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Mile High Magic

Quarterback Trevor Siemian has materialized seemingly out of thin air for the Denver Broncos, and there’s reason to believe that he’s for real

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Generally speaking, there aren’t too many third-string, seventh-round draft choices with only a single professional snap to their names who earn starting quarterback spots for defending Super Bowl champions, but with Trevor Siemian all things seem possible. Here we go again, Denver. The Broncos are 3–0 and this time the offense isn’t a liability.

Siemian is for real, and there are two great reasons for the team’s fast start with him under center: the defense, and his anonymity. People don’t know who he is (including defenses), and week by week we learn a little more. When he makes mistakes, his defense is there to pick him up. If you’re not a Broncos fan, these double as reasons to hate him (and us).

Here’s what those of us who follow the Broncos know to be true, though, through three games this season: Siemian’s footballs are perfect spirals, neat and between the numbers. He can dink, he can dunk, he can burn Adam “Pacman” Jones on an endless loop. His poise in the pocket borders on obsessive. He knows where the chains are at all times, and he keeps his eyes up. Third downs are a choose-your-own-adventure, but there’s always a feeling he’ll pick up the first down. And here’s the kicker: He’s a cold motherfucker. Cold as a blade.

In his first road game this season, at Cincinnati in Week 3, he torched the Bengals late for two touchdowns, and scored a perfect 158.3 QB rating in the fourth quarter. On a key third-and-11, Siemian stepped into the huddle and said, “We’re about to go for the gusto.” He dropped back deep, a good surveyor’s length, as the Bengals came with a zone blitz. Then he let it go. The ball landed in receiver Demaryius Thomas’s hands seemingly in slow motion, like the slide down the flagpole in Super Mario Bros. when a level is cleared.

It was a 55-yard touchdown to seal the game. Cold motherfucker. The defense didn’t win for him in Cincy. He won the game himself.

That pass was telling, too. Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, Denver’s other star receiver, had been grousing heading into Week 3 in the media about their numbers being down. Neither had scored a touchdown through two games, which didn’t sit well with them. That brought out the local media trolls. When those complaints were mentioned to Siemian last week, he said it was “understandable.” Then he went out and fed them, like he took it as a personal challenge. Sanders finished with nine catches for 117 yards and two TDs, and Thomas had six catches for 100 yards and the game-clinching touchdown.

Trevor Siemian, the 250th pick out of 256 people drafted in 2015, is cerebral. His beautiful balls are tailor-made to feed wideouts’ egos. You might think that we’re catching on late, that he was a stud in college. And even there you’d be wrong. Siemian wasn’t even a star at Northwestern, where he split time as the starting QB running the sprint offense. He’s never been a standout player. Yet somehow, in a league that is scrutinized and overanalyzed and micromanaged by millions of fantasy owners, he snuck in through some side hatch into a starting quarterback gig and has Broncos fans saying something we never thought we’d say so soon.

Peyton who?

The great thing about the Denver front office is that it’s in tune with the fans. In August, when Mark Sanchez was alternating preseason starts with the unknown, unproven Siemian so that the team could decide who would replace Peyton Manning, one thing was obvious: Nobody ever really bought Sanchez as the starter. Once Brock Osweiler spurned the Broncos and signed with Houston, John Elway made a tourniquet trade with Philadelphia just to distract us a bit. Within minutes of making the trade, the front office put out a disclaimer that Sanchez was the beginning of “our process,” which everybody knew meant “Sanchez will be replaced; don’t worry.” The Broncos traded up to draft Paxton Lynch out of Memphis to reassure us that Sanchez was just some tinsel to look at while things were figured out.

With Lynch still a work in progress, Siemian became the odd man in. Siemian’s arrival in Denver coincided with Gary Kubiak’s return to the Broncos as head coach, and as much as Ol’ Kubes had a lot of affectionate words for Sanchez, he could barely contain himself about Siemian’s poise. Siemian got a year to read defenses behind Manning as well as a season to assimilate Kubiak, who loves the QB’s ability to sell the run, stand in the pocket, and extend plays. Besides, the team was playing with house money. The feeling was that anybody would be an improvement over what Denver had on offense last year, with Manning aging in dog years toward the end there. Denver’s defense — which looks just as good as it did last year, sometimes better — can make a quarterback from the deepest recesses of the woodwork feel adequate.

For these reasons, nobody panicked when Siemian — who had a single snap last season, a kneel-down to end a half — was named the starter. Well, that and because of Elway. When Elway believes, it’s a contagious kind of faith. The thing is, he’s never steered us wrong. Even he knows it.

Actually, Siemian’s rapid emergence feels very Elwayesque. If you’ve followed the Broncos like I have my whole life, you see whatever it is he’s doing just kind of pop out like the Vince Lombardi Trophy in a magic picture. From 1983 to 1998, when he was Denver’s quarterback, the Broncos went 148–82–1 in the regular season in games he started, and appeared in five Super Bowls (the first three were lamentable affairs). From 2011, when he came on as a team executive, the Broncos have gone 67–26, including playoffs. In the dark years in between, from 1999 to 2010 when Elway was doing things like owning the Arena Football League’s Colorado Crush and golfing, the Broncos went 104–93. They were like other teams.

John Elway doesn’t let his team be like other teams.

With Elway around it’s a return to that old Mile High magic. Without him it was Brian Griese, Gus Frerotte, Chris Simms, and Kyle Orton, coils and bed springs — it was a handful of quick playoff exits and one delirious run with Jake Plummer to the AFC championship in the 2005 season that still feels like an aberration. The year he came back to Denver, the Tim Tebow year in 2011, it was like revisiting the mid-1980s, when Elway turned the South Stands into the rumbling center of the universe every Sunday with comeback victories. The next season, after he lured Peyton Manning to town, the Broncos became an offensive zip line, much like his 1996–98 years under then-offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and then-coach Mike Shanahan.

At this point, we just share in Elway’s intuition to the point that it’s indistinguishable from our own.

His years running the team have played out like the spiritual residue of his playing career. The Broncos getting blown out 43–8 by the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII was ’80s Elway all over again. The Broncos upsetting the Carolina Panthers at Super Bowl 50 was late-’90s Elway. Manning left on the same note Elway did, with a Super Bowl victory. Yet even without Manning and with Osweiler bolting for a ridiculous contract he’ll never live up to, the Broncos felt in good hands. As long as Elway was around, whoever took the spot under center would be the right man for the job.

Now we’re into the Siemian era in Denver, which three weeks ago might have sounded a bit ape. And three weeks from now, who knows? It could be over.

But I doubt it. Siemian has got that look. He has flourished in the biggest moments — in the fourth quarter of all three games Denver has played — and in the sample size we’ve had so far, it’s become clear he doesn’t rattle easily. He won the job over Sanchez in the preseason based on how he responded after throwing an interception against the Los Angeles Rams. In the next series, he drove Denver down for a touchdown. We all knew then.

His teammates have been talking about the ice in his veins since the preseason, which can just sound like optimistic gibberish until you see linebacker Karlos Dansby and safety Derron Smith jackknife him on a blitz, only to see Siemian bounce up and lead Denver to a score.

“Obviously going in, no one really knew about him, but now everyone’s starting to talk about it,” Sanders said of Siemian after the Bengals game. “Me and Demaryius said several times that he’s always calm, cool, and collected. Even today in the fourth quarter, you should have seen him in the huddle. The guy came in, took command of the huddle. He was confident. Even on the deep ball to Demaryius, he said, ‘We’re about to go for the gusto.’”

We’re going into just Week 4, but with Denver’s defense playing the way it is, Siemian might be going for a whole lot more than simple gusto. At worst he’s overachieving. At best, Siemian is what we think he is — a little Manning, a little Kubiak, and a little Elway. His passes look like soaring eagles compared to the ducks Manning threw last year.

Of course, Siemian had two balls that should have been picked off against Cincinnati, and in his two previous games against Carolina and Indianapolis he was picked off three times, mostly in or around the red zone. One of those interceptions, by Indianapolis’s Darius Butler, should have been a pick-six, if Butler hadn’t injured his hamstring en route to the end zone. Siemian has had some lucky breaks.

The thing is, he doesn’t remember the mistakes. He’s icy as hell. The more intense the situation, the better he performs. We’ll know more this week when he goes to Tampa Bay, where the Broncos will face Jameis Winston. The first overall pick in the 2015 draft against the guy who was six spots away from being Mr. Irrelevant in that same draft class. That’s the kind of WTF factoid that Siemian will be going up against all season (and throughout his career).

But through three games, Siemian has something on Dallas’s Dak Prescott, Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota, Philadelphia’s Carson Wentz, and Winston, in that everybody saw them coming. Nobody saw Siemian coming. Nobody.

Which makes his arrival that much more fun.