Since the Broncos signed QB Peyton Manning on March 19, the primary goal of the front office has been to put supporting pieces around him. In free agency, the team signed a pair of wide receivers — including one of Manning’s closest friends, Brandon Stokley — and two receiving tight ends to improve the passing game. The team drafted more depth for the offensive line and a third-down running back, and spent all of offseason team activities learning the offense that Manning brought with him from Indianapolis.
The thinking is that with Manning under center and an improving defense, the team that won the AFC West and reached the divisional round of the playoffs last season should do even better in 2012. All the pieces are there to make a run at the Super Bowl, and the time is now with the four-time MVP quarterback turning 36 years old earlier this spring.
If Manning stays healthy, the thinking is accurate. Problem is, Manning missed the entire 2011 season rehabbing from four neck operations and the Broncos have no backup plan in place if he’s not at 100 percent. There was major risk in signing Manning in the first place, given his age and health concerns. There’s an even greater risk in entering the season with no proven talent behind him on the depth chart, something the team appears set to do.
As it stands now, the second- and third-string quarterbacks are veteran Caleb Hanie and rookie Brock Osweiler. Neither should instill much confidence in the Broncos’ coaching staff or fan base. Hanie played for the Bears during the first four seasons of his career but didn’t see the starting lineup until the end of last season when Chicago starter Jay Cutler went down with a thumb injury. In four games, Hanie completed exactly 50 percent of his passes, threw three touchdowns, nine interceptions and took 19 sacks. The Bears, facing four teams that finished the season at or below .500 (including the Broncos) lost all four games with him under center.
Osweiler, one of the team’s second-round picks, has only one full year of collegiate starting experience under his belt. The plan is for the 6-foot-7 Osweiler to spend a few years on the bench soaking up every piece of knowledge Manning can share with him before seeing real action. He’s not polished enough to see the field this season, as more bad than good will come if he sees extended playing time as a rookie.
In 2011, 12 teams — including the Broncos and Manning’s Colts — ended the season with a different first-string QB than with which they started. More than ever, teams need quality depth at the position, even with a player as talented as Manning, who never will be subbed out for performance reasons. From 1998-2010, Manning played in all 208 Colts regular-season games and 19 more in the playoffs. But last season, he couldn’t take even a single snap, and there is no way to know how he will react if James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley crush his surgically repaired neck and right shoulder when the Broncos host the Steelers in Week One of the season.
By not doing better than Hanie and Osweiler, the Broncos are rolling the dice that Manning will be able to play every game. It’s the same approach the Colts used all the years No. 18 played there, with guys like Jim Sorgi and Curtis Painter filling the backup QB spot. It worked out fine, as those players were only needed usually for Week 17 action when Manning took a rest. However, last season, when Manning couldn’t play at all, the trio of Painter, Kerry Collins and Dan Orlovsky guided an Indy offense that was one of the worst in the league. If Hanie or Osweiler are forced to see anything more than a snap here or there in 2012 for the Broncos, the results could be similar.
On the day the team announced Manning’s signing, Broncos VP of football operations John Elway said, “We don’t have a Plan B. We’re going with Plan A.” If Manning can play the entire season and Denver reaches its goals as a team, the plan will have worked. But if the Broncos ever are forced to turn to Plan B, everything Elway and the front office has worked so hard at over the past few months could come crashing down.
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