ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Ask the NFL intelligentsia, and they'll tell you that few things are as debilitating to a playoff hopeful as a question at quarterback.
As in, who should be playing quarterback, and why.
It takes over the public discourse and often finds its way into the locker room as well, dividing and conquering what a team wanted to do. But the Denver Broncos will play in Super Bowl 50 not only because of the league’s No. 1 defense or their tough-minded ability to win the close ones, but because they successfully navigated a two-quarterback season.
“We never felt any of that division or anything like that,’’ cornerback Aqib Talib said. “Coach [Gary] Kubiak, he kept everybody in the loop, no surprises, told us to concentrate on doing our jobs and good things would happen. Man, he knows, so that’s what we did, and now we’re where we are.’’
The Broncos made the NFL’s title game after Peyton Manning started nine games at quarterback and Brock Osweiler started seven. The Broncos were 7-2 in Manning’s starts and 5-2 in Osweiler’s starts -- remarkable consistency even as the pair’s playing status became headline news.
Manning’s left foot had bothered him for much of the early season, and he suffered a tear in the plantar fascia near his left heel in the Broncos’ Nov. 8 loss to the Indianapolis Colts. Manning was pulled from the lineup Nov. 15, in a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs after his fourth interception.
Osweiler closed out the Chiefs game and started the next seven until he was pulled -- after the Broncos’ fifth turnover in the regular-season finale against the San Diego Chargers. Manning led the Broncos to a come-from-behind win, and the Broncos earned the home-field advantage they enjoyed this past Sunday in their win over the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.
“The way [Kubiak] managed that, handled that, it was a tough situation," Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said. “Obviously people want to see Peyton playing, you’ve got a football team you’ve got to make sure the football team continues. It’s a really delicate situation, and he handled it masterfully.’’
While those who know Osweiler say being pulled from the Chargers game was difficult for him to take and Osweiler himself called it “disappointing," his teammates said Osweiler has done nothing but work with the same diligence as always since Kubiak made the move back to Manning for the playoffs.
Kubiak made it a point to speak to both quarterbacks each week during Manning’s recovery, to both gauge where Manning was in his rehab program and to just listen, at times.
And at the open of every week, Kubiak told the team who would be playing and practicing as the starter.
“It’s our first year together," Manning said. “Kind of like all of the new players, aside from the guys who have played with him in Houston and Baltimore, all of us are trying to get to know him and get to understand his philosophies, principles and how he wants us to play. I’ve enjoyed getting to know him. It has certainly been a different season with some of the things that have occurred with the injuries and whatnot, but he has been extremely consistent and steady in his demeanor and his preparation."
“No mystery," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. “We all knew what was happening, and I think everybody felt like we wouldn’t be where we are without Brock and when Peyton was healthy he would be back playing. And he just kept telling us to keep doing what we needed to do to get ready to play."
In the end, Kubiak simply stuck to what he had said the day he removed Manning from the Chiefs game -- if Manning was “healthy and ready to go, Peyton’s our quarterback."
For his part, Kubiak, who spent his playing career as Elway’s backup, said he tried to maintain the same message.
“That it’s going to take everybody to get where we want to go," Kubiak said. “Everybody wants to play. I’d be disappointed if they didn’t. I want them to want to play, to believe they should be playing. But we’ve needed everybody to get to this point, and we’re going to need everybody again. Our guys know that because winning is important to them. Doing things the right way is important to them."