ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Inside the Broncos locker room two days before the NFL season opener, receiver Emmanuel Sanders leaned back against his locker, his eyes affixed to the tablet in his hands. Video scrolled across the screen. Video of his recent practices and of the Carolina Panthers, Denver’s opponent in a rematch of Super Bowl 50 on Thursday night.
“See, they’ve got two young corners,” Sanders says, pointing out James Bradberry and Daryl Worley, two rookies expected to start against the Broncos. “We gotta go after them. Obviously.”
Sanders rewound certain plays, fast-forwarded through others and never diverted his eyes from the screen as he answered questions about the Broncos’ summer and their upcoming season. “Man, I’m sick of talking about quarterbacks,” he says. Fast forward. “A thousand questions.” Rewind. “Same s--- as last year.”
It’s odd and contradictory that Denver is run by former quarterbacks and yet can’t find a suitable solution at that position. The Broncos general manager, John Elway, is a Hall of Fame QB. Their coach, Gary Kubiak, was Elway’s backup and position coach. This off-season alone, the Broncos watched last season’s starter Peyton Manning retire, let their presumed incumbent Brock Osweiler bolt to Houston in free agency, signed and cut journeyman turnover machine Mark Sanchez, drafted their heir apparent in Paxton Lynch in the first round out of Memphis and elevated Trevor Siemian to start against the Panthers.
That would be the same Trevor Siemian who didn’t expect to be drafted in 2015. The same Siemian the Broncos took in the seventh round. The same Siemian who threw more interceptions (11) than touchdowns (seven) in his senior season at Northwestern. Thus the first snap Siemian takes against the Panthers will double his NFL total, and Denver begins its championship defense against the same team that it bludgeoned in the Super Bowl with the same central issue—quarterback—only now it’s more pronounced. That’s why most pundits haven’t picked Denver to win its own division, let alone become the first team in more than a decade to repeat.
Concerns? Sanders eyes remain locked on the tablet’s screen. “None,” he says, without looking up.
That’s the approach the Broncos took this week. They emphasized their strengths, like the defense that gift-wrapped the Super Bowl last season, and played down their presumed weaknesses. Quarterback anxiety? What quarterback anxiety?
Teammates made Siemian sound like the next Tom Brady rather than a signal caller who didn’t become a full-time starter in college until his senior season. Tackle Russell Okung, who signed with Denver after six seasons in Seattle, compared Siemian’s calm demeanor to that of Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, a Pro Bowl mainstay. Receiver Demaryius Thomas described Siemian as a “smart kid.” Safety T.J. Ward noted that Siemian made quick decisions and looked “confident” throughout training camp. Even Kubiak says he plans to allow Siemian to audible at the line of scrimmage whenever he sees fit. “We have to give him freedom,” Kubiak says. “We’ve got to let him play.”
The Broncos said what any reasonable person would expect them to say on the eve of a title defense as uncertain as any in recent memory. Sure, Denver returns most of a defense that carried the team throughout last postseason. Yes, that’s the voice of pass-rush terror Von Miller welcoming travelers to the Denver airport in a taped message played over the intercom. He’s reminding them why the Broncos won a Super Bowl in the first place, why he signed a six-year, $114.5 million contract this summer with up to $70 million guaranteed. That’s Denver’s motto: in Von, we trust.
Denver’s best-case scenario would look a lot like Sanchez’s first two seasons with the Jets, where they ran the ball, controlled the clock and won with defense. They didn’t ask Sanchez to win games by himself. They asked him not to lose them. Sanders say as much as video unspools on the tablet. “I expect him to take care of the football and keep their defense off the field,” he says. “I expect long drives and us trying to win the possession battle.” Game managing it is!
For all the rematch talk, this game is different than the one these teams played last February in Santa Clara. Different in ways that would appear to benefit Siemian in his first NFL start. Gone is Carolina cornerback Josh Norman, replaced by the rookies, and the Panthers also have a new starting safety in Tre Boston.
Carolina returns 18 of its 22 starters from the Super Bowl and welcomes back top wideout Kelvin Benjamin from a torn left ACL last August. Last season’s league MVP, Cam Newton, will face most of the same Denver D that tormented him in title game, but not run-stuffer Malik Jackson, who departed to Jacksonville, or linebacker Danny Trevathan, who signed with Chicago. The Broncos also reshuffled their offensive line and replaced their tight ends.
So it’s not exactly the same teams and not exactly the same game and Siemian is most definitely not Manning, even the diminished version whose arm failed him last season. Whether Siemian can manage games is the question that will define the Broncos’ season, the difference between another playoff run, or the fall of yet another Super Bowl champion the year after it won the title. But even if the Broncos should be worried, they’re not saying that, or showing that.
“I don’t think we’re anxious,” Ward says. “We know what we can do. Everyone else is anxious. (Reporters) are anxious. Fans are anxious. We’ve got the same defense from last year. We plan on picking up right where we left off. We’re trying to do it better.”
Ward was told that the Panthers had dismissed the notion that they were playing for revenge. That’s what he expected them to tell the media, he says, just as the Panthers would expect the Broncos to sing young Siemian’s praises. “It doesn’t matter,” Ward says. “You can’t take that game back. They can’t win the Super Bowl. It’s all about what happens Thursday night.”