The money mattered. The opportunity mattered. The commitment mattered. But the Denver Broncos shouldn't be masking reality. Two other things mattered to now-departed quarterback Brock Osweiler as well: a late-season benching and the team putting an offer on hold while it waited for Peyton Manning to make a decision about his future.
In the hindsight of the past two weeks, those developments, along with high-level quarterback money, are the lessons that reveal why Osweiler is now a Houston Texan while the Broncos are scrambling for options behind center. It's a harsh thorn in Denver's future plans, scuttling a four-year design that was ultimately put in place when the team drafted Osweiler in the second round of the 2012 draft.
It was almost perfect. Osweiler was earmarked to be the heir apparent, patiently groomed for this very scenario. But free agency is a cruel agent of change in the NFL, and the best-laid plans are often shredded by a single signature on an unexpectedly robust new contract. That's what leads to Wednesday night, with the Texans celebrating new possibilities while Broncos general manager John Elway was left to release a statement seeded with a not-so-subtle parting shot.
"We've stayed true to our philosophy of building a team with players who want to be Denver Broncos and want to be here," Elway said. "That's been a successful approach for us. … We've now turned our attention to other options at quarterback and are confident that we'll find the right player and person for our team."
Some of that verbiage may have been burned into place by an Elway glare: "… with players who want to be Denver Broncos … we'll find the right player and person for our team."
Those are tough words. But Elway is jilted. Really, the entire organization is bruised a bit by this. But there might be some truth in there. Late last week, other NFL executives in the quarterback market had already shaped up Houston as a major suitor for Osweiler. And the reasoning wasn't just money. There was a belief coming from somewhere inside Osweiler's circle that he was still upset at coach Gary Kubiak for the late-season benching. But it didn't end there, either.
The reality is Denver walked a line with Osweiler for a while. And that's the picture that has shaped up in the last 24 hours, multiple sources told Yahoo Sports.
To get an idea how this went down, start with the failure to reach an extension prior to the 2015 season. At that time, there were signs Manning's play was headed for a stiff decline. And there clearly was a gambling element to wait on a new Osweiler deal. But at the same time, Osweiler's agent, Jimmy Sexton, had little incentive to get an extension done. He was staring at a free-agent quarterback market that was shaping up to be dead the following offseason. Locking up his client before he had generated traction didn't make sense. Even if Osweiler failed to play in 2015, there was a chance it would be Manning's last season in Denver, translating into instant leverage.
Osweiler and his camp can say that Denver had an opportunity to get a deal done earlier and show faith, but that would be disingenuous. On the flip side, Denver could have pushed the issue, too, if only as a measure to protect itself for an extra season. Both sides played a part in an extension never materializing.
That said, Denver takes dead-center responsibility for what happened on the field. When Manning went down and Osweiler showed enough development in relief, it was clear by December that he would become a commodity if he ever made it to the market. With that in mind, every move with him was going to matter. And when the Broncos chose to sit him for Manning, it ultimately had huge ramifications.
It also didn't help that Denver went out of its way after the season to handle Manning with kid gloves, waiting to advance negotiations until it became crystal clear that Manning was retiring. That wait created a cloud over the NFL scouting combine, a time when agents and executives start to take stock of the free-agent market. It's also a time when teams begin working in earnest to retain their own free agents. But for Denver, it was a virtual dead period with Osweiler because the team had to wait on Manning. The combine came and went without an offer – which would count as the second time Osweieler would have to take a back seat to Manning.
To be fair, the representation of the two players put Denver in an awkward spot. Manning's agent is CAA's Tom Condon. Osweiler's agent is CAA's Sexton. If Denver went aggressively to extend Osweiler before Manning made a decision, Manning was going to know about it. And it was going to make it look like Denver was pushing him out the door. Which, after winning a Super Bowl, would have been a public relations disaster.
So Denver waited for Manning, and Osweiler had time to sit and stew. He had time to think about the benching and what it would be like to take the team over if Manning left. And he had time to consider whether his growth and success would instantly be measured against a Hall of Fame quarterback who rode into the sunset after a Super Bowl-winning season. That's not exactly easy. Manning was close to the players in the offensive huddle, particularly the receivers. Would it still be Manning's team, even if he was gone? That's a formidable question. Just ask Brian Griese how that went after he replaced Elway … or any number of quarterbacks in Denver who lived in that shadow until Manning made his way to town.
While the wait for Manning was happening, the price tag inevitably went up, even as Osweiler took a back seat, avoiding awkward conversations with teammates about his potential return. Instead, he let Sexton go to work when the free-agent negotiation period started.
Right about that time, it was clear Houston was going to set a high bar with its checkbook. It was ready to make a top-level commitment in average salary and guaranteed money. There would be no "show me" period. Osweiler would unquestionably be the starting quarterback from the jump, in a market thirsting to move on from a litany of quarterback failures. He would be instantly embraced with a fresh start – by a franchise and head coach that viewed him up close in a set of joint practices in the summer of 2014.
And Denver? Well, the shifting waters had already become apparent by the time Manning announced his retirement. That explains Kubiak's ode to Manning at the news conference Monday: a wandering, somewhat clunky, five-minute explanation of how the future Hall of Famer willed his way back into the starting lineup. That moment felt a bit like the Broncos explaining themselves to Osweiler one last time.
But in the end, the direction had already changed. To Denver, it quickly became apparent that Osweiler was ready to take more money from a seemingly lesser team and move forward. And though it appeared the Broncos gained some optimism when talks remained open heading toward the start of free agency, the money line just kept rising. When it crossed the $17 million mark, the territory began to look too rich. This financial point was always coming, of course. From the moment the Philadelphia Eagles' Sam Bradford got $18 million per season and the Washington Redskins' Kirk Cousins was locked in for one year and nearly $20 million.
The one thing Denver couldn't be sure about until Wednesday was whether Osweiler might have taken a little less to return, whether staying home mattered more than starting fresh. The answer came in the form of a huge contract and plenty of hard feelings. Just like that, the perfect plan in Denver was laid to waste, and all that was left was a handful of lessons on what mattered most.