No one really believed Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning wouldn't play on Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs in one of the most highly anticipated games of the year, but he does have a high-ankle sprain that he's been dealing with since the game in Indianapolis three weeks ago.
Considering how poorly the Broncos have protected Manning in recent weeks, it's worth wondering if we could see backup quarterback Brock Osweiler sooner rather than later. If Manning needs to rest his ankle for a game or he misses time with an injury, the Broncos will have to lean on the 6'7" 2012 second-round pick to run the offense.
Can they really trust Osweiler in an emergency situation if Manning misses time?
Yes, no and maybe are all good answers depending on the perspective. Even the Broncos probably don't know for sure or want to find out right now.
What we do know is that Manning may miss a couple days of practice this week, which will give Osweiler more practice reps than normal. Those practice reps are valuable for any backup quarterback, but particularly a young one like Osweiler whose number may be called to try to fill Manning's shoes.
Osweiler has attempted just seven passes since being drafted, so there isn't much we can glean from his limited experience in the NFL. Even if we had access to his preseason performances, that wouldn't tell us much about Osweiler's ability to perform in the regular season.
Yes. He. Can.
The Broncos selected Osweiler 57th overall in 2012. He was the fifth quarterback selected behind Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden, and three of those quarterbacks are still starters. The sixth quarterback selected was Russell Wilson, who is also a starter for the Seattle Seahawks.
Executive vice president of football operations John Elway said Osweiler would have been "real close to the top, if not the top" of the 2013 class. Geno Smith and EJ Manuel were drafted at the top of the 2013 class, and both have had some success as rookie starters.
Outside of Weeden, Osweiler seems to be in pretty good company. Just based on his raw talent, Osweiler should be good enough to play in an emergency situation. The fact that he's been learning from Manning for nearly two years now couldn't hurt his development.
There is also an abundance of offensive talent in Denver that can help Osweiler. Wide receivers Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker, tight end Julius Thomas and running back Knowshon Moreno will all be able to help Osweiler like they have helped Manning.
The Broncos have an offense that makes it possible for high-percentage passes to turn into big plays and touchdowns. Demaryius Thomas took a screen pass 34 yards for a touchdown on Sunday against the San Diego Chargers, and Julius Thomas took a quick out 74 yards for a score.
These types of big plays are not uncommon for the Broncos. There's a reason Manning is still on pace to break passing records.
There aren't many situations more favorable for a young quarterback to be successful than the one in Denver. That doesn't mean he'll be anywhere near as good as Manning, but he should be able to have some success.
The Broncos have an average margin of victory of 14.8 points, which means they could score two fewer touchdowns per game and still be competitive. To put that in perspective, if the Broncos had scored 14.8 fewer points over the first nine games, they would still have scored as many points (238) and won as many games (6) as the Detroit Lions.
Osweiler should be fine in an emergency role, but it does depend on how long and when he's expected to carry the team.
For one or two games at home, Osweiler should be able to keep the Broncos moving toward the playoffs.
Even if Osweiler proves to be a very good quarterback, the Broncos wouldn't want him starting a lot of games during the regular season or any playoff games. That would be a nightmare scenario for a team with lofty expectations.
Any young quarterback is going to struggle to some extent. That's just the nature of the NFL. The Broncos can hide Osweiler's weaknesses for a while, but eventually teams are going to figure him out. Even Manning's first year starting was a bit rocky.
Osweiler was also considered a bit of a project prior to the draft. He hasn't received much playing time, which means he might have more kinks to work out than a typical young quarterback. Working out kinks is a heck of a lot easier with a good team playing at home than it is on the road.
Quarterbacks making their first road start have done very poorly historically. Although he's not a rookie, Osweiler would be a lot like a rookie starter. In the last two seasons, rookie starters are 17-30 on the road. RG3 was the only quarterback with a winning record (4-3).
|Rookie Quarterbacks||Wins||Losses||First Start|
|Robert Griffin III||4||3||Lost to Rams, 28-31|
|Andrew Luck||4||4||Lost to Bears, 21-31|
|Brandon Weeden||1||6||Lost to Eagles, 16-17|
|Russell Wilson||3||5||Lost to Cardinals, 16-20|
|Mike Glennon||0||2||Lost to Falcons, 23-31|
|Geno Smith||1||3||Lost to Patriots, 10-13|
|Ryan Tannehill||2||6||Lost to Texans, 10-30|
|Nick Foles||1||2||Lost to Washington, 6-31|
|Kirk Cousins||1||0||Won vs. Browns, 38-21|
|EJ Manuel||0||3||Lost to Jets, 20-27|
|Ryan Lindley||0||1||Lost to Jets, 10-31|
RG3's backup, Kirk Cousins, was the only rookie quarterback to win his first road start in the last two seasons, and he beat the Browns and Weeden in Cleveland. Luck, Griffin, Tannehill, Weeden, Wilson, Smith and Manuel all lost their first road starts.
Four of the Broncos' next seven games are on the road, including trips to New England, Kansas City, Houston and Oakland. Osweiler would have to come off the bench against the Chiefs this week in an emergency role (since Manning will start), which is never a favorable situation for a backup quarterback.
There's never a good time to lose a player like Manning, but a tough second-half schedule with the best teams on the road make it particularly difficult. There is even some question if Manning can win those games, and he's a great quarterback, so it wouldn't be surprising if they chewed up a young quarterback like Osweiler.
Maybe Manning can manage his injury for the rest of the season and Osweiler can continue to wait for Manning to retire to get his chance, but the Broncos need to do a much better job in pass protection if they want Manning to stay on the field.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the Broncos allowed Manning to be sacked or hit 12 times over the first six games. In the last three games, Manning has been sacked or hit 16 times.
Quite predictably, left tackle Chris Clark is struggling the most. Clark was the backup tackle until All-Pro tackle Ryan Clady was put on injured reserve with a Lisfranc injury he suffered in Week 2.
Manning is getting hit frequently even with his amazing ability to protect himself. He has led the league in sack percentage three times in his career and has a career mark of 3.1 percent. Only Dan Marino had a similar ability to avoid sacks.
Manning can adjust to the pressure he is getting, but Osweiler might not have the same success.
Most quarterbacks don't perform as well under pressure, and young quarterbacks are especially susceptible to it. If Manning can't avoid getting hit, what chance does Osweiler have in an emergency spot start or relief?
For now, the Broncos don't have to worry; Manning is going to start. As long as Manning can stand, think and throw, he'll probably be Denver's starting quarterback.
Osweiler is certainly an odd case study because so few quarterbacks taken in the first two rounds don't end up starting a game in their first two years in the NFL. Pat White and Kevin Kolb are about the only examples in recent memory, and one wasn't ever intended to be a full-time starting quarterback.
Should the Broncos consider resting Manning for a game if the situation is right?
As much as Manning may protest, there is a scenario in which Osweiler could start a game while he is technically healthy enough to start. If Manning falls off his record pace and the Chiefs pull ahead in the division and hold the tiebreakers, the Broncos might consider giving Osweiler an opportunity at home against the Titans or Chargers in Weeks 14 or 15.
A week of rest might do Manning's 37-year-old body some good and would give him two weeks at the end of the season to get ready for the playoffs. The Broncos would obviously have to have a significant hold on the first Wild Card spot.
The added benefit would be getting a good look at Osweiler and keeping Manning active just in case. It's highly unlikely, but it's certainly an interesting consideration depending on the outcome of the games over the next month.
More likely, the Broncos will just limit Manning's practice days as they will probably do this week to give him some time to heal. High-ankle sprains have a reputation for lingering, so giving him time to heal could be important.
The bottom line is that there are certainly a lot of reasons to believe Osweiler can get the job done, but there are also plenty of unknowns. The Broncos just have to hope that Osweiler's first start will come on their terms and not in emergency relief of an injured Manning.