DENVER • Drew Lock has a friend in John Elway.
He feels you, kid.
Thirty-six years, two months and 27 days ago — on Sept. 4, 1983 — Elway made an NFL debut to forget. Sorry to bring up old stuff: Elway, a ballyhooed rookie quarterback, stunk up the joint. He completed the same number of passes to the opposing Pittsburgh Steelers as he did to his Broncos teammates (one). His lone completion went for 14 yards. He was sacked four times.
“In retrospect, we probably should have done some things differently with John,” then-coach Dan Reeves said, full of regret, to assembled media at the tail end of Elway’s first season.
Are the Broncos utterly cautious with young quarterbacks because of the trials Elway endured to begin his career? For sure. From turning back to Gary Kubiak once upon a time, to regurgitating the Kubiak offense all the time, to signing mid-30s quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Joe Flacco, the Broncos lean on personal experience and what-worked-back-then more than any franchise known to mankind.
Lock, the 23-year-old, confident, big-armed quarterback from the University of Missouri, is expected to make his own debut against Philip Rivers and the Los Angeles Chargers. Altitude Sports Radio analyst and ex-Broncos offensive lineman Ryan Harris first reported Lock will make his first career start Sunday at Mile High.
The Broncos said: Meh, maybe. “We haven’t decided yet,” coach Vic Fangio said Friday.
Why the hesitancy? Elway’s own experience must be one factor. It has seemed the entire state of Colorado desires to see Lock ASAP — except the coaching staff and front office. The Broncos preferred Lock sit down and soak up the entirety of his rookie season in the NFL.
A smarter man, perhaps forecasting the Broncos’ tenuous quarterback situation, once said: You can’t always get what you want — but if you try sometimes, you find, you get what you need. The Broncos need Lock to be the real deal — none so more than Elway, whose decisions related to quarterbacks are under attack from near and far. But if Elway leaves behind a franchise quarterback, no one remembers the Osweiler-Lynch-Siemian-Keenum-Flacco errors.
There is so much riding on Lock it should come as no surprise team president and CEO Joe Ellis personally observed each practice last week.
Don’t freak out if Lock freaks out. Elway spent most of his rookie season as the lowest-rated passer in the NFL. Over his first five starts he completed 38 of 83 passes (45 percent) with five interceptions and one touchdown. The Broncos went 2-3 — thanks to 10 turnovers by the Ravens and Steelers in Broncos victories.
Reeves then benched Elway in favor of veteran Steve DeBerg, and it was not until Elway became a sideline observer that he felt comfortable in the pocket, moment and spotlight.
“You don’t like to get benched, but it was the best thing that happened to me,” Elway said then, according to Washington Post archives.
Interesting that Lock said his time recovering from a wrist injury actually was a positive thing.
“At the beginning of that I was very lost,” Lock said.
Later, “After looking back at it all, I got to be on my own, learning the way,” Lock said.
Based simply on ability, Lock looked like a serious upgrade while taking the first-team repetitions last week in practice — some outdoors on the grass fields, some indoors on turf since Colorado these days is a snow globe. (How he thinks and feels the game is yet to be seen.) His throws remind of Rockies ace German Marquez in their effortless velocity. His footwork and “base,” as Lock often refers to it, remain a work in progress. Lock plays loose, for better or for worse. He’s a risk-taker, no doubt about it.
“I want to try and build this into something special for sure,” Lock said. “I want to be able to give confidence every single week to my teammates and to the people upstairs (Elway) that if we ride into this offseason ... we’re going to have an awesome offseason coming into next season. Hopefully I end up being here a long time.”
No one hopes so more than Elway.
(Contact Gazette sports columnist Paul Klee at email@example.com or on Twitter at @bypaulklee.)