When John Elway first took over as executive vice president of football operations and general manager of the Denver Broncos in January 2011, he knew he needed a quarterback. It was just as true one year later, despite winning the AFC West and a playoff game after his first season. Elway wasn’t buying Tim Tebow as the Broncos’ quarterback of the present or the future. This was a “code red” situation. So he searched. And, as if fate was on his side, Peyton Manning suddenly became a free agent. Before long, he was heading to Denver. Lucky, right?
The Manning effect on the Broncos was incredible, in all respects. In the five seasons before Manning joined the Broncos, the team was tied for 20th overall in win total and never finished better than .500. Things changed once no. 18 took over. The Broncos dominated the NFL during the Manning years, frequently locked in a battle with the New England Patriots. Throughout most of this four-year period, both teams were at the top of the league in wins, points scored, and total offense. Seattle was a close third, and the three teams accounted for five of the eight Super Bowl slots during this time.
Despite the early Manning success, including a Super Bowl appearance, Elway was not ecstatic about John Fox as his head coach. Even though Elway hired Fox, he believed his team had underachieved. With Fox, the Broncos made the playoffs in each of his four seasons, losing in the divisional round three times — twice at home in Mile High — and also in Super Bowl XLVIII. Fox’s inability to win the important games soured Elway. “We had a good regular season but struggled in the first round,” he told reporters in 2016. “So the idea, the goal — what our owner wants — is to win a championship. That’s why the decision was made last year to go in a different direction.”
When Elway’s best friend and former teammate Gary Kubiak became available, Elway couldn’t resist. A Hall of Fame quarterback, a tenacious defense, and a gifted offensive mind. Who could ask for anything more?
Then Manning hit rock bottom — fast and hard. Who could have predicted it? If asked after the AFC championship game following the 2013 season between the Patriots and the Broncos whether Manning or Tom Brady would still be playing football in 2017, I would have answered Manning — and quickly. In 2015, Manning experienced the worst season of his career, and the Broncos still won the Super Bowl behind an incredible defensive game plan by coordinator Wade Phillips. Elway knew when he signed Manning that the QB wouldn’t play forever. Needing a long-term replacement, he spent a second-round pick in 2012 on his eventual successor — Brock “The Heist” Osweiler. (Listeners of The Bill Simmons Podcast know that I refer to Osweiler as the Heist because his robbery of the Texans reminds me of the legendary 1978 Lufthansa heist, famously depicted in Goodfellas.) When Manning missed time with injuries in ’15, Osweiler took over and appeared to be the heir apparent. When the Heist was heading toward free agency, and with Manning’s career over, Elway offered him a huge deal to stay — and was turned down. For Elway, getting Manning to say yes was lucky; getting a “no” from the Heist was even luckier.
But Elway could have never imagined that Kubiak was not forever. In part because of health issues, and in a larger part because Elway insisted upon changes to his coaching staff, Kubiak walked away from football — for now. As the 2017 season approaches, Elway is on his third head coach and without a proven quarterback. Now the hard work begins.
When you study the 2016 Broncos, their lack of offensive production in every area is staggering. They couldn’t convert third downs consistently, couldn’t make big plays (gains of 20-plus yards), and — most alarming for the play-action offensive scheme under Kubiak — they couldn’t sustain drives longer than five minutes. In each of those areas, the team finished in the bottom five of the NFL. The recently mighty Broncos ranked just 22nd overall in points scored last season. Elway and the Broncos front office might lay blame for the ineptitude on a bad offensive line, inconsistent play from the quarterback, and injuries to key offensive weapons, most notably running back C.J. Anderson. But deep down they know this is just what life looks like in the NFL when you don’t have an established quarterback.
This lack of offense and the need to develop a quarterback is obvious, considering that the efforts of Denver’s 2016 defense — which ranked fourth in both points and yards allowed — were wasted as the team failed to make the playoffs. Which then makes the hiring of former Miami defensive coordinator Vance Joseph as head coach fascinating. Most executives, when looking for a new head coach, concentrate on the side of the ball that needs the most improvement — and for the Broncos, that clearly was their offense. With a good defensive staff already in place, Elway could have selected an up-and-coming offensive coach with quarterback development ties — think Kyle Shanahan — and solved two huge problems. He didn’t. For some reason, Elway hates nostalgia. He seems to resist the temptation of walking down memory lane, even when recent history can be beneficial. Letting Wade Phillips walk out the door to Los Angeles and not hiring Shanahan signals that Elway will be his own man, with no ties to his playing past.
So, Elway bucked the traditional thinking and hired a defensive coordinator as head coach with the understanding the team wouldn’t change the scheme on defense. Different, right? Joe Woods, the defensive backs coach last year, will take over the defensive coordinator position, utilizing the Phillips system as his core. Joseph worked for Phillips in Houston, so he understands the scheme and can chime in with suggestions. What else will he contribute? Elway is taking a huge risk hiring this first-time head coach. And after his first stint as defensive coordinator was rather shaky — Joseph’s defense in Miami ranked 29th overall and 18th in points allowed.
Now, I don’t mean to be all doom and gloom for Joseph in his first year. In fact, there was a similar situation not long ago when the Packers were looking for a head coach. Eleven years ago, Mike McCarthy became the Green Bay head coach after a horrible season as offensive coordinator for the 49ers. Packers general manager Ted Thompson saw something in McCarthy when he was a Packers assistant and felt he was the perfect fit, regardless of his prior poor statistical offensive season. In Joseph, Elway might see a leader, a potential commanding head coach that can bring out the mental and physical toughness in the Broncos’ players. Regardless of Elway’s reasons, Joseph has the job, and his challenge will be to prove that he can return the Broncos to the standard the team established in the Manning era.
There have been other significant changes since the Manning era — the team has altered its player procurement method. Its 2014 free-agent class — DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, Emmanuel Sanders, and T.J. Ward — proved to be the cornerstone of their Super Bowl–winning team. Since that season, the Broncos have dabbled in free agency, without the same results. They also stopped bringing in midlevel free agents and relied more on draft picks to fill those spots. The problem with this method is Denver rarely gets immediate production from its rookie class; it’s ranked 32nd in the NFL in rookie play time since 2012. Last season, only safety Justin Simmons and running back Devontae Booker played more than 25 percent of snaps as rookies, and in the latter’s case that was solely due to Anderson’s season-ending injury.
Currently, Denver has 10 starting players on its roster with a $5 million per year or more cap charge, and 28 players above $1 million. The Broncos have only four backups making more than a million — which includes Donald Stephenson, a free agent last year who started initially at right tackle before being benched during the year, and Jamaal Charles, who signed a nonguaranteed, incentive-based contract that could earn him $2.5 million this year.
By bringing Manning to Denver, the Broncos copied Bill Polian’s Indianapolis Colts spending model: rely on a few elite players with expensive contracts and fill in the rest with draft choices. Once Manning left Indy, we saw how badly this method worked out for the Colts. History is repeating itself.
Naturally, the Patriots do the opposite. They’re one of the few teams with midlevel depth. New England has seven players on its roster with a cap charge over $5 million this season and 36 players with charge of a million or more. Bill Belichick wants a full team, not a few high-priced veterans and then all draft picks. He understands that most draft picks never affect the team in their first season, however. In Denver’s case, rookies rise to 10th in playing time in their second season and seventh in their third and fourth years. The draft is always for the next year’s team, not the current team. It’s why grading a draft the day after its completion is ridiculous.
But what happens next for the Broncos post-Manning comes down to the quarterback. Has Elway found the answer to the first question he was asking back in 2011? Last year, before trading a third-round pick to move up in the draft to select Paxton Lynch in the first round, he traded for Mark Sanchez to compete for the starting job along with a 2015 seventh-round pick out of Northwestern named Trevor Siemian. Sanchez was dumped before opening day after he lost the job to Siemian. Lynch, the rookie, held a clipboard.
Siemian’s performance over the course of the season suggested he’s more likely a solid backup player than a quality starter, in large part due to his body. To become a quality, winning starter in the NFL, quarterbacks must be able to endure punishment play after play, without their physical skills deteriorating. Body types do matter. Smaller-boned quarterbacks like Siemian lose power in their lower body when sustaining hits, which then affects their arm and ability to control the ball. When healthy, Siemian looked good — better than good. When beaten up from hits, he looked below average. In baseball, pitchers run the outfield warning track on off days to strengthen their legs and enhance their ability to maintain their velocity, which is largely generated from their lower body. The same theory applies for quarterbacks. Quarterbacks have to endure the hits and maintain leg strength, which then allows them to drive the ball — it’s all about the torque in their lower body. Siemian can do this for a portion of the season. But it’s doubtful he could play for 16 games and the playoffs and be a consistent thrower.
Which then places the burden on second-year player Paxton Lynch, who started two games and played like a rookie — a rookie who was uncomfortable under center, unable to make down-the-field throws, and struggled mightily on third down. Lynch averaged under 5 yards per attempt on third down, which was a signal to all defensive coaches; he wanted the ball out of his hand — now. Like most rookies, he wanted to make the checkdown rather than risk a downfield throw. The game is moving entirely too fast for many rookies. Those hot-potato throws help the completion percentage, but kill any significant progress by the offense. It’s obvious but true: Rookie quarterbacks need time. To develop, to throw, to think.
The coach with all the pressure on him in Denver is Mike McCoy. The former Chargers head coach and current Broncos offensive coordinator will now attempt to build an offense around two average quarterbacks. During his career, McCoy has been fortunate to work with veteran, established quarterbacks, most notably Philip Rivers. His one time designing an offense around an unproven QB was with Tim Tebow, and that offense finished 31st in passing. This will be the stiffest challenge of his career. The old cliché that a running game helps a young quarterback is old-school thinking. McCoy knows the ground game won’t be the solution to his offensive problems, and he must find a way to create explosive plays down the field. Those explosive plays were not a part of the Broncos offense last season with a similar cast of offensive players. Are they counting on Emmanuel Sanders or Demaryius Thomas being better? How can they work the ball down the field? They won’t. It’ll be a struggle for McCoy to be creative each week. The best thing the Broncos offense can do would be to play complementary football for their defense. Protect the ball, work the clock, and become highly efficient in the red zone. Playing within their limitations will allow their offense to grow and their quarterback to develop.
The Broncos have a championship-level defense right now, and Elway must feel a sense of urgency to complement that defense with a championship passer. In the tough AFC West, the Broncos have the fourth-best quarterback out of four — and when has a team ever won a division with that ranking? Explosive offense wins games. Neither 12–4 team in the West last season was dominant on defense. The Chiefs allowed yards but were stingy allowing points, and the Raiders played like they were in the old ABA: just outscore the opponent.
My sense is that at the end of the 2017 season, the Broncos will come up short of a playoff appearance, which will force Elway into another “code red.” And I doubt he’ll be as lucky as last time.