CHICAGO — An hour before kickoff Thursday, Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch trotted out onto Soldier Field to warm up, setting up shop at the 20-yard line in front of a swath of fans who quickly pulled out camera phones and dangled photos for signatures.
In the center stood a young girl donning an orange No. 18 Manning jersey. At her side was an older man wearing John Elway’s No. 7. There was no No. 13 or No 12. No sign of the Broncos’ future.
Thursday’s preseason opener — a 24-17 win over the Bears — put them one step closer to finding him.
Siemian, as planned by first-year head coach Vance Joseph, started and played 19 plays before handing the reins to Lynch midway through the second quarter. Kyle Sloter closed out the final quarter and was the only one of the three quarterbacks to throw a touchdown pass.
While eyes were on the quarterbacks, the victory highlighted many persistent issues on offense for Denver — protection problems, penalties and general inefficiency — with only 144 net yards and a 13 percent conversion rate on third downs when Siemian and Lynch played.
Siemian began with a seven-point cushion, thanks to Chris Harris’ pick-six on the third play of the game, and went 6-of-7 in passing for 51 yards and no touchdowns or interceptions for a passer rating of 97.0. He was sacked once — on the first play — as Leonard Floyd flew around right tackle Menelik Watson for the takedown as protection issues and penalties littered Siemian’s three drives.
Both teams racked up a total of six flags on Denver’s opening drive, but Siemian held his own, connecting with Demaryius Thomas for a conversion on third-and-11 and setting up a 38-yard field goal by Brandon McManus.
Siemian’s second drive was a three-and-out, and his final go was a seven-play, 37-yard drive that included two completions to Cody Latimer. One of those, however, was nullified by penalties. The drive ended on a run by Stevan Ridley on third-and-1 that resulted in a loss of 3 yards.
Where Siemian appeared in control under pressure, Lynch struggled early with his reads and reacting quickly to the defense. He took over with 7:41 left in the second quarter and played four series, going 6-of-9 passing for 42 yards and a 77.1 rating, while adding 11 yards on four carries. He closed the first half with back-to-back three-and-outs, often tucked the ball and scrambled to evade pressure. To compensate for his late reads, he appeared to throw harder, affecting his accuracy.
Lynch showed flashes of potential, though, as he connected early and often with Latimer and, in the third quarter, hit Jordan Taylor for a 14-yard completion and first down.
Sloter played the fourth quarter and found rookie receiver Isaiah McKenzie for a 47-yard touchdown and then handed off to De’Angelo Henderson for a 41-yard go-ahead score.
Joseph and offensive coordinator Mike McCoy said before the game that while the preseason performances count the most for the quarterbacks, the race will be decided by the players’ full body of work since April. Decision-making will weigh heavily.
“You look at every day, the way they prepare in the meetings, the way they come out here, the questions they ask, the way they perform on the practice field and the way they run the football team, and then you really look at the games,” McCoy said. “… We’re going to evaluate every single thing everybody does on the team and not just one snap here and there, one mistake. There’s going to be a mistake at some point in time at all positions, you grade it and take it for what it’s worth.”
Siemian arrived in Chicago with an edge, showing more consistency and comfort in practice and owning more game experience. He left with a firmer grip on his position, but the competition isn’t over.
Next week, following joint practices with the 49ers in Santa Clara, Calif., Lynch will get his turn as the starter.
The games may be “meaningless,” but a more significant race is underway.
Trevor Siemian: 6-of-7 (85.7 percent), 51 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT, 1 sack, 97.0 rating
Paxton Lynch: 6-of-9 (66.7 percent), 42 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT, 0 sacks, 77.1 rating
Kyle Sloter: 5-of-6 (83.3 percent), 94 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs, 1 sack, 158.3 rating