As training camp kicks off, Drew Lock begins his final shot at proving he is the Denver Broncos’ quarterback of the future. Yes, Lock has a “higher ceiling” than Teddy Bridgewater, but the perception is the veteran is the steadier and more reliable of the two quarterbacks.
From a talent perspective, the difference between Lock and Bridgewater isn’t that wide of a gap. They each do certain things better than the other. As it sits today, based on talent, I’m not sure one guy really gives the Broncos more wins than the other.
This competition should come down to one specific skill set: leadership.
In the past, the Broncos have had, for lack of a better term, quarterback controversies. Two such examples show that leadership ultimately proved to be the difference.
Heading into the 2006 season, Denver was coming off a 13-3 campaign in which they lost the AFC Championship. In the first round of the 2006 draft, the Broncos traded up and selected quarterback Jay Cutler. This was somewhat of a surprise, as Denver had just had three straight playoff seasons under incumbent starter Jake Plummer.
Although prone to turnovers, Plummer was a consistent winner in Denver — including an undefeated record against Tom Brady. The Broncos were one win away from the Super Bowl in 2005, so creating a distraction at quarterback was a little puzzling.
For the 2006 season, Plummer was the starter, and the rookie Cutler would be his back up while developing. The rumblings began as soon as training camp started. Everybody wanted to know, could Cutler replace Plummer at some point during the season?
After losing to the Kansas City Chiefs on Thanksgiving, head coach Mike Shanahan benched Plummer for Cutler. Although Plummer’s play was uneven at times that season, the Broncos were 7-4 at the time of his benching.
Denver would finish 2-3 with Cutler as their starter, missing the playoffs. There were many things that went wrong for the Broncos down the stretch, but the switch at quarterback ended up being a mistake.
While never being the “best” player on the team, Plummer was the unquestioned leader of the Broncos. I have spoken to many of Plummer’s former teammates, and they all speak highly of him as a leader. In fact, I challenge anybody to name a former Bronco more beloved by his teammates.
Cutler, on the other hand, was more of a loner. He didn’t have the “rah-rah” attitude of Plummer. Replacing the leader, who had a 7-4 record, likely cost the Broncos the playoffs.
Yes, Cutler had all the natural talent in the world. From a physical standpoint, Cutler was more impressive than Plummer. But all that talent Cutler had didn’t matter because he lacked the leadership qualities of Plummer, and it was the undoing of the 2006 Broncos.
In 2011, John Fox was taking over a 4-12 Broncos team. Denver finished the 2010 season with optimism, as first-round draft pick, Tim Tebow, flashed late in his rookie campaign.
The Broncos headed into training camp in 2011 with the assumption Kyle Orton would be traded to the Miami Dolphins because Denver had its young quarterback in Tebow.
Eventually, Tebow’s inability to throw the football had Fox and the Broncos pivot back to Orton as the starter. In training camp, Orton was clearly the more polished quarterback, and it wasn’t close.
The Broncos soon found out practicing better doesn’t mean a player is necessarily more effective on game day.
Denver was 1-4 under Orton. Eventually the Broncos benched Orton in favor of Tebow. It might have been a symbol of waiving the white flag, but what happened was one of the most unbelievable seasons in Broncos history.
Tebow, along with a stout defense and Matt Prater’s leg, would help turn the Broncos’ season around. Denver went 7-4 under Tebow and would win a playoff game.
In a practice or training camp battle, Orton is going to beat Tebow 10 times out of 10. Orton is more polished and will always look better. However, he wasn’t a leader. Tebow was.
Orlando Franklin told me when Tebow got in the huddle he had something about him that made you follow him. They knew he couldn’t throw, but he would take command on the field.
Plummer did not have the God-given talent of Cutler, and Orton is a better quarterback than Tebow, but neither Cutler nor Orton could lead. For Lock, he needs to exhibit strong leadership if he wants to win this job. Bridgewater already seems to be a good locker room guy, so right now, he would have the leg up.
Neither Lock nor Bridgewater, from a talent perspective, are scaring defensive coordinators. The current Broncos roster is very talented outside of quarterback. Denver, and everybody else, thinks this will come down to who turns the ball over less, Lock or Bridgewater. Plummer was prone to interceptions, and Tebow couldn’t throw. So what? They both knew how to lead the talent around them.
The Broncos should be examining how teammates respond to their two quarterback options. Whether it be Lock or Bridgewater, the Broncos need to pick the guy the locker room wants to follow.
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