It didn’t have to be this way. Sure, extracting a grumpy Aaron Rodgers from Green Bay was always a fantasy, but the Broncos came into this spring with options at quarterback. They had their shot to draft Justin Fields or Mac Jones with the no. 9 pick, but instead chose to add a cornerback to an already loaded defense. Then the team shipped a sixth-round pick to Carolina in exchange for Teddy Bridgewater, who wasn’t necessarily thought of as a threat to take the starting job. At the time, it appeared Denver was ready to run it back with Drew Lock.
Welp, that’s not going to happen. Not initially, at least. After an offseason-long position battle that seemed to be deadlocked after two exhibition games, head coach Vic Fangio named Bridgewater his Week 1 starter on Wednesday (doing so before the Broncos’ preseason finale against the Rams on Sunday).
Bridgewater came into the competition with the better (and longer) track record, and he’s clearly the safer, more consistent option of the two. But it is somewhat surprising that Denver chose the veteran over the third-year pro. Typically when things are this tight, teams opt for the quarterback with the higher upside—which in this case is Lock. The 2019 second-round pick is four years younger than the new Broncos’ starter and owns one of the stronger arms in the league. Bridgewater, who turns 29 in November, isn’t a long-term solution for Denver and looks to be the favorite to take the Checkdown King title from the retired Alex Smith. But there are more factors at play here than just these two quarterbacks.
Fangio enters the third year of a four-year contract squarely on the hot seat, and he’s in desperate need of a winning season after going 12-20 combined in his first two in Denver. On top of that, the Broncos are loaded everywhere else on the roster—a good problem to have, but also one that creates expectations to win now. While the uncertainty at quarterback lowers the Broncos’ ceiling, this still figures to be a good team—maybe even a playoff team if things break right. Football Outsiders gives Denver a 45.6 percent chance of making the postseason, and Pro Football Focus ranked the roster as the 10th best in the league in July. That optimism is based mostly on the Fangio-led defense (which Football Outsiders projects to be a top-10 unit) and Denver’s deep stable of offensive weapons, headlined by Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, and Noah Fant.
But the question throughout the preseason has been: Who is the right person to be under center? Or, if the difference in the QBs’ talent levels is really as imperceptible as this prolonged competition implies: Which style of QB better suits this particular Broncos team? Fangio decided that Bridgewater was the man for the job, and the outcome of this decision could be the difference between Fangio inking a new contract with the team, or searching for a new job next offseason.
Fortunately for Denver, the recent track record for teams with a great defense and a mediocre offense hasn’t been too bad. Over the past decade, 21 NFL teams have finished in the top quarter of the league in defensive DVOA and just below average in offensive DVOA. Those teams averaged 9.4 wins, 10 of them made the playoffs, and two won at least one playoff game.
Teams That Succeeded With Good Defense, Mediocre Offense
|Team||Record||Off. DVOA Rank||Def. DVOA Rank||Playoffs?|
|Team||Record||Off. DVOA Rank||Def. DVOA Rank||Playoffs?|
Broncos fans will remember the most successful team of that bunch: the 2015 Denver squad that carried the ghost of Peyton Manning to his second Super Bowl ring. And Fangio is intimately familiar with the second-most successful team, the 2011 49ers, who employed him as defensive coordinator and were an overtime loss away from the Super Bowl.
While a conference title game appearance seems unrealistic for this version of the Broncos, a playoff run is not out of the question—as long as Denver can get even league-average quarterback play. And that’s what made this battle between Lock and Bridgewater so fascinating. Both are seen as middling-to-mediocre starters, but their styles couldn’t be more different.
Fantasy football analyst Adam Harstad evaluates quarterbacks using a “three-legged stool” approach. The three statistics that make up that stool are yards per attempt, sack rate, and interception rate. Harstad’s theory is that all quarterbacks must make certain trade-offs when facing pressure in the pocket. Do they avoid danger by checking down to a back or throwing the ball away, which drags down their yards-per-attempt average? Do they stand in the pocket to wait for a receiver to get open, which inevitably leads to a higher sack rate? Or do they avoid the pressure by getting the ball downfield in a hurry, even if it means throwing into a tight window and increasing the chance of an interception?
“Whatever choice you make has consequences,” Harstad said in 2019. “The very best of the best quarterbacks can be good in all three areas. Even then there are trade-offs. Peyton was a god at avoiding sacks and getting positive plays but his INT% was merely ‘pretty good.’ [Aaron] Rodgers has sparkling positive play and INT rates but eats sacks at a rate significantly above league average.”
Of those three legs, Bridgewater embodies the QB who will avoid turnover-worthy mistakes, even if it means taking an extra sack or two. And that willingness to get hit rather than throw an incompletion has kept his yards-per-attempt number around the league average throughout his career. Of the 52 quarterbacks who have attempted at least 600 passes since 2014, Bridgewater ranks 25th in yards per attempt and 11th in sack rate. If he gets a pass off, it’s going to pick up good yardage; he’s just been overly judicious when deciding to throw the ball.
Lock, on the other hand, has been damn good at avoiding sacks, but sits at the bottom of the league in both interception rate and yards per attempt. In 2020, he tied for the second-highest turnover-worthy play rate in the NFL, according to PFF, and he threw his fair share of incompletions—his 57.3 percent completion rate ranked dead last among qualified starters. But Lock does give the Broncos something that Bridgewater can’t: big-play ability. During the 2020 season, PFF credited Lock with 30 “big-time throws,” which is described as “a downfield throw or pass into a tight window on a high-value offensive play opportunity.” His big-time throw rate of 6.4 percent ranked seventh in the league.
The trade-off the Broncos are making is clear: They’re turning down Lock’s volatility in favor of Bridgewater’s steady-if-maddeningly-conservative approach. And when looking at the 21-team sample above, that seems like the right decision. Some teams in that group were able to prosper in spite of big interception totals, including the 2015 Broncos, but they also had a historically dominant defense, so it didn’t matter how bad the passing game was. The 2016 Giants team that went 11-5 is probably the best-case scenario for a Lock-led Broncos group. Eli Manning threw a lot of interceptions (16) and even more incompletions (6.7 yards per attempt), but he avoided sacks like a champion. In an alternate universe in which Lock was named the starter, he may have been able to convince his receiving corps to not wear Timberlands on a boat in Miami days before a playoff game and outdo Eli with a playoff win. But more likely, his inconsistency would have cost Denver some games in a tough AFC West and kept them out of the postseason for the sixth consecutive year.
Bridgewater’s high-sack-rate, low-turnover style, meanwhile, has historically been better for the type of team we expect the Broncos to be in 2021. Smith made a career out of being the quarterback who won’t lose you games, and his in-game profile is a near perfect match with Bridgewater’s. In 2011, when Smith helped lead Fangio’s 49ers to the NFC championship game, the QB averaged 7.1 yards per attempt; Bridgewater has averaged 7.3 yards per attempt over the past two seasons. Smith took a sack on 9 percent of his dropbacks that year; Bridgewater has taken a sack on 6 percent of dropbacks since 2019. Smith threw an interception on 1.1 percent of his attempts; Bridgewater’s interception rate sits at 1.9 percent over the past two years. All we’re missing is matching Spider-Man costumes.
The great irony in all of this is that we’ve described Lock as some sort of gunslinger and Bridgewater as a timid checkdown machine, yet the former’s yards-per-attempt average was a full yard lower than the latter’s in 2020. That’s mostly an accuracy issue, but it’s also a “seeing the field” issue. Bridgewater elects not to make difficult throws downfield, but while Lock has the arm to get the ball there, he has a hard time seeing those opportunities open up. Here are two plays from Denver’s most recent exhibition game that illustrate this.
On the first, we have Bridgewater doing what he does best: ignoring downfield opportunities to throw a safe checkdown. It’s second-and-6 around midfield—the type of situation where teams often like to take a shot. And the Broncos dial up a play that gives Bridgewater an opportunity to do just that. He doesn’t take advantage.
Bridgewater left a big play on the field, but coaches will rarely complain about a quarterback getting the ball out quickly and picking up 5 yards on second down.
The second example comes on first-and-10 with Lock under center. Here, the Broncos run a concept that’s in every playbook in football: the old Air Raid staple “Y-Cross.” It’s relatively easy to read, but Lock still has trouble doing so.
That checkdown wasn’t a conservative decision necessitated by Lock’s desire to get rid of the ball quickly. He held on to it for a decent chunk of time and opted for a play that was destined to fail with defenders already converging on his intended target. These are just two plays, but they’re representative of the QBs’ respective styles and shortcomings as passers. Bridgewater’s underwhelming production is the product of overthinking and an unnecessarily hurried process; Lock’s comes from not thinking nearly enough and a painfully slow process.
Based on this, it seems like Fangio is making the right choice by starting Bridgewater. With all the firepower on this Broncos offense—and a defense capable of keeping Denver in every game—they don’t necessarily need a quarterback who will elevate the players around him. They just need a distributor who will avoid catastrophe and get the ball in the right hands. Bridgewater proved capable of that last season in Carolina, when he helped both Robby Anderson and D.J. Moore eclipse the 1,000-yard receiving mark and Curtis Samuel haul in a career-high 851 receiving yards. The Panthers were the only team in 2020 to have three wideouts reach 850 receiving yards.
For all of Lock’s ability, he has yet to show he can get the most out of the pieces around him. And while there’s still a chance he could pull a Josh Allen and make the proverbial leap at some point, Fangio doesn’t have the time to wait. The 63-year-old has yet to lead Denver to a winning season, and he’s now coaching under a general manager who didn’t hire him. Lock’s long-term development and what happens beyond the 2021 season should be the least of Fangio’s concerns. This year is all about winning. And Bridgewater will give him the best shot at doing it.