The Denver Broncos will never replace Peyton Manning. His presence, leadership, intelligence and skill, all on display last season when he led Denver to its first NFL title in nearly two decades, were a one-of-a-kind blend.
So the front office and coaching staff’s attempts to fill the since-retired Manning’s rather large shoes is a challenging task. But so, too, is repeating as Super Bowl champions. Broncos players, coaches, and especially their diehard fans shudder at the thought of 2016 being a “rebuilding” season, but if they’re interested in remaining a Super Bowl contender for the next decade — and not simply trying to piggyback off last year’s triumph — then they should take their medicine and hand the keys over to unproven, unrefined and untested rookie quarterback Paxton Lynch.
Manning’s retirement coupled with the somewhat unexpected free-agent departure of Brock Osweiler left Denver with an enormous hole at quarterback, one which they seemingly filled franticly by trading for Mark Sanchez and selecting Lynch, the University of Memphis quarterback, in the first round of the draft.
Sanchez has been a borderline disaster during the preseason and very well may be cut this week or next. Such a move would save the Broncos $3.5 million in salary cap space as well as the draft pick they conditionally gave Philadelphia for Sanchez earlier this spring. That would, at least temporarily, leave second-year pro Trevor Siemian and Lynch as the two quarterbacks remaining on the roster.
Siemian has, at times, played well during the preseason and officially has landed the Week 1 starting job. But because Denver has been a serious Super Bowl contender each of the last five seasons (and because they invested a first-round pick on Lynch) the moment Siemian slips up the spotlight will turn toward the big rookie.
In this modern era of salary caps and enormous free-agent contracts, Super Bowl champions have a near impossible time repeating. Since 1999, only the 2003-04 New England Patriots successfully defended their title. Furthermore, just three other reigning Super Bowl champions (the 2001 Ravens, 2014 Seahawks, 2015 Patriots) managed to even win a single playoff game, and none of those teams had to replace a first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback the very next fall.
Even if Denver didn’t have to replace Manning, the road to repeating already has proved to be a bumpy one. The Broncos lost defensive starters Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan to free agency, star cornerback Aqib Talib suffered a gunshot wound to the leg that may ultimately land him a lengthy suspension, and the schedule will be grueling at times. Early in the season, Denver plays three road games in the span of 19 days. Another point in the schedule features five road games during a seven-game stretch. And most concerning, division rivals Oakland and Kansas City appear capable of knocking the Broncos off the top of the AFC West.
Still, Denver remains one of the most talented teams in the AFC. Linebacker Von Miller’s dominance should keep the defense ranked among the best in the league, Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas make up one of the best receiving duos in the game, and another year of experience in head coach Gary Kubiak’s zone scheme should make the Broncos run game even more potent.
But Denver doesn’t have enough talent for a caretaker quarterback — even if Manning wasn’t at the top of his game last season, his singular knowledge and instincts made up for his physical shortcomings — to lead them back to a Super Bowl title. And Siemian is just that, a caretaker. He’ll run the offense, convert a few third downs, and not leave the Broncos great defense on the field all game long.
Lynch, on the other hand, has the tools and college résumé to suggest he can be much more. A three-year starter who guided Memphis to consecutive bowl games, Lynch flirted with the “first-round draft pick” status all spring until Denver nabbed him late on Day One of the draft. Clearly, the Broncos were impressed with his potential and skill set, as they gave Seattle a third-round pick in order to move up five places to take him.
Most of the recent rookie quarterbacks who have enjoyed great success — Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton, Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota — started in Week 1. Even recent first-rounders Blake Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater became starters very early in their rookie seasons and now carry high hopes for their respective teams.
But most importantly, this franchise has been in this position before. In the history of the NFL, only one Super Bowl winner, the 1998 Denver Broncos, has seen its starting quarterback retire that spring, leaving a deep chasm at the most important position on the field. And Denver’s top two decision makers in 2016 had a front row seat for that experience 18 years ago.
Upon winning Super Bowl XXXIII, quarterback John Elway, now the team’s general manager and executive vice president of football operations, retired. The Broncos, loaded with talent elsewhere on the roster, thought they could plug in either veteran journeyman Bubby Brister or second-year quarterback Brian Griese and yield similar results. Over the next seven years, Kubiak, Denver’s longtime offensive coordinator before taking over as head coach, squeezed a lot out of Griese, and later Jake Plummer, but not enough to reach another Super Bowl.
Lynch may or may not prove to have the game to return Denver back the Super Bowl, either this season or five years from now. But we won’t know until he plays in a handful of regular season games. And as just about all first-time quarterbacks do, Lynch likely will struggle when he first does get on the field. So why not let him take his lumps now, rather than in the middle of the season, or some time next year, after more free agents have left or star players get another year older?
Besides, for a franchise that was led to the playoffs by Tim Tebow at quarterback, was blown out in a Super Bowl with Manning at the helm, then won one at the end of a quarterback controversy-filled, flip-flopping season between Manning and Osweiler, starting a rookie with a pirate’s facial hair should continue the exciting, unpredictable and shocking drama that Denver quarterbacks have been providing the last few years.