ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – For a moment Saturday, Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller rubbed the hair on his chin and considered a question about today’s NFL and the idea of winning games through classical – if not archaic – means. Age-old principles like running the football, not turning the ball over and putting pressure on opponents defensively.
It was a question about mentality, but Miller is quite perceptive. He knew that like most things in Broncos training camp, this was a quarterback question. And to that, he rattled off a list.
“There’s going to come a time when you play a great offense and you’re going to need your offense, too,” Miller said of the list. “All offenses in the league aren’t incredible. But when you come across those teams, you’ve got to score points.”
Those kidding themselves can try and frame this conversation in a multitude of ways. Breath can be wasted talking about offensive line additions or backfield depth. The belief that skill position players can elevate surrounding talent can be debated, or that offensive coordinator Mike McCoy might bring improvement after his stint as a head coach with the San Diego Chargers. All of that is worthy of some thought. But really, this is all about one thing now.
The quarterbacks. Just like last season. And to the behind-closed-doors chagrin of the Broncos staff, that is the problem right now. This feels just like last season.
It’s unsettled. Things aren’t going according to plan with Paxton Lynch. As much as general manager John Elway might say publicly that things are working themselves out and Paxton is a better pro and Trevor Siemian is competing, this all feels very familiar and very undone.
Here’s an early assessment of the derby from behind the scenes, from a handful of team personnel:
First, Siemian. He is ahead in this race basically by default. He is solid and brings a pro mentality every day. But he’s also more steady than spectacular – a reality that speaks to what Elway and the personnel staff believe about him in the longer term. And that longer view is that Siemian is an option whose greatest upside might be no better than a middle-of-league starter. Adequate NFL starting material, but not special. Perhaps he will be capable of winning games consistently, but his talent doesn’t appear to be that of a guy who can elevate the unit around him for the next decade.
Next, Lynch. More than anything, Elway and the personnel staff want him to seize this job and take a big step forward, but he hasn’t done it at this point. Given the talent that Elway believes he has, the grand design is to get Lynch into the starting job at some stage this season. Preferably, things would click for him and he’d win the job outright. But the opposite has happened. If you believe the practice tape that others have watched, Lynch has lost every single practice session to Siemian. His sparse collection of good days has been – at best – on par with Siemian’s good days. Lynch’s bad days have been exponentially worse. Most notably, a practice in which he threw three straight interceptions and left Elway clench-jawed.
So, yeah, as far as the Lynch plan goes, it’s not in the greatest of spots right now.
Here’s the Broncos’ silver lining: It’s still the first week of August and neither quarterback has faced a defense that isn’t their own. And lest anyone doubt it, Denver’s defense is elite and also knows its opposition inside and out. All of that puts the still-developing in-house quarterbacks at a sizable disadvantage. Given those realities, nobody should assume the offense is going off a cliff. Not yet.
All of that said, there are a few worrisome aspects of where this has the potential to go. This season should be considered a referendum on the quarterback position in Denver. It’s Year 3 for Siemian and that is enough time for him to point his arrow in a consistent enough direction for the staff to cement an opinion on him. Although it’s only Lynch’s second season, he has to show growth on and off the field. The Broncos can’t just say he’s a better pro and not have it reflect more consistently on the field. If Elway wants him to win the starting job, it needs to reflect a lot on the field.
That brings this all back to square one (and 2016), with Denver lacking clarity at the starting quarterback spot. This is where Tony Romo would have come in handy. Romo would always have been a massive injury risk, but his existence on the roster would have allowed for much more patience with Lynch, who is under a huge microscope right now.
Instead, Denver has two guys who haven’t blown anyone away yet. That sets up a frustrating scenario. If Siemian takes the job by default, it’s bad. If Lynch doesn’t get himself right and gets an opportunity simply because Elway wants it, that’s also bad. The ideal scenario would be Lynch suddenly putting it all together and seizing the job over the next few weeks. Or Siemian going out in the preseason games and showcasing elite intangibles that can transform moderate talent into a top-10 quarterback.
If neither of those scenarios happen, then Denver has the same problem it had when Peyton Manning retired: It doesn’t have a long-term quarterback. And with this highly paid defense, that’s going to be a problem. The Broncos can’t hold the fort forever. One way or another, the offense has to get itself together.
Von Miller understands that.
“Three-and-out, three-and-out, three-and-out – that will kill you,” Miller said. “You’ve just got to be good over there [on offense]. It’s the National Football League. You have to be good. As long as we’re good over there – we don’t even have to be elite. I mean, I would love that. I’ve played with elite offenses before. But we don’t have to be like that. We just have to be good. We can’t be bad. Bad over there doesn’t win championships. If we’re good, we’ll be able to play in any football game.”
Miller is right. But that determination is still hanging on a familiar question. It’s early August and the Broncos are still grasping for answers at quarterback. And if this starting job is a victory by default, then Denver has already taken its first loss of the season.