The Denver Broncos believe they finally did it. After wandering the quarterback desert for the better part of four seasons following their triumph in Super Bowl 50, the Broncos see themselves as having finally escaped the exile.
Internally, in his end-of-season presser last December, GM John Elway described it thusly: "It feels like we’ve bounced off the bottom and now we’re heading up."
Such an admission lays bare the fact the Broncos had found themselves in the bottom-third of the league and nowhere close to actually vying for AFC West supremacy. What's given Elway and company this newfound optimism is the emergence of quarterback Drew Lock.
Drafted with the No. 42 overall pick in the second round last year, Lock entered the equation as a starter in Week 13 and helped lead the Broncos to a 4-1 finish. This, after the likes of Joe Flacco and Brandon Allen could combine to bring home just three total wins over 11 weeks of play.
Lock didn't set the league on fire statistically, though he did break or tie a few team and NFL records, but the results in the standings speak for themselves. Inside the locker room, the Broncos were able to finally overcome the "here we go again" habit of throwing in the towel emotionally when even the slightest setback occurred in-game.
With Lock under center, players on both sides of the ball believed the Broncos were always in the game and within striking distance of winning. That self-belief is tenuous and fleeting. The slightest change to the personnel equation can upset the balance and send a young team like the Broncos careening back into the loser's mindset of just accepting their fate as a team.
How the team brass view Lock was communicated loud and clear by virtue of the Broncos' offseason pursuits. Elway and company sold out to build the nest around Lock, bolstering the interior offensive line and adding an arsenal of weapons, including veteran RB Melvin Gordon in free agency and WRs Jerry Jeudy, KJ Hamler, and TE Albert Okwuegbunam in the draft.
Those of us in Denver media who cover this team daily recognized the seismic shift that occurred when Lock took over. But few from the national perspective have given much credence to how Lock changed the trajectory of the Broncos, especially as it relates to power rankings and QB rankings, both of which are ubiquitous this time of year.
According to Broncos safety Justin Simmons, who just signed his franchise tag tender that will pay him $11.4 million in 2020, Lock is not getting enough hype in the media.
“I don’t think you’re pumping him up, maybe not even enough,” Simmons told NFL Network's Good Morning Football on Friday. “I saw it in the locker room. In those five games he was playing, even when he was starting to get back, he was taking reps against the first-team defense, it didn’t matter. There was that type of swag, and like I said, a lot of it is just confidence, not even cockiness, you know? He just goes out there, he knows his abilities, and he knows what he can do and he delivers. So, five games, 4-1, had a whole offseason to really prepare for this and so, like I said, I really think Drew is going to step into his own this season and I’m excited for him.”
For the first time since the Peyton Manning era, there are some real expectations baked into the Broncos cake. Lock won't have the benefit of kind of being that darkhorse QB who emerges from the exile of injured reserve to take the league by surprise this year. He'll have to find a way to meet those expectations and exceed them.
But that excitement and optimism that Broncos Country feels is also informed by the young, dynamic talent surrounding Lock on the offensive side of the ball, as well as the veteran savvy and youthful potential of the defense, led by Head Coach Vic Fangio.
The Broncos appear to be a well-balanced roster, on paper, teeming with menace and potential. The onus will be on Fangio and his coaching assistance to maximize that talent and convert the potential into production on the field.
Simmons is a very smart player. He's as articulate and thoughtful as they come in the NFL. If Simmons is saying that Lock isn't receiving enough hype in the national conversation, he meant it.
And if Simmons meant it, a safety who played through the very post-Super Bowl 50 depredations that emotionally scarred an entire fan base, there's good reason to believe in the veracity of his statement. Is Drew Lock the truth?
Time will tell. I'm not a betting man, but if I were, I'd wager on Lock being the Broncos' long-term answer at quarterback.
That doesn't mean there won't be growing pains. There will continue to be a trial-and-error learning curve but with two proven, bonafide QB whisperers like OC Pat Shurmur and QBs Coach Mike Shula, I like Lock's odds of being able to navigate and maneuver through them.