Drew Lock is coming off his worst game as a pro. In the Denver Broncos’ 43-16 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, Lock struggled in the cold weather and snow. In what was his ninth NFL start and eighth full game as a starter, Lock looked spooked and rattled, which led to some regressive tendencies and two interceptions, one of which was a pick-six.
After the game, Lock resolved to learn from his poor performance against the Chiefs and improve but by that point, many in Broncos Country had hit the panic button already and were bailing off the Lock train as quickly as they jumped on. As the Broncos’ starting quarterback, he definitely earned the cacophony of criticism that has since come his way from local and national media alike.
Right now, especially to fans, it feels like Week 7 sums up everything Lock is and will ever be. To Broncos’ GM John Elway, he’s taking the long-view and Lock’s performance in stride as a Hall-of-Fame quarterback who played 16 years in the NFL himself.
While Elway was certainly disappointed to see Lock struggle in an important AFC West game, he recognizes that Sunday’s loss should be viewed as a massive learning experience that Lock, and his young offensive teammates, can grow from.
“It’s always hard, when you get frustrated like that, knowing that we’re going against the defending World Champs, which is a great football team, and knowing that it was a big game for us,” Elway told Phil Milani of the team website. “I think it’s going to be a good learning experience about how you handle big games. The fact is, you still have to go in and stay within yourself, go through your progressions and let things happen, and not try to make things happen. It’ll be a good learning experience for Drew, as well as our football team, and realize that we cannot make the mistakes that we made. We’ve got to play better [on] special teams and we can’t afford to make the mistakes we made offensively, even though we played well defensively. It’s just a good learning experience for us, as well as Drew.”
Lock was obviously uncomfortable in the pocket against the Chiefs, despite the Broncos’ offensive line mostly doing a good job in protection. Whether Lock’s skittishness was due to the snow, the pressure of the moment, the magnitude of the opponent, or simply a bad day at the office, he too often broke the pocket early, didn’t set his feet consistently, which led to a lot of off-target throws and some long third downs.
Elway’s been there. The GM took a kind of ‘win some, lose some’ philosophy when evaluating Lock’s performance in the pocket, attributing it, at least partially, to the way things sometimes devolve for a young quarterback when he puts too much on his shoulders and finds himself pressing.
“I think that’s natural,” Elway said. “Sometimes you have a better feel for it than other times as far as when to move and when not to move. Sometimes you move a little bit early. You have days that you feel something that’s maybe not there. That just—that happens. The key thing is, when you get into a game like the Kansas City game, which is a big game, is not to press and go ahead and stay within yourself, stay within your progressions, and then if you get pressure, or you get flushed or do those type of things, then you get out and try to make plays.
“But it’s real important in big games to stay within ourselves and I think that’ll be a good learning experience for us.”
Last week was a litmus test for the Broncos in terms of seeing how this new-fangled, youthful squad measures up the juggernaut Chiefs. Obviously, the Broncos failed it in a big, bad way.
This week, it’s another AFC West measuring stick but it’s more focused and nuanced with Lock going against the red-hot Los Angeles Chargers’ QB Justin Herbert. Herbert brings with him a tsunami of momentum and was a quarterback at Oregon whom Elway scouted and purportedly liked a lot.
If Herbert had come out following his junior year in the 2019 draft, he could have ended up in the Orange and Blue. But he chose to stay in school and return for his senior year, while Elway ended up drafting Lock with pick 42 in the second round.
Elway sees how well Herbert has been playing as a rookie thus far and credits the QB’s talent and the Chargers’ coaching staff for his early success. Perhaps Broncos’ offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur could take a cue from Chargers’ OC Shane Steichen, who has crafted his scheme to fit the strengths of Herbert and accentuate what he does best.
“He’s a very talented quarterback and he’s done a really nice job,” Elway said of Herbert. “He’s made a nice transition. They’ve done a heck of a job, the Chargers have, offensively, and taking care of him and putting him in situations that he’s comfortable in, and [with] what they’re doing offensively… He’s going to be a very good quarterback in this league. He’s got all the talent, he can move around, he’s big, he’s athletic, big arm, so we’ve got a heck of a division with the quarterbacks we’ve got in our division.”
No doubt, with how well Derek Carr is playing for the Las Vegas Raiders, it would appear the Broncos’ rivals in the AFC West have all the answers as the most important position on the field while, from the outside looking in, Elway and company are still groping for theirs. However, internally, the Broncos are still committed to Lock (at least for this year) and are focused on helping him navigate the pothole he finds himself in currently.
Elway has taken a personal interest in Lock’s young career, going above and beyond the conventional role of a general manager. The two have a relationship that extends to the halls of Dove Valley.
Just last week, Lock talked about how much he leans on Elway for advice and direction, revealing that he meets with the GM after each and every game.
“It’s been huge for me,” Lock said on October 21 about having Elway as a sounding board. “I think it’s been one of my favorite parts of being able to come in after games and talk to him, kind of just hear what he has to say, what he felt I could’ve done better, what he thought I did well, and stuff to look forward and to do better going into the next week. Anytime you have a guy like that in your corner, it’s a huge help. And when I say after the game, it’s immediately after the game.”
Elway and Lock hash out the game — win, lose or draw — while the nerves are still raw and fresh.
“Me and him right after that will talk,” Lock said of Elway. “Emotions are high, it’s a very real moment for both of us, and it’s been nice to have that feedback and talk right after the game.”
While everyone outside of Broncos HQ seems to be panicking, Elway, at least listening to the content of what he said and the tonality of how he said it, is much more copacetic on Lock. The GM isn’t satisfied with being blown out by the Chiefs but he also recognizes that even in the modern NFL, where young QBs are lighting up the league and are expected to develop very quickly, there are going to be growing pains for Lock.
It’ll be interesting to see if Lock can turn it around and bounce back from that woeful Week 7 performance and get himself and the Broncos back to a semblance of normality and competitive form. At worst, the kid has the next 10 games as an audition to assuage any concerns Elway might have privately and prove that he can not only hang in this league but thrive.
Lock has already proven through nine starts that he’s got NFL talent. But the annals of NFL history are littered with the bones of highly-drafted quarterbacks who had all the talent in the world, but for whatever reason, couldn’t quite figure out how to make it all work in the league and carve out some staying power.
At the conclusion of last season, Elway’s read on the Broncos was that the team had finally “bounced off the bottom” and were trending upwards due in large part to Lock’s impact as the starter, going 4-1 down the stretch. It led Elway to invest both free-agent and draft resources into building the nest around Lock for 2020 and beyond.
If anything, Elway’s remarks heading into Week 8 reveal that the Broncos are still far from determining with certainty that Lock isn’t the guy. However, the flip-side to that coin is that Lock is yet to prove emphatically that he is.
There’s the rub. For now, let’s just say that Elway and the Broncos are open to both possibilities but remain committed to finding a more definitive answer on Lock with what remains of the 2020 season.