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Fangio's Pride is the Only Thing Preventing Drew Lock's Return to the Starting Lineup

It's not too late for Vic Fangio to turn the Broncos' ship around.

The Teddy Bridgewater experiment has failed. 

Enough already. 

The Denver Broncos sit at 5-5 at the Week 11 bye and still have every chance to turn the ship around and vie for a playoff spot down the stretch. However, if this team continues to do what it's always done, it'll continue to get what it's always gotten — with Bridgewater, with special teams coordinator Tom McMahon, with... well, you catch my drift. 

Let's not pretend that head coach Vic Fangio is without potential solutions to the problems currently vexing the Broncos. At the quarterback position, particularly, Drew Lock waits in the wings and could be exactly the spark this team needs to win 4-to-5 of its remaining seven games, five of which are AFC West battles. 

It's not as if empirical data is lacking on the subject. In his first year as head coach, Fangio sat on the decision to play Lock for more than a quarter of the season, stubbornly holding to his 'plan A', which was Joe Flacco. 

Even though Lock had healed up from his sprained thumb by about Week 5, Fangio clung to Flacco as the Broncos' season was torpedoed. Even after Flacco was placed on injured reserve (with asudden, mysterious neck injury) — a roster move that came only after the veteran signal-caller called out the coaching staff following an ugly road loss to the Indianapolis Colts — Fangio kept Lock on ice, rolling with a completely unproven stop-gap QB in Brandon Allen from Week 9 through Week 12. 

Allen managed to win just one of those games (Week 9 at home vs. Cleveland) while presiding over one of the Broncos' most notorious collapses in recent memory which saw the Minnesota Vikings overcome a 0-20 half-time deficit to win. That Week 12 loss to the Vikings was the straw that finally broke the back of Fangio's reticence with Lock. 

Sitting with a 3-8 record entering Week 13, Fangio finally pulled the trigger as Lock went from injured reserve to the starting lineup in the matter of a 24-hour period. What ensued from there? 

Lock defeated the Chargers, blew out the eventual AFC South-champion Houston Texans in Week 14, lost to the Kansas City Chiefs in a blizzardous road game, and finished off the season by handling the Detroit Lions and the  then-Oakland Raiders. Along the way, Lock looked very much like a rookie quarterback with enormous upside, displaying flashes of brilliance — becoming the first QB ever to pass for 300-plus yards and three touchdowns in his first road start — and face-palming inconsistencies. 

All told, playing Lock — while it came too late in the year to save Denver's season — absolutely staved off what was sure to be a frighteningly poor Year 1 for Fangio, giving him a semi-respectable 7-9 record. It also allowed the Broncos to enter the 2020 offseason with a sense of optimism and momentum. 

Alas, perhaps due in large part to the firing of 2019 offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello — whom, for whatever he lacked as a tactical play-caller, he more than made up for as a teacher and QB developer — the Broncos were unable to capitalize on the momentum Lock provided in 2020. Obviously, the pandemic and how it affected the NFL, played the most pivotal role in what became yet another wasted season in Year 2 of the Fangio regime. 

Lock's second year wasn't terrible but it certainly wasn't the type of sure-fire season that gave the Broncos the perfect confidence they had 'The Guy' long term. Then, John Elway relinquished his duties as GM and the Broncos hired George Paton to take over. 

One of the first things Paton did upon arriving in the Mile High City was pay lip service to Lock, talking about how he had "all the tools you look for" before promptly executing a trade on the doorstep of the NFL draft that brought Bridgewater to Denver. From there, inexplicably, the trope emanating from Dove Valley was that Teddy and Lock would compete in a "50/50" battle for the starting quarterback job. 

Drew Lock, Teddy Bridgewater

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I say 'inexplicably' for two reasons: 

  1. We already knew what Teddy was. A competent, stop-gap QB that could serve as a bridge to a young developmental guy or as a stop-gap backup who could keep an offense afloat temporarily whilst the starter recovered from an injury. 
  2. The Broncos had a formidable investment in Lock at stake. After trading up to select him with pick 42 in the 2019 draft, the Broncos had poured two years of coaching into developing him, and made the requisite sacrifices as a franchise to weather the trial-and-error learning curve of a young QB. 

Because of reason No. 2, it would take a transcendent training camp and preseason performance from Teddy for the Broncos to move off of Lock... right? Wrong. 

In what felt like a very self-serving decision that smacked of a head coach going all-in on minimizing any risk of losing his job in what was a do-or-die Year 3 for Fangio, Teddy was anointed the starter after both QBs each got one preseason start and both fared well. Ultimately, Fangio erred on the side of the QB with the 'higher floor' over the 'higher ceiling'. 

It's a playing-not-to-lose mindset and it almost always backfires. Fast forward to Week 11, the Teddy decision has most definitely blown up in Fangio's face. 

After a hot 3-0 start wherein the Broncos romped all over three inferior teams, the second quarter of the season saw this team endure a four-game losing streak — with Teddy under center. Had it been Lock presiding over such a precipitous fall so early in the season, and after starting 3-0, there's no way he would have survived it in the court of public opinion or by Fangio decree. 

Fangio probably wouldn't have gone more than two straight losses before sitting Lock down and turning to Teddy. And yet, with that equation inverted, Fangio stubbornly stuck with Teddy. 

Meanwhile, the Broncos offense ranks among the NFL's worst in every major statistical category, can't convert a third down to save its life, and has forgotten how to punch it in the end zone on possessions that strike inside the opponent's 20-yard line. But, hey, at least Teddy's not turning it over, amirite? 

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The irony here is that during the four-game losing streak, Bridgewater became a sieve, coughing up the ball six times over that span (five interceptions and one lost fumble). So much for that higher floor, eh?

The Broncos bounced back from their month of suck and narrowly defeated the Washington Football Team in Week 8. Then, to use this word one last time, the Broncos inexplicably blew out the Dallas Cowboys on the road. Fangio was licking his chops and pounding his chest as if the Broncos had just won the Super Bowl. 

How 'bout them Broncos? 

Fans had reluctantly remained neutral on Teddy after that Cowboys win but when the heretofore three-win Philadelphia Eagles rolled into Mile High and completely curb-stomped the Broncos, the tone shifted. A big reason for that was the turning-point play in the game where Melvin Gordon fumbled on a 4th-&-1, Eagles' cornerback Darius Slay scooped it up, and proceeded to romp downfield 83 yards for a touchdown, with Bridgewater in position to make a game-saving tackle only to make a Cam Newton-esque business decision. 

That was it. Teddy lost the fans in that moment — a snapshot emblematic of what this team has become under Fangio's leadership. Surely, in the face of that monumental dereliction of duty, Fangio would return to Earth and realize that something had to change under center. 

Nope. Fast forward to Monday morning and Fangio stuck to his guns on the subject of even being open to the idea of getting Lock involved with the first-team offense. 

"No, Teddy’s our quarterback moving forward," Fangio said. 

I realize that in recapitulating the past five days, I'm telling you nothing you didn't already know. But it's important in setting the stage. 

Now, the spotlight is on Fangio and he's being exposed for all to see. Based on his comments, Teddy's 'business decision' revealed that he's more worried about putting bad play "on tape" than he is about risking his hide to win a game and keep his team's season alive, which I can only infer means that his focus is on 2022 free agency and not 2021. 

As a team captain, Teddy's comportment on Sunday is even more disappointing, and, frankly, unacceptable. And yet, on the subject of accountability, all fans got Monday was hollow rhetoric in which Fangio claimed he singled out Teddy in team meeting for his non-tackling gaffe. 

Nothing else. 

This team is suffering from a spiritual crisis. This team lacks heart. It lacks mettle and accountability. And the leadership lacks the intestinal fortitude to make the necessary changes because doing so, ostensibly, would represent a failure at the coaching level. Pride can be a destructive force. 

This offense still has the horses to be an explosive unit absolutely teeming with menace. But Teddy lacks the disposition to maximize it. 

Instead, it's a force so impotent and so disregarded that opponents have no fear stacking the box with nine or 10 men. That's become the rule, not the exception, and it has smothered 'Teddy Two-Yards' and his short-of-the-sticks passing attack.

For all his warts, at least you know that if Lock is captaining the Broncos' offense, if he goes down, he'll go down swinging. As a self-proclaimed gunslinger, perhaps that's the mindset the Broncos are lacking under center.

This team needs a quarterback who'll leave no bullets left in the chamber when the final gun sounds on gameday. Fangio still has the chance to keep this team's season from the dustbin of history. 

It's adapt or die. And I think we know which option Fangio is taking. 

Fangio backed the wrong quarterback and now the Broncos are paying the price. There's no guarantee Lock would come in and completely save the season. 

But there's more evidence to suggest Lock could do just that than there ever was that Bridgewater could lead the Broncos out of the NFL doldrums and back to the promised land. Saving this season will require Fangio to lay down his pride and do what's best for the Broncos. 

The good news, Lock is expected to come off the reserve/COVID-19 soon. 

Follow Chad on Twitter @ChadNJensen.

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