ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The No. 18 loomed large over the quarterback decision Denver Broncos coach Vic Fangio faced throughout the offseason -- all the way to his selection on the fourth Wednesday in August of Teddy Bridgewater over Drew Lock.
No. 18 as in Peyton Manning, whose historical four-year run of 50 Broncos wins, four AFC West titles, two Super Bowl appearances and a Super Bowl 50 victory ended after the 2015 season.
No. 18 as in the starts Drew Lock has already had during his still-young career, but also the number of interceptions he has thrown during those games.
No. 18 as in the days to an exceedingly important season opener for Fangio and the Broncos.
The Broncos have been little more than an overzealous turnstile at quarterback since the departure of Manning. Ten different players, including running back Phillip Lindsay, have opened a game behind center since Manning strolled into the Hall of Fame sunset. By overtaking Lock in a "close" battle, Bridgewater will now be No. 11.
Bridgewater earned the job, to be sure. He was steady, maintained the offense's tempo throughout practices and into the preseason games, he was productive and the offense rarely committed a pre-snap penalty in practice when he was behind center.
In his 40 snaps in two preseason games combined, he completed 84.2% of his passes, did not throw an interception and did not take a sack. The Broncos scored three touchdowns and a field goal in those four possessions.
Lock completed 66.7% of his passes, had two touchdowns, no interceptions and was sacked twice. In his 47 plays in those two preseason games, the Broncos scored two touchdowns, three field goals, had two punts and turned the ball over on downs in eight possessions.
Both had their chances to start a game as well as play with plenty of second- and potential third-teamers.
They split work with the starters in practice, faced the Broncos' own starting defense almost exactly the same amount of snaps and consistently worked well together along the way. Bridgewater has helped Lock, and Lock has pushed Bridgewater.
"Secretly, I was sitting back learning everything I can from Teddy," Lock said. "And I think one of the special things he does that I'm going to keep adding into my game is the way he communicates, how he talks, how he operates after practice."
But in the end, this is a coaching staff with a head coach in the third year of a four-year deal who has gone 0-for-September over the past two seasons on the way to the Broncos' fourth and fifth consecutive playoff misses. Through that lens, Bridgewater's current reliability trumps Lock's potential growth on the fly.
The NFL is a lot of things, but you'd be hard-pressed to find fairness listed very high on the list.
Was a COVID-19 season in 2020 completely fair to Lock?
Was his team's continued reliance on a personnel grouping that so obviously did not put him in the best position to succeed fair to Lock?
Is a win-now mentality completely fair to Lock?
No, no and no, probably. But as Manning so famously said, "Every interception has a story and nobody wants to hear it."
Fangio broke the news to Lock and Bridgewater on Wednesday morning. He told each that he considered them both starting-caliber quarterbacks.
For Lock, a Broncos' second-round pick in 2019, it is a bit of a where-do-I-go-from-here moment. After clear improvement following an offseason in which he put his nose to the quarterback grindstone, he is a backup, losing a starting job for the first time in his athletic life.
"The toughest part was getting it and then going in the team meeting and knowing it was going to be talked about," Lock said.
Lock said Fangio explained the decision like this: "It just kind of came down to being able to choose a little bit of his experience, that it was time to make a choice and it was close. That both of you guys are starters in this league."
Nothing is over for Lock. Manning himself threw 43 interceptions in his first two seasons combined and had two seasons with 23 or more interceptions in his first four years in the league. How that would have played out in the boom-or-bust world of today's social media is a brain-crunching exercise for a later date.
There are plenty of teams with No. 2 quarterbacks with far less potential than Lock who might now give Broncos general manager George Paton a call in the days to come.
But in this moment, for this team, those turnovers loom over Lock's résumé. He tied for the league lead in interceptions in those 13 starts in 2020 and was last in the league in completion percentage. But his physical skills and the work ethic he showed -- from the end of the 2020 season to the day Fangio decided on Bridgewater -- are still very much in his favor.
As for Bridgewater, he has and can continue to help Lock get better. Bridgewater can, if Lock now does his part, help put Lock on the other side of the quarterback decision on another day.