Coming into Sunday’s game against the Texans, the Broncos hadn’t scored more than 24 points since Oct. 19, 2018—a 45-10 win against the Cardinals on Thursday Night Football. That’s 416 days of the Denver team watching high-powered offenses run the NFL and searching for some consistent quarterback play.
But that all came to an end when QB Drew Lock and the Broncos stunned the AFC South-leading Texans with a 38-24 upset on Sunday, with 30 of those points scored in the first half alone. In just the second start of his NFL career, the rookie quarterback threw for 309 yards—235 in the first half, which is the most passing yards in a first half by the Broncos since Peyton Manning had 282 in Week 5 of 2014—and three touchdowns.
So how did Lock get to this point in his career? The QB was somewhat of a surprise slide in last April’s draft; he was among the select prospects invited to Nashville for the draft, but his phone didn’t ring that first night. Lock is a CAA client, so he spent part of the next day at the Nashville-based agency’s office, waiting for his moment until Denver drafted him with the 42nd overall pick. Lock, who started all four of his seasons as a Tiger, had the prototypical size and arm strength and had a rare amount of experience for an elite talent.
Experience starting in college is a huge factor in determining how quickly a rookie quarterback adjusts to the NFL. Washington rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins has played exactly like a guy who only started one season in college. Another single-season starter, Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, has taken longer than expected to develop as an NFL starter, and he’s regressed significantly in his third season. When evaluating quarterbacks, NFL scouts take that college starting experience into serious consideration. But Lock’s career as a Tiger was inconsistent, and many NFL teams didn’t think the spread offense he played in would translate smoothly to the NFL.
In an ideal world, every NFL team would love to sit their rookie quarterback for a full season, or more, and let him learn behind a veteran starter (just look at Aaron Rodgers), but often those plans are thrown in the trash before midseason. However, the Broncos kept their course when veteran starter Joe Flacco was placed on IR and didn’t rush Lock into action. Instead, the team started Brandon Allen, a quarterback they claimed off waivers in September, for three games.
Lock became eligible to return to practice six weeks after he was put on IR, but Elway purposely delayed the rookie’s return to practice because doing so would start the two-week clock on the decision to activate him to the roster, or keep him on IR for the rest of the season. In mid-October, Elway didn’t think the rookie was ready for the big time yet.
“I will say this: The most important thing for a young quarterback is not to put him out there before he’s ready,” Elway said in mid-October during his weekly radio interview on KOA radio. “So that is the most important thing and if he’s not ready, we’re not going to put him out there... And as you know dealing with quarterbacks, it’s a very tough thing because if you don’t put him in a situation where he has a chance to be successful and he’s not successful, the whole roof will cave in. So we have to make sure that Drew is ready when he does get in there, if he does get in there.”
Lock finally returned to practice the week of Nov. 11, but it wasn’t until the week before his first start that the coaching staff increased his reps in practice and liked what they saw. Lock told the coaching staff that he was ready to be the starter. He was clearly impatient for his chance to play, but in time, Lock will probably look back on those 12 weeks on the bench and realize how that time on injured reserve actually set him up for a better chance at success.
In his first start, a last-second win over the L.A. Chargers in Week 13, Lock was up and down. He flashed with two quick touchdowns to receiver Courtland Sutton in the first quarter and then struggled for most of the game, with an ugly interception in the fourth quarter. He was 18-of-28 for 134 yards, two touchdowns, an interception and an 84.5 quarterback rating. But Sunday’s victory over a team coming off a primetime win against the Patriots was eye-opening.
Yes, two wins in two starts is a tiny sample size, but it looks like the Broncos' plan has set Lock up to develop at a decent pace. The significant amount of time on the bench this season, and his extensive experience in college are a good combination.
A few weeks ago, with Lock’s future totally uncertain, Denver seemed like a team that might be in the quarterback market again in the upcoming 2020 draft. That’s looking a lot less likely now. The Broncos are out of the playoff hunt, but the rest of this season will be an important evaluation of their rookie quarterback’s potential.
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