Paxton Lynch’s nickname should be ‘we haven’t decided’ — but the Broncos need to

On the day before training camp began in July, huddled in a tent at Dove Valley and hiding from the harsh, hot light of Colorado’s summer sun, media and Broncos personnel alike had been buzzing about the season’s possibilities, sparked by former first rounder Paxton Lynch’s tantalizing potential. The word out of Dove Valley was that Lynch was a new man. Now ensconced in the Broncos’ renowned organization and after nearly a year and a half into his professional career, the lanky Memphis star was finally ready to show the league what he could do. The team was so confident that first-year head coach Vance Joseph declared the quarterback battle underway, saying that the Broncos would let the play of two men make the decision for them.

Trevor Siemian was the incumbent starter, the former seventh-rounder taking the role in 2016 when neither the newly drafted Lynch, nor John Elway’s preferred stop-gap, Mark Sanchez, looked anywhere near as competent as the studious Northwestern product.

“Competent” isn’t an inspiring descriptor for a team with Super Bowl aspirations, but there the Broncos were last fall, stuck with Siemian as their signal-caller — the one person that nobody in management wanted to start. The team gave Lynch a try, of course, but he wasn’t any better, and the 2016 campaign slowly fizzled out, the tread on a high-mileage defense worn down for nothing. The presumption was that it was a glitch — a momentary blip, easily fixed in time for the 2017 season.

That presumption was wrong.

Joseph — and Elway — were confident enough to declare this season’s quarterback competition open, secure in their belief that Lynch could easily topple Siemian this time around, not to mention undrafted college free agent Kyle Sloter, who was considered “camp meat,” a derogatory but all-too-apt description for players who aren’t being considered for the roster but are need as healthy bodies to fill out practices — grist for the NFL’s ever-churning mill.

Much to the chagrin of “Broncos Country,” not only was Lynch unable to unseat Siemian — and it wasn’t even close — he looked vastly inferior to even Sloter, a Northern Colorado product who, amazingly, looked like the best quarterback on the roster. While that was a credit to Sloter, who was waived and immediately claimed by the Minnesota Vikings, it was at minimum a disappointment to the Broncos, if not an outright embarrassment. Not that they’d show it, of course.

“The NFL stands for ‘not for long.’” You’ll hear football commentators break out that old chestnut hundreds of times over the course of every season. It’s overly simplistic and lazy, of course — its cleverness is a decade past its expiration date — and it rarely applies to first-round draft picks. Selecting the wrong one wastes money and sets even the best teams back, and so teams are loath to move on from them until there’s no other option, too often trying to justify a poor choice while clutching at hope’s final straws.

So, the Broncos went into 2017 the same way they left 2016; with an underwhelming but competent Siemian at the helm once more, and with Lynch on the sidelines. The Broncos, concerned about Lynch’s ability to even serve as the backup, signed Brock Osweiler off the league’s scrap heap, taking advantage of the fact that his previous two teams sacrificed draft picks and quite literally paid him more than $16 million to go away. And he was still better than Lynch.

Perhaps Lynch is a late bloomer. The problem is that NFL teams don’t have time to wait. After Siemian absorbed enough sacks in the first part of the season to become visibly hobbled and so nervous in the pocket that he was completely ineffective, it was time to turn to Lynch once more. His sole appearance was one of the more incompetent and sloppy performances in recent Broncos history, and it ended with a twisted ankle and the head-scarved youngster on the sideline in tears. After trying Osweiler in October and November, the Broncos’ previous “quarterback of the future” had a negative touchdown-to-interception ratio, forcing them to turn back to Siemian once more. The wear and tear finally caught up to Siemian, who was injured in Thursday’s game in Indianapolis, bringing his season to an end.

“He’s battled all year. He’s had two shoulder injuries this year. He’s played through all of it. Obviously, with it being a three-to-four-week injury, with two weeks to go, it didn’t make sense to keep him on the roster,” Joseph said on Monday, while announcing Siemian’s placement on injured reserve. “He’s a warrior. He’s a tough guy. He’s had a tough year with injuries. He’s battled and kept fighting for us. It’s impressive.”

All of that sounds like Siemian — the one quarterback on the roster who’s overachieved given his draft standing, the one that was voted a permanent captain this season by his teammates — should don a Broncos jersey next season. That presumption may be wrong, as well.

When asked about Siemian’s future in Denver — the 25-year-old still has another year left on his contract at a comparatively minuscule $718,198 — Joseph’s comments were eye-opening.

“That’s a question that we all have to answer after the season, a number of us. I’m not sure,” the head coach said. “He’s a good, young quarterback and smart and tough. We’ll see where that lies.”

Osweiler won’t be staying; given how he’s played recently and his veteran status, he’ll land a decent-enough contract as a backup somewhere. Lynch, however, will still be here. He’s a first-round pick, after all, and the Broncos will continue to hold to hope.

The offseason will bring fresh opportunities to improve at the position and to avoid wasting away another year of a defense that becomes less “elite” with time. Quarterbacks Drew Brees, Kirk Cousins and Sam Bradford will be unrestricted free agents, and the Broncos are likely to hold a top-10 draft pick in which Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen or Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield could be available.

The Broncos have been consistent in only two ways all season: They’ve apparently had a great week of practice, and they’ll decide on the quarterback later — which is football-speak for “We hope it’s Paxton Lynch.”

The clock’s ticking — on both of them.