There are multiple ways to build a successful NFL team. The same can be said for struggling squads.
Neither the Denver Broncos nor the Indianapolis Colts have performed well. Their meeting Thursday in Indianapolis at Lucas Oil Field resulted in a 25-13 Broncos victory in which backup quarterback Brock Osweiler acted as the driving force behind the outcome.
The divide between the Colts and Broncos and this year's playoff contenders varies.
Denver and Indianapolis have combined for eight victories and 20 losses. Moving out of the top five overall picks for April's draft is the only thing the Broncos (5-9) accomplished with Thursday's effort.
Osweiler's performance became an interesting backdrop to what's been Denver's biggest problem. The Broncos may be one player away from a postseason return, while the Colts need a massive overhaul of their coaching staff and roster.
Denver's Trevor Siemian left the game in the first half with a left shoulder sprain, per the Denver Post's Nicki Jhabvala. No one wishes harm on any player, but Siemian's departure proved to be the best thing for a stagnant offense.
Siemian completed five of nine passes for 67 yards and an awful interception. Osweiler proved to be far more efficient, completing 70.6 percent of his passes for 194 yards and two touchdowns while adding another score on the ground.
The performance only magnified Denver's issues. The Broncos lineup is practically set, except at the game's most important position.
Osweiler isn't the answer. His play Thursday is a momentary glitch in what has been a lackluster career, as ESPN Stats & Info illustrated:
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
Brock Osweiler entered Thursday’s game with the worst completion percentage on passes thrown 20+ yards downfield the last 3 seasons (21%). He bucked that trend tonight, going 3-of-5 with career highs in completions, yards and touchdowns on such passes. https://t.co/19fU9DU4ov2017-12-15 04:35:00
The sixth-year veteran will almost certainly get the start in 10 days, when the Broncos face the Washington Redskins. But the 6'7" signal-caller got his chance before and came up short.
Paxton Lynch is supposed to be Denver's future. The 2016 first-round pick is dealing with a tender ankle, and his earlier performances won't have fans clamoring for the 23-year-old to overtake Osweiler once he's healthy.
The Broncos are flush with talent everywhere else, particularly on defense. Denver's D entered Thursday's contest ranked first overall in total defense (280.5 yards per game), second in pass defense (191.1 yards per game) and tied for third against the run (89.5 yards per game).
How did the unit perform Thursday? Indianapolis managed 228 total yards, 158 passing yards and 70 rushing yards.
It's hard to block a defense that features the game's best pure pass-rusher (Von Miller) flying off the edge, a big, physical front and two shutdown cornerbacks (Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib) with another starting-caliber defensive back (Bradley Roby) coming onto the field for sub-packages.
Offensively, yes, the Broncos line has been a work in progress with Garett Bolles at left tackle, but this year's first-round pick has gotten more comfortable with each passing week. Plus, second-year blocker Connor McGovern at right guard—playing for the injured Ronald Leary—appears to be the final piece needed to solidify the front five.
Running back C.J. Anderson ran wild behind the current group, with 158 yards on 30 carries. More importantly, he established a physical brand of football, per Pro Football Focus:
Pro Football Focus @PFF
C.J. Anderson made the most of his rushes tonight 👀 https://t.co/vPeR8AsRMt2017-12-15 04:40:22
"It was fun to see him get going," head coach Vance Joseph said, per Jhabvala. "He's a volume back."
Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders' contributions shouldn't be overlooked, either. The duo combined for 137 receiving yards, and they're multitime 1,000-yard receivers.
The pieces are in place for the Broncos—except at quarterback.
Meanwhile, the Colts are a mess. They're in the middle of a roster overhaul under the supervision of first-year general manager Chris Ballard.
Transition periods often become messy because not all of the pieces are in place and few coaches are capable of adjusting to players with skill sets that don't fit their preferred schemes.
Ballard came into Indianapolis wanting to make the roster faster and more athletic. He achieved this to a degree, but the team also got much younger and didn't have the necessary depth to battle an onslaught of injuries.
Andrew Luck's continuing shoulder drama looms over the entire organization. The franchise quarterback even spent the last few weeks in Europe receiving treatment.
Colts owner Jim Irsay told NFL Network's Ian Rapoport:
"He's doing great. He's doing well. [We're] disappointed obviously it's taken as long as it's taken. You know, medicine and the way it goes. But there hasn't been any unusual setback. We didn't find out anything ominous, something we didn't know about or anything like that. It's just taken time for him to go through his whole aspect of rehabbing and progressing and working through the soreness."
Jacoby Brissett performed about as well as can be expected in Luck's absence, but he's still learning to play the position and Indianapolis' ramshackle offensive line allows consistent pressure.
Brissett only took one sack Thursday, which is a major step in the right direction. Pro Football Reference shared a stat that shows how sacks have been a major issue for the Colts:
Jacoby Brissett has been taking sacks at a historic rate. Compared to league average, only 13 QBs have had a sack percentage as high as Brissett's https://t.co/kkP2yAFPN52017-12-14 22:55:12
Injuries or no, the Colts' starting front five isn't good enough, and it hasn't been for a long time. The run game also relies far too heavily on 34-year-old back Frank Gore, who ranks fifth all-time in rushing yardage but has averaged under four yards per carry in each of his three seasons in Indy.
Defensively, Indianapolis is one of the worst in the league. Chuck Pagano's squad surrendered 462 yards after allowing an average of 375.3 through 13 games. The fact the unit can't hold a lead makes matters even worse, per ESPN Stats & Info:
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
The Colts lost their 5th game of the season after leading by double-digits (no other team has more than 2 such losses). According to @EliasSports, that's the most such losses in the NFL since 1998, when the Colts blew 5 double-digit leads. https://t.co/1GdJROahYI2017-12-15 04:45:00
Youth plays a factor. Defensive coordinator Ted Monachino started a pair of rookie cornerbacks Thursday. Top rookie safety Malik Hooker can be found on injured reserve. The front lacks a consistent pass rush. And the linebackers lack the speed to play sideline to sideline and cover targets.
Shoddy play leads to change. Change will almost certainly start with a new head coach.
"Right now, I don't have anything new one way or the other to report on," Irsay told Rapoport earlier this week in regard to the coaching staff.
Once Pagano's replacement is brought into the fold, he'll have to implement new philosophies and schemes. These things take time to develop.
There are varying degrees of difficulty when it comes to building a consistent winner. The Broncos are far closer to doing so than the Colts could even imagine.