After missing the playoffs for the first time in half a decade last season, the Denver Broncos are now considered one of the favorites to break out of the NFL’s 2016 non-playoff pack and get back to the postseason in 2017.
They won’t get there without better play from their quarterback.
To be fair, they won’t get there without better play from their offensive line, their running game or their rush defense, either, but it appears as though general manager John Elway fully understands that.
During an offseason dominated at least early on by talk of adding a veteran quarterback to push Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch back down the depth chart, Elway focused instead on rebuilding his team’s infrastructure.
It was a smart move, because one of the best things a team can do, not only to help a young quarterback get better, and to build up his confidence and that of his coaches, teammates and fans, is to build up the team around him.
So, while most everyone else was watching to see if he would successfully lure Tony Romo first out of Dallas and later out of retirement, Elway kicked off the offseason by luring fifth-year left guard Ron Leary out of Dallas instead.
For the Broncos, it was by far the better of the two options. After all, the chances of any quarterback, veteran or otherwise, succeeding behind the offensive line the Broncos finished the 2016 season with were pretty slim.
That Broncos line allowed 40 sacks and 98 quarterback hits (ninth- and eight-most in the league, respectively), but Leary, who didn’t allow a sack in the 13 games he played last year, according to StasPass, should help fix that problem.
So, too, should rookie left tackle Garrett Bolles, the Broncos’ first-round draft pick, who along with the signing of running back Jamaal Charles, should give a much-needed boost to the Broncos 27th-ranked running game as well.
Like the signing of Leary, the additions of Bolles and Charles were designed at least in part to make life easier on the young quarterbacks. So, too, were the moves Elway made in free agency and in the draft to improve the defense.
Elway signed tackle Domata Peko in free agency to clog up some of the holes in a leaky run defense that allowed 2,085 yards ( fifth-most in the league) last year, and drafted end DeMarcus Walker to add some heat to the pass rush.
Again, they were moves designed at least in part to take pressure off the team’s two young quarterbacks, who may not have earned the confidence of Broncos fans just yet but have surely earned Elway’s.
The more the offseason dragged on the more it became apparent that the Broncos were never all that interested in bringing in Romo or any other veteran quarterback, for that matter.
Though it seemed no one wanted to believe him at the time, Elway said as much as far back as the scouting combine, and he and coach Vance Joseph reiterated that point a month later at the NFL owners meetings.
“We have two young guys that we feel really good about,’’ Joseph said. “I’ve said it 10 times; this team won nine games last year with two rookie quarterbacks, and they probably could have won 10 or 11.’’
That’s not hyperbole. Look back at the Broncos’ Week 12 overtime loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Siemian, reading a zero blitz, lofted a perfect touch pass over the head of Chiefs cornerback Phillip Gaines to Bennie Fowler that created the 76-yard touchdown pass that extended the Broncos lead to 24-16 with three minutes to play. But it was the Broncos defense that failed to hold onto not only that lead, but the 27-24 lead Siemian helped create in overtime.
And while they lost them both, it really wasn’t Siemian’s fault that the Broncos dropped their Week 14 and Week 15 games to the Tennessee Titans and New England Patriots, either. While Siemian produced a 93.1 passer rating, the Broncos ran the ball just nine times for 18 yards against the Titans. And in a game in which Siemian actually outplayed Tom Brady, at least statistically, it was the Broncos’ inability to stop the run that led to their demise against the Patriots.
And don’t forget their 20-10 Week 13 victory over the Jaguars in Jacksonville, the one in which Siemian watched from the sidelines while nursing the foot sprain he suffered while beating the Chiefs the week before. It was Lynch who stepped up and in what was only his second career start and played solid turnover-free ball while effectively managing the offense to keep the Broncos’ playoff hopes alive.
It’s easy to see then why Elway and Joseph have so much faith in Siemian and Lynch. Though they both have a lot of growing to do, both have already displayed the ability to play at a high level and win important games.
And when you factor in the natural improvements both should make between last season and this season, the competition between the two that should only make them better still, and the improvements the team has made in the talent around them, the Broncos have every reason to feel confident that no matter which one steps in under center in 2017, he’ll be much better than he was last season.
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