The Denver Broncos: How important is a Franchise QB?
By Ethan Dalton, Contributor
Following their dominant Super Bowl victory in 2016, the Denver Broncos have since been a team that has not once made significant noise for the playoffs in the last eight years.
Other than the New York Jets, that is the longest active streak in the NFL for consecutive seasons without a playoff berth. The roots of their mediocrity can be boiled down to failure at the quarterback position, and the lack of support around him.
Denver has since had 12 different quarterbacks start for them across eight years since their Super Bowl win. Being able to beat Ben Roethlisberger’s Steelers, Tom Brady’s Patriots and the 15-1 Panthers led by MVP Cam Newton with a hollow shell of Peyton Manning at quarterback perhaps encouraged their lack of concern at the position, since the defense undoubtedly takes the majority of the credit for the Super Bowl win. Brock Osweiler was awful in his only four starts outside the 2015-16 Super Bowl run, but to give credit where credit is due, the Broncos wouldn’t have won the division that year without him with Manning being injured. Siemian, Flacco, Keenum, and Lynch were all either painfully average or borderline unplayable, all had their fair share of starts from 2016-19.
Drew Lock’s rookie campaign in 2019 provided a jolt of optimism to Broncos country after four impressive showings in five games, especially on the road, however, he forgot how to accurately throw a football in his sophomore year.
This led to the seemingly safe signing of Teddy Bridgewater the year after, where he was named the starter over Lock. Teddy was about as average as expected but set personal career bests in touchdowns and yards. He was then concussed, giving Lock one final opportunity to show what he had, to no avail.
This led to one of the worst trades of all time that seemed so good at the time; the Russell Wilson acquisition. In March of 2022, in exchange for two first-round picks, two second-round picks, one fifth-round pick, defensive lineman Shelby Harris, tight end Noah Fant, and quarterback Drew Lock, the Denver Broncos acquired Russell Wilson, a quarterback on track to make the Hall of Fame, and a fifth-round pick from the Seattle Seahawks. Everybody at the time sang praise of Broncos general wage George Paton for pulling the trigger on one of the best dual-threat QB’s ever to play the game who is still very much in his physical prime.
Denver finally seemed prime to make a run. Oh boy, they were so very very wrong. Combined with the signing of the worst head coach in NFL history, Nathaniel Hackett, it was maybe the most disappointing season of all time for Broncos fans, relative to preseason expectations of the team winning 10-12 games and potentially dethroning the Kansas City Chiefs for the division title.
Instead, former Seattle backup quarterback Geno Smith set the Seahawks single-season record for passing yards in a season and led them to a hard-fought 9-8 record and a playoff berth while establishing a dynamic young core of talented players on both offense and defense. For Denver, they went 5-12 while going 1-5 in their division, and granted Seattle the fifth overall pick.
Wilson has had a definitive bounce-back year on the stat sheet under Sean Payton following the firing of Hackett in 2022, with 26 touchdown passes to only eight interceptions while completing 66.4 per cent of his passes in 15 games played, all of which rank top nine among QB’s.
Those who actually watched the games know that the stats are quite misleading, and there’s a reason he finished 19th in the league in passing yards and 21st in quarterback rating. Missing open guys, missing reads, turnovers in crucial moments, extending plays for far too long, and taking sacks ultimately cost the Broncos a lot of games this year. Wilson was benched after a heartbreaking week 15 loss to the Patriots that effectively ended any slim playoff hopes they had. Wilson showed flashes of his former self, but not enough to win games. This move was highly controversial and divisive for the fanbase, with both sides having merit.
Those who take the side of Wilson realize that it is classless from the Broncos organization to tell him that he’s likely going to be cut and going to be benched unless he changes the injury guarantee in his monster contract after a week 6 loss, while at the same time expecting him to play at a high level for the rest of the year.
These fans realize that Russ was put in an awful situation with a terrible head coach and new ownership group, he was additionally always respectful of the organization, his teammates, and his coaches when he had every right to act otherwise. Nobody foresaw him struggling as he has, but for all his shortcomings, he has taken it all to the chest and been accountable as a leader.
Those who side with Sean Payton and George Paton realize that they are going nowhere with Wilson and that with how loaded the upcoming 2024 quarterback class is, the franchise is most likely better off roster-wise to effectively cut their losses and reboot with Sean Payton’s vision. The ownership group’s net worth is over $60 billion, so money is no object in the grand scheme, and they’d be able to eat his dead cap hit. As of today, Russ and Payton have had extensive talks regarding his future, and a scenario where he is with the team is allegedly still on the table.
The failure to establish a franchise quarterback with the right coaching staff to translate into offensive production has continued to plague the Broncos and should set an example for all other teams on what not to do to create a winning culture.
Stidham could start all of 2024, they could draft a rookie, or somehow salvage this relationship with Russ. There’s truly no telling the most likely outcome. Looking forward, the future is certainly brighter with Sean Payton at the helm providing much-needed optimism to the team after several big wins in 2023.