DENVER --Two quarterbacks made Gerell Robinson look good Thursday. Or perhaps it was Robinson, a wide receiver in his second Broncos camp trying to make his case to stick on the 53-man roster, who made Brock Osweiler and Zac Dysert look good.
It's a chicken-and-egg comparison, and depended how you viewed the passes that Osweiler and Dysert threw to Robinson, who played as big as every inch and every pound of his 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame. Their collective work was crucial, and more important than the final score of a game that will soon be forgotten, even by the coaches.
"I can't remember last season. What was the Rockies [spring-training] schedule and score?" said head coach John Fox, who was asked about last year's preseason finale, but in doing so reminded listeners at how inconsequential Thursday's scoreboard result was.
But seeing Osweiler and Dysert effectively guide the offense to 398 yards over four quarters, and watching both hit Robinson for key plays on three scoring drives, including a 25-yard touchdown – that could resonate well beyond Thursday, depending on how they develop in the future – and whether the Broncos can hang on to all three, whether on the practice squad or 53-man roster, after this weekend.
Osweiler's place is set. He's still the No. 2 quarterback behind Manning; he's still the starter-in-waiting, and in the last two weeks offered tangible evidence that in the future, he can be equal to the task. But his best friend in getting him there – or one of them, at least – could be Robinson, the receiver he knows best from his years at Arizona State.
"I can't tell you how many times in college I threw a tough ball and he got hit as he was bringing it in, and he always came down with it," Osweiler said.
"The connection between him and Brock -- it's something that I saw for a while," said Omar Bolden, a teammate of both at Arizona State.
Their biggest play wasn't spectacular. Robinson's 45-yard catch to set up a first-quarter field goal wasn't acrobatic, and the pass was a relatively conventional play-action in which left tackle Chris Clark steered a pass rusher wide of Osweiler, giving the quarterback time to throw. But everything about the play was perfect: the fake, the step into the throw, and Robinson's post route upfield. The throw was out in front of Robinson, who had beaten Jonathan Amaya and Javier Arenas.
It was the kind of play Osweiler didn't have a chance to make in the last three games, when he was often under attack from pass rushers and was learning how to accept the discretion of checkdowns as the better part of a quarterback's valor. But Osweiler's deep passing was on display often during the practices of training camp – and usually to Robinson.
Osweiler praised Robinson for making him look good at Arizona State. Two years later, Robinson sees the reverse – and the growth that the big-armed Osweiler has made as the ongoing process of molding him into a quality pro passer continues.
"It's like night and day," Robinson said. "Seeing him in college and seeing him now, it just makes you wonder what the coaches were thinking keeping him on the bench the first two years he was there.
"Especially him being a quarterback and me being a receiver, it's truly a blessing to be here."
After halftime, Osweiler passed the baton to Dysert, and he wasted little time finding Robinson, hitting him for a 25-yard touchdown pass that saw everything you want from a play like that near the sideline: the receiver getting just enough separation near the goal line; a throw to the outside and back shoulder, an adjustment to the ball in mid-flight.
The pass came at the expense of Antoine Cason, who made 45 starts in San Diego the last three years. But he didn't look like the seasoned veteran; Dysert and Robinson did, connecting as though they'd been working on their timing for years.
"I had a lot of confidence when the play was called, when I knew he was going to be that guy for me," Dysert said.
Osweiler and Dysert didn't share only Robinson; their performances had similar patterns. They started fast; Osweiler hit his first seven passes for 108 yards and Dysert his first six for 149 yards – a tally padded by a 69-yard screen to Lance Ball.
"I just tried not to do too much. I just tried to put the ball in the playmakers' hands and let them do all the work for me, pretty much," Dysert said.
At their apexes, Osweiler had a 118.8 quarterback rating; Dysert's was a perfect 158.3, buoyed by Ball's burst in the open field. Both numbers subsequently deteriorated; Osweiler's last four passes were incomplete, although two were catchable, while Dysert went 3-for-his-last-14, although two of the incompletions were clock-conserving spikes in the final minute.
In the game's final moments, Dysert was also besieged by the kind of pressure Osweiler faced through much of the preseason, and the results were similar – and equally educational.
"You're not always going to get a lot of time back there, so it was definitely nice to see," Dysert said. "Obviously, it's not fun, but it's good to see in the long run."
Whether the long run exists for Dysert and Robinson as Broncos is the question that must be answered. The roster crunch is obvious, but their progress has been hard to overlook. But if that progress happens somewhere other than Denver, then their work Thursday will be as inconsequential to the Broncos as the final score.
That's the reality of a team that has to find a balance between the future and the now; it might not have the luxury of affording players like Robinson and Dysert, whose inexperience, despite their glimpses, mean they're still defined by what could be, not what already is. Their success Thursday might have a consequence: a Broncos future without two key developmental assets either on the 53-man roster or practice squad.