Brock Osweiler either gave Broncos coach Gary Kubiak and team president John Elway the gift they hoped for, or the headache they never wanted. It all depends on how attached they were to Peyton Manning entering this season. By all appearances, it was a tenuous marriage.
That would mean Osweiler is the Broncos’ starter until further notice, including next Sunday night’s AFC showdown with the Patriots. The Manning-Tom Brady rivalry appears to be over, at least for now, after Osweiler’s first career start on Sunday in his fourth season.
Osweiler led the Broncos to a 17–15 victory over the Bears with an efficient and, more importantly, error-free performance: 20 of 27 passing for 250 yards and two touchdowns for a passer rating of 127.1. With Manning, and his league-leading 17 interceptions, given the week (and road trip) off by Kubiak to heal his rib cage and foot injuries, it would be surprising if Osweiler was sent back to the bench.
The Broncos that took Soldier Field were the team that was the shared vision of Elway and Kubiak. After parting ways with the coach on the other sideline, John Fox, Elway had a choice to make: select the best coach for the Broncos, or the one that had the best chance to work with Manning. When Elway chose his former backup and position coach, Kubiak, Manning’s future was in doubt. If your chief concern is giving Manning the best opportunity to ride off into the sunset with a second Super Bowl title, you don’t pick a coach that would automatically jettison offensive coordinator Adam Gase, who led a 37-year-old Manning to his greatest season in 2013, and install his own bizarro-Manning system that is predicated with the quarterback being under center and not changing plays at the line of scrimmage.
Not only did Elway do this in hiring Kubiak, Elway asked Manning to take a $4 million pay cut under the guise of surrounding the quarterback with better talent. Instead, it was a declaration that the Broncos wouldn’t be beholden to a quarterback making more than $20 million per season.
The Broncos’ poor offense this season had to be driving Kubiak crazy. It would be one thing if Kubiak made wholesale changes to his scheme to accommodate Manning’s poor start and it worked. But it didn’t. Manning threw a league-leading 17 interceptions, at least one in every game, and five of his last six outings included multiple picks. Manning’s 67.6 rating is worse than any current starter in the league.
After Manning threw four interceptions in a 29–13 loss to the Chiefs, Kubiak finally had enough. It was announced that Manning was pulled for health reasons, but it looked like an overdue benching. It was time to try something different.
Against the Bears with Osweiler, the Broncos ran their first 11 plays from under center. For the game, Denver ran 71 plays (including penalties) and 58 were from under center (81.7%), showcasing what has been Kubiak's entire schematic philosophy since 1985. He feels that running various zone runs, inside and out, and coupling it with play-action is the way to not only get receivers open, but limit mistakes a quarterback can make.
Despite it being Osweiler’s first start, you could blur your vision and think you were watching any of the other quarterbacks that have effectively executed Kubiak’s offense, be it Jake Plummer, Matt Schaub or Joe Flacco.
With the Broncos rushing for a season-high 170 yards on 36 carries (4.7 average) using Kubiak’s base runs, Osweiler was able to operate the offense efficiently. On the 48-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas, Osweiler moved up to the pocket and hit the receiver in stride. Before halftime, the quarterback led a 13-play, 82-yard drive that set up a field goal by going 7 for 8 and throwing in a 15-yard scramble. After Chicago cut the lead to 10–9 late in the third quarter, Osweiler completed four plays on a 71-yard drive, including a 10-yard score to Cody Latimer in traffic. Osweiler even looked like a natural running those trademarked Kubiak boot-action passes. Most importantly, Osweiler didn’t turn the ball over, and he really didn’t threaten to. Don’t think that wasn’t a welcome relief for Kubiak.
“What we needed to do was go play clean football as a team,” he said after the game. “We’ve obviously had a bunch of turnovers, and the message this week was protect the football and play, ok? We’ll play a great defense, we’re consistent with what we’re doing there, and let's not hurt ourselves as a team. I think that’s what we ultimately did. We ran the ball, we moved the ball well, we could have obviously scored some more points in some situations, but I think it got down to playing good defense, protecting the football. And that’s a good combination.”
Sunday’s win was a Kubiak dream: control the ball (33:13 to 26:47, 43% on third downs), run the ball (170 yards), pass efficiently (74.1 completion percentage), don’t turn the ball over (zero), and let the defense do the heavy lifting (33% on third downs, two takeaways). Maybe it was a boring, too-close victory, but that’s a Picasso to Kubiak.
Osweiler wasn’t perfect. Of the four sacks (on the fifth he gave himself up), three could have been avoided. Osweiler, when he senses pressure, gets flustered and immediately looks to run instead of trying to make a play that could be there. He panicked after not having a receiver open, yet ran into a sack instead of avoiding pressure or throwing it away. Early in the second half, Osweiler didn’t see a safety blitz coming that took an eternity to get to him, and then failed to throw a ball away when he had ample time.
Those are issues Kubiak can deal with and manage, if not improve upon, with more experience. Manning’s interceptions and need to be in the shotgun or pistol, to the detriment of the run game, are not. That makes Osweiler the better option over Manning for Kubiak and the Broncos.