The Denver Broncos entered the 2020 season with ambition in spades. With a loaded roster and talented, charismatic young quarterback, it felt like the Broncos had the world by the you-know-what before the season started.
Alas, the injury bug had different designs, quickly picking off players one-by-one. And the players going down weren’t just solid starters or depth guys, we’re talking about the cream of the crop — Von Miller, Courtland Sutton, A.J. Bouye, and Phillip Lindsay.
That’s not all. In Week 2, the injury bug took out starting quarterback Drew Lock, which really seemed to deflate the fanbase. The 2020 season has taken on an entirely different complexion with Lock out 2-6 weeks, with oddsmakers favoring the Broncos now to be among the top-5 most likely teams to end up with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 draft.
However, looking that far down the road would be a mistake because the Broncos believe Lock can return sooner rather than later. The team chose not to place Lock on injured reserve because of its optimism that he can return within the short-end of that timetable, somewhere like 2-3 weeks.
However much time Lock ends up missing, what matters is that he’s going to return to the lineup and it’ll be with plenty of time left in the season to turn the ship around and push for a darkhorse Wildcard spot in the playoffs. However, in order to turn it around a few weeks from now, the onus now falls on the Broncos to keep ship afloat in the interim.
Jeff Driskel takes over as the quarterback with former No. 3 overall pick in the 2014 draft — Blake Bortles — stepping in as the backup. It now becomes offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur’s brief to take control of this unit and figure out how to make some hay while the sun is shining.
And make no mistake, my friends. The sun still shines — on the healthy and unhealthy alike.
So, how does Shurmur keep the Broncos’ ship afloat for the next few weeks? We know that Vic Fangio, even without Miller and Bouye, is going to call a stingy, bend-but-don’t-break defense that will keep the game manageable for Shurmur and Driskel.
It kind of sounds familiar, right? Doesn’t it remind you of the 2017 Minnesota Vikings?
A talented defense with a hard-nosed defensive-minded head coach. A young offense teeming with talent — and then poof! The starting quarterback goes down early in the season.
Shurmur was the offensive coordinator of those Vikings and he had to work with the tools available to him. That came in the form of one Case Keenum.
Keenum was a record-setting college quarterback who’d gone undrafted in 2013. By 2017, Keenum was on his fifth NFL stop (four teams) and was viewed (at best) as a serviceable, short-term stop-gap.
Yet, under the tutelage of Shurmur, Keenum would go on to start 14 games for the Vikings that year, winning 11 of them, while posting career-high numbers across the board. Although Keenum produced a Pro Bowl-caliber performance, head coach Mike Zimmer would not commit to him as the Vikings starter, stringing him along on a week-to-week basis.
But, thanks to the coaching machinations of Shurmur and a young, talented offensive supporting cast, Keenum was able to play an efficient brand of quarterbacking and achieved some remarkable things. He led the Vikings all the way to the NFC championship game where they fell to the eventual World-Champion Philadelphia Eagles.
Shurmur earned Assistant Coach of the Year honors for his efforts. Minnesota wasn’t the most prolific offense but it finished top-10 in scoring and No. 11 in total yards and was the epitome of efficiency.
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All in, Keenum completed 67.6 percent of his passes (a career-high that still stands) for 3,547 yards, and 22 touchdowns with just seven interceptions. Broncos fans know what happened next.
When the Broncos lost the Kirk Cousins sweepstakes, GM John Elway went and signed Keenum to a two-year, $36 million deal with $26 million guaranteed. It also ended well for Shurmur, who was able to parlay his brilliant coaching clinic that year into his second opportunity to be an NFL head coach — this time with the New York Giants.
How different are Keenum and Driskel? From a measurables standpoint, they’re quite different. And even when you compare their respective skillsets, an obvious difference emerges, though both can operate the West Coast offense competently.
But Driskel has within him the same spirit of a smart, hungry QB who’d once tasted college glory but has become just another ubiquitous journeyman in the NFL. The parallels are striking.
Like Keenum, Driskel has received opportunities to start elsewhere at different points in his career, but also like Keenum, nowhere that Driskel has played in the NFL has offered up the same unique combination of coaching and personnel firepower that he’s got in Denver now.
We have to be realists, though. The stars aligned perfectly for Shurmur in 2017. The Vikings had the right balance of coaching, personnel, and opportunity to skin the cat a different way.
Ace in the Hole
There’s no way of knowing if those same conditions will be recreate-able in Denver 2020 but Shurmur and Driskel have one ace up their sleeve.
Shula was hired to be the Broncos QBs coach alongside Shurmur and he’s frankly overqualified for his job. Shula is a long-time offensive coordinator himself and was the brainchild behind the explosive 2015 Carolina Panthers offense and was quintessential to Cam Newton earning league MVP honors that year.
Learning at the feet of both Shurmur and Shula, Driskel has every opportunity to soak it all up and convert the knowledge into production on the field. Easier said than done, sure.
By the Inch, it’s a Cinch, by the Yard, it Gets Hard
Don’t mistake this article as me predicting that it’ll happen. But Driskel doesn’t have to carry the load for nearly an entire season like Keenum did in 2017.
Three weeks. Maybe longer. But the Broncos see it as 2-3 weeks, hence no IR.
If Driskel can lead the Broncos offense efficiently, leaning heavily on the array of talent around him, which is still deep and impressive even without Sutton, Fangio’s defense is competent enough to bridge whatever gap remains. Taking it one game at time, and not looking too far ahead, Shurmur and Shula can keep Driskel’s burden manageable.
Winning even one out of the next three games would be good. Winning two of the next three, which won’t be a cakewalk considering the quality of opponents, would really set the Broncos up for a Lock return.
We expected the Midas touch of Shurmur to bless the head of Lock this season, and perhaps it still will. But right now, it’s Driskel whose brow Shurmur must anoint — if the Broncos are going to put themselves in position to make a strong push down the stretch when Lock returns.
The Broncos wanted Shurmur because of his luck with quarterbacks and unique resume. Now, it’s time for that coaching wherewithal to come out in the wash and in a hurry, because unsympathetic Tom Brady is coming to town this week with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Broncos are once again home underdogs.
Feed the Playmakers
Increase tight end Noah Fant’s targets, get Driskel moving outside the pocket, work in in some run/pass options, and lean on the rushing prowess of Melvin Gordon (and eventually Lindsay).
The model is there and so is the Broncos blueprint for success. Maybe Shurmur already used up his coordinator luck with the Football Fates, catching lightning in a bottle in Minnesota back in 2017. But there’s always the chance that if he did it once, he can do it again.
The destiny of the 2020 Broncos depends on it.