In a photo from Week 12 of the 2015 NFL season, an overjoyed Brock Osweiler is standing in the snow at Sports Authority Field, arms lifted high above his head, his helmet in his hand, firework smoke above him. He is victorious, and at last, he is front and center.
That night, in just the second start of his career, the 25-year-old dramatically led the Broncos back from a 21–7 fourth-quarter deficit to beat their hated conference rival Patriots 30–24 in overtime—New England’s first loss of the season. Osweiler was the David to Brady’s Goliath in that moment, the underdog who finally had his chance to show he was ready to be a successful starter after sitting on the sidelines for three and a half seasons. Headlines proclaimed that a star was born. He was the future of the Denver Broncos and the future started now.
The future was short-lived. By Jan. 3 he was back on the bench. And by March, he was a Houston Texan—a very, very rich Houston Texan.
In his four-year NFL career, Osweiler has seven starts, five wins and 11 touchdowns. And for that, the QB-desperate Houston Texans offered him $37 million in guaranteed money to be their starter.
It is going to take a lot more than five wins and one particularly memorable comeback on a snowy night to justify that kind of payday.
If there’s one lesson we’ve learned from the NFL, it’s that a quarterback’s brief success is not indicative of his long-term performance. Remember Matt Cassel’s 11–5 season? Matt Flynn’s six-touchdown day? Small sample sizes have too often doomed teams into trusting quarterbacks who weren’t able to live up to the over-inflated expectations. Is Brock Osweiler any different? He needs to answer that question in 2016, and with the amount of trust and funds the Texans have invested in him, it needs to be a resounding yes.
No doubt about it, Osweiler was productive in Denver, and he helped secure the No. 1 seed that proved crucial to the Super Bowl run. He was a good fit for Gary Kubiak’s system—much more so than Peyton Manning—and he showed flashes of skill and poise at times. He threw a touchdown in every game he started except for one, and quickly earned the trust and support of his teammates amid a tricky situation after Manning was benched. During that abbreviated 2015 season, he threw for a total of 1,967 yards and 10 touchdowns.
But he also made mistakes that young, inexperienced quarterbacks make. He missed receivers and mistimed throws, and he was lucky enough to have the incomparable Broncos defense to bail him out when his efforts were stagnant. In that aforementioned Patriots game, he had a brutal first half, only really finding his rhythm at the end, and even with his heroics, his stat-line was 23-for-42 for 270 yards and a 35.2 QBR. The comeback was a nice story, but is it really anything more than that? When he was relegated back to the bench in favor of the hobbled Manning in the middle of his two-pick season finale against the Chargers, was anyone really that surprised?
This coming season may mark his fifth in the NFL, but he still has some serious growing pains to iron out. Which is all well and good, except that you don't hand a quarterback a four-year, $72 million deal with $37 million in guaranteed money so that he can slowly work through his issues. The clock is ticking. He has to show that he has the upside that other backup QB busts have lacked, and he needs to do that this year.
The pieces are in place for him in Houston. The Texans’ defense is not as good as Denver’s, but it’s strong enough that the Osweiler-led offense shouldn’t have to put up 40 points a game in order to win. Not only do they boast a dynamic talent in receiver DeAndre Hopkins, but they also gained one of the best wideouts of the 2016 draft in Will Fuller, and Lamar Miller will give that running game a spark. This team has the potential to go very far with the right quarterback, and Houston thinks it has finally found him.
Osweiler reportedly left Denver because he wanted to get out of the shadow that Peyton Manning cast, instead seizing the chance to create his own legacy elsewhere. Perhaps Osweiler-to-Hopkins will become the next must-see QB-receiver tandem. The spotlight is all his, and his moment of triumph doesn’t need to be fleeting. This is his chance to show that the comeback against the Patriots was just the beginning of a long, successful story. Because for $72 million, he certainly better prove that this time, the future really does start now.