By Oliver Connolly/ The Guardian
At 3-6 the Broncos are set for a third-straight losing season. With four tricky road games remaining, another expensive veteran quarterback on the sidelines, and another young, inconsistent, inaccurate, highly drafted quarterback riding the bench, the pressure is starting to reach the team’s head of football operations, John Elway.
Due to his status as a Broncos legend during his playing days, Elway has good job security but he also faces unique pressures. Most general managers aren’t the best player to ever wear the team’s uniform and one of the most gifted players to ever play the most important position in the sport. How many top decision-makers walk around their facility with a bust already enshrined in Canton?
When discussing Elway and the Broncos’ lack of success, the discourse usually devolves into some form of this question: how can a Hall of Fame quarterback fail to evaluate quarterbacks?
Elway is often seen through two lenses: the man who convinced Peyton Manning to spend the final years of his career in Denver, which led to unprecedented success; and the legend living off his name. He landed Manning, detractors say, and has done little to nothing before or since. He got lucky.
That argument lacks nuance. Landing Manning was hard, and Elway made sure the Broncos got their man. But it’s also clear how bad Elway has been at evaluating quarterback talent in the post-Manning era. He has managed to pick a formidable display of incompetence: Brock Osweiler, Zac Dysert, Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch, Chad Kelly, Mark Sanchez, Case Keenum, Joe Flacco, Brandon Allen and Drew Lock. Those names might tell you all you need to know. But just to be sure, the average DYAR (total value) rating of post-Manning quarterbacks is [cleans fake glasses, vomits a little] 34th. That’s almost impossibly bad.
Elway’s reputation has taken a battering among self-proclaimed smart thinkers. He’s become the guy who loves tall, white, big-armed plodders who struggle to throw passes to teammates, but do so with a pretty spiral. An inaccurate quarterback is like a one-legged man: he will always be that way. Elway has taken on all the negative clichés of the old-school scout who prioritises jawlines and hand size over advanced metrics.
Rookie quarterback Drew Lock, who the Broncos picked in the second-round of this year’s draft, fits the bill of an Elway bust. He has a great arm but is inaccurate, and he is still riding the bench despite the team sitting Joe Flacco. His situation is starting to sound eerily similar to what the Broncos went through with former first-round pick Paxton Lynch. But, until we see Lock, there remains a path to success.
The quarterback position, as always, gets the most attention, but the Broncos roster is rotten throughout. Elway has essentially missed on five straight drafts. Run through the first three rounds of the Broncos drafts between 2013 and 2017 – where you should find instant starters – and you see a whole lot of blah. There are only two impact players: Justin Simmons and Bradley Roby. More than half now play for other teams and a bunch are out of the league altogether. A 13 percent hit rate on picks that should be the bedrock of the franchise is team-building apocalypse. The Broncos lack depth and talent. A good quarterback can change a lot of things, but it wouldn’t transform this roster into a winner.
The Broncos will have as much wiggle room as anybody in the league in the coming off-season, which offers a glimmer hope. After all, Elway has been here before. He built one Super Bowl team on the back of Manning’s arm, but that team was smoked by the Seahawks. Elway promptly regrouped, and the Broncos were back in the Super Bowl two years later with a radically different team.
Twenty seven players played 30 percent of the snaps or more in the Super Bowl against the Seahawks. Only seven of those players remained when the team returned to the Super Bowl two years later, and beat the Carolina Panthers. Not a single member of the secondary stayed. The coaching staff was overhauled, with John Fox replaced by Elway’s long-time buddy Gary Kubiak. Completely transforming a record-breaking Super Bowl team was a ballsy move, but it was a necessary one and Elway’s plan paid off. His new defense was one of the best in league history, and it carried a washed-up Manning and a dreary offense to a championship.
The Kubiak hire was important for two reasons: he ran such a specific offense (the one Elway played in himself) that it was easier to sign and develop players; he was an offensive-minded coach. Some of the best coaches in history have been defensive-minded coaches – Belichick, Parcells, Landry – but the economics of the modern game mean you should hire an offensive guy. The offense is traditionally more stable year-to-year than defense: get a good quarterback and your offense is good. It’s really that simple. Defense requires 15 talented players and a good scheme, at minimum. Injuries and attrition can sap that in weeks, let alone years.
If your organisation, like the Broncos under current coach Vic Fangio, is built around a defensive mastermind, that means whenever you get a decent year on offense your offensive coordinator will be poached to be a head coach elsewhere. Every year you will be back in the candidate pool looking for the next innovator. Land that guru as your head coach, however, and you’ll have a sustainable output from the most crucial position in the sport. If defensive performance is so varied anyway, you may as well ride that with different hires each year, each tailored to your defensive personnel that year.
In Elway’s tenure as the Broncos’ key decision-maker, dating back to 2011, he has hired four full-time coaches. Three have been defensive-minded, one offensive. In the one year he had the offensive-minded coach, Kubiak, Denver won the Super Bowl and the coach retired. The rest have a combined 60-45 record, which includes the Manning years.
Is it possible that executives can be good and then become bad? If we acknowledge athletes’ form can go up and down, why do we always search for binary answers when it comes to executives? There should be nuance. Elway did a good job for the Broncos for a few years, now he’s doing a bad one. He lives in the middle, like most in pro football. Get a star quarterback and every other decision you make looks smart – not signing Brock Osweiler to a mega-money extension is probably his best decision to date. Elway has rebuilt before, and he can do it again.
The Broncos are one of the NFL’s worst teams, and Elway has a lot of responsibility for that. But if Lock turns out to be a good player, the entire dynamic changes. If not, Elway’s legendary status may not protect him much longer.
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