BRONCOS

The Case Keenum era highlights what has been wrong in Broncos Country

Oct 20, 2021, 10:16 AM
Case Keenum...
(Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
(Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

When the Broncos travel to Cleveland to play the Browns on Thursday night, they’ll catch a break. Instead of facing Baker Mayfield, a familiar face will be playing quarterback, as backup Case Keenum gets the start.

Instead of the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Denver will draw a journeyman QB who is currently on his sixth team. One of the stops in Keenum’s quixotic career was the Mile High City, as he was at the helm during a forgettable 2018 season.

Keenum posted a 6-10 record that year, the Broncos second under Vance Joseph. Along the way, the quarterback threw for 3,890 yards, 18 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.

It clearly wasn’t good enough, so the Broncos moved on. Roughly a year after signing Keenum to a two-year, $36-million contract, the team traded him to Washington.

The quarterback’s time in Denver was short. But it was important. In the end, Keenum is a microcosm of what has ailed the Broncos since the won Super Bowl 50.

In the five-plus years since hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, the franchise has repeated the same mistakes over and over and over. The Case Keenum era highlights these blunders perfectly.

***

Wrong Formula

In 2015, the Broncos won the Super Bowl on the strength of their defense. It was a historic group, one that featured the franchise’s all-time sacks leader in his prime (Von Miller) and an outstanding secondary (“The No Fly Zone”).

During that campaign, Denver didn’t get great quarterback play. Peyton Manning was banged up, while Brock Osweiler was still getting his feet wet. As a result, the Broncos offense wasn’t particularly potent.

Because they were able to win in spite of subpar QB play, however, the franchise believed they could keep things rolling after Manning retired. In their mind, they weren’t replacing one of the all-time greats; the were replacing a placeholder who simply rode the coattails of a great defense.

They were wrong. Clearly.

Manning might not have been the Manning of 2013, but he was still a great quarterback. He did things that didn’t show up in the box score, most notably setting a standard that the rest of the team had to live up to on a daily basis.

But the Broncos didn’t get that. And they still don’t.

That’s why in 2021, they’re still trying to win with the same recipe. They built their team around defense first. They simply want a “game manager” at quarterback, someone who doesn’t put the defense in a bad spot.

Teddy Bridgewater is this year’s Trevor Siemian, Joe Flacco and, yes, Keenum. And he’s leading them to similar results. The Broncos are well on their way to missing the playoffs for a sixth-straight year, as well as finishing below .500 for a fifth-consecutive season.

***

One Man’s Trash…

At the time the Broncos signed Keenum, he was coming off of his best season as a pro. He went 11-3 as the starter in Minnesota, throwing for 22 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. In the process, he led the Vikings to the NFC Championship Game.

Despite all of those accomplishments, Minnesota was still willing to move on from the quarterback. They decided that offseason to give Kirk Cousins a mega-contract instead of resigning Keenum at a much lower rate.

That should’ve been a red flag. After all, the Vikings had Keenum in their building every day for a year. They watched him play 14 games in their uniform. They knew him better than anyone. Yet, the still chose to move on.

In a QB-starved league, a franchise would have to be incompetent to have a good QB in their building and not realize it. Teams just don’t turn the page on a whim. They clutch to quarterbacks until the bitter end.

But the Broncos thought they were smarter than the Vikings. They thought they knew better.

Of course, they thought the same thing with Flacco. The Ravens decided to move on to the Lamar Jackson era, letting the veteran walk out the door while he was still in his “prime.” Or so the Broncos thought.

They also did the same thing with Bridgewater. After one season in Carolina, the Panthers were willing to pay $7 million this season for the QB to play elsewhere. They chose to go with Sam Darnold instead.

***

Short-Term Thinking

Perhaps the biggest sin of the Keenum era, however, is that it demonstrated the Broncos repeated short-term thinking. They always think they’re “close” to contending, so they aren’t willing to take the time to build for the future. They’re in constant “win now” mode, so they go with quarterbacks who give them the “best chance to win” this Sunday, rather than down the road.

They don’t bother to ask one simple question, however: Win what?

Yes, Keenum probably gave the Broncos a better chance to win in Week 1 than a rookie quarterback would have. The same could be said for Siemian over Paxton Lynch and Bridgewater over Drew Lock. But none of those “safe” options were ever going to lead Denver to a Super Bowl. They were quarterbacks who would flirt with a wild card berth, at best.

Because the Broncos were worried about winning in 2018, however, they missed on a golden opportunity. With the No. 5 overall pick in that year’s draft, they decided to pass on a quarterback. Instead, they chose a player who could help them immediately: Bradley Chubb.

Who should they have taken instead? Josh Allen went two picks later to the Bills.

The fourth-year quarterback is now an MVP candidate. His team is a Super Bowl contender. And those two statements will most likely be true every season for the next 10 years.

Meanwhile, the Broncos are still searching for a quarterback.

***

Overhyping

Some people say that Broncos fans are spoiled. After all, they had John Elway for 16 years and Peyton Manning for four seasons. That’s two combined decades with a Hall of Fame quarterback. They shouldn’t complain about five lean years.

Maybe. But it also means that fans in Denver know the difference between a great quarterback and a journeyman. Or at least they should.

This isn’t Cleveland or Detroit or Miami, where it’s been a long time since quality QB play was present. People shouldn’t have forgotten what it looks like.

But some have. Too many are quick to buy into the narrative that the team is selling.

This is why Keenum was dubbed a “home run” signing by John Elway at the time. That was preposterous. Signing Manning was hitting it out of the park. Bringing Keenum to town was a drag bunt down the line.

This happens over and over. Flacco was in his “prime.” Bridgewater has great “huddle presence.” Siemian has an “arm from the gods.”

It’s all a bunch of balderdash. Fans need to stop buying into it. And media members need to stop dishing it out.

***

When the Broncos face Case Keenum on Thursday night, it’ll be a reminder of a bad time in Broncos Country. But it should also serve as a lesson as to what continues to ail this franchise.

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