Midweek Musings: A Change Had To Be Made

As everyone knows by, the Denver Broncos have benched Trevor Siemian and will start Brock Osweiler this week against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Bronco fans are all too familiar with Osweiler, who played in eight games (seven starts) for the Broncos back in 2015. He was serviceable in those starts, throwing 10 touchdowns and six interceptions on 170-of-275 passing. He was also playing behind a less-than-ideal offensive line, in which guard Evan Mathis played reasonably well but most everyone else was mediocre at best.

While some fans had hopes that Osweiler could be the starter in 2016, he spurned a sizeable offer from the Broncos, reportedly as high as $15M APY over three years, to sign with the Houston Texans on a four-year, $72M deal. As everyone knows, Osweiler was awful, throwing 15 touchdowns with 16 interceptions on 301-of-510 passing. He was rated one of the worst QBs in Football Outsiders DYAR for 2016, with only Jared Goff rated worse than him.

Before I get into Osweiler, we need to accept that Siemian has simply not gotten it done as the starting quarterback. It’s true the Broncos have an offense that’s far from perfect, with issues at right tackle, left guard and tight end, but Siemian hasn’t shown progress as a passer since the Week 2 game against the Cowboys. The troubling part about Siemian’s play is that his biggest mistakes have happened when he hasn’t been pressured. There have been a few times in which his receivers haven’t helped him (Bennie Fowler being a notable example against the Chiefs), but it’s become clear to me from watching games that Siemian isn’t trusting his teammates enough and locking onto targets too often to justify keeping him as the starter.

It’s easy to toss blame to other factors on the offense to explain a quarterback’s bad play, but while it’s true an offense isn’t solely the responsibility of a quarterback, that doesn’t mean those other factors can excuse poor QB play. Just look at current Texans QB DeShaun Watson, whose offensive line is worse than the Broncos when it comes to pass protection, yet Watson doesn’t lock onto receivers every play, dismisses mistakes from his mind and stays focused on what he can control. It’s true the Texans will need to address the offensive line in future seasons, but Watson isn’t letting that issue affect his play.

Getting back to Osweiler, we know he won’t enter a perfect situation and we know about his limitations as a passer. The question is whether or not he will at least perform at a respectable level and be better than Siemian. At the very least, the Broncos need Osweiler to play well enough so defenses aren’t stacking the box on the bulk of downs and daring the Broncos to throw the ball.

But perhaps Osweiler can be “good enough,” much like what the Minnesota Vikings are getting out of Case Keenum this season. Last year, Keenum was much like Osweiler in that he played terrible. The only differences were that Keenum played behind a worse offensive line with the Rams than Osweiler did with the Texans (the Texans’ line was better last year than it is this year) and didn’t have as much talent surrounding him (aside from Todd Gurley). Still, Keenum showed nothing to suggest that he was anything more than a backup quarterback.

That track record as “backup QB at best” has followed Keenum through most of his career. He started a few games in Gary Kubiak’s final season with the Texans (2013), but was waived before the start of the 2014 season, only to be brought back after spending time on the Rams’ practice squad. The Rams traded for Keenum during the 2015 offseason and he spent the next two seasons there. Though Keenum was decent in a few starts, he never showed he could be the long-term guy.

Keenum is starting for the Vikings this year out of necessity – Sam Bradford was the starter to open the season, but he’s injured. Though the Vikings have Teddy Bridgewater on the roster and he is expected to be activated from the physically unable to perform list this week, there’s a chance the Vikings could stick with Keenum as the starter because he is having a respectable year, just one season after ranking as one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL. Going back to Football Outsiders DYAR last year, in which the two worst QBs were Goff, then Osweiler, the next worst would be Ryan Fitzpatrick, followed by Keenum.

So the Vikings are starting one of the worst QBs in the NFL last year, yet finding success. On offense, the Vikings have an offensive line that is better at pass protection than the Broncos, but is struggling with run blocking. They lost Dalvin Cook for the season and, while they’ve gotten decent production out of Jerick McKinnon, their other back, Latavius Murray, is averaging just 3.2 yards per carry. They do have a better tight end than the Broncos do, and while Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen are playing well, neither is as good as Demaryius Thomas. In other words, Minnesota doesn’t have the perfect offense, but Keenum has been “good enough” despite his overall NFL work showing he’s a backup at best.

While Denver’s offensive issues differ from Minnesota’s, I don’t think anyone here would dispute that Osweiler is “backup QB at best” material. But the question is if Osweiler can be “good enough” to take advantage of the talent that does exist on the Broncos’ offense. CJ Anderson played terrible against the Giants but has been fine otherwise and both Jamaal Charles and Devontae Booker have complemented him well. We know how well Demaryius Thomas has played this season, even if the stats may not show it, and the Broncos have hope that Emmanuel Sanders will be cleared to play soon. And while the offensive line hasn’t been good at pass protection overall, it’s doing very well at run blocking. So there is enough for the Broncos to have some success on offense if Osweiler can at least be “good enough.”

Furthermore, the Broncos have one of the better defenses in the NFL, one that continues to play at a high level. The Vikings have this, too, as they are ranked ninth in Football Outsiders DVOA. The Broncos are ranked second, so clearly if the Broncos can get better QB play, they should be able to win more games.

The only thing to keep in mind with Osweiler is that, because his ceiling is known at this point, that he’s not auditioning for the long-term job. Going back to Keenum, even though his play has been fine overall, I don’t believe the Vikings see him as the long-term guy. At the same time, because the Vikings may not bring back Bradford and it remains to be seen what they will do with Bridgewater, it would make sense for the Vikings to consider keeping Keenum, but making sure he’s only paid like a top backup with perhaps incentives if he can keep the starting job. But if Keenum tries to get more than that, I imagine the Vikings will move on from him.

If Osweiler doesn’t work out, then you can close the book on him and go with Paxton Lynch for the remainder of the season. But if he does play well enough, he needs to be treated exactly as you would treat Keenum: You can pay him as a top backup with perhaps some incentives, but no more than that. Go through another year in which Osweiler tries to parlay a few good starts into a ton of money and the correct decision is to let him walk.

Regardless, this was a move the Broncos had to make. They couldn’t afford to wait on Lynch to be cleared to play an actual game. They needed to make a change and see if it will give them a spark. Citing other weaknesses on offense, even if they are obvious, wasn’t going to get the season turned around. There’s no guarantee this will work out but it had to be done. Now we’ll find out if Osweiler can at least be “good enough.”

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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.