Firing John Elway is not the only way to hold him accountable, and too many are suggesting that as the only reasonable ultimatum.
Since joining the Denver Broncos in a front office role in 2011, John Elway has helped build both a very successful roster and a roster that failed to reach the playoffs three seasons in a row.
Over the past three seasons (2016-18), the Broncos have won just 20 games, an unacceptable figure given the high expectations for the organization since Pat Bowlen took over as owner in 1984.
The three years prior to that (2013-15)? The Broncos reached the Super Bowl twice and won the division all three seasons, winning one championship.
In eight seasons under Elway’s leadership, the Broncos have five division titles, two AFC titles, and a 78-50 overall record. In 2013, the Broncos had the best offense in NFL history in terms of points scored, and in 2015, they had arguably the best defense in league history.
Elway has not had a stellar NFL Draft record, specifically at the quarterback position, but for the first five years of his reign as GM, he didn’t need a quarterback through the NFL Draft because he signed Peyton Manning in 2012 free agency.
Speaking of free agency, perhaps no general manager in the NFL has pulled more of the right strings in that area of team building.
Elway obviously went out and signed big-ticket free agents like Peyton Manning, DeMarcus Ware, and Aqib Talib, but has also signed lower-priced gems in free agency, getting players like TJ Ward, Emmanuel Sanders, Darian Stewart, Domata Peko, Jacob Tamme, Owen Daniels, and a number of others to fill out the roster and give the Broncos exactly what they need.
The Broncos have also been stellar in the later rounds of the NFL Draft and in undrafted free agency, as well as working the waiver wire and finding talent from other teams’ practice squads.
Malik Jackson, Danny Trevathan, and Matt Paradis were all day three picks for the Broncos under Elway, and he’s found guys like Chris Harris Jr., CJ Anderson, Shaquil Barrett, and now Phillip Lindsay — the first undrafted rookie running back to ever make the Pro Bowl — after the NFL Draft.
Though Elway has struggled to hit on day two NFL Draft picks, he’s had success finding players in the first round or with his top pick in the draft. Von Miller, Derek Wolfe, Sylvester Williams, Bradley Roby, Shane Ray, Paxton Lynch, Garett Bolles, and Bradley Chubb are all of the top picks in Elway’s tenure.
Compare Elway’s draft success at the top fo that of someone who is often named as the superior general manager when debates come about, Ozzie Newsome of the Baltimore Ravens. Newsome, since 2011, has used his top selections on CB Jimmy Smith, LB Courtney Upshaw, S Matt Elam, LB CJ Mosley, WR Breshad Perriman, OT Ronnie Stanley, CB Marlon Humphrey, TE Hayden Hurst, and QB Lamar Jackson.
There are some studs on that list and some duds. Elam, like Lynch, is out of the NFL. Perriman and Upshaw, like Sylvester Williams and soon Shane Ray, are trying to find success with another team.
The jury is out with Hayden Hurst who is getting out-played his rookie year by fellow rookie Mark Andrews, but Lamar Jackson looks like a stud and so does Bradley Chubb for the Broncos.
The other picks for both teams are either stellar or solid.
What’s the difference between the Broncos and Ravens, at least in the present?
I would argue it’s coaching.
Elway’s first coaching hire in Denver was John Fox. Despite the fact that he ticked off the fan base near the end, Fox was a good hire for the Broncos at the time and the Broncos didn’t fire him, at least according to the verbiage that was used at the time. The Broncos and Fox ‘mutually’ parted ways and the Broncos moved on to Gary Kubiak.
Kubiak would only interview for the Broncos’ job, and his hiring was a foregone conclusion. In two years with the team, Kubiak went 21-11 and went 3-0 in the playoffs, winning a Super Bowl. After his second season, he had to step away for health reasons.
The moves to hire Fox and Kubiak were both good ones by Elway and the Broncos, and that is not arguable in my opinion.
Then the Broncos hired Vance Joseph over Kyle Shanahan, which was John Elway’s second ‘big’ mistake as general manager after drafting Paxton Lynch in the first round in 2016.
The selection of Lynch came with Kubiak as the Broncos’ head coach, and when he stepped down, whatever plan was supposed to be in place to develop him disappeared with him.
The Broncos 2017 staff with Mike McCoy as offensive coordinator and Bill Musgrave at QB coach failed to develop Lynch, who looked promising in 2016 under Kubiak and like a lost puppy from 2017 to the end of his career with the Broncos.
The Broncos’ attempt to develop Lynch set the team back three years, something Elway certainly has to answer for, but what was he to do?
Drafting and developing quarterbacks in the NFL is not as easy as people seem to think. The Broncos were not the only team who wanted Lynch, either. The Cowboys (Jerry Jones) and Chiefs (Andy Reid) wanted Lynch as well, but the Broncos made the best offer to get him.
If the Cowboys had drafted Lynch, the Broncos may have ended up with Dak Prescott later in the draft, but every team in the league passed on Prescott through three full rounds of the NFL Draft, including the Cowboys.
The Chiefs opted for Kevin Hogan in the fifth round of that same NFL Draft class, and Hogan is now with Denver as a backup (he’s a pending RFA as well). They waited for the 2017 NFL Draft, where they traded a couple of first-round picks to get Patrick Mahomes, who sat 15 games behind Alex Smith before taking his job.
Those two teams — who now have their QB situations figured out — came within an accepted trade of the same situation the Broncos are currently facing.
Such is life in the NFL. It doesn’t always go the way you planned.
Though Lynch was an NFL Draft whiff by John Elway, the bigger whiff, in my opinion, was hiring Joseph as the team’s head coach. Not because Joseph was a poor candidate (a number of teams wanted him as well, and it looks like he will get a HC job again soon) but because Kyle Shanahan was the perfect candidate for what the Broncos needed at the time.
Is the decision to hire Joseph over Shanahan an unforgivable sin for Elway, or did Elway not have enough patience with Joseph? Some in the media seem to think the latter. There have been many posts on Twitter from armchair GMs and football analysts slamming Elway for firing Joseph, talking about his inability to build a roster for the first-time head coach to succeed with.
From the outside looking in, that may be a fair assessment. But for those of us who have been consumed by the day-to-day with the Broncos over the past two years, the story is a little different.
After the 2017 season, it became apparent that the Broncos were not suited to run with an inexperienced quarterback. It was apparent to the point that Elway and his staff decided together that drafting a quarterback in 2018 was altogether unnecessary.
The team instead signed veteran Case Keenum to a two-year contract worth $36 million after his 22 touchdown, seven interception season with the Vikings in 2017.
The Broncos signed the veteran Keenum to eliminate the idea the team was ‘rebuilding’ thinking Keenum would stabilize the position and help lead the team to more wins while the 2018 rookie class would (hopefully) develop.
The rookie class looks like the best in Elway’s tenure with the team, but Keenum was unable to stabilize the position for the Broncos and turned the ball over more than twice as much as he did with the Vikings. The Broncos didn’t use Keenum the way the Vikings did the year prior, leading to the fan base growing more and more frustrated every week throughout the 2018 season.
Instead of utilizing Keenum outside of the pocket and on play-action, the Broncos used him where he has historically been least effective in the NFL the majority of the time. Obviously, you can’t run play-action every play, but you could have pinned a tweet all season long about how the Broncos aren’t running the ball enough or using Keenum on play-action enough and it would have been appropriate.
The coaching staff seemingly went into every game wondering why their tactics from the previous week didn’t work and attempted to shove the square peg in the round hole no matter if it fit or not.
From the outside, it may look like John Elway didn’t put together a good enough roster for Joseph to win, and that is precisely why he was given a second year to implement his system further, only this time with a veteran quarterback.
The Broncos afforded Joseph patience, mostly because of the fact that Elway didn’t pull the right strings in the 2017 offseason. The team wasn’t good enough for a first-year head coach to win, and they acknowledged that.
They went out and got him a veteran quarterback to work with, drafted the best defensive player in the class in Bradley Chubb (instead of a quarterback), and made a number of other moves that indicated a ‘win now’ mentality including trading for veteran Jared Veldheer to play right tackle.
Even though it wasn’t good enough in the end, Elway and the Broncos put together a roster capable of winning and there was simply not enough done on the coaching end over the past two seasons for Elway to take a leap of faith into year three of the Vance Joseph era.
Joseph struggled with clock management, making in-game decisions, developing the 2017 rookie class, and making adjustments throughout the season to his player’s strengths. He was caught far too many times overthinking things in games, and was overmatched tactically far too often.
Elway deserves plenty of the blame for failing to draft a quarterback, but ironically, the biggest reason he deserves criticism right now is for his decision to hire Joseph, who apparently has more people coming to his aid than anyone imagined.
It doesn’t feel, even in hindsight, like Joseph got a raw deal. The expectations in Denver are high, and Joseph knows that. So does Elway. They had to deal with a lot of injuries at quarterback in 2017 in addition to Elway’s failed draft pick, and the Broncos kept Joseph for 2018 to give him a chance with a much better situation.
After all, Keenum led the Vikings to the NFC Championship in 2017. Why would he not be good enough to do the same for Denver as strong as their defense could be?
In 2018, Keenum didn’t miss a single game. Injuries at quarterback weren’t an excuse, but then the Broncos lost key players offensively and defensively down the stretch like Chris Harris Jr. and Emmanuel Sanders. Those losses proved to be too tough to overcome, but even with those injuries, the Broncos had a chance to scratch and claw their way into the postseason.
But they couldn’t beat a significantly less talented 49ers team and they lost a game they could have definitely won against the Browns to officially kill their 2018 playoff hopes. This team might not seem like a playoff contender and they might have gotten slaughtered had they made it to the dance, but losing to San Francisco followed by losing a very winnable game against the Browns proved Joseph’s coaching was, in fact, a major difference in the outcome of games.
Elway has done enough to prove he deserves the chance to right the ship in Denver, even if that seems unfair to people who think the coach shouldn’t be the one catching all the blame. Not only did he win two Super Bowls for the Broncos as a player, but he also won another as an executive and went to two Super Bowls with two very different looking rosters.
Elway said at his end-of-season press conference that he hates losing now more than ever. Losing is the reason Joseph was fired, not a lack of talent on the roster.
The Broncos lost way too many games they should have won, and they were not even competitive in more games than they should have been. They often looked unprepared and undisciplined and were more often than not tactically out-matched.
There are changes Elway can certainly make to the team from a player personnel standpoint. He has to find a way to get a quarterback that can lead this team into the future but those don’t just grow on trees, as he also alluded to at his press conference.
In addition to finding the right players, it was clear that Elway needed to do what he could to find the right coach, and that meant relieving Vance Joseph of his duties. He was not the right choice for this team even from the beginning.
Broncos Country trusted and coveted Elway’s presence in the front office when the team was in a shambles after the 2010 season. What has changed since then? The team won a championship and made it to another. They have experienced the circle of life in the NFL with a Hall of Fame quarterback retiring, and now Elway doesn’t get the opportunity to make things right? Was Paxton Lynch or the 2016 offseason genuinely the only chance he has afforded with everything else he’s done for the organization?
Is he supposed to fire himself?
The Broncos obviously need to get better quickly, and Elway is taking steps to make sure that happens. But please, Joseph was not a scapegoat for Elway’s shortcomings as a general manager, despite what some people seem to think.
If the Broncos continue to get worse and the next coaching hire is a failure, then it might be time to have the discussion about Elway’s future with the team, but that won’t be for a few years yet.