The Broncos QB dilemma looks familiar
Exactly 7–4 again, should Denver stick with a change like in 2006?
When Gary Kubiak was hired by the Houston Texans 10 years ago, he got his first head coaching stint, in part, because he was the offensive architect of a Broncos team that went 13–3 and advanced to the AFC Championship in 2005.
That season, the Broncos finished second in offensive DVOA, the Football Outsiders metric that adjusts for team efficiency against a league baseline.
The following year without Kubiak, the Broncos took a sizeable step back. During the course of the 2006 season, Denver underwent a controversial quarterback change late in the season before missing the playoffs with a 9–7 record. Mike Shanahan, of course, elected for then first round draft pick Jay Culter over Jake Plummer.
While Kubiak wasn’t around for Shanahan’s decision, the timing of a potential quarterback switch with this year’s squad has eerily similar parallels to Shanahan’s decision to bench Plummer for Cutler.
At 7–4, Denver enters Week 13 with quarterback Trevor Siemian nursing a foot injury, meaning first round pick Paxton Lynch would start in his absence. Interestingly enough in 2006, the Broncos were also 7–4 when Cutler started his first NFL game. Lynch, though, started his first NFL game in Week 5 against the Falcons.
With Siemian missing Sunday’s game with a foot injury and if Lynch plays well, should the Broncos stick with Lynch for the final four games like they did with Cutler?
To take a closer look, it’s helpful to compare the play of Siemian and Plummer through the first 11 games of each season.
Siemian is individually performing better than Plummer was
To Siemian’s credit, he’s coming off his most impressive performance when he threw 368 yards and three touchdowns against the Kansas City Chiefs. A quarterback change wouldn’t happen this week if Siemian is healthy.
And unlike Plummer was in 2006, Siemian has played better than Plummer was playing when Shanahan decided a change was necessary.
This season, Siemian has a quarterback rating of 89.2 for 2396 yards, 15 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Plummer, meanwhile, was benched with 1,994 yards, 11 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
Plummer also saw a steep drop-off in production from the previous year. In 2005, Plummer threw for an average of 210 yards (18th in the league) while he ranked dead last in 2006 with 125 yards per game. At the time of the switch, the Broncos ranked №26 in the league with 171 yards per game (Plummer played briefly in a Week 17 game that brought his averages down).
Siemian, on the other hand, ranks №24 with 240 yards per game, per ESPN. To be fair to Plummer, it’s also important to note that quarterbacks in 2016 throw for an average of 55 yards per game more than they did in 2006. The league average for passing yards per game in 2006 was 202 yards while this year’s average is 257. Siemian’s average of 240 yards per game would have ranked him sixth in 2006.
Turnovers were also costly to Plummer. He threw only seven interceptions during his 2005 season, but 12 by the time Shanahan had made the switch. Five of those interceptions came over Plummer’s last three games before his benching, including one in each of the two-game losing streak that led to his benching.
Siemian’s ceiling is still unknown. He out-performed Mark Sanchez in training camp and has room to grow in only his second season. Plummer, meanwhile, retired after the 2006 season.
But while Siemian has performed well enough for the Broncos to be 7–3 with him as a starter, there are other factors to consider.
The Broncos were performing better as an offense in 2006 when Plummer was benched than Siemian and the Broncos are now
Denver ranked №13 in offensive DVOA as Cutler prepared for his first start against the Seattle Seahawks. Yes, they were №26 in passing yards per game, but passing yards don’t tell the whole story.
This year’s Broncos team is ranked №24in offensive DVOA. The two share a similar overall DVOA ranking with this year’s team being №15 while Plummer’s team was ranked №14. The major difference is that this year’s Broncos team is ranked №2 compared to 14th in defense.
Football Outsiders, unfortunately, doesn’t have an archive of what the Broncos’ splits between rushing and passing DVOA for Week 13 of the 2006 season. However, Denver finished №21 in passing and №19 in rushing DVOA for that season. Currently, the Broncos rank №20 in passing and №25 in rushing. In 2006, Denver’s finished six spots higher (№18) than what the Broncos are ranked today in overall offensive DVOA.
Part of that has to do with the offensive line. Denver’s pass blocking unit, composed of names like Tom Nalen and George Foster, was ninth in pass protection with an adjusted sack rate of 5.8 percent. This year, Denver’s pass protection is fourth worst in the league — with an adjusted sack rate of 8.4 percent (their worst since 2011 with Tim Tebow at quarterback).
In terms of pure numbers, the Broncos’ offensive line has given up 31 sacks, tied for fifth-worst in the NFL.
Neither offenses, admittedly, are pretty. It’s arguable, however, that Siemian has the much better supporting cast in terms of skill players. Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas are much better receiving options than Rod Smith and Javon Walker were. But the loss of C.J. Anderson has undoubtedly hurt the Broncos and is a big reason why they rank 28th in rushing yards per attempt.
Though if the Broncos decide to somehow keep Lynch at quarterback — again, it’s doubtful — there are risks like how it played out with Cutler.
Cutler’s stats outperformed Plummer that season, but it didn’t lead to the playoffs nor a better DVOA ranking
When Cutler started his first game, the Broncos had the very similar circumstances in the AFC West as today’s Broncos do. The division leader, then the San Diego Chargers, were 9–2 while the Kansas City Chiefs and the Broncos were tied at 7–4. The only difference with this year’s group is that the Chiefs are 8–3 while the Raiders are 9–2.
Shanahan justified the move at the time with the ol’ “gives us the best chance to win” cliché.
“There’s a lot of pressure on a first-year quarterback, no question about it,” Shanahan said, via the Associated Press. “I think this kid can handle it. I think he gives us the best chance to win.”
It’s ironic now to think that Cutler would be the one to keep turnovers in check, but he did have a better turnover margin than Plummer. He also ended up 17th in yards per game that season (200) and averaged 7.3 yards per attempt compared to Plummer’s 6.3.
The Broncos went 2–3 during the final stretch of the season, missing the playoffs by a game. Cutler improved the Broncos in some areas, but he also looked like a rookie. He was sacked 8.7 percent of his dropbacks, higher than the 5.4 percent Plummer had.
The Broncos offense also dropped from №13 to №18 in offensive DVOA.
Did Cutler playing five games of his rookie season ultimately help his career? It’s hard to say. The following year, the Broncos went 7–9 and then 8–8 before Shanahan was fired and Cutler was traded. Would Plummer playing all of 2006 really have made the Broncos in 2007 that much worse, assuming that Cutler started all of the year?
It’s the type of gamble Kubiak also faces. John Elway ultimately invested a first round pick and as the Broncos push for the playoffs, is it better if Lynch just gets the experience now? For as long as Brock Osweiler sat under Peyton Manning, did it really help him develop in the long run?
Kubiak is no stranger to gambling. This is the man who benched Osweiler in Week 17 and went back to Manning, which led to a Super Bowl win. He’ll have to judge whether his team is better going with Lynch than Siemian, like Shanahan did with Plummer and Cutler.
But first, Lynch will now get another chance to prove himself. Then, Broncos fans will see if history will repeat itself with another quarterback change at 7–4.