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Which model for success should the Broncos be following?

(Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

The sports debate that’s currently raging in Broncos Country is a simple one: Should the team spend the rest of the 2019 season trying to win now or would it make more sense to be building for the future?

While a number of young players getting more time on the field factors into this question, it mainly revolves around one name: Drew Lock. Currently sitting at 3-6, with Joe Flacco sidelined for the rest of the season with a neck injury, the opportunity for the Broncos to develop their quarterback of the future has arisen.

The play-Lock-now crowd sees 2019 as a “lost season.” More likely than not, Denver isn’t making the playoffs, so they might as well put every game to use.

Getting Lock some valuable game experience now will allow him to avoid some of the growing pains associated with playing quarterback in the NFL next season. It’s better to get those blunders out of the way when the outcomes of the games don’t really matter, rather than have them cost the Broncos early in 2020.

It’s the same approach the Rams took with Jared Goff, when they started the rookie quarterback during the final seven games of 2016. It didn’t matter that the No. 1 overall pick in the draft went 0-7 down the stretch, tossing five touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Los Angeles was already 4-5 when they made the change; they weren’t going anywhere that year anyway. But down the road, if they could get their quarterback’s feet wet, bigger things were possible.

The theory proved to be a sound one, as Goff posted an 11-4 record in 2017, followed by a 13-3 mark last season en route to the Super Bowl. The short-term pain of losing seven straight games, often in ugly fashion, was rewarded in the long run when the quarterback was ready to go at the start of year two.

It’s a prime example of the “jump into the deep end of the pool” approach working.

The let-Lock-wait group sees things differently. Yes, the Broncos are 3-6, but they’re also three last-second field goals away from being 6-3. And in a conference that isn’t exactly loaded with great teams, Denver is still in the race.

They won their first game without Flacco, as Brandon Allen looked serviceable in his NFL debut. So it only makes sense to ride things out as long as possible; throwing in the towel on the season is what losing organizations do.

Winning franchises always try to win now. No matter what storms come their way, they scramble to find solutions that are immediate; they never throw away games or seasons, no matter how the cards are stacked against them.

This is the approach the Steelers have taken. Despite losing Ben Roethlisberger during the second game of the season, Pittsburgh hasn’t thrown in the towel. Instead, they’ve found a way to win with two other quarterbacks, improving to an improbable 5-4 record and getting squarely back into the AFC playoff race.

In large part, they’ve been able to accomplish this because they took their time with a young QB. A season ago, the Steelers took Mason Rudolph in the third-round of the draft. But the rookie sat and watched for an entire season.

Prior to Big Ben getting hurt, Rudolph had never appeared in an NFL game. He didn’t take a single snap as a rookie, so he was still completely inexperienced when he had to step in during Week 2, other than practices, training camps and preseason games.

Since losing that game 28-26 to the Seahawks, going 12-of-19 for 112 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in relief, Rudolph has started six of the next seven games for the Steelers. Along the way, he’s posted a 4-2 record, beating the Bengals, Dolphins, Colts and Rams, while falling to the 49ers and Ravens.

That’s an impressive run of success, which has come on the heels of throwing 11 touchdowns to just four interceptions. Pittsburgh has gradually increased what they’re putting on Rudolph’s plate each week, letting him grow into the job. During the team’s last three games, all wins, the second-year quarterback has thrown 36, 35 and 38 passes, respectively.

It’s a prime example of the “ease into the pool” approach working.

So which way is the right way? Given that both have proven successful in the recent past, what path would be better for the Broncos and Lock?

Looking at the big difference in each situation provides the answers.

In 2016, the Rams started Case Keenum during the first nine games of the season. No one saw the journeyman quarterback as the future of the franchise, so he was simply a stopgap until the season was lost and/or Goff was ready to play.

At 4-5, with Keenum having thrown nine touchdowns and 11 interceptions, it was an easy decision to make. The present wasn’t rosy in Los Angeles, so it was time to worry about the future.

Last season, that was not the case in Pittsburgh. The Steelers had a future Hall of Fame quarterback behind center. They finished 9-6-1, staying in contention for a postseason berth until late December.

There was no point in the season when it was time to start worrying about the future. In fact, the Steelers started the year 7-2-1. Most of the year was spent building toward a Super Bowl run. Then, it was all about trying to avoid a second-half collapse.

The Broncos situation in 2019 is almost identical to that of the Rams in 2016. Their record suggests they aren’t a playoff-caliber team. And the current starting quarterback isn’t seen by anyone as the long-term answer for the franchise at the most-important position in sports.

If Denver was 6-3 and Flacco was still healthy, the Steelers example would provide a perfect model. But those three heartbreaking losses and an ill-timed injury have changed the team’s plans.

Now, as painful as it may be to admit, the Broncos find themselves in the same situation as other teams who have been forced to use a large chunk of a season to jumpstart a rebuilding project. That’s just the reality.

It worked out well for the Rams, so there’s reason for optimism. Get Drew Lock some playing time now, keep a very good defense intact, and anything is possible in 2020 and beyond.

It’s time for the Broncos to jump into the deep end of the pool.


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