The Land of Oz

By Beacon Staff

DENVER — An hour and 20 minutes before kickoff, the stadium was tranquil and mostly empty. The temperatures sank below 20 degrees as the sun dropped closer to the white peaks of the Rocky Mountains in the backdrop. Brock Osweiler, wearing a beanie, coat and sweatpants, cast a distinctive six-yard shadow at midfield, towering like a statue and flinging the football 10, 20, 30 yards at a time.

It was gameday inside the high-rise coliseum of Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The NFL schedule had reached the final four weeks of the regular season and the Denver Broncos were jockeying for playoff position in a chilly afternoon game against the visiting Tennessee Titans.

The Broncos’ 23-year-old backup quarterback was one of the first players to arrive at work that day. He usually is. His teammates are accustomed to seeing the tall sapling at the stadium or the practice facility before dawn and past dusk, studying reams of game tape, memorizing the playbook, taking snaps, lifting weights.

Gamedays present a unique opportunity. For nearly 30 minutes, while the surrounding stadium filled with more than 70,000 fans, Osweiler went through a meticulous regimen. It seemed to mimic a real game on the same field where Super Bowl champions and Hall of Fame quarterbacks had played. He was absorbed in each pass as if everything depended on it, like a kid in his backyard pretending to play in the big game.

Besides pregame warm-ups, it was the only time he spent on the field that day. That’s been a common occurrence this season, standing on the sidelines watching the action of the game unfold. But, as he knows, that could change any minute.

Only five years removed from the halls of Flathead High School, “Oz” has settled into the fast and furious world of the National Football League. He’s no longer new to town and is approaching the end of his second season in Denver. He feels like he’s found his groove and figured out how to make a life for himself here.

“I would say from draft day to this point in my second season, it’s almost night and day compared to when I first started, as far as my knowledge of the game, my comfort level, what I know of this offense, how to perform on the field,” he said after a recent weekday practice. “I’ve grown tremendously from my first day in Denver.”

He’s developed considerably, yet hasn’t had many chances to prove it. After 13 weeks, Osweiler had appeared in two games and attempted three passes (he completed two for 10 yards). His only other appearance was standing in the end zone trying in vain to block a New England Patriots’ game-winning field goal.

Through two seasons, he is 4-for-7 for 22 yards during the regular season.

That’s all because of the man ahead of him.

The 6-foot-7, 240-pounder is not used to standing in anyone’s shadow, but that’s where Osweiler has found himself the last 24 months. And what a shadow it is.

Peyton Manning. Whenever there’s a debate over the greatest quarterbacks of all-time, Manning’s name is mentioned early and often. He’s a Super Bowl champion, a guaranteed first-ballot Hall of Famer and this year, as he aims to retake multiple single-season passing records, he’s an odds-on favorite to win a record fifth MVP award.

Quarterback Brock Osweiler warms up before the game. The Denver Broncos beat the Tennessee Titans 51-28 at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver on Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013. – Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Osweiler was 7 years old when the Indianapolis Colts drafted Manning with the No. 1 overall pick. As fate would have it, the kid who grew up in Northwest Montana standing in the snow throwing passes at a target is now shadowing a sports icon. It’s become Osweiler’s most recognizable ritual in Denver. Wherever Manning goes, Osweiler goes, in practice or during warm-ups. Their lockers sit directly next to each other; Osweiler’s is the only one connected to Manning’s, which is tucked in the far corner of the team room.

In pregame warm-ups, the pair takes practice snaps right next to each other, swapping sides after each throw. During the game, whenever there’s a timeout or in between drives, Osweiler is glued to Manning’s side, towering over the shoulder of his elder colleague. Even on national television, whenever the cameras turn to Manning on the sidelines, there’s Brock framed in the background.

“There’s no better blueprint, if you will, to examine, to watch, to learn from if you’re playing the quarterback position,” Osweiler says of Manning.

“I’ve been very fortunate to be able to watch him on a daily basis, what he does in meetings, what he does in practice, what he does in the game. Because of that my game has grown tremendously, just by viewing those things and adding those things to my game.”

»»» Click here to view photos of the Denver Broncos game against the Tennessee Titans.

It’s all been a big transition for the kid whose hometown has barely enough residents to fill a quarter of Denver’s stadium. A lot has changed in five years. Since graduating early from Flathead in the winter of 2008, he has moved to Tempe, Ariz., where in three seasons at Arizona State University he developed into one of the nation’s best college quarterbacks. By the end of his junior year, he had become the first quarterback in school history to throw for more than 4,000 yards, with 4,036 and 26 touchdowns, the fourth most in school history. He also set single-season records for completions (326), pass attempts (516) and completion percentage (63.2 percent).

After returning from winter break, he chose his next path. He abruptly announced he was leaving school early and declared himself eligible for the 2012 NFL draft.

The state of Montana has produced many great athletes, but the list shrinks when it comes to professionals. It gets even shorter when it comes to NFL quarterbacks.

One of the most preeminent positions in sports, NFL quarterback is a rare and intense line of work. There are 84 active NFL quarterbacks today, not including the eight who are on injured reserve for the season.

In terms of long careers, not many Montanans have succeeded at the position. Ryan Leaf famously didn’t. Dave Dickenson played a couple years as a backup before finding his niche in Canada. Other than that you would have to go all the way back to the 1920s and Wild Bill Kelly, who quarterbacked at the University of Montana and then played professionally in New York from 1927-1930.

There is, however, one famous quarterback whose connection to Montana is significant yet obscure. Jack Elway was a journeyman football coach who moved his young family around the West pursuing jobs. In 1967, he landed in Missoula after being hired as an assistant at the University of Montana. While living in western Montana, Jack enrolled his 10-year-old son in the Little Grizzlies youth program. As legend goes, Jack showed up late to his son’s first football game. When he arrived, everyone was raving about a fourth grader named John Elway who scored four touchdowns in the first half. From there young Elway developed a passion for sports and became a skilled multi-sport athlete rising in the Missoula ranks, attracting an uncommon amount of hype for a junior high school athlete. In 1973, Jack took another coaching job and uprooted the family yet again. John Elway would grow up elsewhere and become one of the greatest NFL quarterbacks of all time, playing his entire storied career for the Denver Broncos.

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When Osweiler was in the dorms at ASU, he lived one floor away from John Elway’s son, who was named after his grandfather. Brock and Jack became best friends during college. That’s how John Elway first encountered the towering QB from Montana.

In 2012, Elway had returned to the Broncos organization as executive vice president of football operations, and when it came time for draft day, Elway had his sights set on who he wanted to be Peyton Manning’s heir apparent.

The Broncos traded picks around and positioned themselves accordingly: with the 57th overall pick of the NFL Draft, Denver selected Osweiler. A couple months later they signed him to a four-year, $3.1 million contract that included a signing bonus of $997,584.

It was a dream come true, but also an eye-opener.

“Coach (John) Fox, when I first came here, he said, ‘If you’re not getting better, you’re getting replaced,’” Osweiler says. “That’s something that sank into me since day one and I take it to heart.”

Elway, Fox and Broncos fans don’t expect Osweiler to take snaps anytime soon. At 37 years old, Manning is still playing like he’s still in his prime and doesn’t appear ready to hand over the reins. But that doesn’t mean Osweiler can kick back and relax.

Often people assume backup quarterbacks live a life of ease, standing on the sidelines holding clipboards, taking meaningless snaps in the final minutes of a blowout. Yet life of an NFL backup is a slow but explosive process. Every season a solidified starting quarterback seems to go down, suddenly opening the door for a reserve player to prove his worth. When Drew Bledsoe suffered a string of injuries during the New England Patriots’ 2001 season, an opportunity suddenly emerged for a relatively unknown young QB named Tom Brady.

Just this season, Nick Foles, a 24-year-old third-round draft pick out of Arizona, filled in for an injured Michael Vick and after only a couple months has solidified himself as Philadelphia’s franchise quarterback.

In that same light, for Osweiler, someone whose goals extend beyond the practice squad, being a backup means constant preparation. It means being on-call 24/7. Especially when you’re starting quarterback has nagging injuries and had multiple neck surgeries.

“I’m a huge goal guy. That’s something my parents have really pounded into my work ethic since I was very young,” Osweiler says. “I have goals as far as daily practice goals. I have season goals and I have career goals. I’m a firm believer in them. You have to have your sights set on something, otherwise you’ll just float away without a plan.”

In high school, he practiced for a couple hours a day. Then in college, between meetings and practices, football took upwards of six hours a day. But now, he is engrossed. Even in the offseason, he returns to the Arizona desert and trains daily with a rigorous schedule, “to keep that game growing.”

“There’s not a day that I’m not in the building by 6 a.m. and I’m not done with football until 8 to 9 p.m. that night,” he says. “Once you get to the NFL, your game becomes your life pretty much.”

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His dogged preparation and determination has begun reflecting another Broncos’ quarterback famously known for his meticulous nature.

If Osweiler had to narrow down one thing he has learned most from Manning, it would be Manning’s professionalism, “how he goes about his day-to-day business and how to be a professional quarterback in the National Football League. Coming from college, being a one-year starter at Arizona State, you step into the NFL and you don’t necessarily know everything as far as being a professional or how to go about your business. But when you get to watch a guy who has done it for 14-15 years now at the top level, there’s no better way to learn.”

Fellow players and coaches have taken notice.

“He’s done a really good job. He’s light years ahead of where he was last year,” Denver head coach John Fox says of Osweiler. “We probably haven’t gotten him in games as much as we have at different points (in the past), but yeah his growth in practice, he’s doing a very good job.”

Adam Gase has worked closely with Osweiler the past two seasons, last year as the team’s quarterbacks coach and this year as the offensive coordinator. Gase is quick to compliment the young signal caller and point out that Osweiler “has taken a big step this year so far in phase two.”

“He’s getting better every day,” Gase says. “His biggest thing is the mental aspect. Trying to learn what we do, as a whole. Skillset-wise, I feel confident with Brock throwing the ball and operating our offense. It’s just, every day, getting those tough looks from our defense, it’s good development for him.”

Osweiler has continued to work on his delivery with Noel Mazzone, his former offensive coordinator at ASU and the current offensive coordinator at UCLA. Mazzone, a former NFL quarterback who has coached the past 34 years, notably mentored Philip Rivers at North Carolina State before Rivers was taken by the San Diego Chargers with the fourth overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft.

Last offseason Osweiler focused on his delivery, and by the time he arrived at summer training camp, teammates and the media took notice of his advancement.

“He has done well,” Gase says. “Every day is improvement.”

That type of dogged determination is also how you earn respect from teammates. Even though he has a lot to live up to in Denver, Osweiler has garnered his fair share of admiration in a short amount of time.

Brock Osweiler (17) follows Peyton Manning (18) onto the field for warm-ups. The Denver Broncos beat the Tennessee Titans 51-28 at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver on Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013. – Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

“He understands that he’s one play away from being the guy and having to lead this football team. He’s taken that upon his shoulders,” Broncos veteran tight end Joel Dreessen says of Osweiler.

“He’s a true professional. He’s right there, 5:45 every morning, getting breakfast and sitting in the film room; the first one there and one of the last ones to leave. He’s a great guy to be around and just soaking in everything, learning everything and applying it out on the practice field.”

Veteran lineman Zane Beadles echoed similar praise, giving a nod to Osweiler’s workmanlike attitude. It’s instilled faith in Denver players that their backup QB is serious about succeeding into the future and maintaining the franchise’s proud tradition.

“This whole summer he was in early, he stayed late,” Beadles says. “That’s definitely going to help him out in the future.”

Even Denver fans, who are not eager to see Osweiler replace the legendary Manning any time soon, are anxious to see what’s in store for the Montana kid.

Derek Blanchard is a diehard Denver fan who paints his face, dresses in vibrant orange and for the past 10 years has attended every home game. He sits in the same seat in the infamously rowdy south end zone section of Sports Authority Field.

“I like what I’ve seen so far. I think he’s going to wow a lot of people. He’ll definitely have some dust to shake off, but being behind Peyton, taking in what he can take in, I look at it as the same thing when Aaron Rodgers sat behind Brett Favre for all those years. The longer Manning is here, the better Brock’s going to get.”

The Rodgers comparison is one that Broncos fans eagerly embrace. Although comparing quarterbacks is never as simple as the talking heads make it out to be, Osweiler and Rodgers do share a few similarities.

Both quarterbacks took their college snaps in the Pacific Conference. Rodgers transferred to the University of California from a junior college and played two full seasons for the Golden Bears. Like Osweiler, his junior year was his only season as a full-time starter and, also like Osweiler, he used the success to vault into the NFL early.

Rodgers left college after the 2004 season, racking up 2,566 passing yards and 24 touchdowns. The Green Bay Packers selected him with the 24th overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft.

Like Osweiler shadowing Manning, Rodgers studied under Brett Favre, another aging legend. Rodgers served as backup to one of the game’s all-time greats for three seasons. When the time came, Rodgers replaced Favre and became a Super Bowl champion and Pro Bowl quarterback.

It’s far too early to make similar predictions about Osweiler. Anything can happen. Montanans know this as well as anyone.

Nearly 20 years ago, Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf were compared apple to apple. The great debate was whether the Colts should take the All-American from Tennessee or the Great Falls native who was a Heisman Trophy finalist from Washington State University. As it turned out, Manning went No. 1 overall and Leaf No. 2, but that would be where the comparisons famously diverged.

In the end, Osweiler will have his own unique story to tell. He’s intent on making it a good one.

“It’s just such an honor to be a Denver Bronco. This organization does everything first class and is second to none,” he says.

“I couldn’t be any happier to be here in Denver and to be a member of this team. I just hope we make a great run and I can help the team any way possible.”

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