Like George Clooney's character 'Everett' said, in the Coen Brothers' movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, in the loft of the barn as it began to catch fire, one can imagine Pat Shurmur and Drew Lock looking at one another midway through the third quarter of Week 8's tilt with the Los Angeles Chargers and repeating the same dialogue: "We're in a tight spot!"
The Denver Broncos had dug themselves quite the hole as the Chargers had lept out to a comfortable 24-3 lead with less than eight minutes to go in the third quarter. Lock had not performed well up to that point, which was alarming to behold as it came on the heels of arguably his worst game as pro.
But the Broncos' offense, as a whole, had been impotent throughout the preceding seven quarters of play. Shurmur was under as much fire from outside the building as the Broncos' embattled quarterback was, and moving the chains a grand total of twice through the first two-and-a-half quarters of play while the Chargers racked up 20 first downs and 24 points left fans and media alike scratching their heads in disbelief.
It was bad.
Then something remarkable happened. Running back Phillip Lindsay broke off a 55-yard touchdown romp on Denver's ensuing possession, narrowing the margin to 24-10 with 5:57 to go in the third quarter. What unfolded from there was nothing short of miraculous.
Shurmur and Lock were able to conjure up some true Mile High Magic as the Broncos stormed back in the fourth quarter, putting three additional touchdown passes on the board as Denver defeated the Chargers 31-30. It went all the way down to the wire, with Shurmur dialing up an excellent play-call for Lock and company with one second left on the clock on the Los Angeles 1-yard line.
Lock rolled right, buying enough time for rookie wideout KJ Hamler to separate oh so briefly against the boundary of the end zone and connecting for the tying score. Brandon McManus pounded through the extra point and that was the ball game.
Fans, I would think, learned quite a lot about Lock in that game, even though it represented Lock's third fourth-quarter comeback win as a pro. But it was only the fifth time in franchise history the Broncos had overcome a 21-point deficit.
On Thursday, ESPN's Jeff Legwold used a great analogy about how one never knows how one will react when the proverbial crap hits the fan 'until the crap hits you', posing a great question to Shurmur as the Broncos' offensive coordinator held court for his weekly virtual presser. What did Shurmur learn about Lock in the fourth quarter of Week 8?
“He was able to lead us to victory," Shurmur said. "I think that’s important for a quarterback... Being able to make clutch throws in critical situations, that’s very important and it was hitting the fan that night, for sure. I think being able to do that is helpful. Now, the flip side of that, and once the dust all settles, you guys say, ‘OK, how do we execute better early?’ And I think that’s the challenge moving forward."
Both Shurmur and Lock emphasized in their time at the virtual podium on Thursday that getting out to a faster start moving forward will be paramount. After all, waiting until the 11th hour to turn the lights on is not a recipe for success the Broncos can count on week to week.
"I think we would all agree that shooting three-pointers at the buzzer is not the way to do this thing," Shurmur said, "but proving that you can do it—I think you draw confidence for that because the reality of this thing is, if you play enough games in a season, you’re going to be faced with those situations more than once or twice, and you got to have the confidence that you can go out there and get it done.”
Many have suggested, including yours truly, that perhaps implementing more tempo in the offense, whether that comes via the no-huddle offense or high-percentage passing plays designed to get Lock and the guys around him into a rhythm earlier, might help. I've talked about it all week on the Huddle Up Podcast, but at the same time, I've cautioned fans that weaving tempo into the game-plan is easier said than done.
“We have plays that we use strategically where we have no-huddle plays or fast from the huddle plays," Shurmur said. "There’s times where if you’re stalled out a little bit, maybe that’s a way to kind of jumpstart things, but we were stressed for time and points, and that’s sort of why we had to do it—and it works... There’s probably times when it would make sense, but there’s also other times where you got to just do things better early in the game not to be put in that situation.”
Translation: if the Broncos execute their offensive game-plan early in games, it wouldn't necessitate the sudden heavy usage of no-huddle or tempo. There's something to be said for that.
But seeing how comfortable Lock was in the fourth quarter when Shurmur had no choice but to speed things up, and how cohesive the entire offense was, firing on all cylinders, it should be focused on by the offensive coaches. Finding a way to duplicate that energy, that tempo, should be paramount — even if no-huddle isn't the primary method of extracting it.
One of the coaches' emphases for Week 8 was for Lock to do a better job of reading the field and going through his progressions. Even though it didn't pay dividends early in the game, it was evident that the young QB was intent on doing just that. And it finally went gangbusters for him in the final frame.
"I think that was evident in the last drive," Shurmur said of Lock going through his progressions well. "We executed that last drive in a short amount of time, and we had to take small bites. What did he say last week? He missed some 'baby throws'. I think he hit some of those baby throws that helped keep the drive alive. It’s the guys that are catching the ball in zones and just catching and splitting zones that a short gain can become a longer gain. Again, this is a game you have to practice. You like to see improvement week to week. You like to see improvement in the things that you emphasize—that makes us feel good as teachers. Then you just have to build on it because obviously then the challenge is to repeat it the next week and get better on it.'
With a road trip to take on the Atlanta Falcons next up on the docket, it'll be interesting to see if Shurmur and Lock can indeed build on what was established in the final 15 minutes of play last week. If the Broncos can extract that level of play from Lock even semi-consistently, this offense could grow by leaps and bounds in a hurry.