What a weird year this has been overall and for the Denver Broncos. From the pandemic canceling OTAs and the preseason, which cost this young offense and new coordinator 1,400 valuable reps, to the abundance of costly injuries to key players, the Broncos have been on the short end of the 2020 stick, comparatively speaking to their NFL brethren.
The Drew Lock story this year has epitomized the Broncos' entire season. Lock entered the year with all the optimism in the world, only to suffer an injury to his throwing shoulder in Week 2 that would sideline him for nearly a month of real-time.
He only missed two starts over that span, thanks to the NFL throwing the Broncos another curveball by rescheduling their game at the New England Patriots and effectively robbing the team of its bye week. Lock returned to the lineup in Week 6 and became the youngest QB in NFL history to win in Gillette Stadium.
From there, it's mostly been a series of 'one step forward, two steps back' stumblings from the second-year signal-caller. However, coming out of the Broncos' 20-13 upset win over the Miami Dolphins last week that saw Lock throw an interception on the opening possession and struggle early, only to bounce back and finish strong, fans and media alike are left to wonder what this team really has at the quarterback position.
President of Football Operations and GM John Elway hasn't blinked through it all. In his end-of-season press conference last year, Elway professed to his belief that the Broncos had "bounced off the bottom" thanks in large part to Lock's impact and influence in the locker room.
Presiding over a team now sitting at 4-6 with six games left to go in the 2020 season, Elway acknowledged Lock's inconsistencies this year, which have so frustrated fans and flummoxed pundits, while sharing an unwavering faith in the young QB.
“Yeah, I’ve had some good talks with Drew. I’m excited about him," Elway told Phil Milani of the team site on Tuesday. "He’s got the right mentality because he wants to be great. I think he’ll continue to work on that."
As a Hall-of-Fame QB himself, Elway knows well the vagaries and obstacles of a young signal-caller finding his way in the NFL. Unlike some outside the building, the Broncos' GM hasn't gotten caught up in QB envy and recognizes that Lock is going to take his lumps as he navigates the pitfalls of his NFL trial-and-error learning curve.
"Obviously, when you’re going through it as a young quarterback, you’re going to see a lot of different things, a lot of different looks," Elway said. "Defensive coordinators know when they’ve got a young quarterback and try to confuse them. So I think he’s done a heck of a job going through that. Every snap he takes this year, he’s going to continue to get better. It’s just going to help him in the future.”
Elway is maintaining the long-view on Lock. While the GM's remarks are a far cry from endorsing Lock as the starter in 2021 and beyond, it does imply that Lock has a future in Denver and subsequently, these reps — the good and the bad — are vital building blocks towards making it as bright as possible.
“I think that’s one of the bright things that Drew has done," Elway said. "He’s very resilient and he’s continued to bounce back. You’re going to go through growing pains, especially as a young quarterback."
This season, the Broncos have endured arguably the most unique obstacles and adversity in the club's history, like many NFL teams, and have been inordinately impacted by injuries. However, with how young the Broncos are offensively, Elway knew it was going to take time especially in the absence of OTAs and preseason.
"He had the five starts last year, then started early for us, and then got banged up and missed a couple starts and came back in," Elway said of Lock. "I think we’re excited about what we’ve seen. Obviously, the consistency hasn’t been there—where we wanted it to be but you look at everything that’s gone on for us this year, I think that they’ve hung in there and done a heck of a job. No offseason with a new offensive staff. A lot of young guys playing—no preseason games. So everything’s been kind of a little bit against us but I think that these guys have not let that affect them and they’ve continued to work their tail off and keep their nose to the grindstone and continue to work hard week in and week out.”
As I've surmised many times over the course of this season on the Huddle Up Podcast, the panicked view on Lock from outside the building is not shared by those inside the walls of Dove Valley. Elway has certainly been frustrated at times by Lock's inconsistencies but also recognizes the rare combination of tangible and intangible traits he brings to the table in raw form.
It's the job of offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur and QBs Coach Mike Shula to develop those traits into polished form. And that's an endeavor that is still quite evdiently in-process.
Shurmur showed a much more encouraging grasp of how to help Lock in last week's win over the Dolphins, revamping the Broncos' running game to be significantly more productive and putting Lock in a more fortuitous position to succeed. Shurmur's game-planning up to that point belied Lock's relative inexperience and youth.
This isn't Year-16 Peyton Manning out there. Shurmur can't call 47 passing plays to a dozen or so rushing attempts in a game and expect the embattled Lock to carry the offense on his shoulders. Lock can be the tide that raises all ships — from a macro perspective — but the onus is on Shurmur to be more discerning of where the QB sits on his developmental learning curve and scheme accordingly.
We saw Shurmur, for the first time this season, show an obvious and evident recognition of how to best help Lock. The young QB is not to a point yet where he can carry the offense single-handedly. Lock needs the running game, he needs O-line protection, and he needs high-percentage passing plays that simplify his reads and allow him to play faster without thinking so much.
With six games to go, it'll be interesting to see on what note Lock and company finish this season. Even if the roller-coaster continues, I have a sneaking suspicion that it won't change Elway's ultimate view of Lock as 'the guy' — at least for 2021.