Two weeks before the 2015 NFL draft, on a blustery mid-April morning, I sat across from Trevor Siemian in the lobby of McGaw Hall, just across the way from Northwestern University football’s ragged yet cozy home, Ryan Field. Siemian’s hair was unkempt, his stubble at least a day old.
In his own monotone words, Siemian admitted to being a “fringe” NFL prospect. He was less than five months removed from surgery to repair a torn ACL. “I’m not Todd Gurley, who’s got a knee [injury], but knows he’s gonna be going somewhere,” Siemian said.
After the interview, as Siemian rose to his feet with a slightly pained exhale, I asked him how his rehab was going, how his knee was feeling. He needed just three words to answer:
“I feel old.”
Seventeen months later, Siemian is the starting quarterback for the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. He’s the heir to one of the greatest QBs in NFL history. And he’s one of the unlikeliest Week 1 starters the league has ever seen.
There were precisely two moments over the past four years when Siemian looked like an NFL starter. The first was when Siemian, then a sophomore, came off the bench to lead a final-drive comeback at Syracuse. The second was when he flawlessly executed the only regular-season NFL play he’s ever run.
In between, his list of blemishes was almost as long as the list of quarterbacks to come through Northwestern’s program since the last time a Wildcat QB started a Week 1 NFL game. That was Otto Graham in 1955.
Throughout his Northwestern career, Siemian straddled the line between mediocrity and Mark Sanchez. That is to say, he seemingly couldn’t decide if he was ordinary or laughably mistake-prone. Sometimes he stumbled to just plain bad. His highlights — a junior year destruction of Illinois, an improbable senior year upset of Notre Dame — were few and far between.
All you have to do is look at three consecutive games during that senior year. He piloted two first-half touchdown drives to give Northwestern a 17-14 halftime lead over Nebraska on homecoming. But in the second half, his team ran 26 plays for a net of 30 yards. Siemian complete 4 of his 16 passes for 17 yards.
The following week, he averaged 0.91 yards per dropback in a 48-7 loss at Iowa.
Then came the infamous “M00N” game — “M00N” because Michigan, “M” on the scoreboard, and Northwestern, “N,” were locked in a 0-0 tie well into the third quarter. It was grotesque.
But with three minutes left in the fourth, down 10-3, Siemian led a 14-play touchdown drive, finding a receiver in the back corner of the end zone with three seconds on the clock.
Then Northwestern went for two, and for the win.
And Siemian did this:
That’s your Denver Broncos starting quarterback, folks. The man who was taunted with chants of “Checkdown Trevor” by the Northwestern defense during practice. The man who hobbled through his senior year because of an ankle injury, then tore his ACL on a QB sneak at Purdue in November, then became the 250th pick in the 2015 draft. Somehow.
Siemian’s draft stock seemed to derive more from the fact he was tall and had a Northwestern degree than any on-field accomplishments. He finished his only season as a full-time starter with seven touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Clearly John Elway and the Broncos saw something nobody else did, but still, at this time last year, Siemian was battling with fellow seventh-rounder Zac Dysert to merely make the Broncos roster.
Siemian wasn’t even Tom Brady-level under the radar. Brady at least threw (significantly) more touchdowns than picks as a senior. To the average fan, Siemian’s college career was absent of any evidence to suggest he was NFL material.
This isn’t to say Siemian was or is incapable of succeeding in the NFL. The college numbers, to some extent, are misleading. He played on a pitiful offense that got even worse a year after he left. He consistently looked petrified in the pocket behind a shaky line. His best receivers were always injured, just as he was.
But this is to say that nobody — perhaps not even Siemian or Broncos brass — could have foretold this mind-boggling tale that will end with Siemian lining up under center on Sept. 8 opposite Luke Keuchly on the NFL’s opening night.