Brian Billick knows what Denver Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak is experiencing as he prepares to decide which of his three quarterbacks will open the season as the team begins to try to defend its title in a Thursday night Super Bowl rematch against the Carolina Panthers.
It’s unusual for a Super Bowl winner to enter the following season with a quarterback – in the Broncos’ situation, two quarterbacks – different than the one(s) that led the way the season before.
But it also happened to the Broncos in 1999 when John Elway, now the franchise’s general manager, retired after winning two consecutive Super Bowls.
And, it happened to Billick in 2001, the season after his Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer under center. Dilfer was a free agent, and Billick said simply, “We felt like we needed a little more offensive punch. That’s what prompted us to look elsewhere.”
With both those franchises, they chased quarterbacks for quite a while after those championships.
Said Billick, as he prepared for another season as an analyst for NFL Network, “It’s problematic at best, whether you’re drafting a quarterback or pursuing a free agent. It’s a 50-50 crapshoot.”
With Mike Shanahan as head coach, the Broncos tried Brian Griese and Jake Plummer and selected Jay Cutler in the first round of the draft in 2006. Denver was 7-9 and 8-8 with Cutler starting in 2007-2008, and Shanahan was fired. In the 10 seasons under Shanahan after the Super Bowl win, the Broncos made the playoffs just four times, and lost three first-round games by a combined score of 111-37 before losing to Pittsburgh in the 2005 AFC Championship with Plummer at quarterback.
Billick’s Ravens went with Elvis Grbac, Jeff Blake, Kyle Boller (a first-round pick in 2003) and Steve McNair. Aside from McNair’s 82.5 passer rating in 2006, when the Ravens were 13-3, no other starter had better than a 75.2 rating before Billick was fired following the 2007 season. There were three playoff appearances in his final seven seasons.
That 2007 season was spoiled by McNair being injured in the first game of the season. He played hurt for five more games, going 2-4 overall, and Boller was back as the starter, although Troy Smith also started two games. The Ravens were 5-11 with left tackle Jonathan Ogden and two other starting offensive linemen injured, along with middle linebacker Ray Lewis.
Baltimore hired John Harbaugh in 2008, selected Joe Flacco in the first round and has been in 15 playoff games in the ensuing eight seasons, winning the Super Bowl in the 2012 season.
The Broncos hope they have their Flacco in first-round pick Paxton Lynch, who has been understandably described as needing more knowledge of the offense as he competes with Mark Sanchez and Trevor Siemian.
Like those Ravens of yesteryear, the goal for the Broncos is to play excellent defense, run the football and limit the mistakes by whoever the quarterback is.
Lynch is on the Broncos because they were outbid by the Houston Texans for free-agent quarterback Brock Osweiler, Manning’s backup last season.
Said Billick, “They obviously didn’t feel Osweiler was going to be worth chasing, given the contract. I give them credit for sticking to their guns. We’ll see. If Osweiler ends up playing very, very well, they (Broncos) look stupid. If he doesn’t (play well), then (Texans head coach) Bill O’Brien loses his job.”
Denver also didn’t want to invest significant money in Ryan Fitzpatrick or Colin Kaepernick, and ended up trading up to get Lynch. Doing that, Billick believes, should lead to playing Lynch right out of the gate.
“Why not?” Billick asked. “With the Super Bowl in your back pocket. Keep this rookie from throwing 23 interceptions (the total by Peyton Manning, 17, and Osweiler, 6, last season) and run the ball, then why not go with him? This is your franchise quarterback. Why not start now? I would advocate that.
“If you have to protect your first-round quarterback, then you screwed up in taking him in the first round. Not that he’s not going to have trouble. You get into that should he start or sit. Everyone will bring up Aaron Rodgers, but he is the only one, really. And by the way, he had a Hall of Famer (Brett Favre) in front of him. With all due respect to Mark Sanchez, I don’t think he’s a Hall of Famer. If those are my choices, I’m always one to say, ‘Let’s play.’
“The Denver Broncos will be light years ahead of where they are today one year from today going into camp (if he plays). As opposed to, OK don’t play Paxton Lynch, don’t play Jared Goff, don’t play Carson Wentz, and where are you a year from now? Do you know any more about your guy then?”
Billick pointed out that of the 29 quarterbacks selected in the first round from 2005-2015, only four – Rodgers, Jason Campbell, Brady Quinn and Jake Locker – did not start a game in their rookie season, and 12 were opening-day starters.
Billick firmly believes the decision shouldn’t be a hard one for Kubiak. He concluded, “I can’t agree with that mentality of don’t play them and bring them along. My contention is if you don’t think a guy is ready to play right now – I don’t mean All-Star, Hall of Fame, Pro-Bowl level right now. But if you don’t think he’s good enough as a first-round draft choice to at least put in and suffer through the trials and tribulations of being that starter, then you probably shouldn’t have taken him in the first round.
“You should have taken him in the second round, and then nobody cares. No one is going to hold it against you. If a team falls apart around you, you don’t play well and if that ruins you, then you probably weren’t the guy to begin with.”
Saturday night against the Los Angeles Rams, Siemian will start for the second consecutive game, but Kubiak insists nothing should be read into that. He also knows he has to make his choice soon.
He said, “It’s down to the nitty-gritty here. I’m going to make a decision next week and we’re going to go to work. They’ve all put themselves in position to go out there and compete.”
Odds are, even if Kubiak goes with Sanchez or Siemian, Lynch will be starting at some point this season.