DENVER -- An outcome without Tony Romo is a conclusion I saw coming last week. Not him walking away to pursue a career as a CBS analyst, necessarily, where he lands one of the most prized gigs in the business. What seemed likely, what I could feel coming was Romo not playing for the Broncos. Upon arriving at the NFL owners meetings last week in Phoenix, multiple sources cast Romo's situation as "Texans or retirement."
The Broncos had prepared to move on, growing more comfortable with an open competition between Trevor Siemian and former first-round choice Paxton Lynch. Any interest in Romo was qualified. It required he become a free agent, where a deal with a low base salary, likely in the $5 million range, could be negotiated. Even then, there were no certainty of the Broncos' interest because of concerns about his back, which he broke on his third play of the preseason a year ago.
Romo will be talking about the Broncos, not playing for them. His fragility made any pursuit risky. Romo competes, scrambles, plays hurt, but there was no guarantee he could stay upright, particularly for a Broncos team with a huge question mark at left tackle.
I have no doubt general manager John Elway and Vance Joseph believe in Siemian and Lynch. The question is this: Do they believe either can lead Denver back to the playoffs and to a championship? This isn't Cleveland. The Broncos don't rebuild. They reboot. They possess a title-caliber defense though a correction against the run is required. Their offense, however, did not carry its weight. Pick a stat -- the 56 three-and-outs, the 40 sacks, the 92.8 yards rushing per game -- and the picture is sobering.
The reaction to the struggle was blunt. With Gary Kubiak stepping away, the Broncos revamped their offensive staff, welcoming back Mike McCoy, adding quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave, and reintroducing a power blocking scheme with line coach Jeff Davidson.
In various ways, it should help. But it starts at quarterback. And that conversation, even with his healing left shoulder likely to limit him this month, begins with Trevor Siemian. He went 8-6 last season, showing promise, but failing, too, in big moments.
Siemian earned the respect of his teammates by playing through injuries, and working relentlessly. He could digest an entire game plan quickly and execute it in practice. He was voted a midseason captain, a notable achievement for a first-time starter on a veteran team.
Siemian's off-field acumen remains ideal. His on-field performance requires work. What does Siemen need to do better to hold off Lynch in the quarterback derby?
1) Recognize, release
Siemian turned down Harvard to play at Northwestern. He is a smart guy. As such, he knows he must release the ball more quickly and be willing to scramble with intent. In his best performance of the season against Kansas City at home, Siemian ran with purpose while also keeping his eyes down field. He became layered, dimensional. Then he hurt is foot, and the end of the season became clumsy, including his worst game at Kansas City with a playoff berth hanging in the balance. McCoy's system should benefit Siemian. Siemian thinks so. He is anxious to get started, believing the scheme will be a terrific fit.
2) Protect the ball
Siemian values the football. You have to in the modern NFL, especially with the Broncos' defense. A quarterback has to play to the team strength, straddling that line of managing the game, while also managing to make plays. Last year he turned the ball over 12 times, throwing 10 picks and losing two fumbles. With experience, his pocket presence should improve. It must for the offense to take off.
3) Protect himself
Availability remains a tool. Siemian hurt his right shoulder on a missed tackle in preseason, his left shoulder on a sack at Tampa Bay and his foot against Kansas City. He is not a big guy. Siemian underwent elective surgery to help him regain strength in his shoulder and add upperbody muscle. However, he must learn to take fewer hits. It is a skill, falling before absorbing a violent tackle. Peyton Manning turned it into an art form. Siemian took too many sacks and too many hits.
There were signs last season that Siemian could be a guy capable of leading a team for years. His poise, his grit, his arm strength drew praise after he beat out veteran Mark Sanchez. Yet, there is a qualifier. Siemian had a nice season. A consistent ground game that runs on its own terms would be his best friend. Regardless, for the Broncos to reach their lofty expectations, Siemian must be better
Tony Romo is not walking through the door, leaving the Broncos' season, in many ways, hinging on the accelerated development of a young quarterback.