Overreacting to one game is never a good idea. So it would be silly to say that as soon as Peyton Manning returns, Brock Osweiler deserves to be sent back to the bench because the Denver Broncos failed to score a single touchdown last week in a 15-12 loss to the Oakland Raiders.
But Osweiler hasn't done much of anything since being handed the reins four weeks ago, either. The Broncos' offensive output, or lack thereof, in Week 14 was more culmination than aberration.
Up until this point, head coach Gary Kubiak really hasn't had to make any tough calls. Starting the season with Peyton Manning was a no-brainer, as was benching him so that he could nurse his injured foot after his four-interception Week 9 debacle against the Chiefs.
Riding the free-agent-to-be Osweiler for the next three games was an obvious move, too.
The problem for Denver is that there's no easy, or even good answer here, which is why deciding on a signal caller to move forward with is going to be such a difficult call. On the one hand, Kubiak has a diminished all-time great who's had trouble adjusting to the idea that his right arm no longer works at full strength. On the other hand, there's a still raw fourth-year quarterback who does a better job taking care of the ball but can't seem to convert when his team needs him to most.
Making Kubiak's life even more difficult are the stakes. The Broncos' defense is the best league and certainly championship-caliber. They have explosive wide receivers and a plethora of capable running backs. The race for the top seed in the AFC is wide open, too.
But now Kubiak is at a crossroads. Osweiler will start this week in Pittsburgh, but Manning is slowly making his way back to the practice field. Decision time is near.
Osweiler is 3-1 as a starter, and it's not like he's had nothing to do with the Broncos walking off as victors in his first three games. He's done a solid job taking care of the ball and limiting turnovers. His three interceptions on 170 passes is the seventh-best mark in the NFL. That's step one for any quarterback playing alongside the league's top defense, and a huge improvement over the reckless throws Manning was routinely making this season.
Also unlike Manning, Osweiler has the ability to throw the ball over the top of linebackers and outside the numbers, preventing defenders from crowding the line. Prior to Sunday's loss to the Raiders, who held them to a paltry 34 yards on the ground, the Broncos had been dominant in the run game with Osweiler under center. They amassed 483 rushing yards in the three games before that, whereas they averaged just 3.8 yards per carry in the games Manning started.
At the young age of 25 with spry legs, Osweiler is a much a better fit for Kubiak's run-based, play-action and stretch-play heavy offense than an aging Peyton Manning is. Had Demaryius Thomas and Vernon Davis not been playing Sunday with butter smothered over their hands, Osweiler might still be undefeated.
Oh, Vernon Davis... pic.twitter.com/UbpTfm3k6E— The Cauldron (@TheCauldron) December 14, 2015
And as he proved two weeks ago in the Broncos' overtime win over the Patriots, he can beat good teams. Just don't expect him to do so with any regularity.
The Bad and The Ugly
Every one of Osweiler's positive attributes seems to come with a caveat. Yes, his arm is stronger than Manning's -- but that doesn't mean his results when trying to get the ball downfield have been much better.
Brock Osweiler is 21 of 49 (42.8%) on his passes targeted beyond 9 yards down field.— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) December 15, 2015
Osweiler has yet to show that he can throw receivers open. Instead, he spends most of his time standing in the pocket and dumping the ball off. The 6.5 yards per attempt he's averaging would ranks 31st in the league among qualified passers. That's what happens when only eight of 46 pass attempts in a game travel more than 10 yards, which is exactly what happened against the Raiders, according to Pro Football Focus. Dinking and dunking can occasionally work between the 20s when the defense is playing soft. But inside the red zone, a quarterback needs to be able to read a defense before the snap, anticipate its movements after, and fit the ball into tight pockets.
Osweiler struggles in all three of these areas, which is why he's completing just 46 percent of his passes inside the red zone. It's no accident that Denver has failed to score a touchdown in its last seven quarters. Ball control is great (Osweiler has yet to throw a red zone interception this season) but repeatedly settling for red zone field goals is a recipe for an early playoff exit.
Since Osweiler took over starting job in Week 11, Denver has NFL's most 3-and-outs (18). Broncos have not reached end zone in last 23 drives— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) December 16, 2015
When holes do open up, Osweiler either gets gun-shy or misses them. He also doesn't audible out of run plays when defenses stacks the line, a major problem against the Raiders, one he even admitted to after the game.
"I wasn't making the right read at times," he said, via Yahoo! Sports. "I wasn't making the right throw at times."
Osweiler's biggest flaw though, has been his propensity to hold on to the ball for way to long. The Raiders -- well, Khalil Mack -- sacked him five times on Sunday, which was right in line with his season rate of getting brought down on 9.1 percent of his dropbacks. That's double where Manning (4.5 percent) was at.
Mack is a special talent, and Denver has struggled in pass blocking all season. Against the Raiders, Osweiler often didn't have a chance.
But he's certainly isn't making life for his offensive line easier by holding the ball for an average of 2.68 seconds, the 24th-fastest time among NFL quarterbacks according to Pro Football Focus. His inability to diagnose where the defense is about to bring pressure from isn't helping either.
Manning is the Man?
There's no way around it: Manning has been awful this season. Before his injury, he was putting together his worst season of his long career, with nine touchdowns compared to a league-leading 17 interceptions, 60 percent completion percentage and countless inexcusable throws. Handing the starting job back to him isn't going to turn the Broncos' offense into the juggernaut we saw run through teams just two years ago.
But a rested Manning still gives the Broncos the best chance of winning games. Even Mack sort of acknowledged this after his impressive performance on Sunday.
Raiders OLB Khalil Mack on his big day: "(Brock) held the ball a lot longer than Peyton did."— Cameron Wolfe (@CameronWolfe) December 14, 2015
The stats back that up. Manning's average release time of 2.31 seconds is the fastest in the league. He's clearly not as mobile as Osweiler, but his lighting-quick release time and Einstein-like football IQ keep pass rushers away from him.
If he returns to the field, the five-time MVP needs to cut down on the turnovers, and the way defenses now dare him to beat them. It's safe to assume that a few weeks off provided the 39-year-old Manning with time to sit back and consider how he wants to play out what could be his final season in the NFL. Sure, he could come back, recklessly toss the ball all over the field and stubbornly attempt throws he can no longer make.
Or he could realize that the key to him winning another Super Bowls rests in the Broncos' ability to not turn over the ball. Manning's a smart man. The best bet is that he says he's returns ready to play cautious and passive football, ready to imitate Alex Smith.
Because really, that's all the Broncos need: a quarterback capable of playing intelligent football. He might not have the physical tools he once did, but he's still more equipped to play that style than Osweiler is.
* * *
SB Nation presents: The year in sports reviewed