Should Brock Osweiler Start the Rest of the Season for the Denver Broncos?

Brock Osweiler has been given the chance of a lifetime. Can he seize it?

Change is never easy when you’ve become comfortable with one way of living.

If you’ve ever watched the TV show Friday Night Lights, you know that the whole town of Dillon, Texas, lives and dies with the success of the Dillon Panthers football program, much as West Texas in real life lives and dies with the boom and bust of the oil industry. For these people, up-and-down is the constant and norm, but it’s hard to embody that idea in a regular, weekly television program.

That is, unless you shift the setting, split the town in half, and force your audience to choose sides in the fourth season of the show. That kind of shakeup is tough to pull off in writing, but can bring huge rewards. I truly feel like the fourth and fifth seasons of Friday Night Lights were just as good as -- if not better than -- the “classic” seasons, and it certainly revitalized the show’s energy.

Let’s suppose, then, that the 2015 Denver Broncos are the show, Peyton Manning is the Dillon Panthers, and Brock Osweiler is the East Dillon Lions. If you’re the Broncos’ staff -- the writing team in this analogy -- who do you focus your narrative on? Do you stick with the old and hope it sustains, or switch things up and see what happens?

Should the Broncos start Osweiler for the rest of the season?

After the Fall

We all know Week 10’s Broncos narrative: Manning starts and passes Brett Favre for the career passing yardage record but not before getting picked off on his first pass attempt of the game. He’d complete just 5-of-20 for 35 yards passing over two-and-a-half quarters, absorbing 4 interceptions (nearly more) and 2 sacks.

Prior to this debacle, Manning hadn’t had a Passer Rating lower than 50.0 in a game since 2008.

Now, Osweiler himself didn’t have a spectacular game, but it was revealed that Manning was suffering from a series of injures. Head coach Gary Kubiak announced Tuesday that Osweiler will start for the Broncos in Week 11 against the Chicago Bears, meaning we will get an extended look at Osweiler in the NFL for the first time ever.

We know that Manning had gotten injured, but does he deserve to get his job back when all is said and done?

Gut Check

We can check on whether or not Jason Street Peyton Manning deserves his job back by not only using conventional measures -- such as passing yards and touchdowns -- but also by comparing the value he has created for his team this season. There is a beautiful analytic that helps us do this, called Net Expected Points (NEP).

NEP helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and assign them contextual value so they relate even closer to the game on the field. By adding down-and-distance value, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

The table below depicts Manning’s last five seasons played in terms of Passing NEP and Passing Success Rate (percentage of plays that create positive NEP), as well as his ranks among qualifying quarterbacks in each category. Is he finally on the decline?

Year Pass NEP Per-Play Success Rate
2010 138.36 (3rd of 36) 0.20 (5th) 54.5% (1st)
2012 164.88 (2nd of 40) 0.27 (2nd) 54.3% (2nd)
2013 278.52 (1st of 45) 0.41 (1st) 57.3% (1st)
2014 167.47 (2nd of 40) 0.27 (3rd) 52.9% (4th)
2015 -8.60 (32nd of 36) -0.03 (31st) 42.7% (32nd)

Manning -- as we know -- has solidified his reputation as the best quarterback in history over his career and has sustained elite production for well over a decade. But this sharp of a drop off in value and efficiency is startlingly bad. Even Philip Rivers' down year in 2012 saw him producing positive Passing NEP at a rate of 0.03 per play, and his Success Rate was over 45.0%, down from 0.17 Passing NEP per play and a 50.3% Success Rate in 2011.

When Manning joined the Broncos in 2012, he was supported by one of the best receiving corps in history, not to mention an incredible coaching staff headed by Adam Gase. This may have prolonged his career; Manning’s Passing NEP per play with the Indianapolis Colts dropped from 0.34 in 2006 to 0.30 in 2007, to 0.26 in 2008, with one spike in 2009 to 0.32, and then 2010’s 0.20. This is a gradual, but consistent, downward arc. We explored the natural career arc for an NFL quarterback in an  article a while ago, and Manning seems to be following this trajectory finally.

So, can backup Matt Saracen Brock Osweiler lead this plucky team from out west to State the playoffs? What does his future hold?

The Right Hand of the Father

Brock Osweiler stands an enormous (even for a quarterback): 6-foot-7, weighing 242 pounds when he entered the 2012 NFL Draft. He is a surprisingly good athlete for that size; he was offered a basketball scholarship at Gonzaga, which he considered seriously before signing on with Arizona State to play football. With trebuchet-like 9 7/8 inch hands and 33 7/8 inch arms, Osweiler appears to have the perfect physique to succeed as a strong-armed pocket passer in a vertical offense.

The few deficiencies in his game, according to his Combine profile, are that he “had on-the-field judgment issues throughout his career at ASU and isn't reliable to protect the ball from turnovers”, despite “the pocket presence of a first-day pick”.

The table below shows Osweiler’s NEP production since 2012 in the same way as Manning’s, but adding Total NEP per play, and his ranking among quarterbacks with at least 10 opportunities. How has he performed in his small samples so far?

Year Drop Backs Pass NEP Per-Play Total NEP Per-Play
2012 4 -0.06 (38th of 60) -0.02 (37th)
2013 18 -0.17 (50th of 62) -0.12 (51st)
2014 10 0.04 (31st of 64) -0.09 (46th)
2015 27 0.20 (13th of 50) 0.19 (17th)

We can see that as Manning has waned, Osweiler has gotten greater usage in the Broncos’ offense over the last four years, and he has made a fairly steady upward progression in his Passing NEP per play production. Total NEP -- which incorporates Rushing NEP -- shows he’s been a little less consistent, but scrambling provides inconsistent results.

All in all, this looks like the profile of a player ready to get his chance to start in the National Football League and prove himself. He’s in an incredible spot to do so, with superstar Demaryius Thomas locked up for years, reliable tight ends Owen Daniels and Vernon Davis in the fold, and an excellent offensive mind -- and former quarterback himself -- in Gary Kubiak, who can help the young quarterback develop.

On the Outside Looking In

I’m not optimistic that Osweiler can come in and immediately pick up the exact same offense that Peyton Manning was running, but I do believe that he has the chance to grow into the role put in front of him. With the Broncos a run-first team, this will take the pressure off of Osweiler to carry the team on his shoulders. In addition, a dominant defense should keep him from having to play catch-up often.

That said, he has the physical tools to keep the Broncos in a game when they’re down with his huge arm and great receiving corps, as well as a phenomenal mind in Manning to help walk him through the mental aspects of the game.

Even more than the 2006 Dillon Panthers, this team perhaps reminds me of the 2008 Green Bay Packers. This was the year that Aaron Rodgers, who sat for three seasons (like Osweiler) behind arguably the greatest quarterback of all time (like Osweiler) was finally given a chance to start. Rodgers’ first three years of Passing NEP per play were: -0.91 (19 drop backs), -0.85 (18 drop backs), 0.20 (31 drop backs).

I'm not saying they’re the same; I'm just saying. Denver Forever.