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The play itself was inconsequential, but the home crowd’s reaction wasn’t. There was a loud, unmistakeable cheer when fans — who presumably thought Keenum was being benched with the Broncos sitting on three points at the end of another lackluster half — thought their latest quarterback was being benched for the last pick of the 2017 draft, who had never played in a regular-season game.
There might not be another NFL city that loves its backup quarterbacks more than Denver. Still, it was a telling moment. Keenum hasn’t been the answer yet and it’s not good that the fanbase is already loudly calling for Mr. Irrelevant from a year ago.
The Broncos are 2-4 for the first time since 2011 after a 23-20 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. They might need a win on Thursday night at Arizona to save Vance Joseph’s job, and Keenum has taken on a lot of the criticism. Just as obvious as the cheers when Kelly came in were the boos that came down when the offense failed.
“They should be pissed,” Keenum said about the fans. “I’m pissed.”
There was a game of musical chairs with NFL teams and quarterbacks this offseason. The Minnesota Vikings presented a better opportunity for Kirk Cousins than anyone else could, and the Vikings risked being second-guessed for moving on from Keenum. The Jets moved ahead of the Broncos to draft Sam Darnold. The Broncos passed on Josh Allen and Josh Rosen in the first round. It’s unfair to say the Broncos made a major investment in Keenum. They gave him $36 million, but over only two seasons. They dated Keenum, they didn’t marry him.
But it was another try from general manager John Elway to get the post-Peyton Manning quarterback situation right, and it hasn’t worked out yet.
Maybe this was easy to see coming. The Vikings went to an NFC championship game with Keenum, who had a very good season. But Vikings coach Mike Zimmer always seemed hesitant to totally support Keenum. When Cousins was available, the Vikings didn’t seem bothered to move on from Keenum. Cousins isn’t a perennial MVP or clear top-five quarterback, but the Vikings saw him as an upgrade. And the Vikings have been right.
The Broncos hedged their bets too. Keenum’s $18 million per season is a lot of money, but it was only two seasons. If the Broncos really believed, they would have given him more. Or some other team would have.
Keenum isn’t the Broncos’ biggest problem. Denver’s run defense all of a sudden is a major liability, giving up 270 rushing yards to the Rams a week after the Jets gashed it for 323. The Broncos still don’t have a great offensive line, haven’t found a difference-making tight end in years, there’s inconsistent commitment to the run game and the coaching staff is suspect.
But Keenum hasn’t lifted the Broncos, either.
On Sunday, the Broncos had their chances to win. Keenum’s interception in Rams territory in the third quarter hurt. It was his eighth interception in six games, one more than he had all of last season. In the fourth quarter the Broncos had second-and-goal at the Rams’ 6-yard line. Keenum threw incomplete twice, including a fade route on third down that wasn’t close.
Keenum wasn’t awful against the Rams. He had 322 yards and two touchdowns. But the plays he didn’t make stung. And many of the home fans have already turned on him. That doesn’t make turning things around any easier.
Kelly had a solid preseason, but odds are he’ll be the next guy Broncos fans complain about, if Denver ever makes a quarterback change. Most late-round picks don’t work out. Elway’s first-round pick after Manning, Paxton Lynch, didn’t work out either. Neither did stopgap starter Trevor Siemian. Keenum still has the opportunity to win over everyone and play as well as he did last season with the Vikings. It’s early in the season.
The start puts Keenum and the Broncos in a hole though. After a 5-11 season last year, Denver is restless after a four-game losing streak early this season. There might be bigger problems than Keenum, but quarterbacks always get too much credit or blame. Keenum heard all about it Sunday. If it doesn’t get much better, the Broncos might have to start wondering who their next quarterback will be.
Here are the rest of the winners and losers from Week 6 of the NFL season:
And the Chargers blasted the Browns, 38-14. It was quite a statement.
Los Angeles played well on both sides of the ball, with Melvin Gordon posting 150 total yards and three touchdowns, Philip Rivers throwing for 207 yards on only 11 completions and the Chargers defense getting five sacks in flustering Baker Mayfield.
The Chargers started slow – what else is new? – but have quietly played very well other than two games. Those games were losses against the Chiefs and Rams, the final two undefeated teams in the NFL heading into Week 6.
Last season the Chargers got hot after September and came up just short of rallying for a playoff spot. They’re 4-2, playing well and it’s not too late this time for them to rally for a postseason berth.
Todd Gurley: It wasn’t Gurley’s longest run, it won’t appear on many highlights, but it epitomized what kind of day he had against Denver.
The Broncos had cut the Rams’ lead to 20-13, had momentum and forced the Rams into a third-and-1. About eight minutes were left in the fourth quarter. The Rams handed to Gurley, who could have been stopped behind the line. But he powered ahead, getting enough push for a yard and the first down. It was a strong run that kept the drive going, and the drive lasted for 13 plays, 5:39 and ended in a field goal. Had Gurley been stopped and the Rams punted from their own 34, the Broncos would have had the ball down seven points with about eight minutes left. Instead, Gurley came up big and the next time the Broncos got the ball, they were down 10 with about three minutes left. That’s the type of forgotten play that wins games.
Of course, Gurley made what seemed like dozens of big plays. He rushed for a career-high 208 yards and was fantastic all afternoon. But it was a 1-yard gain that made a huge difference in getting the Rams to 6-0.
Brock Osweiler: Last season, Osweiler came off the bench and delivered one of the best games by any quarterback all year in a Thursday night win for the Broncos over the Colts. It was entirely unexpected, and pretty fun.
Osweiler did it again on Sunday, for a different team. When news broke early Sunday that Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill might not play, that put Osweiler back in the spotlight. He started and played very well in an overtime win over the Bears. He was 10-of-14 for 203 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter and overtime, and one of the incompletions was a spike before the Dolphins kicked the game-winning field goal. He was excellent when it counted.
Make whatever Osweiler jokes you wish, but he has shown he’s capable of hot stretches. He did so with the 2015 Broncos, helping them to a Super Bowl title. He did it last year against the Colts and again versus the Bears on Sunday. Maybe we should plan on Osweiler randomly playing out of his mind once a year from here on.
The resilient Washington Redskins: On Monday night, the Redskins were embarrassed by the New Orleans Saints. They had to then play a tough Carolina Panthers team on Sunday and do so without key offensive pieces like running back Chris Thompson and receiver Jamison Crowder. Running back Adrian Peterson’s status during the week was a question too.
And somehow Washington found a way to win. It wasn’t due to a huge rebound from Alex Smith (only 163 yards, though two touchdowns and no interceptions). The defense was pretty good but not dominant. Washington just found a way to grind out a win, down to getting a stop on fourth down at the end after Carolina had moved to Washington’s 16-yard line.
Washington has been a quiet surprise this season. They’re 3-2, in first place of the NFC East. Give coach Jon Gruden and his team credit for moving on quickly from the New Orleans debacle and getting a big win.
Cincinnati Bengals: When it comes to the Bengals vs. the Steelers, the story never ends with Joe Mixon capping a clutch drive with a go-ahead touchdown in the final minutes and the Bengals finishing the win.
Something always happens to Cincinnati. This time, after Mixon’s touchdown gave the Bengals a late lead, the defense couldn’t make a play. It gave up a third-and-2 completion to JuJu Smith-Schuster. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick got called for holding on third-and-10. A 23-yard pass to Schuster put the Steelers in field-goal range, and then a 35-yard touchdown to Antonio Brown cut out the Bengals’ hearts.
In this rivalry, this is always how the story ends for the Bengals. The Steelers saw the Bengals’ blitz coming, and Ben Roethlisberger and Brown didn’t have a hard time beating it.
“Insanity is when you keep doing the same thing over and over and expect different results,” Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap said, according to Katherine Terrell of ESPN.com. “We made some mistakes that we made before. We’ve got to learn from them. Once again.”
The Bengals had a chance to put a nice cushion between them and the Steelers. Instead of being 5-1 with a two-and-a-half game lead over the Steelers, they’re 4-2 and the Steelers are still very much alive at 3-2-1. The Bengals can’t get over that hump.
“We’re better than them. They ain’t better than us. Period,” Kirkpatrick told Terrell. “They ain’t better than us; we’re better than them. But they won, so — my hat’s off to them.”
Marcus Mariota: It’s not common to see a quarterback, especially one drafted as high as Mariota, play well for two years and then just lose it.
Mariota has had some good moments this season but Sunday was terrible. Just like last Sunday was terrible. Over the past two weeks he’s 24-of-41 for 246 yards. That’s a good half for some guys in the current NFL. It’s not passable for two games. The Titans haven’t scored a touchdown in two games, and Mariota was sacked 11 times Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens while completing only 10 passes.
It has to be concerning for the Titans. Mariota, the second pick of the 2015 draft, played much better his first two seasons. He hasn’t been the same player the past two seasons. An injury to his throwing elbow this year might be affecting him more than we know. But what we know now is that Mariota is putting up anemic numbers and the Titans have to be wondering if he is their quarterback of the future.
Le’Veon Bell’s playing time upon his return: Ben Roethlisberger joked about speculation that James Conner would become a non-factor once Bell ends his holdout, which could happen next week when the Steelers have a bye.
“James I thought was a bowling ball today, he was all over the place. What a great game,” Roethlisberger said, via Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “But I know it’s his last game for us because Le’Veon’s coming back.”
It was funny, but it also will be interesting to see what happens when Bell returns. The Steelers don’t seem happy with Bell due to the holdout. And Conner had 129 total yards and two touchdowns in a huge 28-21 win over the Bengals. The Steelers have missed Bell in some games, and he’s an amazing talent, but it doesn’t seem like he’s going to get his normal overwhelming share of the snaps upon his return.
At least he and Conner kept it loose on Twitter.
A lot about Bell’s return will be awkward. But how the playing time at running back will be handled might be the most fascinating part of all.
Dirk Koetter’s future: If you were confused why the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ran a quarterback draw, hoping Jameis Winston got in from 21 yards out on the final play to beat the Falcons, you weren’t alone.
Koetter, the Buccaneers coach said Winston had options – and his pitch almost ended up with a miracle score – but it was still an odd choice.
“Not a lot of great plays on one play from the 20,” Koetter said, via Greg Auman of The Athletic.
Even if Koetter is right and he didn’t have a better option, it’s still a loss and the good feelings from the Buccaneers’ 2-0 start are gone. They’re 2-3 now. Winston came back and played fairly well, but it didn’t matter because the Buccaneers defense can’t stop anyone. Koetter came into the season on the hot seat, seemed to get himself off of it early, but a three-game losing streak has heated it up again.
Koetter had a tough situation to manage, as Winston was suspended for three games, and he did a good job with it. But it’s a results business, and Koetter’s Bucs are below .500 and on a tough losing skid. Koetter might need to turn that around fast.
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