Osweiler? Lynch? Coach Vance Joseph’s wishy-washy approach hints at his mandate from above

For the second season in a row, Broncos fans have been clamoring to see Paxton Lynch; the first-round pick out of Memphis looked like the only quarterback on the roster that appeared to have a chance to blossom into the franchise player that the Broncos desperately need in today’s NFL.

It hasn’t turned out that way, and it may never will. That’s in part because there’s no indication that first-year head coach Vance Joseph is empowered to make any decisions regarding the most important position in sport.

When Joseph — a former quarterback himself at the University of Colorado — took to the Dove Valley podium the day before training camp began, it was obvious that the Broncos wanted Lynch to claim the job. Curiously, they didn’t make him earn it. Trevor Siemian, last year’s starter and the player clearly more capable in the role at that time, wasn’t named the starter by Joseph, denying Lynch a firm target to shoot for.

The resulting month saw the Broncos spin themselves in circles, waiting for one of their underwhelming quarterbacks to make the role their own, and they added former ‘quarterback of the future’ Brock Osweiler into the all-too-bland mix after his release from the Browns allowed the Broncos to scoop him up on the cheap.

By the end of the preseason, the Broncos’ best quarterback appeared to be undrafted rookie free agent Kyle Sloter. Of course, the notion of thrusting into a significant role in front of pedigreed signal-callers like Lynch and Osweiler seemed ludicrous, and the Broncos released the Northern Colorado product to the delight of the Minnesota Vikings, who immediately claimed him.

More than any single factor, the Broncos’ season was doomed by poor quarterback play — and the truth is, they were doomed from the beginning.

Siemian has thrown the most passes this season (349), but his 59.0 completion percentage was subpar by today’s NFL standards, and his atrocious 12-to-14 touchdown-to-interception ratio ended up taking the Broncos out of otherwise winnable games with alarming regularity. Siemian, who was injured in Thursday’s victory over Indianapolis, has thrown his final pass of the season after being placed on injured reserve Monday, but at least he’s overachieved — in comparison to his seventh-round draft selection, at least, where even making the team is unlikely.

Lynch,an elite athlete, suffered through multiple injuries over the course of the season that undoubtedly hampered his development. But even when he was healthy, it was obvious that he was the least capable of the four quarterbacks in training camp, and in his limited time in the regular season, he only looked comfortable throwing dump-off passes and running like a taller Tim Tebow. The Broncos’ coaching staff constantly spoke of ‘simplifying’ the playbook for Lynch whenever he was mentioned; a constant refrain that lends credence to reports and scuttlebutt that indicate that the complexity of the NFL game might simply be too much for the free-wheeling Lynch. Now, healthy once more, Lynch may serve as the backup for the season’s final two games — or he might start, which would speak volumes.

In Thursday’s win, Osweiler looked like the best quarterback the Broncos have played all season — and he’s the only one that has more touchdown passes than interceptions, albeit not by much (five TDs, four INTs). After rallying the Broncos and leading them to a comeback victory, it was rightly assumed that he’d start for the remainder of the season. That assumption, however, may be incorrect.

Joseph has made it clear that ‘tanking’ for draft position or ‘going young’ to prepare young players for the 2018 campaign isn’t the priority — winning is. For Joseph, at least, whose job status was still in the air until the Broncos’ modest two-game winning streak materialized, that makes perfect sense. Yet on Monday, Joseph said the Lynch was healthy enough to play… in some capacity. He didn’t close the door on the notion that Lynch would somehow start.

Joseph, as a former quarterback, has to know what he’s seeing from each of his three charges. He has to know that none of the three looks like a future All-Pro. He has to know that Osweiler, given his impending free agency and likely price tag, doesn’t make sense for the Broncos as a backup next season. Given the situation with Osweiler’s play and Lynch’s health, it’s an easy call if Joseph’s mandate to win now is accurate. But once again, Joseph and the Broncos refused to name a starter when Lynch is involved — and again, avoiding to set the bar that they would require he clear in order to take the role.

In the end, there are two ways to interpret Joseph’s peculiar and seemingly tone-deaf handling of the Broncos’ quarterback situation: 1) Joseph, despite his own playing background at the position, is in totally over his head when it comes to observing and evaluating quarterbacks, or 2) It’s not his call.

John Elway, general manager and grand poobah of all things Broncos, has selected two ‘quarterbacks of the future’ already — and missed twice. His reputation is at stake, as well. Elway hired Joseph to be a “CEO-type” head coach; a person who could delegate and then remain somewhat hands-off in his approach. Joseph, naturally, gets his marching orders from Elway.

In the end, Joseph’s job is safe; the Broncos have showed enough in the last two weeks to avoid messing with the chemistry after so much coaching turnover in recent seasons. But it’s also fair to say that no one knows what Joseph might handle a ‘franchise’ quarterback, and all the decisions that come with that — because doesn’t appear that he’s been asked to.

As the Broncos play out this string of games before committing, once again, to finding the signal-caller of the future, it’s entirely possible that the team may enter next summer’s camp in a similar situation: they don’t know what they don’t know; either about their drafted quarterbacks… or their hand-picked coach.