An in-depth look at what John Elway has been up to this offseason to retool the Broncos for another Super Bowl run.
“Plan B? We don’t have Plan B. We’re going Plan A!” – John Elway
This was the famous line from John Elway’s press conference when Peyton Manning signed with the Denver Broncos four years ago. Elway didn’t need a press conference this time around. Of course there is no Plan B. Who needs a Plan B? John Elway certainly doesn’t. People thought Elway panicked when Brock Osweiler spurned the Broncos for the Texans. Well Brock was Plan A, and now Elway is on to Plan AA; Colin Kaepernick. And if, for some strange reason, Colin Kaepernick isn’t a Denver Bronco in 2 weeks, it’ll be on to Plan AAA. But there is no Plan B. Elway is a subtle genius of a GM, quietly making moves that build champions.
At this time one year ago, the Broncos had just let far too many free agents leave. Julius Thomas was gone, the unstoppable force that was destined to become the highest paid tight end in the league. The interior of the best run defense in the NFL was gone, as Terrance Knighton, AKA “Potroast”, had been disrespected by the Broncos offer, or lack thereof, and had signed a measly one year, $4 million deal to join the Redskins. Wes Welker was gone, as was Orlando Franklin, and starting safety Rahim Moore. And who had Elway gone out and gotten? Darian Stewart, Vance Walker, Owen Daniels. Talk about underwhelming right? What is Elway doing? This group has probably one last shot at a Super Bowl and Elway is replacing starters with unknowns, and Owen Daniels, the most boring tight end in the league. Worked out okay didn’t it?
A year later, Elway is basking in his glory of a third Super Bowl Championship for this magnificent franchise, and Broncos Country is again up in arms, wondering what the heck just happened to this fantastic team that just two months ago was hoisting the Lombardi in Santa Clara. Peyton retires, no
shocker there. Louis Vasquez, an All Pro as recently as 2013 is released, as is Owen Daniels. Malik Jackson makes his way to Jacksonville to join his buddy Julius Thomas, and Danny Trevathan heads to the Windy City to join the Chicago Broncos — I mean Bears. And then he goes and puts an original round tender on starting running back CJ Anderson.
Evan Mathis — have fun with the Cardinals, thanks for your service. Ryan Harris, bye bye. But the biggest shocker of all happened as well. Brock makes the biggest mistake of his career, and leaves Elway, the very man who drafted him, and assembled four completely different teams in four years, each of which had the ability to win it all, and one that made it the distance.
In five years on the job, is the first time someone Elway has prioritized to sign that got away. What is Elway thinking? How is he going to respond to the first true adversity of his GM career? Who has he signed to replace all this talent? He signed Donald Stephenson, an up and down tackle from Kansas City. The city of Denver is panicked. But don’t worry; Elway’s Plan AA came into focus just after the first initial wave of free agency ended. Because remember, there is no Plan B.
Plan AA began with the low round tender for CJ Anderson. The plan wasn’t to let CJ get away, at least unless the price got too high. Elway’s thought process went like this: Option A: we can either put a 2nd round tender on CJ this year, and then let him hit unrestricted free agency next year. That sounded great, except we fully expect, in year two with Kubiak, and a much better offensive line, that CJ is going to have one heck of a year. What if he rushes for 1,700-1,800 yards? Then what will the price tag be next year?
Keep in mind; this is a young running back, that doesn’t have a whole lot of tread on the tires. This isn’t some 30-year old that is bound to break down in two years. So the question is, how do we keep this guy around without breaking the bank? This leads us to Option B: We let CJ test the waters. See what the market is like, and as long as the price tag isn’t outrageous, we go ahead and lock him up long term.
Elway went Option B, not plan B. Turns out, getting a low tread, starting running back who has been nothing but stellar when healthy, for $4.5 million a year for four years isn’t a bad deal. We’ll match you Adam Gase. Thank you for setting the market, and good work CJ for not signing with the Chicago Broncos, ahem, Bears, for more money. As CJ noted, he had a higher offer from former coach John Fox. Now when CJ busts out for 2,000 yards next year and scores 16 touchdowns, the Broncos won’t have to pay $8 million a year to keep him through his prime. Score one for Elway.
The next phase in Plan AA was to shore up the offensive line. Donald Stephenson, the promising young tackle from division rival Kansas City was the first part to this plan. Elway knew he could play on both sides of the line, and probably even slide to guard in a pinch. He moves well, and will be a perfect fit in the zone-blocking scheme that Kubiak deploys, and will be far more effective than he was in Kansas City’s man, power-blocking scheme, and he can anchor the right side for years to come, on a reasonable deal. Elway knew that with that one signing, with the return of Ty Sambrailo and Ryan Clady from injury, the Broncos could easily field a far superior
line to the one that just won a Super Bowl two months ago. Lets not kid ourselves though, that line was bad, really bad. But with Clady’s return, and Stephenson anchoring the right side, Sambrailo could move over to left guard, and promising second year guard, Max Garcia could take over at right guard, where he was far more effective than the released former All-Pro Louis Vasquez when he rotated in there last season.
Matt Paradis was a stud in the middle last season, and only projects upward as he is a very young guy. The only hurdle left was that contract situation of Ryan Clady’s. Ryan Clady was carrying an enormous cap hit for a guy that missed almost two of the past three seasons, and wasn’t up to his normal All-Pro self in the season he did play. He needed to take a pay cut. Problem was, he didn’t like Elway’s offer. Well, as we all have known for years, John Elway is, as Yul Brynner once said in Cool Runnings, “a bad-ass mother who don’t take no crap off of nobody!” So what did Elway do, he waited for his opportunity to come.
Now here is the point in the offseason where Elway got a bit lucky. Russell Okung, the best free agent left tackle in the game, who happened to be going through free agency without an agent, something that is unheard of in professional sports, decided that he wanted to play for a contender. Elway never put in a call to Okung, Okung called Elway. Elway immediately smelled blood in the water, and talked Okung into betting on himself, in the most team friendly deal that I have ever seen in my life. Okung could have easily gotten $7-8 million in
guaranteed money. Elway signed him for $5 million, in year one, with not one penny guaranteed. If Okung were to slip getting out of bed and break his ankle, Elway could cut him and pay him absolutely no money. The team then negotiated a second, four year deal that is a team option that they can exercise next season, after a one year audition making well less than market value for a Pro Bowl left tackle. Well Ryan Clady, that means the end of you in Denver. You should have taken the pay cut. Elway then waited, and shopped Clady, and waited some more. And when the entire football community knew for a fact that Elway was going to cut Clady, he still got a team to trade for him, and swapped a 7th round pick for a 5th rounder. There is no doubt they will probably look to draft another guard in two weeks, just in case Sambrailo can’t play guard, in which case he would be the swing tackle. But my goodness, score two for Elway will ya?
John Elway has managed to add in some low-key signings (remember Darian Stewart and Vance Walker, yeah they weren’t any good or anything) signing Jared Crick, resigning Jordan Norwood, and retaining Demarcus Ware at a cheaper price. But the move that had, and still has Bronco County on the very edge of their seats is the unresolved QB situation. As soon as Brock Osweiler stupidly signed with the Houston Texans (yeah they really give you the best chance to win), John Elway set his sights on another QB that he wanted five years ago; Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49’ers. Elway rang up his old buddy Trent Baalke, as Kaepernick had just weeks prior, requested, and been granted permission by the Niner’s to negotiate a trade. John immediately found out that this wasn’t going to be a deal that got done overnight, for a couple of reasons.
First off, Trent Baalke, and Niners owner Jed York, are two of the biggest “say one thing, and then do another” front office guys in the league. But they have pride, and are stubborn, so they acted like, and still to this day are acting like they want to keep Colin Kaepernick around. The only reason for this smokescreen is to try and get Elway to overpay. Well, we already established that John Elway is a, to quote Yul Brynner, “bad-ass mother, who don’t take no crap off of nobody!” You cannot play poker with John Elway, bluff, and expect to win. John saw right through that one, and will ultimately get exactly what he wants. The other issue, and perhaps the bigger issue, is the contract of Colin Kaepernick. While not outrageous, $14,3 million for this season if he were to be on the active roster all 16 games, and non-guaranteed moving forward, Elway thought he could do better than that.
So knowing that this thing could drag out sometime, he went ahead and called the Eagles, who were clearly moving on from Mark Sanchez, and acquired a backup QB who has significant experience in this league for a mere conditional 7th round draft pick. This was a move that was not too well received by Bronco Country, myself included. Mark Sanchez is nothing but a below average QB at best, but Elway can calm the fan base by telling everyone that this is just the first step in the process, and fooling Mark Sanchez into believing that he is truly going to get to compete for a starting job so that Mark will work really hard and say all sorts of great stuff. Anyone who has watched him play knows who he is, but this is a move that can be sold to the public, and sold to Sanchez, just to buy time.
Honestly, I still have my doubts that Sanchez will even make the team, but he is decent insurance in case something goes horribly wrong in Elway’s plan AA. At least Sanchez has played in the NFL before, right? Sanchez is not the guy that Elway wants quarterbacking the Broncos, and that’s okay, he’s insurance.
Elway kept his sights on Kaepernick throughout the process. The Niner’s continued to say publically that they want to keep Kaepernick, but watch what they say, not what they do. Since those statements have come out, the Niner’s have granted Kaepernick permission to meet with Elway not once, but twice. This is not something you do if you plan to keep the guy. When Adrian Peterson requested a trade last season, did the Vikings let Adrian go muck it up with Jerry Jones? Of course not, they denied his camp the right to go seek a trade, and certainly wasn’t letting him go meet with the general manager of another team.
They wanted him, so they told him you will play for us or not at all. The Niner’s do not want Kaepernick. Kaepernick does not want the Niner’s. Navarro Bowman already acknowledged that, while Kaepernick’s presence at the Niner’s facility during voluntary OTA’s isn’t causing a distraction, if he is still on the roster when the season starts it will be. How is Kaepernick supposed to get in the huddle with all these guys he clearly doesn’t want to play with and lead men. It can’t work in San Francisco, and Elway knows that.
Elway has said he doesn’t want to pay more than $7 million for Kaepernick, and why not, the guy asked Peyton “freaking” Manning to take a $10 million pay cut last season, he’ll ask for anything he wants. When Kaepernick visited him, he asked him to take a $4.9 million pay cut, knowing that he could easily work out compensation with the Niner’s if Kaepernick decided to pull an Okung, and do something ridiculous. Kaepernick has an agent though, and Elway knew there was little to no chance Kaepernick would accept that offer, and why should he? He has $11.9 million guaranteed to him. This isn’t a
Clady situation; this money is guaranteed money. So was Elway just going to pony up and pay him? Most analysts and fans think that because he hasn’t yet, that this trade is not going to happen, but let me tell you what the plan is, because Elway, like he usually does, is going to get what he wants. Why? Because Elway is that “bad-ass mother who don’t take no crap off of nobody!” Elway’s plan is to wait this thing out until San Francisco does what he wants. San Francisco has 4 legitimate options, and they know it, Kaepernick’s camp knows it, and most importantly Elway knows it.
Option A: The 49’ers can ultimately keep Kaepernick on the roster, and let him compete for a starting job. This option has some risks involved. First off, you completely take a huge crap on the rest of your team by allowing this guy to be there. He clearly wanted out, and clearly didn’t want to be teammates with the other 51 guys on the roster. It will be a distraction if he is there. The other risk is money. If you let him play, it will cost $14.3 million this season. Kaepernick has a base salary of $11.9 million, and a workout bonus of $400,000 for participating in 90% of the team’s offseason training program. The bigger problem with this is next year. The way Kaepernick’s deal is currently constructed; each year is a team option, only guaranteed by injury.
If Kaepernick were to get injured during the season, and is unable to pass a physical by April 1, 2017, his $14.5 million base salary for 2017 would become guaranteed. This is very risky business for the 49’ers, because Kaepernick is clearly not in their long-term plans.
Option B: The 49’ers can keep him, and bench him, the way the Redskins did with Robert Griffin III in 2015. This option is less risky because the threat of injury isn’t there, but it still takes a huge dump on the rest of the team, and still costs the team $12.3 million, his base salary and workout bonus’s. His teammates will ask “Why is this guy here?” “Because you are too proud to trade him, because you stupidly said you didn’t want to? Get out of here Trent Baalke, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” People will point to it working just fine in Washington, but the big difference was RGIII had never demanded a trade.
Washington went into training camp last season with the idea that RGIII would be the starter, and when it became clear that Kirk Cousins was the superior choice, RGIII took a seat to prevent injury, which like Kaepernick, would have wound up with Washington having to pay RGIII his 5th year option, and cost them a lot of money. Overall, this would be a bonehead move by Trent Baalke, and makes little to no sense whatsoever.
Option C: Cut Kaepernick. Well, this option makes the least amount of sense, because if the 49’ers cut him, they still have to pay him. On April 1st, Kaepernick’s $11.9 million salary became 100% guaranteed. If the 49’ers cut him, the Niner’s will be on the hook for the difference between what he signs for, and the $11.9 million. In this case, Elway, or any team could sign him for the minimum $985,000 salary, and the Niner’s would have to pick up the rest. The Niner’s would pay $10.91 million for someone who is playing for another team. That’s probably even worse then playing $12.3 million for someone who isn’t dressing out on game day. Yikes, what a disaster.
Option D: Trade Kaepernick to the Broncos, and chip-in the $4.9 million pay cut that Elway wants Kaepernick to take. In this instance, the Niner’s would get a draft pick in return, the locker room would be happier, they could move on with a hand-picked Chip Kelly gem to play QB, and they would only have to pay $4.9 million to Kaepernick, by far the lowest amount of any of the other three scenarios. This is the only option that makes sense, and if you think Elway doesn’t know this, you don’t make sense.
Elway will get what he wants, and it’ll happen by, or during the draft. San Francisco wants the pick for this year, not next. The only reason that it hasn’t happened yet is that Baalke is desperately hoping that another team comes to him trying to trade for Kaepernick. It is literally the one and only thing that could give him some leverage with the Broncos, and perhaps get him a better deal. And who knows, perhaps someone else will come along, but it is highly, highly unlikely.
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Score three for Elway, Kaepernick will be a Bronco, and provide far more explosion then Brock Osweiler ever could have provided in the Broncos offense, and for less than half the price. Kaepernick is a perfect fit for the Broncos, a mobile QB, who throws an extremely low rate of INT’s, and is great at throwing it deep. Under the wing of Kubiak, he will blossom just as he did under the guidance of Jim Harbaugh.
A year from now, the Broncos will be 2 months removed from yet another Super Bowl victory, letting free agents walk, and signing guys that nobody has heard of. Bronco Country will be outraged yet again, because they have yet to figure out the genius that is John Elway. So with that, I salute John Elway, and god bless the Denver Broncos, because “We don’t have Plan B. We’re going Plan A!”