3 Week 11 Storylines to Watch: Denver's Future on Display

Brock Osweiler will get his first start in a Broncos uniform. Will he prove worthy?

Change can often be a bitter pill to swallow for some. For some, change can signify new hope and be as refreshing as a cup of morning orange juice.

For a long-time real football and fantasy football fan who has become fully immersed in using analytics to judge player performance, change can be rife with mixed feelings. 

Take for instance the curious case of Peyton Manning.

For well over a decade, fans have watched Manning utterly destroy defenses his path, and the analytics supported his superiority over his football peers over the course of his career. We can look to numberFire's signature player performance metric, Net Expected Points (NEP), to demonstrate just how good Manning has been.

First, let me explain NEP. Each NFL play comes with it an expectation for performance based on down-and-distance data and other football variables such as historical performance in similar situations. A player who exceeds expectation, by say, throwing for 12 yards on a 3rd-and-8, accrues positive NEP for that play for extending the drive. Conversely, he would accrue negative NEP throwing for four yards in the same scenario because the play would likely result in a punt or at least reduce the team's expected scoring potential. The sum of these positive and negative plays results in a player's cumulative NEP. Thus, NEP helps bring us closer to the field by determining true player impact that goes beyond simple statistics such as yards thrown and touchdown passes.

So how good has Manning been since he entered the league in 1998? Quite frankly, he's been otherworldly. Since 2000, there have been 331 total quarterback seasons in which a single quarterback dropped back to pass at least 350 times. Manning owns eight of the top 20 single seasons in that time frame in terms of Passing NEP. That's right, 40% of the top 6% of total quarterback seasons since 2000 belong to Manning. That's just ludicrous.

But this season, Manning's performance has been catastrophic. He currently ranks 26th in Passing NEP and Passing NEP per drop back out of the 28 quarterbacks who've dropped back to pass at least 250 times this season. The only quarterbacks he's outperformed? Nick Foles and Colin Kaepernick.


And now, with Manning battling plantar fasciitis and rib injuries, his understudy Brock Osweiler will get his first start in Week 11 after backing Manning up for three and a half seasons.

As an individual who, prior to the season, subscribed to the idea that recency bias had depressed Manning's fantasy football stock, I loaded up on fantasy shares of him in the offseason. So the selfish part of me is mad and demanding change. But the football fan in me, who's marveled at Manning's prowess for a decade-and-a-half, is sad to see that a new era is beginning under Osweiler, whether it sticks for the rest of the season, or if it foreshadows the lay of the land in Denver in 2016. Such are the internal contradictions we fight through when we get used to seeing greatness for so long and it's all of a sudden gone.

With that said, let's take a look at what we might be able to expect from Denver's young gunner this weekend and a couple other storylines you should be tuned into on game day.

How Will Brock Osweiler Perform in Peyton Manning's Absence?

Brock Osweiler might not be a household name to your average football fan due to his status as a backup behind one of the most legendary quarterbacks to ever touch the gridiron. But Osweiler is finally getting his opportunity to shine this weekend as he and the Denver Broncos get to square up against his former coach, John Fox, and the Chicago Bears.

Denver head coach Gary Kubiak has already tried to shut down speculation that Osweiler will remain the Broncos' starting quarterback for the rest of the season, but Osweiler would have to operate the offense at near-sabotage status to match Manning's dismal 2015 efforts. Manning's -0.02 Passing NEP per drop back places him in the uncomfortable group of only five quarterbacks who are effectively losing their team points. And Osweiler's 0.20 Passing NEP per drop back is actually pretty efficient, albeit with the caveat of a limited sample size of 27 drop backs.

For his first start, Osweiler faces the Bears' 23rd-ranked passing defense in terms of our Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP metrics, so he gets a plus-matchup to show what he can do. Manning's faced four bottom-12 pass defenses this season, and in only one of those matchups was he able to accrue positive NEP for his work in the passing game (Week 3 against the Lions).

So Kubiak's posturing about Manning's status as the starter post-Week 11 may very well be real. But nothing Manning's done this season suggests that Osweiler wouldn't be the better option moving forward. And if he's able to move the offense with a semblance of efficiency against the Bears, the numbers will very likely suggest that Kubiak will have some hard decisions to make after Sunday.

The Return of Cowboy Competence?

The Dallas Cowboys spent three straight seasons from 2011 through 2013 going 8-8 and barely missing out on the playoffs. In 2014, it seemed like the Cowboys had righted their ship. DeMarco Murray was straight wrecking teams on his way to a rushing title. Dez Bryant, with 16 touchdowns, was finding the end zone as often as I find lint in my pockets. And Tony Romo put together an incredibly efficient season, recording a 0.31 Passing NEP per drop back, good for second in the league among starting quarterbacks.

But here we sit in 2015, where literally nothing since Week 2 has gone right for the Cowboys. With Bryant only recently returning in Week 8 from being sidelined with a foot injury sustained in Week 1 and Romo sidelined since Week 2 with a broken clavicle, the Cowboys have stumbled their way into seven straight losses. Yet despite their abysmal 2-7 record, they're not completely out of the playoff hunt yet, largely due to the weaknesses of other teams within the NFC East.

But after a long wait, the team finally gets Romo back in Week 11. And Romo's reintroduction to the gridiron comes with a plus matchup against the Dolphins' 25th-ranked pass defense. With Dez Bryant catching passes from Romo again and with the recent emergence of Darren McFadden as a capable workhorse, the Cowboys are finally stocked with the talent they'll need in order to try and run the table and make a late-season playoff push. The odds are wildly against them, as our numbers project that the team has a 0.6% chance of making the playoffs.

We'll find out on Sunday how talented the team really is with its full cast of stars together for the first time in over two months.

Old Foes Reunite

Carson Palmer is having a hell of a season. His 106.07 Passing NEP ranks second among all quarterbacks, and his 0.33 Passing NEP per drop back ranks second among quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs this season. Palmer and his trio of talented receivers in Larry FitzgeraldJohn Brown, and Michael Floyd constitute the second-best offense per our numbers, and combined with the team's defense, the Cardinals currently possess the best odds to win the Super Bowl per our team power rankings at 25.5%.

But things haven't always been this rosy for Palmer, the former quarterback of the Cincinnati Bengals from 2004 to 2010. During his tenure as the Bengals' quarterback, Palmer amassed a 0.08 Passing NEP per drop back, with his best season coming in 2005, where he accumulated a 0.21 Passing NEP per drop back. The Bengals were largely viewed as a dysfunctional organization before, and during this time frame, culminating in the disastrous 2-14 record tallied in the 2010 season. This season is probably best remembered as the one where Chad Johnson (at the time Chad Ochocinco) and Terrell Owens played together.

After the 2010 season, Palmer demanded a trade from the organization, resulting in a standoff with the team's owner, who wouldn’t acquiesce. This resulted in Palmer making good on his threats to enter early retirement. Eventually, Palmer was traded to the Raiders, where he played for a season and a half before landing in Arizona via another trade before the 2013 season. Palmer has yet to face his old team since he became a Raider in 2011, and the Bengals, since moving on from Palmer, have visited the playoffs in four straight seasons, all the while getting booted out in the first round in each of those seasons.

While each of the respective sides' passions have undoubtedly cooled since 2011, the intrigue of Palmer facing his old squad, who currently rank fifth in our team power rankings, and the quarterback who was drafted to replace him in Andy Dalton, should make for a good television on Sunday night.