For at least one night, John Elway’s big bet on the calm, steady Trevor Siemian paid off

DENVER — Trevor Siemian strolled through the Broncos’ locker room late Thursday, clad in a blue blazer, his gait decidedly unlike that of a quarterback who had faced one of football’s best front sevens in his first-ever NFL start. His face was unmarked, his demeanor unruffled. He looked like he had just finished his taxes, not picked up his first NFL win.

By then, Siemian had completed 18 of his 26 passes against the Panthers, thrown one touchdown and two interceptions, amassed 178 passing yards, engineered a 21–20 comeback victory in his team’s Super Bowl 50 rematch against the Panthers (with a lot of help from C.J. Anderson), and been lauded by his teammates. Thirty minutes later, after his press conference, he settled into a far corner of the locker room, away from all the commotion. He praised the general manager who believed in him, John Elway, the coach who put him in the right positions, Gary Kubiak, the offensive line that protected him, the running backs who carried the offense downfield, the crowd for its roar…he glorified everyone except himself. “I played alright,” he told as teammates exited around him. “Some butterflies. First week.”

Now is the right time to mention that Siemian had taken one NFL snap before Thursday, a kneel-down last December against Pittsburgh. He had torn the ACL in his left knee two years ago at Northwestern and considered a career in commercial real estate. And while nobody confused 2015 Peyton Manning with first-ballot-Hall-of-Famer Peyton Manning, Siemian was still replacing a legend on Thursday night. “I felt real confident in the guys I have around me,” he said afterward, sipping a lime Gatorade. “We didn’t play our best game tonight. But this was a good step.”

And, as far as games go, his Thursday night experience was a healthy one, which can’t be said for what was happening to Panthers quarterback Cam Newton while Siemian stood on the sidelines. The Broncos defense hit Newton early, hard, often, and, frankly, what appeared to be four times in the head. It’s possible that Denver smacked Newton harder than they did in their Super Bowl 50 triumph last February. After one hit, he appeared to favor his right knee. After another, a helmet-to-helmet spear from safety Darian Stewart that drew a roughing-the-passer penalty in the fourth quarter, Newton fell on both knees and struggled to get up, but he never came out of the game. (Stewart later said the contact was unintentional, as he might be expected to say.)

Somehow, Newton kept playing, kept coming at the Broncos, kept taking all that punishment while flags for many of those aforementioned hits did not come. The officials’ performance should be under review by the league office; it wasn’t a good look. It’s on those officials to protect players even as strong and sturdy as Newton has always been. Panthers tight end Greg Olsen wasn’t wrong when he said referees should treat Newton “more like a quarterback.”

Newton described the game as physical and said the Panthers didn’t lose because of the hits he took and added that there “was nothing serious postgame” in regard to concussion protocol. Again, he proved his mettle. But so did the Broncos’ defense and their second-year, first-time-starting quarterback.

As Siemian plowed through his first official post-game news conference—highlight: he learned he needed “to be taller” after so many of his passes were tipped, or batted at the line—Broncos pass-rusher Von Miller pulled on a diamond-chain that looked more like a jump rope. He said he expected Siemian to be as calm as he appeared on Thursday, even after his second interception, a bad, short throw under duress in the third quarter.

Miller said Siemian made all the throws in training camp to earn the trust of his teammates. But more than that, Miller said he trusted Elway, the same GM he cropped out of an Instagram photo at the Broncos’ White House Super Bowl celebration. (That six-year, $114.5 million contract mended fences.)

“John Elway is the man,” Miller told “You might not always agree with everything he does, but he’s going to win. Today, Mr. Elway looked like a genius. Especially with Trevor.”

Prescient is more like it. Elway didn’t stop Manning from retiring this off-season. He let Brock Osweiler walk to Houston when the price became too steep. He didn’t trade for Colin Kaepernick. He signed and cut Mark Sanchez. And he made the Broncos, the same team for which he won two Super Bowls as a quarterback, the first champion since the Ravens in 2001 to start the next season with a new signal caller—former Northwestern quarterback Trevor freaking Siemian.

Elway bet on his defense and its coordinator Wade Phillips, who turned up the aggression in the second-half on Thursday, relying on similar schemes, cornerback Chris Harris said, that the Broncos used against the Panthers in the Super Bowl. Elway bet on Miller, who had a key sack of Newton in the fourth quarter. (Denver finished with three sacks overall.)

But Elway’s biggest bet of all was on Siemian, a quarterback who threw more interceptions (11) than touchdowns (seven) in his senior season at Northwestern. The argument before the season went something like this: either Siemian would sink the Broncos because he didn’t have Manning’s astute ability to change plays at the line of scrimmage, or he couldn’t play any worse than Manning, who threw 17 interceptions compared to nine touchdowns in the 2015 regular season.

For one night, anyway, Elway’s bets paid off, although the narrative would be different if Graham Gano had made his 50-yard field-goal attempt with four seconds remaining. The Broncos are used to this kind of victory, though. They won 11 football games last year by seven points or fewer. As Joe Ellis, their CEO, made his way through the locker room, he said, simply, “Picked up where we left off.”

As Siemian dressed at his locker, Ellis stopped by to congratulate him on his first win. He shook Siemian’s hand.  “Yeah,” Siemian said in his favored monotone, “that was fun.” It didn’t necessarily sound that way.

One of Siemian’s backups, Austin Davis, shouted from two lockers over. “Cam who?” Davis laughed. “Good stuff, Trevor,” he said. “Good stuff.”

As Siemian stood later in the corner of the locker room he remained as unmoved by the win as he was by his interceptions, the Panthers’ lead, or the magnitude of his first NFL start. Should the Broncos manage another playoff run with Siemian under center, that’s exactly what they need—a calm, steady presence.

Siemian was asked what John’s faith in him had meant.

“You mean Mr. Elway?” he said.

Pause. Um, yeah.

“I think,” Siemian said, “he knows what he’s doing.”

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