchange for taking the pay cut, Kaepernick would move from a sinking 5-11 San Francisco team to the defending world champion Broncos.
Kaepernick, who had rehab work in Vail, visited Elway twice during that offseason. But Kaepernick didn’t want to surrender guaranteed money. He stayed with the 49ers, sat during the playing of the National Anthem prior to a 2016 preseason game in Denver, then kneeled to much more attention the following week in protest of social injustices against blacks in America.
Kaepernick couldn’t rescue a terrible San Francisco team that went 2-14 under Chip Kelly in 2016 and the quarterback hasn’t played since that season with many believing he had been blackballed by league owners because of his then-controversial protest during the playing of the National Anthem.
As they were beginning their attempt to woo Kaepernick, the Broncos acquired Sanchez as veteran insurance from the Eagles in exchange for a conditional draft pick. When the Kaepernick trade never materialized, it appeared Sanchez would become the Broncos’ “bridge” quarterback until Paxton Lynch, who was drafted six weeks later in the first round, received further development.
On his first drive of the Broncos’ preseason, Sanchez threw a 32-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas against Fangio’s Bears. Sanchez threw an interception on his second possession and had a three-and-out on his third. Trevor Siemian came in and played well enough to get the start in the second preseason game, leading a touchdown drive on his first possession.
When Siemian, a seventh-round pick the previous year out of Northwestern, surprisingly outplayed Sanchez during the practice portion of training camp, the Broncos decided to cut the former Jets’ and Eagles’ quarterback as they were setting their season-opening, 53-man roster.
Lynch’s failure has often been cited as the No. 1 reason for the Broncos’ ongoing, five-year decline. I would put the first-round mistake that was Lynch as tied for first with Kubiak’s unexpected resignation as head coach because of medical reasons.
When Kaepernick fell through in the spring of 2016, Elway turned to the draft where he had the No. 31 and final pick. He loved Carson Wentz, but the North Dakota State product went No. 2 to Philadelphia after Jared Goff went No. 1 to the Rams. The third-best quarterback that year, according to all the draft experts and their flawed evaluations, was Lynch, a mobile, strong-armed, 6-foot-7 prospect from Memphis.
Dak Prescott, who apparently didn’t have a strong-enough arm, went late in the fourth round – after the likes of Christian Hackenberg, Jacoby Brissett, Cody Kessler and Connor Cook were selected.
Elway traded up five spots to select Lynch with the No. 26 overall pick – offering Seattle a slightly better third-round pick than the Cowboys. The lucky Cowboys, spurned in their attempt to land Lynch, settled for Prescott as a consolation prize in the fourth round. Better to be lucky than brilliant, right Jerry Jones?
Lynch was slow to develop. His accuracy was erratic and he struggled to read defenses. He was beaten out by Siemian during training camp and the preseason. Lynch looked good coming off the bench in relief of the injured Siemian in a game 4 win at Tampa Bay in 2016, completing 14 of 24 for 170 yards and a touchdown for a 94.1 rating. But he struggled in his two starts that season, a loss against Atlanta and win at Jacksonville.
This is still the Broncos’ best quarterback of the post-Peyton Manning era. A seventh-round afterthought in 2015, Siemian in 2016 posted an 8-6 record with 3,401 passing yards and 18 touchdown passes against 12 interceptions to rank 23rd among the final passing leaders – the Broncos’ best QB ranking in the five seasons since Manning retired. A torn labrum in his left shoulder that had to be surgically repaired after both the 2016 and 2017 seasons put a crimp into his career.
Lynch, Siemian, Osweiler II
To start his second season, Lynch was beaten out again by Siemian in the 2017 preseason while also suffering a sprained ankle that sidelined him the first half of the season. After his first start in game 11 at Oakland resulted in another disappointing performance and another ankle injury, Lynch became emotional on the bench.
Lynch was waived in favor of Kevin Hogan following the preseason of 2018 and hasn’t appeared in an NFL game since.
Siemian struggled in his second season, finishing 29th among the league’s passing leaders, while trying to lead a less talented roster in 2017. He still went 5-5 as a starter for a 5-11 team. His 13-11 overall mark with the Broncos is the best of the team’s quarterbacks (minimum 2 starts) since the 2015 season.
When Elway decided not to keep preseason sensation Kyle Sloter on is 53-man roster, he brought back Osweiler on a one-year contract. Osweiler came off the bench to replace an injured Siemian in a Thursday night game at Indianapolis and was sensational in completing 12 of 17 for 194 yards and 2 touchdowns with no interceptions and a 147.7 passer rating in leading a come-from-behind victory. But Osweiler was 0-4 as a starter and the Broncos allowed him to leave for free agency after that season.
Became the first and only Mr. Irrelevant in Broncos history when he was the last player drafted in 2017, in part because Elway did a solid for his old QB friend, Jim Kelly, Chad’s uncle. Missed his entire rookie season because of wrist surgery.
Still believing the Broncos were a quarterback away from playoff contention, Elway went to the free-agent market where Kirk Cousins and Keenum were the two shiniest jewels available.
The consensus was Cousins was the best, but his agent, Mike McCartney, informed all interested parties he would be negotiating the first-ever, fully guaranteed three-year contract that would be worth $28 million a year. Elway detested record-setting deals – he fought his Super Bowl 50 MVP Von Miller for months before agreeing to a contract that set a record among defensive players prior to the 2016 season.
So while Elway settled for the second-best quarterback, which was Keenum on a two-year deal for $18 million per, it was the Vikings’ management team of Rick Spielman and Paton who gave Cousins his record, three-year deal that averaged to $28 million a year.
Keenum played all but one snap for the Broncos in 2018 but it became obvious by the halfway point he simply wasn’t big enough, or had the type of skill set to become an above-average starting quarterback. He finished ranked 29th among the league’s passing leaders.
After the season, Elway decided to bring in the bigger, stronger Joe Flacco and traded Keenum to Washington with the Broncos agreeing to pay $4 million of his $7 million pay out to complete the deal.
A fine preseason earned Kelly the No. 2 quarterback job, ahead of Lynch, but bizarre behavior during Von Miller’s team Halloween party in late-October led to criminal charges and Kelly’s release.
The backup QB who was picked up on waivers prior to the start of the 2018 season to bring closure to the Paxton Lynch era, Hogan never played that season. He was among the final cuts in 2019 after first-year offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello wanted better accuracy from his backup. After releasing Hogan, the Broncos claimed Brandon Allen off waivers from the Rams.
Hard to believe it was only two years ago that Elway and his top deputy Matt Russell returned from their vacation in Necker Island to pull off a trade for Baltimore’s Flacco in return for a fourth-round draft pick. Flacco was an 11-year starter with plenty of postseason experience for the Ravens until he was replaced the previous year by rookie Lamar Jackson.
But with the Broncos, Flacco seemed a little too ponderous for Scangarello’s rollout, West Coast offense and Denver’s struggling offensive line. Flacco went 2-6 with only 6 touchdown passes against five interceptions in his half a season with the Broncos before suffering a season-ending neck injury. He finished 25th among the league’s qualifying passing leaders and was released at season’s end.
Elway considered taking Lock, a four-year starter at Missouri, with the No. 10 overall pick in the first round of the 2019 draft. The GM backed off when he couldn’t get buy-in from anyone else in his personnel department or coaching staff. When Lock slipped to the second round, Elway didn’t wait for internal confirmation. He traded up to get him.
Lock suffered a thumb injury in the third preseason game of his rookie year and the team took so much caution upon his return, he didn’t play until the final five games of the season. He played very well, leading a 3-8 Broncos team to a 4-1 mark down the stretch that included a brilliant 309-yard, 3 TD performance against the playoff-bound Texans in Houston.
Lock’s impressive finish made him the team’s unquestioned starting quarterback going into the following season of 2020.
After not playing a snap through his first 3 ½ NFL seasons, Allen had a dream-like debut in relief of the injured Joe Flacco in game 9 of the 2019 season, throwing for 193 yards and two touchdowns without an interception in a win against the Cleveland Browns. The next week, Allen had the Broncos up 20-0 near the end of the half at playoff-bound Minnesota when he threw an interception into the end zone.
The Vikings rallied to win that game and Allen followed by struggling to throw through a ferocious crosswind at Buffalo in his third game and that was it for his Broncos’ career. Allen started five games for the Bengals this past season in relief of the injured Joe Burrow.
Although undrafted after starting four years at Boise State, Rypien received a fully guaranteed, $136,000 practice squad salary plus a $10,000 signing bonus in 2019. He served as the No. 2 quarterback to Allen for three weeks before returning to the practice squad.
It didn’t go as hoped for Lock in his first full season as a starter, although he did finish strong for a second consecutive year. Lock was decent in the Broncos’ season-opening loss to Tennessee, then suffered a strained labral/rotator in his right throwing shoulder early in game 2 at Pittsburgh.
After missing two games, Lock returned and immediately struggled, throwing 13 interceptions in his next seven games. In his final four games, though, Lock threw 7 touchdown passes against just two interceptions. He still finished 32nd among NFL qualifying passers.
A veteran with a 1-7 record as a starter, Driskel was signed by the Broncos to a two-year, $5 million contract for two reasons. One, he would be a backup that would not cause Lock to look over his shoulder. And two, the Broncos wanted their backup to resemble Lock’s overall athleticism for continuity sake. Driskel came off the bench and played well at Pittsburgh before he was hammered by Tampa Bay in his lone start in game 3.
Fangio pulled Driskel in the fourth quarter against Tampa Bay, inserting Rypien who played well in his only drive. Driskel got one more snap the rest of the season and gained 9 yards on a read-option run.
After completing 8 of 9 before throwing a fourth down interception into the end zone against Tampa Bay, Rypien was given his first NFL start in a Thursday night game against the Jets in a meeting of 0-3 teams at the Meadowlands. Rypien mostly played well in a 37-28 win, completing several clutch passes including two touchdowns although he also had three interceptions.
He never got another chance to play as Fangio never abandoned Lock through his subsequent struggles.
With Elway moved upstairs and Fangio seemingly entering a win-or-else season, Paton is looking to improve the team’s quarterback play. Stafford was considered an elite QB worth pursuing and the Broncos did make two different offers to the Detroit Lions, one involving their No. 9 overall draft pick and another involving players. Neither offer measured up to the Rams’ package of two future first-round draft selections, a third-round pick and quarterback Jared Goff.
The Texans’ star quarterback wants to be traded. So far, the Texans aren’t accommodating him but if they eventually cave to his request, the Broncos are expected to be among the teams on Watson’s short list. Carolina and Miami reportedly will also enter the Watson sweepstakes. Other teams known to be in the quarterback market this offseason are the Jets, 49ers, Bears, Washington and Jacksonville.
Lock, Driskel, Rypien
Of these three, Rypien figures to have the best chance of returning. Lock will either be the starter for 2021, or possibly involved in a trade package involving Watson. Driskel is not expected to return for the final year of a nonguaranteed $2.5 million on his contract. Rypien is an ideal No. 3 QB – young, inexpensive and proven capable.
Other Broncos QBs in last 5 years: Blake Bortles, Garrett Grayson, Kyle Sloter.
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