Trevor Siemian hit rock bottom in a rental car traveling north on I-65 through pastoral northwest Indiana. Earlier that November afternoon in 2014, against Purdue, he’d charged into the fray on a QB sneak and faced that terrifying moment in football when your feet are stuck in a pile of bodies but you’re still standing upright. A tackler slammed into his torso and his left leg stayed in place. Siemian, in his final season at Northwestern, wept as trainers helped him off the field.
Now it was dawn and as he leaned back in the car with his mother, father and older brother, Todd, he asked the big question aloud: “I wonder if I’ll ever play again.”
His parents were certain they knew the answer. He’d been a statistically poor passer on a losing football team. He had a well-paying job in real estate waiting for him. Still, nobody really knew what to say. “My husband and I agreed he was pretty much done—but we didn’t want to tell him that,” says Colleen Siemian, a registered nurse. “Then Todd said, ‘Just give it another try, because in five years you don’t want to say could’ve, would’ve, should’ve.”
Todd was right, even if Trevor did find out he’d torn his ACL. Three years later Siemian is the undisputed starter for a Broncos team that has won three of its first four games. (Denver’s no. 3-ranked running game and no. 1 defense have certainly helped that cause.) His performance in the first quarter of this season is the latest turn in an improbable journey from seventh-round draft pick to Peyton Manning understudy to competitor in a QB derby he wasn’t supposed to win, but did. Twice.
Now Siemian’s fellow Broncos have joined the chorus of former Northwestern teammates in issuing superlatives that show how far the QB has travelled since that miserable, anxious car ride.
“He’s even-keeled,” says receiver Emmanuel Sanders.
“Calm and collected,” says running back C.J. Anderson.
“And cool,” says coach Vance Joseph. “The perfect quarterback demeanor.”
“I’ve played with Tom Brady and I’ve played with Peyton,” says cornerback Aqib Talib, “and it’s not just the mental side that makes them great. It’s their calm—that poise, that unwavering confidence, man. They’re always cool, they never panic. If you have [those same] traits, you’re on your way.”
Siemian’s road to the NFL began in earnest when Greg Knapp, then Denver’s QBs coach, visited Evanston, Ill., in the spring of 2015 for a post-pro day workout set up just for the QB, who was still limping from ACL surgery. Knapp, the only coach in attendance, had been tasked with identifying a passer to back up Manning (in what would turn out to be his final season) and Brock Osweiler (a ’12 second-round pick), and he came away impressed with Siemian’s football acumen.
Sure, this was a guy who for two years split time with Kain Colter—Siemian was the pocket passer, Colter the running threat—and then, in his only season as a full-time starter, stumbled to seven TDs with 11 interceptions. Still, Knapp went back to Denver thinking he’d found his man, and coach Gary Kubiak and general manager John Elway were intrigued too. They liked Siemian’s play in big games, particularly in narrow wins over 17th-ranked Wisconsin and, on a windy November day, 18th-ranked Notre Dame. “He could really throw the football,” says Elway. “There obviously wasn’t a great team around him. [Knapp] liked his knowledge of the game, his ability to understand coverages.”
Come draft time, Siemian and his family watched from their home in Windermere, Fla. On Day 3 they were barbecuing when they began to accept that Trevor was destined for undrafted free agency. Siemian’s parents say the Browns and Texans reached out, expressing interest in signing their son once the dust settled. (Cleveland, which has spent decades in search of a franchise passer, used its two seventh-round picks on linebacker Hayes Pullard and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu; two years later, neither is on its roster.)
At pick No. 247, Siemian finally got a call from the Broncos’ war room. “Knapp said, ‘Trevor, I’m pounding my fist on the table,’ ” Colleen recalls. “ ‘I want them to draft you, but if they don’t, you’re gonna be a preferred free agent with us.’ ”
Elway and Kubiak pulled the trigger three slots later, with seven choices remaining, and Siemian was thrust into a competition with Zac Dysert (another project passer) for Denver’s third-string job. Though low on the depth chart, he knew he had the best role model any young quarterback could ask for. Thanks to his confident demeanor, Siemian earned the respect of Manning, who tutored the young QB on every aspect of the position, etiquette included. On one occasion Siemian asked Manning if, after a game, it was the younger quarterback’s responsibility to approach the older quarterback for the traditional handshake. The future Hall of Famer rejected that premise. The losing QB, he explained, always approaches the winner.
Siemian beat out Dysert that first season and collected a Super Bowl 50 ring. The following preseason, after Manning retired and Osweiler left for Houston as a free agent, Siemian stole the starting job from first-round pick Paxton Lynch and went 8–6, just missing the playoffs in a hypercompetitive AFC West. Despite completing 59.5% of his passes for 3,401 yards and 18 TDs (versus 10 picks), he had to hold off Lynch again deep into this summer. Meanwhile, Kubiak had stepped down in January and the Broncos replaced him with the defensive-minded Vance Joseph, adding former Chargers coach Mike McCoy as his offensive coordinator.
The new staff worked to build an attack that would give Siemian and Lynch an equal chance to thrive, and when the two QBs brought their playbooks home from their second minicamp, in June, Siemian applied a study technique learned from Manning. “You start with one play,” he says, “and you try to understand the thought behind it, what defensive weaknesses it tries to attack. Then you say What if? for every scenario. What if I get Cover 1? What if I get Cover 3? You take into account how the play looks out of different personnel and you draw that up. Then you move on to the next play. When you get to camp, the plays kind of come to life.” (Osweiler, who’s back in Denver after stints with the Texans and Browns, says he now takes the same approach. “No one had ever taught me that before I met Peyton. We were very fortunate to see the game he was playing in his head.”)
When it eventually came time to name this year’s starter, Joseph felt the decision was so vital to the health of his organization that he sought input beyond the offensive brain trust, consulting with each of his defensive coaches, from the D-line to the secondary. It was an unusual move for a head coach, especially in a building with more retired quarterback talent than any other in the NFL. The Broncos employ five men who played QB at the Division I level: Elway, Joseph, McCoy, Kubiak (now an adviser) and QB coach Bill Musgrave have more than 84,000 passing yards to their collective credit.
Siemian had arrived at training camp with an elevated understanding of the Broncos’ new offense, which incorporates some spread elements he’s familiar with from college. For some teammates, that new scheme is a welcome departure from an attack that had grown stale. “The offense was pared down last year,” says Talib. “If you’re running the ball well, it’ll work great—but if you’re not, nobody’s gonna go for all that play-action, pop passes and bootleg. It was kind of one-dimensional.
“In this offense you can line up and do anything. [Trevor] might check to a run, a screen, anything. This is the offense Peyton Manning ran. It’s grown-man football.”
Siemian’s mastery doesn’t surprise Northwestern offensive coordinator Mick McCall, who recalls watching Siemian act like like a coach on the field during practice at Olympia High in Orlando: “He had everyone’s attention. If he said something, they did what he said. And he wasn’t demonstrative or anything. His voice commanded respect.”
What drives Siemian, more than the joy of tossing a perfect touchdown or the ecstasy of victory, is the brotherhood. McCall remembers his old QB as a social butterfly, dining with various position groups until eventually the defensive backs talked about him the way the receivers did. Colleen says her son explained early on why he preferred football over baseball: Baseball was an individual sport disguised as a team game, while football was like “going to war with a bunch of guys.”
“I love the camaraderie of the locker room,” Siemian says. “I love the huddle. Eleven guys—53 guys—getting on the same page for a common goal.”
Lynch, who is due $9.5 million over the life of his four-year contract, was drafted 26th out of Memphis to be Manning’s successor. Siemian was a low-cost, long-term project who faced a steep climb to the starting job. His four-year deal will net roughly $2.3 million, making him the lowest-paid starting QB in the NFL. Thus, the decision to start Siemian over Lynch has been characterized by many Denver pundits as a concession by Elway.
Elway doesn’t see it this way. “Trevor did what we were hoping one of [our QBs] would do: take control of the position,” he says. “I didn’t take any loss there. We wanted the best quarterback playing, and obviously that’s Trevor.”
While Siemian has been an unexpected bright spot, Elway deserves credit for positioning the roster to be viable in the event that either quarterback stepped up. The GM drafted Georgia Tech defensive tackle Adam Gotsis in the second round a year ago to fill the gaping hole left by the departure of Malik Jackson in free agency. Gotsis, hampered by a leg injury as a rookie, has quietly been one of the most valuable players on a defense that has allowed a total of 95 yards to Melvin Gordon, Ezekiel Elliott, LeSean McCoy and Marshawn Lynch.
In addition, 2016 third- and seventh-round picks Justin Simmons (Boston College) and Will Parks (Arizona) made longtime starter T.J. Ward expendable with their versatile safety play. The more elusive challenge has been in providing Siemian with capable offensive tackles. In the second round in ’15 Elway drafted Ty Sambrailo, now a reserve in Atlanta, and in ’16 he signed free agent Russell Okung, only to decline a second-year option. Elway drafted Garett Bolles (Utah) in the first round this year and signed Menelik Watson away from the Raiders, and while Bolles has potential, both have struggled in pass protection.
“There are a few reasons it’s difficult to find tackles,” says Elway. “There aren’t as many well-trained linemen coming out as there used to be, and they take longer to develop. You’re seeing a bigger discrepancy between the athleticism on the defensive line versus the offensive line. These guys rushing the passer are 285 pounds and run 4.5, so it’s a tougher matchup for the O-line. Plus, the rules have changed; there’s not a lot of [cut blocking] anymore, so these pass rushers are in a free-for-all. That’s making the divide a little wider.”
It’s also making Siemian’s job harder—and he appears more than up to the task. In victories over the Chargers, Cowboys and Raiders, he has taken a larger role compared to a year ago in making on-field, pre-snap adjustments that give his offense favorable matchups. And he’s always ready and willing to learn more. Manning called Siemian before the season opener, and before several other games last season, to talk football. Siemian likes to involve his family in his game-day preparation, going over plays with his father, Walter, in a hotel room. Walter will read a play call and Trevor will talk through the scenarios. But when Manning phones, Walter steps into another room. “[Trevor] is very private about that. He won’t share what Peyton says, and I don’t ask,” says Colleen. “I think Peyton respects that about him.”
Manning, in an interview with the NFL Network this offseason, said he realized Siemian was special when he saw him visualizing plays without the aid of a playbook or film. The successful passers, Manning said, can play the game in their minds.
Siemian’s mother had a hunch long before that. “Trevor sets goals high for himself,” she says, “and in his mind he has no choice but to achieve them. I knew, because I was his mother, that he was not going to give this job up easily.”
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