DENVER — In less than three weeks, the Denver Broncos will open the 2016 regular season here.
They’ll celebrate Super Bowl 50 and then have a rematch against the NFC champion Carolina Panthers. And, less than three weeks before the NFL world tunes in, they presumably don’t know who will start at quarterback that night.
Or, they secretly know who will start and can’t have much confidence in their choice. There’s no good answer to Denver’s dilemma. Coach Gary Kubiak expressed that he wanted to make the decision before next week’s third preseason game. After none of the three quarterbacks separated themselves on Saturday against the San Francisco 49ers, it seems hard to believe he would make the choice in the next week.
This isn’t ideal for a defending Super Bowl champion.
“Ah, well, we made too many mistakes obviously,” Kubiak said, when asked if the quarterbacks showed him enough to decide who would start.
On an evening in which any of the Broncos quarterbacks could have made a huge impression and perhaps won a starting job, none of them looked great. Trevor Siemian started well, then threw a terrible pick-six that will have to linger in the minds of the Broncos coaches as they approach their final decision. Mark Sanchez rode the roller coaster, making some nice throws with a few scary ones mixed in, and he also lost two fumbles. First-round pick Paxton Lynch brought some excitement in the second half, but he’s far from a finished product.
After the game, Sanchez sounded like a defeated man. He fumbled twice, and the first one was tough. Near the end of the first half, on San Francisco’s 13-yard line, he tried to do too much, was hit and coughed up the ball.
“I just squandered a great opportunity to separate myself, and I put the team in a bad situation,” said Sanchez, who completed 10 of 17 passes for 120 yards. “No excuse for that. Poor, poor quarterbacking play.
“I know I can play this game and I know I’m better than I showed tonight, on two plays. Two really bad plays that took away from a great performance and potentially winning the job.”
Sanchez played well at times, but the two mistakes stuck with him. That’s the story of his career though.
Lynch missed some throws, but he made some too. He completed 15 of 26 passes for 113 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. At least the physical ability is there with Lynch. Starting him and living through the inconsistency might be the Broncos’ best answer, though it’s not a good answer.
Kubiak made it clear though that while the preseason results have been good for Lynch, there’s a lot more that goes into the job.
“I think I’ve continued to tell you guys he’s a little behind the others from a knowledge standpoint, as far as running the group,” Kubiak said. “Obviously he’s coming fast, he needs to keep coming, we need to keep bringing him along.”
Last year the Broncos were 31st in the NFL in passer rating and despite having an all-time great defense, they were the only playoff team with a negative turnover margin. The common refrain all offseason with the quarterback drama was something along these lines: “The Broncos won a Super Bowl last season, and the quarterback play can’t get any worse.” So why does it seem so much worse?
If Kubiak decided a little earlier on Saturday than he had seen enough from Siemian and told him to call it a night, there would probably be no more Broncos quarterback controversy.
Siemian was 10-of-11 for 75 yards after one quarter. There were no risky throws, nothing that would remind anyone of John Elway’s prime, but Siemian ran the offense well enough. If you give a quarterback a start in the second preseason game and he plays as well as Siemian did in the first quarter, there’s no reason to turn back, is there?
But on his first pass of the second quarter, Siemian gave back a lot of his gains with one awful pass.
On almost all his throws Saturday night, Siemian locked in on his primary receiver and that’s where he went with the ball. When he did that on his 12th pass, safety Eric Reid had figured it out. Reid easily read the play, stepped in front of Demaryius Thomas, picked off Siemian and returned it for a touchdown.
Safe, game managing quarterbacks with a great defense can’t telegraph pick-sixes. Especially if their repertoires consist of passes that rarely stretch the defense.
“You have to protect the football,” Kubiak said in general about his quarterbacks. “We have to hang onto the good things, find a way to protect the ball for the team and that’s what we need to focus on right now more than anything.”
Siemian, who finished 10-of-14 for 75 yards, said: “You just can’t turn the ball over. Just made a bad decision.”
Sanchez at least threw the ball past 10 yards, something Siemian rarely did. But this sequence sums up Sanchez: He almost threw an interception as he ducked away from the pressure in an almost cartoonish way. On the next play he threw a wonderful anticipation pass with great touch to Jordan Norwood for a first down. And then on the next play, the 49ers forced the fumble that Sanchez was lamenting after the game. Up and down, up and down.
The Broncos are stuck without great options at quarterback after a crazy offseason. Sanchez has made too many mistakes in his career. Siemian is a 2015 seventh-round pick whose NFL experience consists of one kneel-down. Lynch is the quarterback of the future and the most gifted of the three, but he’s raw, still learning the offense and isn’t the best option for Week 1 (right?).
So there are questions with no great answers. Can Siemian, with practically no experience, be the safe, mistake-free quarterback Denver needs? Can they overcome it if Siemian can’t produce any big plays? Is Sanchez’s upside worth living with the inevitable mistakes? If neither of those two options excite them, is the best option going with Lynch despite knowing he’s not ready? That becomes an especially tough question considering the negative effect a bad rookie season could have on Lynch’s development.
“I’m going to take it a day at a time,” Kubiak said when asked if he foresees making the decision in the next week.
It seems like the battle will go through the third preseason game, but by this point we know there won’t be some magic solution. We know the pros and cons of each quarterback by now, and the cons won’t change with one more preseason game. The Broncos have to pick one and hope the defense plays really well again.
No matter who starts at quarterback for Denver, it’s going to be a little scary. It’s incredible to be saying that about a defending Super Bowl champion less than three weeks before they start defense of their title.
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