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BE COOL, MAN

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He was a seventh-round pick with a bum knee, but Broncos quarterback TREVOR SIEMIAN had the calm and the smarts to impress his predecessor, Peyton Manning. That can earn you respect—and wins

TREVOR SIEMIAN hit rock bottom in a rental car traveling north on I-65 through pastoral northwest Indiana. Earlier that November afternoon in 2014, against Purdue, he'd charged into the fray on a QB sneak and faced that terrifying moment in football when your feet are stuck in a pile of bodies but you're still standing upright. A tackler slammed into his torso, and his left leg stayed in place. Siemian, in his final season at Northwestern, wept as trainers helped him off the field.

Now it was dawn, and as he leaned back in the car with his mother, father and older brother, Todd, he asked the big question aloud: "I wonder if I'll ever play again."

His parents were certain they knew the answer. He'd been a statistically poor passer on a losing football team. He had a well-paying job in real estate waiting for him. Still, nobody really knew what to say. "My husband and I agreed he was pretty much done—but we didn't want to tell him that," says Colleen Siemian. "Then Todd said, 'Just give it another try, because in five years you don't want to say could've, would've, should've.'"

Todd was right, even if Trevor did find out he'd torn his ACL. Three years later Siemian is the undisputed starter for a Broncos team that has won three of its first four games. (Denver's No. 3--ranked run game and No. 1 defense have certainly helped that cause.) His performance in the first quarter of this season is the latest turn in an improbable journey from seventh-round draft pick to Peyton Manning understudy to competitor in a QB derby he wasn't supposed to win, but did. Twice.

Now Siemian's fellow Broncos have joined the chorus of former Northwestern teammates in issuing superlatives that show how far the QB has traveled since that anxiety-filled car ride.

"He's even-keeled," says receiver Emmanuel Sanders.

"Calm and collected," says running back C.J. Anderson.

"And cool," says coach Vance Joseph. "The perfect quarterback demeanor."

"I've played with Tom Brady, and I've played with Peyton," says cornerback Aqib Talib, "and it's not just the mental side that makes them great. It's their calm—that poise, that unwavering confidence, man. They're always cool; they never panic. If you have [those same] traits, you're on your way."

SIEMIAN'S ROAD to the NFL began in earnest when Greg Knapp, then Denver's QBs coach, visited Evanston, Ill., in the spring of 2015 for a post-pro-day workout set up just for the QB, who was still limping from ACL surgery. Knapp, the only coach in attendance, had been tasked with identifying a passer to back up Manning (in what would turn out to be his final season) and Brock Osweiler (a '12 second-round pick), and he came away impressed with Siemian's football acumen.

Sure, this was a guy who for two years split time with Kain Colter—Siemian was the pocket passer, Colter the running threat—and then, in his only season as a full-time starter, stumbled to seven TDs with 11 interceptions. Still, Knapp went back to Denver thinking he'd found his man. Coach Gary Kubiak and GM John Elway were intrigued too; they liked Siemian's play in big games, particularly in narrow wins over 17th-ranked Wisconsin and, on a windy November day, 18th-ranked Notre Dame. "He could really throw the football," says Elway. "There obviously wasn't a great team around him. [Knapp] liked his knowledge of the game, his ability to understand coverages."

Come draft time, Siemian and his family watched from their home in Windermere, Fla. On Day 3 they were barbecuing when they began to accept that Trevor was destined for undrafted free agency. Siemian's parents say the Browns and the Texans reached out, expressing interest in signing their son once the dust settled. (Cleveland, which has spent decades in search of a franchise QB, used its two seventh-round picks on linebacker Hayes Pullard and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu; two years later, neither is on its roster.)

At pick No. 247, Siemian finally got a call from the Broncos' war room. "Knapp said, 'Trevor, I'm pounding my fist on the table,'" Colleen recalls. "'I want them to draft you, but if they don't, you're gonna be a preferred free agent with us.'"

Elway and Kubiak pulled the trigger three slots later, with seven choices remaining, and Siemian was thrust into a competition with Zac Dysert (another project passer) for Denver's third-string job. And while Siemian would be limited by his still-recovering knee in the subsequent rookie minicamp, he still gave coaches a clue early on that he might one day be The Guy.

"I knew Trevor had a little moxie in one of the first QB meetings," says Knapp. "I've been around a couple other guys—college free agents or late draft picks—in the QB room with Peyton. And those guys get intimidated. Even for a coach it can be intimidating to be in a room with Peyton. He'll challenge you, and he's a bulldog about it. Peyton threw a zinger at Trevor, and it was incredible to hear Trevor spit one back in Peyton's face."

Siemian laughs at the memory: "We had a great room and a good back-and-forth. Maybe a little too much."

Manning liked to tease Siemian about his Northwestern.edu email address, telling the young QB that he was an adult now, and a pro football player. "I eventually folded on that one," says Siemian. "[Peyton] has a very dry sense of humor, and I'd try to be dry with him too. I think it was a shock to him at first."

In those early interactions, Knapp saw his instincts affirmed: "I'm going, 'I love this. Mr. Manning, you've got a bit of a challenge with this rookie. Trevor doesn't get intimidated easily.'"

Respect earned, Siemian sought out Manning's tutelage on every aspect of the position, etiquette included. On one occasion Siemian asked Manning if, after a game, it was the younger quarterback's responsibility to approach the older quarterback for the traditional handshake. The future Hall of Famer rejected that premise. The losing QB, he explained, always approaches the winner.

SIEMIAN BEAT out Dysert that first year and collected a Super Bowl 50 ring. The following preseason, after Manning retired and Osweiler left for Houston as a free agent, Siemian stole the starting job from first-round pick Paxton Lynch and went 8--6, just missing the playoffs. Despite completing 59.5% of his passes for 3,401 yards and 18 TDs (versus 10 picks), he had to hold off Lynch again deep into this summer. Meanwhile, Kubiak had stepped down in January, and the Broncos replaced him with the defensive-minded Vance Joseph, adding former Chargers coach Mike McCoy as his offensive coordinator.

The new staff worked to build an attack that would give Siemian and Lynch an equal chance to thrive, and when the two QBs brought their playbooks home from their second minicamp, in June, Siemian applied a study technique learned from Manning. "You start with one play," he says, "and you try to understand the thought behind it, what defensive weaknesses it tries to attack. Then you say, What if? for every scenario. What if I get Cover 1? What if I get Cover 3? You take into account how the play looks out of different personnel and you draw that up. Then you move on to the next play. When you get to camp, the plays kind of come to life." (Osweiler, who's back in Denver, says he now takes the same approach. "No one had ever taught me that before I met Peyton. We were very fortunate to see the game he was playing in his head.")

Siemian ultimately arrived at training camp with an elevated understanding of the offense, which incorporates some spread elements he's familiar with from college. For some teammates, that new scheme is a welcome departure from an attack that had grown stale. "The offense was pared down last year," says Talib. "If you're running the ball well, it'll work great—but if you're not, nobody's gonna go for all that play-action, pop passes and bootleg. It was kind of one-dimensional.

"In this offense you can line up and do anything. [Trevor] might check to a run, a screen, anything. This is the offense Peyton Manning ran. It's grown-man football."

While Siemian was learning that offense, he took a noticeably larger role than Lynch in commanding it. Coaches say Siemian was calm but aggressive in communicating the intricacies of certain plays to teammates, tutoring them with a focus on being accountable to execute their assignments.

"There are days you're with the [first-team offense], days you're with the [second team]," says McCoy, "and he did a good job of leading in every situation, saying to guys, 'This is what we're expecting on this play. This is where you need to be.'"

That's nothing new, says Northwestern offensive coordinator Mick McCall, who recalls watching Siemian act like a coach on the field during practice at Olympia High in Orlando: "He had everyone's attention. If he said something, they did what he said. And he wasn't demonstrative or anything. His voice commanded respect."

What drives Siemian, more than the joy of tossing a perfect touchdown or the ecstacy of victory, is the brotherhood. McCall remembers his old QB as a social butterfly, dining with various position groups until eventually the defensive backs talked about him the way the receivers did. Colleen says her son explained early on why he preferred football over baseball: Baseball was an individual sport disguised as a team game, while football was like "going to war with a bunch of guys."

"I love the camaraderie of the locker room," Siemian says. "I love the huddle. Eleven guys—53 guys—getting on the same page for a common goal."

LYNCH, WHO is due $9.5 million over the life of his four-year contract, was drafted 26th out of Memphis to be Manning's successor. Siemian was a low-cost, long-term project who faced a steep climb to the starting job; his four-year deal will net roughly $2.3 million, making him the lowest-paid starting QB in the NFL. And so the decision to start Siemian over Lynch has been characterized by many pundits in Denver as a concession by Elway.

Elway doesn't see it this way. "Trevor did what we were hoping one of [our QBs] would do: Take control of the position," he says. "I didn't take any loss there. We wanted the best quarterback playing, and obviously that's Trevor."

Obviously. In victories over the Chargers, Cowboys and Raiders, Siemian has taken a larger role compared with a year ago in making on-field, presnap adjustments that give his offense favorable matchups. Veteran running back Jamaal Charles points to a third-quarter goal line sequence against Los Angeles in which the defense offered an unfavorable look on the edge and Siemian audibled from pass to run, handing off to Charles for a third-and-one conversion that ended a yard away from pay dirt. "It was a great decision—I really should have scored," Charles says. "He understands the game. These guys who played with Peyton, they all have high football IQs."

Manning called Siemian before that opener, and before several other games last season, to talk football. Siemian likes to involve his family in his game-day preparation, going over plays with his father, Walter, in a hotel room. Walter will read a play call, and Trevor will talk through the scenarios. But when Manning phones, Dad steps into another room. "[Trevor] is very private about that. He won't share what Peyton says, and I don't ask," says Colleen. "I think Peyton respects that about him."

Manning, in an interview with the NFL Network this offseason, said he realized Siemian was special when he saw him visualizing plays without the aid of a playbook or film. The successful passers, Manning said, can play the game in their minds.

Siemian's mother had a hunch long before that. "Trevor sets goals high for himself," she says, "and in his mind he has no choice but to achieve them. I knew, because I was his mother, that he was not going to give this job up easily."

PASSING JUDGMENT

When it comes to quarterbacking, the Broncos are particularly qualified to identify and manage talent like Siemian (right, center). FIVE STAFF MEMBERS played the position at least through college.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

PLAYER

TEAM

GMS

COMP

ATT

YDS

TDS

INTS

JOHN ELWAY

Stanford

42

774

1,246

9,349

77

39

General Manager

Broncos

234

4,123

7,250

51,475

300

226

VANCE JOSEPH

Colorado

30

34

61

454

4

0

Coach

MIKE MCCOY

Long Beach St.

8

87

165

938

7

3

Offensive Coordinator

Utah

29

571

896

7,404

49

23

BILL MUSGRAVE

Oregon

39

634

1,104

8,343

60

40

Quarterback

Broncos, 49ers

12

43

69

402

1

2

GARY KUBIAK

Texas A&M

43

314

595

4,078

31

27

Adviser

Broncos

119

173

298

1,920

14

16

TOTALS

556

6,753

11,684

84,363

543

376