Looking Past A Few Narratives

Every NFL fan looks forward to a new season and, even if they don’t like to show up in person for the preseason games, they watch with interest to see how players are performing and how battles are taking shape, and Broncos fans are no exception.

With Broncos fans, they are coming off a season in which the team fell short of a playoff trip just one season after a Super Bowl trip, so it’s understanding there would be frustration. On top of that, the Broncos struggled offensively between injuries and ineffective players; the latter drawing a lot of attention given that the Broncos signed Donald Stephenson instead of Mitchell Schwartz in free agency, spent a high draft pick on Ty Sambrailo who still wasn’t getting desirable results, and traded up for Paxton Lynch in hopes he would be the quarterback of the future.

During the offseason, we watch as the Broncos make their moves and other teams make theirs and we wonder why the Broncos couldn’t have been more aggressive in certain areas. We hold skepticism over certain signings or draft picks, given John Elway’s recent history with those types of players. And when things play out not as well in the first preseason game as we had hoped, we start to panic.

It’s fine to be skeptical of certain moves but to give into outright panic is a problem, because you take situations in which you blow something out of proportion and confuse it with situations in which there really is a problem.

Now, I did not watch the first preseason game in full but did watch some clips that were available and read what various observers have made, trying to piece some things together. And with that in mind, let’s take a look at what we need to separate as blowing things out of proportion versus what is a valid concern.

Trevor Siemian: Yes, I know — we all want a world beater at quarterback, but there just aren’t enough to go around. But let’s sort out what’s going on with Trevor Siemian and figure out what’s true and what’s just a darn narrative that certain types don’t want to let go.

Regarding Siemian, we know that he was doing some good things last year before his injury, but didn’t look as good after that. He earned the reputation as a “dink and dunk” passer, even though every single quarterback in the NFL “dinks and dunks” on a regular basis. If you actually look at a full game for the top passers, they do what people calling “dink and dunk” because the intent is to move the chains and chew up the clock, and only strike 10-plus yards downfield when the opportunity presents itself. The only reason it looks like they aren’t “dink and dunk” types is because it’s big plays that make the highlight reels and that’s what most fans follow because they are too busy following either their favorite team or high-profile games to watch everything that’s out there.

Based on what I’ve gathered from last night’s preseason game, Siemien had an 11-yard pass to Demaryius Thomas into a tight window and had a pass attempt to Emmanuel Sanders for 10-plus yards, in which Sanders drew a defensive pass interference flag, but it was for naught because Menelik Watson was called for holding. But the two attempts on the few plays Siemian ran would indicate he is willing to attack downfield.

Instead, people focus too much on his third-and-four play in which he threw a short pass to Jordan Taylor and it only gets three yards. And instead of taking a look at the full play to determine what happened, they focus on the outcome and nothing more. For those who watched the game, you need to answer these questions:

1. Did Siemian have a clean pocket for three seconds? If yes, you might have a case regarding his decision but you need to go to question two. If no, then that probably explains why he did what he did. If the pocket breaks down too quickly, every quarterback is going to be quick to get rid of the ball, even if it’s for a short gain.

2. Was anybody open downfield? If yes, you have a valid argument that he made a bad decision. If no, then you need to go back to the pocket Siemian had and ask yourself if it was starting to break down after three seconds, and if so, if Siemian was trying to buy time. Because those factors matter when discussing quarterback play.

Siemian isn’t going to be a world beater, that much is true, but he could be a good quarterback capable of great games. And while we sit around and joke about somebody like Alex Smith as Captain Checkdown, the truth is that moniker got tossed around in the IAOFM days in response to certain pundits proclaiming Alex Smith to be “elite” when he was really a good QB capable of great games.

The real story about Smith was that there were some fair arguments to make about turnover in offensive coordinators, with at least one who seemed more interested in a pet project than trying to work with Smith (Mike Martz, J.T. O’Sullivan, oh where have you two gone?), and he didn’t reach his potential until Jim Harbaugh came along and coached him up. The problem with the “Smith is elite” argument is that he never was elite, but he had talent and might have played better earlier in his career with better coaching. With Kansas City, Smith hasn’t blown anyone away (hence why he is not elite) but he’s been effective at times, though he seems to be too careful with the ball at times.

If that’s Siemian, that’s something you can work with. You just need to make sure he continues to get proper coaching and you do a good job building the team around him.

Paxton Lynch: On the other hand, we have valid concerns and criticisms regarding Lynch because nearly everyone is saying the same thing: He doesn’t look comfortable out there. Troy Renck observed on Twitter (don’t have the link right in front of me) that Lynch appeared to be fine when his first read was open, but when it wasn’t, he looked awful.

Lynch does have the physical tools and talent to be a starting quarterback, but it’s the mental part of the game that’s a problem in the sense that he’s struggling with how to read defenses and is too quick to worry when his first read isn’t there. When the pocket collapses too soon, it’s understandable a QB in need of development may panic. But when he has time in the pocket, there’s an issue. If he can’t look past his first read with time in the pocket, he won’t reach the level in which he can make quick decisions when the pocket does collapse too quickly.

With all this said, I’m fine with Lynch starting the next preseason game for two reasons. A minor reason is to nip any narrative of “Lynch had to play with second stringers” in the bud. A bigger reason, and by far the main reason, is to see if Lynch has learned from this game and does a better job with decision making and not panicking if the first read isn’t open. If that doesn’t happen, it’s time to go with Siemian as your starter and put Lynch in the backup role. You can always go back to Lynch if Siemian struggles during the regular season to see what you’ve got, because it’s easier to pull the guy who doesn’t have long-term expectations and replace him with the guy who was drafted with long-term expectations in mind than to do it the other way around, especially in today’s media environment.

As far as Lynch’s future goes, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. While it’s fair to say he’s a wasted pick if he doesn’t become the long-term guy, it’s fine to keep him around as the backup because he’ll be on a cheap contract and you can decline the fifth-year option and be done with it. So far, nothing has come up with off-field issues to the extent of Johnny Manziel (which did more to seal his fate than his on-field play, even though he struggled there), so there’s no harm in keeping him around. And if somebody does want to trade for him, it’s fine if you get a late-round pick — better to get something for nothing.

With all that said, if Lynch does become the Broncos’ version of E.J. Manuel, it’s correct to say the Broncos swung and missed, big time.

Offensive line: Thus far, the discussion seems to be about right tackle, which was a problem throughout last season. And it is fair to criticize Menelik Watson for the sack he gave up and for the penalty he drew.

However, every offseason article I read indicated that pass protection was not his strong suit. The problem, though, is that because the right side of the line was an obvious issue last season, that we tend to over-emphasize mistakes on that side of the line by whoever holds the starting job. Thus the pass protection issues Watson had, while issues of concern, get all the attention while nobody bothers to look at the rest of the picture.

This brings us to the running game, in which the Broncos want to run the ball effectively so teams can’t just rush the passer at will. CJ Anderson managed to average four yards per carry, which is fine for the few carries he got, and seemed to have more success running to the right side, where Watson had some of the blocking duties. Not every run to the right went for a good gain, and there may have been plays in which Anderson dragged defenders, but I doubt every single run was like that. So there was enough for me to say that Watson did his part in run blocking.

That doesn’t mean we can blow off the areas in which Watson struggles — of course, he’ll need to get better in pass protection. But we also want to see is if he will remain consistent or get better as a run blocker, because if it allows the Broncos to run the ball effectively, there’s less pressure on Watson when he is called upon to pass protect.

The other thing to keep in mind is that building the offensive line was going to be a process regardless of who the Broncos got. It just wasn’t possible to address every position in free agency. The signing of Ronald Leary indicated the Broncos didn’t see Michael Schofield as starting material, so it was more than just figuring out left tackle and replacing Donald Stephenson. Truth be told, it was that Schofield and Stephenson weren’t good enough, Okung wasn’t wort the option and Max Garcia looked serviceable, but needed improvement.

I’ve heard nothing negative about Leary, but if anyone saw problems with him that they can point to, speak up. There didn’t seem to be much negative talk about Garcia, either, but feel free to talk about what you saw if there was something wrong with him.

Getting back to Watson, there does seem to be a running theme about him that he struggled with pass protection in training camp. But that goes hand in hand with reports about Garett Bolles, where many of these same people say he’s doing quite well for himself, in camp and in his first preseason action. So if Bolles can put together a quality season, that’s at least one position the Broncos can be settled upon. Throw in Leary and Matt Paradis (once healthy) playing well and your O-line is in a better position than it was last year, when you had Russell Okung (better than Watson but with the same pass protection issues), Donald Stephenson (two good games, then an injury and never recovered) and Schofield (inadequate run blocker) each presenting issues.

Or to put it another way, looking at the line was at the end of last season compared to the direction it appears to be trending is like this:

Last year: Okung (not worth the money), Garcia (can live with it for now), Paradis (looks like a long-term guy), Schofield (not starting material), Stephenson (not starting material).

This year: Bolles (trending in the right direction), Garcia (holding even?), Paradis (health a slight concern but no doubts otherwise), Leary (trending in the right direction), Watson (shaky in pass protection).

While not perfect, it’s better to have just one position in question than two positions which definitely are and one in which you have a good case for a replacement. While it’s still too early to tell, as long as Bolles and Leary trend in the right direction, Paradis keeps playing at a high level and Garcia improves, we can move past the idea of the offensive line needing an overhaul and move forward toward needing to find that final piece of the puzzle.

The Bills are not trading Tyrod Taylor: I’m going to address a point that I really don’t want to, but need to because it shows proof that Broncos fans know very little about what’s really going on with other teams. But it also gives me a chance to shoot down narratives and point out what’s really going on with the Bills.

Let’s start with Taylor. As you’ll recall, he had two years left on his deal last season when he got an extension that gave him a raise in 2016, but left an option in 2017 that would have committed the Bills to $27.5M in a single season. Throughout 2016, he played well enough to justify staying with the Bills, but not at a level that justified that massive salary, and a restructure of the deal could have tied the Bills down to Taylor longer than they may hve wanted.

Now, if the Bills had wanted to, they could have just declined the option and let Taylor go elsewhere. It’s true the QB market was thin, but the Bills could have settled for signing somebody like Brian Hoyer or Nick Foles in free agency as a short-term option and drafted a QB early. Instead, they reworked Taylor’s deal to a more reasonable, two-year contract that averaged $15.25M per year and guaranteed him $15.5M upon signing.

So it’s clear the Bills were fine with keeping Taylor, just not at $27.5M in a single season. Had they not come to terms on a new deal, it’s clear they would decline the option and let him walk.

Now, the narrative has become that, because the Bills shipped out Sammy Watkins and Ronald Darby, that they are rebuilding and having a fire sale. Trevor Siemian and a second-round pick for Tyrod Taylor, do it now!

Except that the Bills aren’t having a fire sale; they are merely moving players from a previous regime in the interest of acquiring other players that might fit their schemes better and adding higher-round draft capital, thus giving them the opportunity to build a better team around Taylor, if he shows he can be the long-term guy. At $15.25M per year, it’s worth keeping him around for two seasons. And if he shows he’s the long-term guy, they can reward him with an extension down the road that better fits in with the Bills’ long-term salary picture, along with high draft picks that can either net players who fit what they do, or trade down if they see the opportunity.

The whole “Broncos should trade for Taylor” talk is nothing more than talk to get Broncos fans hyped up about something that is never going to happen. Trading Taylor means the Bills eat a massive negative cap hit and they aren’t going to do that. Furthermore, the whole reason for the reworked contract was to make it more palatable for the Bills in terms of 2017 salary commitment while still allowing them to decide if he’s the long-term solution. They aren’t going to trade him for any reason.

So please cast aside the “trade for Tyrod Taylor” talk right now, because it’s just not going to happen. It needs to be shelved up there with the “trade for Joe Thomas” talk as one of those things in which the previous regime had no idea what it was doing, while the new regime is focused on a long-term plan and intends to keep certain players around until it’s clear the player isn’t part of the long term. It’s why people need to not fall for the narrative, which is designed to get you to start talking about things that are never going to happen, and take a deeper examination about what teams who have long playoff droughts are really trying to do to get better in the long term.

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Bob Morris

I'm a sports writer in real life, though I've always focused on smaller communities, but that hasn't stopped me from learning more about some of the ins and outs of the NFL. You can follow me on Twitter @BobMorrisSports if you can put up with updates on the high school sports teams I cover.