As the glow from Thursday's game starts to fade every so slightly, and the nervous anticipation of opening the 2009 season on the road in Cincinnati begins to build, it seems appropriate to take a few moments to look back at the path taken and the job done by rookie quarterback Tom Brandstater - his background, his performances and his development. I think that despite the widely differing opinions that folks have as to the path the Broncos have taken to get here, and the variance between our visions of the future, there are probably relatively few Denver fans who don't recognize that they have caught a glimpse of a team as it could be. The aggressive defense, the excellent TO ratio, the high caliber play from the first string and the third and the play of a rookie quarterback who seemed to play with ice in his veins and passion in his heart, who made passes at all levels, moved well and showed how quickly he picks up the new scheme rang in a harmonious chord.
Not surprisingly, that rich major chord wasn't exactly echoed by the media that has been decrying the Broncos of late and who have, almost in Greek chorus, laughed long and loud at the idea that these same Broncos might actually win a few games. The folks who have used the most space to snicker and point fingers were no where to be found on this warm late summer morning. You wouldn't even know that the Broncos played last night by the deafening silence. Somehow, that figures. It takes no courage to point fingers. It takes more to admit that you could have been wrong. That kind of fortitude was in short supply as the morning light rose to bright afternoon. As evening drew near, it was almost completely absent. The Broncos, lead by rookie quarterback Tom Brandstater, had pulled off an impressive shutout victory over the Arizona Cardinals.
Tom Brandstater is a small town boy at heart. Born and raised in Turlock CA, not far from Modesto, Brandstater has stood out from an early age. He was a high school hero at Turlock High, playing mostly at quarterback but gaining notoriety as a safety due to the school's run-first offense. As would be his trademark, Brnastater never complained. Brandstater was just fine playing wherever he was asked to play. After graduating, he moved on the Fresno State, where he won, lost, and re-won the starting position during his sophomore campaign. He quickly learned what it meant to be in the public eye. He took over the position from Paul Pinegar, who won three Bowl victories for Fresno Statte. From the email, letters and text messages Pinegar got, you would have thought that he tanked on all three games.
"Paul motioned me toward his locker after a loss and on his cell phone were all these nasty messages," Brandstater remembered this week. "He told me, 'This is what you have to look forward to.'"
It didn't end there.
"I was walking up the ramp at halftime one game and a young boy said, 'Gimme five!' And when I reached out to slap his hand, he pulled it back and said, 'You suck!' His father nearby yelled, 'That's right! You tell him!' " Brandstater said. "I had to laugh. I realized I couldn't please everybody."
Perhaps it was the perfect preparation for being in the public eye in Denver, a sports-crazy town that is currently hotly divided when it comes to the Broncos. But on his way, he managed to accomplish a few things.
Brandstater threw for nearly 7000 yards in college. He had one thing going for him that eventually made a big difference - he was coached in college by Pat Hill, who had previously coached with Bill Belichick. After college, there were mutterings that the Patriots would try to draft Tom, but former Patriots OC Josh McDaniels got there first. But that would come later.
Once he won the job for the last time as a sophomore, returning as a junior was something he did with fire in his eyes. Brandstater came back to his second offensive coordinator in 2 years, but still finished sixth in the WAC as a junior with an average of 213.23 yards per game. He amassed 2,654 yards on 211 of 337 passes (62.6 percent), connecting for 15 touchdowns against only five interceptions. He began to garner national attention when he and his team won the Humanitarian Bowl. Then came his senior year.
The three-time Academic All-WAC choice who had finished his undergrad degree the year before (2007), bettered his junior season's numbers as a senior. He ranked fourth in the league in passing efficiency and total offense, as he hit on 221 of 371 tosses (59.6 percent), generating a career-high 2,664 passing yards to go with 18 touchdowns, as he collected 2,614 yards in total offense. (12 INTs, QB rating 129.4) During his senior year, Brandstater had only one game with a QB rating below 96, only three games below 110 and only five games below 130. He was quickly becoming a force.
As it often goes in the media, the press caught on to the fact that some of his numbers weren't as strong as a senior, particularly his TD/INT ratio. While that fact seemed to dominate his coverage, the media was strangely silent on the fact that he was enduring yet another turnover in offensive coordinator, making it 4 OCs in 4 seasons. He had thrown for 18 TDs with 12 INTs, but finished the year with a QB rating of 129.4. To top it off, Brandstater had finished his masters in sports psychology before he threw the first pass in his last game as a senior. He started that game having already received his teams MVP award.
"To know that came from my teammates, even though I felt I could have played better, says a lot," Brandstater said. "I hope to go out the right way (in his last game) and see the smiles on the guys' faces."
His numbers ranked him 7th in the country and 6th in school history, but he was still viewed with suspicion. Then came the Senior Bowl, with Combine right on it's heels. Despite a torn latissimus muscle that hampered his performance (and dropped him on many draft boards), Brandstater felt good about his Combine experience. This is what he had to say:
"First, I’m gifted that a lot of it comes natural. Some guys just can’t run to save their life and luckily I’ve been blessed to be able to run. And then it comes down to working hard in the weight room and doing different things, different agility drills that allow you to be able to move around. I think that that’s a big part of my game."
Most of questions regarding Tom's mobility came early in his college career, when he was still learning the position. Brandstater is adamant that those days are behind him.
"I’m not a Michael Vick by any means, but I think when things break down I have some ability at least to make the play happen and try to extend the play and at least get the ball out of my hands so I don’t get sacked let one of the playmakers make a play."
Despite the discussion of the Patriots taking him in the draft, Brandstater was pleased to go as the first pick of the 6th round (174 overall) to Denver and QBs guru Josh McDaniels. Brandstater has been the recipient of a great deal of hands-on coaching from McDaniels and he understands the value of the experience.
Brandstater was now the 6th player to come out of Turlock High to the NFL, and the first to make an NFL roster since 1978.
"At the end of the day, it worked out perfectly," Brandstater said.
Brandstater immediately got a taste of the level of coaching that awaited him. During his first few days, the rookie-only days, Tom found himself the object of some intense redirection.
“These last couple of days he’s really applied some of his coaching toward me, and to know I’m getting what I think is the best coaching in the world, I know it’ll help me a lot,” Brandstater said at the time. "I really appreciate getting better through him.”
Slated to be the third string QB, Brandstater didn't get a lot of reps in practice this training camp, but he was in all the meetings and learned constantly. As you'd expect of a man ho finished a Master's degree in 1.5 years, Brandstater has the intellect to absorb the complexities of the Denver playbook, which is about the size of Encyclopedia Britannica. Tom got repeated compliments from Coach McDaniels on his intellect, his work ethic and his progress. Tom is frank about his strengths and weaknesses, and they don't always match his scouting reports. Like many good young players, the things that were once weaknesses have, in many cases, been ironed out.
"I would say that my strengths are my ability to lead a team, arm strength, accuracy, I can make all the throws, pocket awareness, game management and mobility, said Tom. "My weaknesses include making throws without feet set, I need more consistency on long balls, and my ability to put the last play behind me."
Brandstater saw his first action against Seattle and was hounded by their defensive pass run, being sacked repeatedly. He looked completely out of his element, but that's not uncommon with college QBs who move to the NFL in their first outing. The experience included operating behind a makeshift line made up in part of tryout players, some of whom wouldn't make it through the following weeks. Despite the fact that he looked lost at times, Brandstater's teammates were upbeat about his performance.
When Kyle Orton was injured during the Chicago game on August 20, Brandstater got a trial by fire. He quickly found out that the speed of the NFL game was a whole new experience.
"I wasn't quite expecting that," Brandstater said. "It was a fun experience for me obviously to get in there and go with the ones. There are some things I'd like to do differently, but overall I think I played well and gave myself a chance to build on that and try to get better for next week."
He still managed to finish the game with 8-of-12 completions for 110 yards, including a 54-yard strike to Kenny McKinley. After the game, the young signal caller drew praise from his teammates for his efforts.
"Tom's a great young quarterback," said second year receiver Eddie Royal, who pulled in five receptions for 44 yards. "Very smart guy. He's been studying up and it showed. He came in and he was able to move the ball and put some points on the board. Tom's looking good so far.
Since Chris Simms was still recovering from an injury of his own, Brandstater got the nod to start the next preseason game, a home game against Arizona. Before the contest, Brandstater said,
"As a starting quarterback -- I mean, it actually sounds crazy to say starting quarterback now -- but I'm starting on Thursday," Brandstater said. "There's a lot of work that needs to be put in to be the guy."
Josh McDaniels seemed to show no signs of worrying about Brandstater starting the game. He did, however, work extensively with Tom in the few days before the Thursday night game.
"These last couple of days he’s really applied some of his coaching toward me, and to know I’m getting what I think is the best coaching in the world, I know it’ll help me a lot," Brandstater said. "I really appreciate getting better through him."
Then he came out and stunned a Cardinals team that had made it to the Super Bowl earlier in 2009. He threw 16 completions out of 30 passes for 187 yards, and had only a single interception, managing a QB rating of nearly 90. For the two games he played in just 5 days, Tom had 42 passes for 24 receptions, a 57.1% completion rate, a total of 297 yards and 7.1 yards per pass attempted. The difference between the two appearances was like night and day. Brandstater put his Masters degree to work, calming himself, announcing just before he went in that he felt centered and ready and was sure he'd do fine. He drove the team to a field goal on the very first drive and put up 19 points on the scoreboard. The defense would shut the Cardinals out and pull in three interceptions while recovering a fumble. The Broncos showed signs of being an NFL ready team with a solid defense and a talented young man a quarterback. Suddenly, the hearts in Denver were lighter. Predictably, the pundits who had been excoriating the Broncos were nowhere to be found on Friday, the day after the game. Perhaps it was the Labor Day weekend.
What lies ahead? While I'm not much of one on predictions, this one seems more like stating a fact than predicting an unknown. Tom Brandstater is an NFL starting quarterback. While there's no question right now that Kyle Orton will start the Cincinnati game if his finger permits, it also seems clear that McDaniels won't lose much sleep if Tom Brandstater ends up starting against the Bengals or against the Cleveland Browns the following week. Brandstater is that good.
"He has a lot of poise for a rookie," said Broncos wide receiver Brandon Lloyd. "He has a really calm demeanor, and everything about him is positive."
Brandstater will be the quarterback for the Denver Broncos, whether it be this game, this season or down the line. What we saw from that young man seemed to be far more of a statement of intent than a job interview.
"While the other guys are not here," he said. "I'm going to act like I'm the starter. I'm not going to look back until someone tells me I'm not playing anymore."
If he keeps this up, that day might come sooner than any of us imagined.