SANTA CLARA, Calif. — On two different occasions this season, the Broncos came back from double-digit deficits to win important games. The first was against the Patriots on Nov. 29, when Denver rolled back from a 21–7 fourth-quarter hole to win 30–24 in overtime. The second was against the Bengals on Dec. 28, when Denver spotted Cincinnati two touchdowns to open the first half and roared back to a 20–17 overtime win.
In both instances, Denver’s quarterback wasn’t Peyton Manning, the man who’s starting Super Bowl 50 for them. It was Brock Osweiler. And at the end of his fourth NFL season, with free agency just around the corner and Manning’s NFL future very much in doubt, Osweiler’s own potential is something worth discussing. Not just in the 2016 season and beyond, but in Super Bowl 50 itself. Because one thing’s for sure: Based on everything that’s happened this season, it’s Osweiler who has a better shot of moving his team down the field if the Panthers come out and put up serious points early.
There’s a general sense that we don’t yet know what Osweiler’s full potential is, even though he played in eight games this season while Manning was struggling and then recovering from injuries. The 25-year-old Arizona State alum, selected in the second round of the 2012 draft by this same John Elway-led regime, completed just 17 of 30 passes for 159 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions over the course of his first three professional seasons. If he was going to prove that he deserved to be a full-time starter in the NFL, he was going to have to do it the same way Aaron Rodgers and Steve Young did: by studying the game from the bench, blocked from the huddle by a future first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Some high-drafted quarterbacks bristle at the thought—Young certainly did—and some, like Rodgers, see the experience for what it can be: a valuable master class unavailable to most. Osweiler has spent a lot of practice time leading up to the Super Bowl as the scout team version of Cam Newton, providing his team with as much of a look at the probable NFL MVP as he can.
“He’s trying to give us a picture, and that’s what you need,” defensive coordinator Wade Phillips told me of Osweiler on Thursday. “We do a lot of walkthrough stuff at this time of the season. Defense is all about recognizing what plays they’re running, and you’ve got to be able to make the play, which is harder when Cam’s going full-speed than in a walkthrough.”
Full-speed is what Osweiler hopes he’s proved he can handle this year, which was the first season that he had a real sample size of snaps in the pros beyond the preseason or the team's practice facility in Dove Valley, Colo. And for him, the presence of Manning, who’s been the face of the franchise since he came to Denver in 2012, has been everything a young quarterback could hope for.
“It was huge,” Osweiler says. “There is nothing that prepares a college quarterback for what the NFL game is. Schematically, your offensive playbook is twice the size, if not three times the size of your college playbook. And that goes for defenses as well. In college, there are only so many coverages you see. On any given Sunday, you might see 10 different coverages. Being able to sit back and truly study the game, I would say it helped me tremendously.”
Manning, for his part, has appreciated Osweiler’s mental approach to the game—it’s why the veteran has freely dispensed advice to the younger understudy.
“He has taken advantage of his study time, his repetitions and there is no question that we would not be in this position without him and the way he played in the games that he was in there,” Manning said. “It is a credit to him for being a student of the game, and trying to use the previous season of whatever you learned to your advantage to make you a better player the next season. That is something I have always tried to do. I think he has done that as well. I thought he played great in those games that he was in there. He appreciates the cerebral part of it. That is something that I always have thought is pretty important.”
Osweiler completed 170 of 275 passes for 1,967 yards, 10 touchdowns and six interceptions through that 2015 stretch —not the kinds of numbers Young or Rodgers put up at their best, but fairly encouraging for a guy still getting his feet wet, and quite a bit better than Manning himself has performed this year. Head coach Gary Kubiak has benched Manning for Osweiler and vice versa, and he’s been very impressed with the way his current backup (and possibly future starting) quarterback has handled everything. Kubiak had a bit of a bead on Osweiler from the coach’s own pre-draft study, but the QB’s true potential didn’t become apparent to Kubiak until he was hired as Denver’s head coach in 2015.
“Obviously, a big, talented young man, can move around very well. Really a one-year player in college but growing as a pro. The biggest thing I’d say for Brock is that nowadays, when guys are drafted high, they don’t get the luxury Brock has had. Brock has had a chance to grow up under a Hall of Famer and be coached extremely well and has had a chance to come up ... I don’t want to say the right way, but the way a lot of guys were able to come up through the years many years ago. I think he’s benefited from that, being around Peyton on a daily basis, as a worker, in the meetings, as a pro, so I think he’s benefited from that.”
The common theme from all of these comments is clear: there’s no question about the obvious advantages to sitting as long as Osweiler has in this situation. Greg Knapp became Denver’s quarterbacks coach in 2013 and was kept on after John Fox’s departure due to his prior work with Kubiak in Houston in ’10 and ’11. Knapp was Young’s quarterbacks coach during the last part of his career, and he talked with Young at the time about his own frustration in sitting behind Joe Montana. Knapp believes that Osweiler has handled a similar situation as well as anyone can.
“I wish every quarterback in the league could have a chance to learn before being put to the test,” Knapp says. “It is not just the game itself to learn about, but how you manage the team as a quarterback. How do you handle the tough questions after a tough loss? How do you look in the locker room after a Monday or a Tuesday after a tough loss to your teammates? That’s such a valuable tool because a young quarterback, say he’s a rookie high draft pick, has to play and they have a tough loss, he’s got no experience to pull from. He has no knowledge how to manage that situation. It’s awfully hard to handle that. What happens sometimes to a lot of guys is pressure mounts, pressure builds, I got to really do something this week, and now you start thinking outside the box.”
Kurt Warner spent a number of years as a camp body before getting his chance. Then starter Trent Green got hurt in the 1999 preseason, and Warner took the league by storm with the “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams. Warner was the NFL MVP and Super Bowl MVP in his first full season as a starter, and his story is about as improbable as one might expect, until you hear about the time and work put in to gain the right mentality along the way.
“It’s a tough mix, and I’ve actually talked to Brock about it throughout the week,” Warner said. “And it’s hard, because everybody wants to be that guy—wants to be in that place. He earned the right with the way he played this year to be there if the team decides to go in that direction. You understand how rare these moments are, and you understand how hard it is to get here. But the balancing act is ... the most you can do is when you get a chance, take advantage of it. You can’t decide when you’ll get an opportunity— I’m the first one to tell you that. You don’t get to determine those things. All you can decide is, who are you going to be when you get that chance?”
As for any advice he might give Osweiler if he finds himself competing in the biggest game of his life this Sunday, Warner kept it simple: Stay within yourself. Do your job.
“I would tell him, on that stage, make sure you’re ready. I think that’s the bottom line. When the ball’s actually snapped, it’s football as football. Being ready is a couple things. It’s making sure you’re prepared well enough that you can just play up to your potential. And it’s being ready for ... if something goes bad—if you throw an interception or if you fall down early, you don’t become a completely different person. You understand who you are and what you can do, and you say to yourself, ‘It’s all right, we’ll find our way back into this.’ Too many guys I see that aren’t ready for the moment, as soon as things start to go wrong, they become someone completely different. They think who they are isn’t good enough, and they have to be more. When you do that, you’re already lost.”
When pressed to be more specific about Osweiler’s flaws and the things he still needs to work on, Warner pointed immediately to two things. First, there’s his height: at 6' 7" and 242 pounds, Osweiler’s got a lot of stuff to move around. And as Warner told me, the more size you have, the more it can be a problem to get everything in line in the scant seconds a quarterback has before the play falls apart. Second, there’s his elongated delivery. Warner mentioned the need to have a quick release and expressed specific concern about Osweiler’s mechanics.
On the other hand, Warner lauded Osweiler for the same quality many others have praised Denver’s backup for: No matter the situation, the game doesn’t seem too big for him.
“He was in the mix where he had to hold on to a No. 1 seed. He had to play against Tom Brady in a tough game and come back there. He had to play against good teams, and he didn’t ever seem overwhelmed. It never got too big for him mentally. That’s always a key; we can usually tell fairly early if situations are too big for quarterbacks. There are a lot of them who just can’t do the big-game things. It wasn’t the playoffs, it wasn’t the Super Bowl, but it was a big-time environment, in games they needed to win to hold onto their playoff position. He brought his team back, and he played better at the end of games than at the beginning. Those are great signs for me of the kind of moxie a quarterback has, to be able to handle the toughest situations you can possibly handle.”
I asked Osweiler about the common traits of those two comeback performances, and his answer was something that could just as easily come out of Manning’s mouth ... or Warner’s, or Young’s, or Rodgers’s.
“I believe that as a quarterback, you win games by how you prepare during the week,” he said. “And it’s how you prepare physically as much as mentally. When you look at both of those games, there was never any panic in our team. I believe that’s something we prepare for. We never look up at the scoreboard, whether we’re winning or losing, to see where we’re at. For us, it’s about making the most of the next play, the next opportunity. And because of our great defense, they kept giving us opportunity after opportunity in the fourth quarter, and we were finally able to hit some throws and hit some runs, and end up in the end zone.”
Of course, he wouldn’t talk about his future with the Broncos or his impending free agency. Osweiler wants to focus on this game and any role he might play in it. But when I pressed him about a second-half scenario in which he would come in for Manning and be asked to win the whole damned thing, it was clear that it wasn’t the first time the thought occurred to him.
“Since I came into the league, every single week, I prepared as though I was the starter. I knew the game plans inside and out, I studied the defenses, so nothing that happened over those seven weeks took me by surprise. But certainly, finally being out in the fire and being in the huddle with the guys, it definitely gives you some confidence.”
So, big question time, Mr. Osweiler: Are you ready if called?
If he is ultimately pressed into service in Super Bowl 50 for any reason, Osweiler has already played the part a thousand times in his head.