When Peyton Manning threw an astounding 55 touchdowns for the Denver Broncos in 2013, there was little doubt that the team had made the right decision to acquire an experienced passer a year earlier.
And after Andrew Luck overcame two years of lingering shoulder pain during the 2018 Pro Bowl season, the Indianapolis Colts looked like they would have an elite quarterback for seasons to come.
If only teams knew then what they know now.
In later years, both clubs became aware of the huge problems associated with replacing a quarterback. In the process, they have unwittingly become shining examples of how serious these problems can be.
The Broncos rode the quarterback carousel for six seasons before trading nine-time Pro Bowl tackle Russell Wilson for him this year. Meanwhile, the Colts are still looking for a long-term replacement for Luck, bringing in new players in each of the four seasons since he retired until the 2019 opener.
Neither team has won a single playoff game since the departure of their quarterback.
“At the end of the day, it’s about the quarterback,” Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett said at an NFL owners meeting in April. “You can ask all these [coaches] here. You have to have a quarterback to have a chance.”
Quarterback consistency in the NFL can be elusive, but these teams, who face each other Thursday in Denver, enjoyed it while it lasted. The Broncos have appeared in two Super Bowls, winning one, in Manning’s four seasons in Denver. And the Colts? They averaged more than 10 wins in five full seasons of Luck under center.
But age quickly took its toll and forced Manning to retire after a Broncos title in 2015. Luck, who took over from Manning at Indianapolis in 2012, was wary of more rehab from a 2019 shin injury and shocked the team with his stunning resignation.
Both teams have made numerous attempts to solve this problem, but neither has been particularly fruitful. They also tried to strengthen their teams in other ways, especially defensively. But there is little substitute for how a true quarterback can change the trajectory and perspective of a team.
“The deal was a game changer,” Broncos general manager George Paton said of the Wilson deal. “It has been a game changer for our locker room, everyday life and for our football team… Every time you get a franchise quarterback, a Super Bowl winning quarterback like Russell Wilson, it will speed up everything you do. does.”
Colts coach Frank Reich knows this too, but for a different reason: He understands his team’s limitations that come with a lack of quarterback succession.
Reich has had a different starting quarterback in each of his five seasons.
“You always grow,” he said. “It’s like software versions. There are 1.0, 2.0, 3.0. And when you get a guy, you can move on to further versions.
“Now the software works a little better and a little faster and there are new things it can do… We know that this league has high turnover at every position. But there are some key positions, one of which is quarterback, that just help you move into these future iterations and go deeper and further.”
The quarterbacks of these two teams are largely symmetrical, but they approached the current state in completely different ways.
The Broncos have changed 10 different starting quarterbacks. [running back Phillip Lindsay started a game under center during that span when the Broncos’ quarterbacks were sidelined by COVID-19]not to mention the three head coaches between Manning’s retirement and Wilson’s arrival.
They tried the draft and development route twice, trading in the first round to draft Paxton Lynch 26th overall in 2016, and drafting Drew Lock in the second round (42nd overall) in 2019 .
Lynch only started four games in two seasons. Lock made 16 starts in two seasons before being included in the Wilson trade. The Broncos traded five draft picks, including two first-rounders and two second-rounders, and three players to acquire Wilson and one draft pick.
A parade of veteran starters also passed through town, with the roster including Case Keenum, Joe Flacco and Teddy Bridgewater.
But perhaps the most notable move is the one the Broncos didn’t make. The passing of quarterback Josh Allen in the 2018 draft continues to irritate fans in Denver, with the team choosing Bradley Chubb with the fifth overall pick instead. Allen was selected seventh overall by the Buffalo Bills and looks to be an MVP candidate this season.
Bottom line: hitting hard against quarterbacks is great, but only if you hit the right ones.
The Colts, on the other hand, have experienced quarterbacks in the center after Luck’s departure. Jacoby Brisset, Luck’s stunt double, took over in 2019. Philip Rivers signed as a free agent and began his career in 2020 before retiring shortly after the season ended. The Colts then traded first- and third-round picks to the Philadelphia Eagles for Carson Wentz in 2021, only to be jettisoned a year later in a trade with Washington. Now Matt Ryan holds the position, but he is 37 and has started the season much harder than expected.
The Colts’ most daring quarterback pick in four years? Using fourth round pick Jacob Eason in 2020. It was abandoned last year.
General manager Chris Ballard understands the unpredictable nature of quarterback rebounding, which may be why he’s hesitant about shooting.
“Go back and look at the first-round quarterbacks drafted in the last 10 years,” Ballard said last year. “It’s not accurate. [science]. Everyone just thinks that you just take one and you are going to solve the problem. Look, if you take one, you’ll all be behind me for a while, but as soon as this guy doesn’t play well, I’ll be the first to run out of the building.
Maybe there’s a lesson here too: You can’t hit a home run if you never swing at the fences.
So what’s next for these teams?
The Broncos did the hard work by acquiring their quarterback. Now they must find a way to maximize it. They are currently the last – by a wide margin – in the red efficiency zone (30%). In addition, Wilson completes a career-high 61.1% of attempts. With a little more time on the task and more seasoning from their rookie head coach — they’ve only got four games — the Broncos may well understand that. And they’ll still have to deal with the loss of the draft and game capital they gave away to Wilson, which shouldn’t be overlooked.
For the Colts, Ryan’s uneven start further demonstrates that they are likely on an unsustainable long-term quarterback path. Even if Ryan did better, there are still consequences to rapid turnover.
“It’s not an excuse, but every year we have a new quarterback. So we’re sitting here suffering from growing pains while Tennessee has [Ryan] Tannehill for what, for my entire career? Colts running back, Nyheim Hines said after Sunday’s loss to the Titans. “Every year we reboot and we have to turn the page. It kind of sucks because most of the teams we play with have had a big guy for a long time.”
Those who do should enjoy it while it lasts because life without a franchised quarterback can be difficult.