ENGLEWOOD – Denver Broncos fans have pretty much given up on Paxton Lynch.
No longer do they fill the airwaves and social media posts with debates about how Denver’s 2016 first-round draft pick should be learning on the job even though he hasn’t earned the Broncos’ starting quarterback job.
They’re wearing Case Keenum No. 4 jerseys now, ready to move on from the crisp No. 12s that have gotten about as much wear and tear as Lynch’s own game-day jersey.
Two men who aren’t quite ready to label Lynch a blunder are general manager John Elway and coach Vance Joseph.
While that might seem predictable, both men are adamant that the ex-Memphis QB is just a late bloomer, not a bust.
Even after signing Keenum in free agency to a two-year deal and declaring the sixth-year veteran the team’s starter, Elway has stuck by Lynch.
To the surprise of many, he bypassed a bevy of quarterback prospects in the NFL draft. After using all 10 of his picks on other positions, he declared that Lynch is still young and hasn’t run out of chances in Denver.
“We are not kicking him to the curb,” Elway said. “He can still develop. When we drafted him two years ago, we knew it was going to take some time.”
Elway added this caveat, however: Lynch will compete with Chad Kelly, “Mr. Irrelevant” as the final selection of the 2017 NFL draft out of Ole Miss, for the backup job this summer.
The buzz around Broncos headquarters is that Lynch is a more dedicated pro this year. His performances on the field, at least those open to the media, have looked a lot like his first two years: flashes of jaw-dropping brilliance but still some head-scratching poor plays and bad decisions.
Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave saluted Lynch’s red zone play Wednesday and said, “We want those decisions, those habits, to become part of his fabric so they can become natural, reactive.”
Joseph praised Lynch in an interview with The Associated Press, saying, “I think Paxton is really motivated to show everyone that he can be a No. 1 quarterback in this league and watching him work this entire offseason he is different because I’ve seen him a lot more up in the halls here.
“And that takes time to find your comfort zone with coaches, with your organization.”
Joseph noted that Lynch has had three offensive coordinators in Denver so far, something that reminds him of another QB he worked with early in his career.
“I was with Alex Smith his first three or four years and it kind of looked like Paxton because Alex had four coordinators in his first four years in the league,” Joseph said. “How can a guy comfortably get better as a quarterback in a system that is brand new every year, right?
“These guys need time to develop as quarterbacks. We want them to walk in and play. Now some guys do. Russell Wilson walked in and did it. But most guys don’t do it.”
What Lynch needs, Joseph said, is “time to be in a system for a two-year period and you will see real growth.”
Joseph said he saw improvement last year even though Lynch was hurt most of the season and only started twice.
Like Elway, Joseph was impressed with Lynch’s performance in the season finale, when he went 21-for-31 for 254 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions in a 27-24 loss to Kansas City.
“He played that position very, very naturally in that game,” Joseph said. “Now, from that point to now, he’s a different guy. He’s 10 percent better. Now, when it comes time for him to play for us this year and win a football game, he’s going to be 20 percent better because he’s been with Billy for a year and a-half now in the same system. That makes a difference.”
First things first, Joseph insisted that Lynch still has to beat out Kelly in training camp to win the backup spot.
Yet, Joseph’s effusive praise of Lynch reveals the degree to which the Broncos’ brain trust still believes it didn’t whiff by moving up to select him with the 26th overall pick two years ago.
Joseph said Lynch deserves such patience “because he does have rare talent.”
“Who wants to throw out rare talent before you give him a chance to develop?” Joseph asked. “I don’t want to. John doesn’t want to.”