DENVER -- When you believe in destiny, you don’t believe halfway. As the picture developed over the past five months, Trevor Siemian saw his opportunity crystallize. He was no longer a feel-good story. He was a legitimate candidate to win the Broncos starting quarterback job.
His first drive Saturday night against San Francisco provided an exclamation point. He completed five of six passes before C.J. Anderson bolted in from 19 yards to cap a 10-play march. His third drive represented a question mark. After connecting on 10 of his first 11 attempts, Siemian was impressive and predictable. The series of underneath routes left the 49ers safety Eric Reid reading eyes. He jumped a route to Demaryius Thomas and returned it 42 yards for a touchdown.
"I made a bad decision. I can't turn the ball over," Siemian said. "I did some good things, but I have to be more consistent."
Welcome back to the competition Mark Sanchez. It was a present, and Sanchez re-gifted it.
"I made stupid mistakes," said Sanchez, talking like a man who had lost the job though he hasn't been told that by the staff. "There's no excuse for that. I squandered the opportunity."
No need to add drama to this quarterback race. It has been defined by the leader playing with a rubber band on his back, tip-toeing away only to make a mistake that pulls him back with his head shaking. There was no clear winner Saturday. Just too many turnovers. A pick six. Two lost fumbles in the red zone. And one big vacancy flashing with the season 19 days away after the Broncos fell 31-24 to San Francisco at Sports Authority (For Now) Field at Mile High.
Broncos coach Gary Kubiak preferred to make a decision after this game. Instead, as one NFL official said Saturday, he may need “more time.” It was not a good night, unless, um, Mark Siemian or Trevor Sanchez is the No. 1 guy.
"We made too many mistakes, obviously. They both did some good things. I think they were 10-for-14. That's throwing the ball for a high percentage, but you have to protect the football," Kubiak said. "We have to find a way to protect the ball for the team. That's what we need to focus on right now."
The separation exists in nuances, not statistics. Maybe it’s Siemian. He played slightly better than Sanchez. But maybe it's not.
Kubiak evaluates on footwork, timing, accuracy, ball security, formations and pre-snap reads. If Sanchez left the door ajar with his practice mistakes, Siemian reciprocated with his worst pass of the preseason. Maybe it’s Sanchez. Maybe not. On cue, Sanchez followed an impressive scoring drive Saturday with back-to-back lost fumbles inside the 20. Sanchez or Siemian? Siemian or Sanchez? You get the idea.
In two games, Sanchez is 20-for-30 for 219 yards, one touchdown and three turnovers. It creates doubt the Broncos can coach the mistakes out of him. Siemian, who made his first NFL start, counters at 17-for-26 for 163 yards, no scores, and one interception for a touchdown. Sanchez has produced 10 points in 43 plays. Siemian has delivered 13 points in 40 plays. Perhaps this explains why the Broncos have ever completely eliminated the idea of rookie Paxton Lynch starting. He finished 15 of 26 for 113 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. He believes he has a chance.
"He's always been in the mix," Kubiak said. "I just told you guys that he's behind the other two from a knowledge standpoint. But everybody is in competition to play."
If Kubiak decides on the No. 1 this week, he might have to lean on practice film. He can exercise patience because of his defense. The first string unit remained stout, pitching a shutout for the second straight week, this time with Super Bowl 50 MVP Von Miller playing multiple series. He’s expected to be joined by cornerback Aqib Talib next week.
"It was great having him back out there," nose tackle Sylvester Williams said.
The Broncos won last year despite their quarterbacks leading the league in interceptions. Adequacy at the position would mark improvement. By this point – five months after Peyton Manning retired and Brock Osweiler signed with Houston – the Broncos hoped for a clear answer. Instead, Saturday featured uncertainty, if not ugly gaffes. Siemian had a chance to put Sanchez in the rearview mirror. Sanchez had a chance to runaway. Neither happened.
As Siemian faltered – missing on his last three attempts, including an overthrow of Cody Latimer – Sanchez took over and guided a nine-play, 60-yard drive. Brandon McManus’ 40-yard field goal shaved the 49ers lead to 14-10. Sanchez lost traction. Down 17-10, Sanchez hummed in a two-minute drill, completing six straight. Then he fumbled, Tank Carradine sacking him as Nick Bellore pounced on the ball. San Francisco returned the favor as linebacker Zaire Anderson knocked the ball from Mike Davis. Billy Winn, receiving additional reps with Vance Walker lost for the season, recovered it.
For Sanchez it represented a mulligan. He then stepped up in the pocket on third down as 49ers raced around the ends. Sanchez fumbled when hit, leaving another empty drive. Perhaps in the regular season, the Broncos settle for a field goal, and play it safe.
"Regardless. I can't make that mistake," Sanchez said. "I know I am better than I showed tonight."
Kubiak joked last week that he might not be ready to make a decision at the league’s important position. Saturday, nobody was laughing. Just waiting.
Weems, Nelson lost to injury
Right guard Darrion Weems, in the running to start, suffered a concussion. Connor McGovern replaced him. Michael Schofield started at right guard, then shifted to left tackle after Russell Okung left the game. … Inside linebacker Corey Nelson hurt his left wrist and did not return. … Denver’s team captains were Nelson, Matt Paradis and linebacker Brandon Marshall.
Jordan Norwood helped his chances to make the roster with strong work as a receiver. Kalif Raymond and Bralon Addison struggled early to capitalize in the return game. … Tight end John Phillips scored a touchdown. Garrett Graham (shoulder) did not play. … Ronnie Hillman ran well in the third quarter. He’s fighting for a roster spot. … Siemian worked with the starters across the board, including Anderson and receivers Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and Norwood. Sanchez stood in front of, from left-to-right, Schofield, Dillon Day, James Ferentz, Connor McGovern and Kyle Roberts. ... Two young players who moved closer to locking up roster spots: linebacker Zaire Anderson, who keeps delivering big hits, and receiver Jordan Taylor, especially with Bennie Fowler (elbow) no lock to be ready for the season opener.