The Denver Broncos did the unthinkable on Sunday: bench Peyton Manning for Brock Osweiler on the same day that Manning broke the NFL’s all-time passing mark. Now, they're going to do the unavoidable in Week 11: sit a hobbled Manning for Osweiler against the Bears.
What does the change mean for the Broncos, and for their two QBs? A quick primer:
What to know about Osweiler
The Broncos’ temporary(?) starter is a broadcaster’s dream—a tall quarterback with a big arm and a basketball background. Expect to hear plenty about the latter in the coming days, particularly when Osweiler gets a chance to move around with the ball in his hands.
The truth is that we won’t really know what Denver has here until 24-year-old Osweiler takes the field. He hasn’t started a regular-season game since he was at Arizona State in 2011, and he’s thrown just 54 career passes, most in mop-up duty. Sunday’s relief appearance mostly qualifies under that category. Osweiler finished 14 of 24 for 146 yards, one TD and one INT against the Chiefs, but the Broncos already trailed 22–0 when he entered en route to a 29–13 loss.
Those 24 passes gave him a single-season career high, so that tells you all you need to know about his experience. His backup, rookie Trevor Siemian, has never thrown an NFL pass.
Osweiler should have benefited from spending four years playing behind Peyton Manning. Think of it in the same way that the NFL always wants to prop up Tom Brady’s backup—merely having a chance to watch a legend ought to help, at least from a mental aspect. The Broncos have had some terrific play-callers during Osweiler’s brief career, too: Mike McCoy as a coordinator, Adam Gase as a coordinator and now Gary Kubiak as a head coach.
Kubiak’s decision to rule out Manning for Week 11 this early was no doubt done with Osweiler’s preparation in mind. Prior to his first career NFL start, Osweiler will have a full week working with the Broncos’ first-team offense. He also has seen reps there in the past.
“He’s basically had the football team on Wednesdays [when Manning typically rests],” Kubiak said, “and throughout the off-season he had the football team one out of every three days. He’s grown from that. He went in there and played with a lot of confidence the other night.”
Bears head coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Gase spent the past three seasons in Denver and are therefore very familiar with Osweiler. That’s an X-factor that plays far more to Chicago’s advantage than Osweiler’s, even if the Broncos’ offense has changed. Chicago defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will be a tough draw for Osweiler, as well, even with limited talent across his defense. He’ll dial up ample pressure and as many exotic looks as he can in an effort to disrupt Osweiler’s timing.
How will the new Denver starter respond? We can do nothing more than speculate at the moment. If nothing else, Osweiler brings a great deal more athleticism to the table. (That basketball background!) Manning’s transition into the Kubiak scheme has been a rocky one, and his labored efforts running are part of why. Kubiak loves to roll his quarterback off play-action; Manning has had neither the foot speed nor the arm strength to hit consistently on those calls. In theory, it’s a huge step down from Manning to Osweiler. In practice, based on how Manning has been playing, it could be a boost for the Broncos’ attack.
What it means for the Broncos’ season
Manning has been hurt, as the reports about his plantar fascia injury indicate, so count that as just another element contributing to his diminished arm strength. At least as big a problem of late has been Manning’s inability to read opposing defenses with the precision we’re all used to. Case in point from Sunday’s loss: On one of his four interceptions, Manning simply did not see dropping linebacker Josh Mauga and threw the ball right into his hands.
The problems go deeper than Manning, though. Denver’s offensive line continues to stumble (five sacks allowed Sunday), which goes hand in hand with the run game ranking 29th in the league.
Osweiler might keep defenses more honest, but he’s also not Cam Newton or Andrew Luck as a runner. He does have the arm to connect on throws to the sideline, as well as on a deep ball here or there, both pieces of the puzzle that have been missing often with Manning reeling. How accurate Osweiler can be is the question.
The other question is Peyton Manning’s future. When it comes to the 39-year-old quarterback, the Broncos are in full wait-and-see mode, for multiple reasons.
First and foremost, they need to see how Osweiler performs when handed the reins. If he plays well in Chicago, it will be much easier to keep him as QB1 when the Patriots visit Mile High next weekend. Should he stumble, the decision becomes more difficult. Sticking with Osweiler only helps if he’s better than an injured Manning.
Speaking of, how quickly a 39-year-old Manning starts feeling better absolutely has a role. A partially torn plantar fascia, as Manning reportedly has, is actually harder to play through than if the ligament was fully torn. This is an injury that typically takes upwards of a month to heal, with rest.
The Broncos do have some wiggle room as, at 7–2, they still hold a three-game lead in the AFC West. They’re also multiple losses back of New England and Cincinnati, the current top two teams in the conference. Obviously, Denver would like to keep winning, but it’s far from desperate, at least for now.
The ideal scenario is that Osweiler holds down the fort, then Manning starts feeling better and returns closer to full health around playoff time. Whether or not that’s realistic should be revealed in the next week or two, after Osweiler starts and Manning take a hiatus.
If Manning does not get back on the field, we likely will have witnessed a rather abrupt end to one of the greatest careers of all time. You can bet on Manning doing whatever he can to avoid that conclusion.