During his five-game debut last year when he showed enough potential to be the Broncos’ starting quarterback Monday night against Tennessee, Drew Lock completed 100 passes.
He threw short — 26 behind the line of scrimmage. He worked the middle of the field — an identical 26 that traveled 1-15 yards in the air. And he took some shots — six that traveled at least 16 yards in the air.
But months later, when asked if there was a touchstone play in which his confidence was confirmed and he felt like this NFL deal wasn’t too big for him, Lock had an immediate reply.
“I would go with the seam ball to Noah (Fant) against Houston,” he said in an interview with The Denver Post.
Lock’s second start was against the Texans. A promising opening drive had stalled and the Broncos faced third-and-12 from the Houston 14-yard line. It was time for one of the league’s worst red-zone offenses to take an early lead. Lock was in the shotgun and Fant, the tight end, was lined up in the left slot.
“Houston is a very good team and the last time I was in that city, (Missouri) got our butts kicked by Texas (33-16 in a bowl game),” Lock said. “We ended up running that seam (route) to Noah and it felt like college — ‘OK, he’s got his back turned to me, he doesn’t know where the ball is and I’m going to put it right over his helmet and Noah’s going to catch this thing.’
“And that’s exactly what happened. I thought, ‘I had played that through my head and it just happened against a starting NFL defense that is really good.’ I think I can do this.”
Lock should believe he can do “this” and serve as the answer to the Broncos’ quarterback question. And the Broncos should believe he can do “this” and stabilize the sport’s most important position.
“He wants to be great,” running back Melvin Gordon said. “He’s a competitive person and I like that. I like a guy that’s going to put it all out there on the line for you. You like to be led by guys like that.”
And to be great, you have to be open to coaching, and as he prepares for his first full year as a starter, he will lean on Justin Hoover and Mike Shula.
Hoover is the head coach at Shawnee Mission East High School in suburban Kansas City, but he’s almost more well-known for his work as the owner and operator of Spin It Quarterback Academy.
Hoover has been providing Lock with personal instruction for nearly a decade.
During Lock’s college career, Hoover — with an eye toward the NFL and the elite defensive backs Lock would be facing — focused on making his throwing process more compact and rotational to match up the fundamentals/anticipation so body/mind can function together.
Fast forward to last November, when Lock was activated from injured reserve and named the starter against the Los Angeles Chargers.
Hoover was watching Lock’s five starts with two purposes — to show support for his long-time student but also work up a to-do list for the 2020 offseason.
“Confidence and toughness,” was what stood out, Hoover said. “When it was time to go, he was ready for it.”
And when the season was completed and Lock returned to the Kansas City area, Hoover was ready to work.
But because of coronavirus, Hoover and Lock had to improvise. Hoover said they “found any patch of grass we could and if it was nice enough, we just made it work.” The prohibition on groups of people convening to train meant it was just Hoover and Lock most of the time.
Hoover focused on two things: Alignment and simulating movements that will allow Lock to avoid pass rushers.
Hoover wanted Lock to create a “straight-line” throw, meaning he was leading with his front foot for more velocity and accuracy on his throws. And in the pocket, Hoover wanted to fine-tune Lock’s “spatial awareness” so he would know how to keep his fundamentals tight even when he is trying to extend the play. During off days last month, Lock sent Hoover practice clips to have his pocket presence and throwing motion evaluated. Before the next practice, Hoover sent Lock specific pointers. The relationship runs long and the trust runs deep.
“(Hoover) is very good about putting drills together to put me in awkward positions,” Lock said. “There’s no question that if he needs to give me a coaching point, he’s right. He’s 100% dialed into my mechanics, my stroke and where I throw it the best.”
His work in Missouri complete, Lock returned to the Denver area to begin in-person training with Shula.
Lock is used to change — new playbooks, new techniques, new coaches and new play-callers. He had three offensive coordinators at Missouri and with the Broncos, Year 2 means his second coordinator (Pat Shurmur) and quarterback coach (Shula), respectively.
“I don’t know if you can find a more in-depth football mind,” Lock said of Shula. “The guys he’s worked with, the way he’s had to adapt, the way his quarterbacks were able to adapt — you can’t say enough about him.”
About that coaching history. Shula’s quarterbacks have included Vinny Testaverde/Chris Chandler (Tampa Bay), Jay Fiedler (Miami), Trent Dilfer (Tampa Bay), David Garrard (Jacksonville), Cam Newton (Carolina) and Daniel Jones (New York Giants). In 2015, Newton won NFL MVP honors when Shula was the Panthers’ play-caller and Carolina lost to the Broncos in the Super Bowl.
The common thread is developing young passers.
“I’ve been really lucky to coach young guys and old guys and learn a lot about them as I coached them,” Shula said in an interview with The Post. “I think the understanding and experience can be drawn upon. How guys sometimes learn. Not to take anything for granted that they see it the way you see it. It’s kind of like with your children — you make sure you’re clear with the communication.”
Shula first met Lock during the latter’s pre-draft visit to the Giants. Because of coronavirus, their first significant meeting time was through video conferencing. Shula had watched all of last year’s video and had ideas, but they’ve been on the practice field together for a little more than a month.
“The learning curve has to increase because of the urgency,” Shula said. “He’s really dialed in every day and he wants instant feedback and that’s all you can ask of a young guy.”
What has been the takeaway from watching Lock on the field in-person vs. his game video?
“Physically, I think he’s really gifted,” Shula said. “He’s got such a quick release and he has a strong arm and different release points, which you really can’t coach in my opinion — either a guy has that or doesn’t. … I’ve probably been more impressed seeing him live than watching him in college and at the combine.”
A key attribute Shula has already noticed about Lock: He’s accountable, often blaming himself instantly for poor throws or decisions. But just as quickly, he moves onto the next play, a characteristic that is imperative. Quarterbacks who look back often find themselves looking at somebody taking his job.
Shula believes Lock will handle the adversity seamlessly. How will he handle a stinker of a game? How will he bounce back from a bad quarter or half? Not until Lock hits the proverbial pothole will the Broncos know for sure.
“He’s a little hard on himself at times, which is what you want from your quarterback just as long as when you get to the game, one play doesn’t affect the next,” Shula said.
From afar, it didn’t look like Lock let one bad practice spill into the next. That short-term memory of sorts — forget the bad plays, but remember why the heck they happened — will be the key to Lock ending the Broncos’ half-decade of offensive futility.
Five starts was enough for general manager John Elway to not only move on from injured Joe Flacco, but sign Jeff Driskel to be Lock’s backup and not Lock’s competition and then, a month later, draft receivers Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler in the first two rounds.
To start this season, the puzzle pieces are in place for Lock to have success.
“Sometimes you really have to try and press hard to get guys to be confident and to be willing to be aggressive with the football,” ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky said. “That didn’t seem to be something Drew hesitated with last year. I think because of the talent and the play-caller and the people they have around him, he’s in a very, very healthy place.”