PFF The Magazine: Trevor Siemian’s road to a starting job
In this excerpt from PFF: The Magazine, Liam Blackburn digs deep on the Denver Broncos quarterback’s unlikely rise to the top.
PFF The Magazine: Trevor Siemian’s road to a starting job
There is a pre-draft video from 2015 on YouTube where prospect Trevor Siemian is cheekily asked by someone managing his rehabilitation from a torn ACL if he would be comfortable asking for the #13 jersey in Miami should he be selected by the Dolphins. “Yeah…yeah…yeah,” comes the response from Siemian, whose folded arms and laid-back demeanour suggest wearing Dan Marino’s shirt in Dade County is no biggie.
The Hall of Famer’s number, of course, has been retired. So the enquirer presses his subject further. Would he ask Marino to unretire #13? “I’d say, ‘Hey, Coach Philbin, I’ve got to have a word with you,” comes the grinning Siemian’s reply. “And what if you needed Marino’s blessing, Trevor? Would you go to up to his office or call him down to you?”
Siemian laughs. “I’d probably have to go up to his office, right?”
Miami may not have called Siemian’s name, but Denver, whose offense was marshalled by another man destined for Canton, did. And less than 18 months later, he would be in his very spot, at the controls of the Super Bowl champions. It’s a position that those close to him and even Siemian himself were surprised he reached.
Siemian was born when Marino was still in the midst of his 17-year stretch in Miami and the kid of a surgeon and nurse first started to flourish as a quarterback himself at Olympia High School in Orlando, Florida, where Chris “CJ2K” Johnson was once a pupil. To give a geographical sense of perspective, those currently enrolled at Siemian’s old alma mater study just four miles away from “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” and the Universal theme park. And even at high school, Siemian’s sporting talent was such he would probably have excelled at Quidditch were it on the Olympia curriculum.
While also a standout baseball player, considered one of the best in the state, his football skills were being honed by Darin Slack and his team, including Will Hewlett, at the National Football Academy. “You could tell that he was a fantastic specimen for a quarterback in high school,” Hewlett tells PFF: The Magazine. “By high school standards he was one of the most athletic kids on the field; he was very intelligent and had the right mindset. He wasn’t fazed by change or pressure. You could see he could deal well with instruction and he could implement it pretty quickly too.”
It was with Slack and Hewlett when Siemian’s quick release, the one that garnered such admiration from PFF’s own Cris Collinsworth during his season-opening debut against Carolina, began to emerge. In just nine months between 16 and 17 he had shaved over a tenth of a second off his release. It is when discussing that aspect of Siemian’s mechanics that Hewlett gets nostalgic. He didn’t appreciate it at the time, and neither did those hosting the events with national exposure for high-school players, but maybe there were some early signs that he had a precious talent in his company. “Looking back now, after coaching so many guys, you really realize, wow, he had a lot of special traits that I probably didn’t realize how good they were back then as a coach,” Hewlett says. “He had an edge to him that many don’t.”
His numbers were certainly impressive, both in a football sense – 6,144 passing yards and 53 touchdowns in three seasons – and in an academic one – Siemian’s GPA was 3.9 – and in 2010, the quarterback enrolled on a communication studies degree at Northwestern, where he would get used to biding his time.
Siemian did not see any action for Pat Fitzgerald’s team in 2010 and one season later he had only attempted 26 passes. It was frustrating for those who knew him well. “I was always very surprised that he wasn’t the guy,” Hewlett admits. “He should have been the guy, there’s no question.”
Even after Dan Persa graduated, Fitzgerald preferred to start the 2012 season with Kain Colter, a now-converted wideout who ended his collegiate career with more rushing yards than passing, though Siemian was at least afforded some opportunities. In the season opener, playing in place of the injured Colter, he came in to engineer a game-winning overtime touchdown drive against Syracuse, only to continue to split time with a player Fitzgerald seemed to prefer. The timeshare continued in 2013 but, with Colter again sidelined in the final week of the season, Siemian went 31-of-44, for 414 yards, four touchdowns and no picks and finally, in his last year at college, he would be the guy.
Don’t think the story suddenly takes on its Hollywood factor here, though. Northwestern went 0-2, then 3-6 during a run where Siemian was both troubled by an ankle injury and then benched. The week before they entered South Bend to face rivals Notre Dame in front of 80,000 screaming fans, Siemian had fallen over on a two-point conversion attempt to end a game his team lost 10-9 to Michigan. Then the Notre Dame game happened. In their first meeting in almost two decades, Siemian guided Northwestern to only their second win over the Fighting Irish in 16 tries as they came from 11 points down in the fourth quarter to triumph 43-40 in OT.
Was this the start of the Hollywood script? Afraid not. One week later Siemian blew out his ACL. His Northwestern career was over, and maybe his NFL dream too. “I reached out to him to send him some positive vibes and make sure he was okay and we talked about if he should go to the NFL,” Hewlett said. “He was of the mindset of, ‘We’ll see if that even happens’. I don’t think he even truly knew if he would get drafted.”
However, someone else in Siemian’s corner not only thought he was destined for the NFL, he believed he was destined for greatness.
Jeff Christensen can separate the wheat from the chaff. And the quarterback coach thought he had something special from the moment he got his hands on Siemian prior to that last year at Northwestern. “He was the perfect student. He was smart, mature — his dad’s a surgeon, his mother’s a nurse, so he was raised right — he was very bright and is a very thoughtful guy. If he was ever going to be five minutes late, he’d call and tell me. He wanted to be great. He doesn’t do a lot of talking, he just shows up and puts in the work. Because of those qualities, I knew right there that he had a chance to be good.”
Christensen’s confidence was one thing but Siemian’s ACL tear, which occurred in late November, meant he was unable to wow scouts in pre-draft workouts. As part of his rehabilitation work he practised with Jay Fiedler, the one-time Dolphins quarterback who went in to Miami immediately after Marino’s run was over. “One of the things I was really impressed by was how quickly he picked up things that we were talking about,” Fiedler says. “His football intelligence, his IQ was far above and beyond most of the guys that I work with coming out of college.”
And there was that edge evident again too. “He has a bit of that borderline confidence, cockiness, but it’s not over the top that he’s going to offend anyone with it. You could tell he had tremendous confidence in himself and his ability.”
Fiedler was told by scouts and coaches that they thought Siemian would get a chance somewhere and, with the 250th pick of a draft where only 256 selections were made, he had a new home in Denver.
With Peyton Manning and heir apparent Brock Osweiler ahead of him on the roster, Siemian would have to get used to being down the pecking order, a familiar feeling from his days at Northwestern. But the quick learner was absorbing all he could about Gary Kubiak’s system. In preseason he completed 23 of 40 passes for 283 yards, two touchdowns and a pick to emerge with a QB rating of 85.7 and when Manning got injured in the regular season, Denver refrained from bringing in a veteran as Siemian was chosen as Osweiler’s back-up. His only snap of the 2015 season, when Denver won it all, was a kneeldown against the Pittsburgh Steelers in December. “The best kneeldown in Denver Broncos history,” he would recently crow.
And then Manning retired and Osweiler left and suddenly the only quarterback on the Super Bowl champions’ roster was that guy Northwestern never really fancied. Mark Sanchez, who took the Jets to back-to-back AFC Championship Games, was brought in and physical specimen Paxton Lynch was drafted in the first round but neither would beat out Siemian to the starting job. Not that that surprised Fielder. “I didn’t know they were going to give him this much of a shot but I knew just talent-wise and intelligence-wise that he was as good or better than anyone that they had on their roster. I knew he would compete favourably with Sanchez and I knew he’d be ahead just from being in the system a year over any rookies that would be coming in like Lynch. I knew he’d have a great chance if he got the right opportunity and a fair shot that he’d be able to compete and do what he did and win that job.”
So there he was, Trevor Siemian, starting quarterback of the Denver Broncos, in Week 1, in front of a national-television audience, against a top-10 defense blood-thirsty for Super Bowl revenge. And his team came out with the win. Two picks aside, Denver’s new QB impressed and certainly looked as competent as Manning and Osweiler did against a similar level of competition in the previous season. “He’s not fazed by how bad it gets, he’s always able to move on to the next play, practice, game, challenge,” Hewlett stated. “That’s a huge trait that you’ve got to look for in a quarterback.”
He was one of five quarterbacks to start in Week 1 that had been tutored by Christensen. Ryan Tannehill, Kirk Cousins and Osweiler have all been guided by him but none have spent as long working with him as Jimmy Garoppolo, the Patriots quarterback who Christensen told PFF: The Magazine would one day earn “$100 million as a starting quarterback”. Effusive praise indeed, but Christiesen is every bit as confident in Siemian’s trajectory. Can he be a great too? “Absolutely, without hesitation or reservation,” comes the reply.