Denver Broncos: Fan survival guide through a team’s rebuild

Denver Broncos GM John Elway. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Denver Broncos GM John Elway. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) /

Denver Broncos: Fan survival guide through a team’s rebuild.

The “R” word is often an ugly word for most fans. John Elway has struggled to admit the Denver Broncos are in a r… re… rebu… rebuild. Yet, that is where we are and have been since the 2018 season began.

The Denver Broncos tried to run back a Super Bowl-winning roster in 2016 and saw their playoff bid fall a game short.

Since the beginning of the 2018 season, Elway has begun to rebuild this team, even if he won’t say as much.

There are two ways to rebuild any team or organization. First is a total tear-down (see the Jacksonville Jaguars).

A team will tear down their leadership and sell off all valuable assets. That organization will also clear salary by letting serviceable players leave for nothing to increase spending down the road.

This method allows a team the flexibility to drastically change their roster quickly. However, it can sour a fanbase and it doesn’t guarantee players will want to play there and take their money.

The other way team’s rebuild is a much slower and intentional effort designed to provide a competitive product on the field while replenishing the roster by exchanging older costly talent with youthful cheaper talent.

This is the Broncos method right now and it’s easy to see if we are looking for it.

As a fan, both of these potential processes leave us wanting…We desire a winner, and like J.G. Wentworth says, “we want it now.”

Our microwavable society hits sports like almost no other industry. We want winners, and they need to stay that way for decades. This is what the Denver Broncos have been — a winning organization for the better part of 40 years.

But that isn’t the norm for most franchises in professional sports. Broncos Country is getting a taste of how the other half lives.

The last five years have made us forget the winning ways dating back to the mid-1970s.

So, how do fans not only enjoy the sport and team they love but survive watching the process of a rebuild in hopes of finding the mountain top of fandom again?

The first step to survival is…acceptance.

As fans, we must identify where the Denver Broncos are, and that is a team in the middle of a rebuild. We all wanted this 2020 team to compete with the Kansas City Chiefs for the division and a chance to win the Super Bowl, but that is not where the team is.

We have to accept that the team is building something and has been inching that way since their Super Bowl win following the 2015 season.

Broncos Average Age at the Beginning of Each Regular Season and NFL Ranking
2020 – 25.6 (7)
2019 – 25.7 (11)
2017 – 26 (17)
2016 – 26 (16)

The Broncos have one of the youngest rosters in the NFL, and their offense is the youngest.

With that knowledge, we must accept that this team is in the middle of a rebuild and adjust our expectations accordingly.

Their progress won’t be linear. It will be tough to see. At times they’ll wow you (Carolina Panthers Game), or leave you baffled (Buffalo Bills game).

This team was always a way out from competing for a Super Bowl.

But this team is on track.

The second step to serving a rebuild…know the process.

Rebuilding a team is a phased process, and it aligns the same across most industries.

The steps look something like this…

Inventory your talent

Determine if the players and staff you have are right for your team/organization. The argument can be made that without an owner, we may not know if this is assessed in enough depth to get us where we want to be as a fanbase.

That said…we must “accept” where we are. Until the entire ownership process plays out, we, as fans, must play with the hand we are dealt with. For the time being, the team has Elway running the football operations and most likely will be through 2021. For all we as fans know, he may be with the team longer and there is an argument he deserves to be.

Determine who needs to go

Again, we can argue that Joe Ellis and Elway need to go, but since we have accepted where we are, let’s identify what has been done and what can be done next.

Once you inventory your talent, you determine who fits and when to move on. Those decisions also cascade over time. You cannot move on from everyone at once. The cost to your salary cap and overall team budget may not be equipped to eat money for players and staff who are no longer contributing to your organization.

In 2018, following the second Vance Joseph season, Elway determined Joseph was not the right guy to cultivate talent. Elway wanted a teacher and a staff who could get the most out of the bevy of picks he would have from the 2019 to 2020 drafts (along with high draft picks Bradley Chubb and Courtland Sutton).

Additionally, Elway has made moves in the supporting departments adding staff to their analytics department, scouting departments, and pro-personnel departments.

Additionally, players were dealt with early instead of later, such as Aqib Talib, Demaryius Thomas, and Emmanuel Sanders. Those players did not fit the rebuild, so the team got value for them. The teal also moved on from Bradley Roby and Issac Yiadom, both young talented corners, because they no longer fit what the team envisioned on defense moving forward.

Bring in the appropriate talent

Over the past several years, the Broncos continue to bring in talent to match their staff’s teaching philosophy. Players such as Chubb, Sutton, Josey Jewell, Noah Fant, Dalton Risner, Drew Lock, Jerry Jeuy, K.J. Hamler, Dre’Mont Jones, Bryce Callahan, Melvin Gordon, Mike Purcell, to name a few, are all young talent brought in over the last two seasons to fit into the team’s overall vision.

Furthermore, the team identified that offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur was a better fit for the organization’s offense than 2019 coordinator Rich Scangarello. Though the team has yet to find its stride on offense, the plan is set in place.

Let’s carry hope into the 2021 offseason that some normalcy in our society creates an opportunity for this offense to gel. If it does, we know the product can be much better than it has been since 2014.

Address leadership and attitude

The Broncos did not always have the most mature locker room. Fun, but not always built for cohesiveness, the team imploded in the 2017 and 2018 seasons.

From snatching chains to Halloween parities gone bad, the team did not show the leadership necessary to handle a rebuild.

The Broncos brought in a coaching staff who expects results. Not only do they teach the game, but they also hold players accountable. This is visible on the field as the Broncos are the 6th least penalized team this season, but how the team responds individually.

The Broncos drafted leaders, which has created a more mature and cohesive locker room. The increase in leadership helps expedite learning because players and coaches want to be great and put in the necessary work.

This team continues to show progress and is where you would expect a young team to be. They have shown flashes of the team they can be while struggling to find consistency. However, there has not been a fracture in the locker room or evidence of this team mailing in their season. That is a prime example of having the right mentality in place. This should give us hope to hang on to as we survive the rebuild.

Be honest

The team and fans must understand where they are, and leadership must be transparent with their players about who is here for the long-haul.

The 2020 season provided data as to where this team is and what is needed to compete.

First and foremost, better quarterback play. Drew Lock has shown progress over the last several weeks but has yet to cement himself as the Broncos’ long-term answer at quarterback.

The team must be honest with him about their plans and honest to their fanbase about what they see in him.

Furthermore, the team must be honest with themselves about the future of key pieces such as Shelby Harris, Justin Simmons, and Von Miller. All of these players have questionable futures and could be pieces to turning this team around.

Give young players more prominent roles.

The team continues to give young players like Lock, Jeudy, Hamler, Michael Ojemudia, and others extensive looks to see how they handle more challenging roles.

This helps forge young players to contribute in the future. Or it provides data to the organization about how far that player has to go before they can really contribute. We can honestly say there has been encouraging play from the team’s core, and knowing that can help us survive during the rebuild.

Then the team has to…

Train / Coach up their players and team to reach the organizational vision

The team has assets and teachers in place towards the overall mission. Winning teams have an extraordinary vision in place, and each player understands their role to help the team achieve their goals.

To reach maximum success, the team needed to rebuild, and we are smack dab in the middle of it.

This staff is built on coaches like Fangio, Shurmur, Mike Shula, Mike Munchak, and Bill Kollar. The teachers are in place and knowing that should help us survive this rebuild.

So, what is left?

Once the Broncos have completed each of the previous steps, they must attack this offseason and do so in various ways.

First, identify players who fit your strategy. Elway must continue to get players via trade on value contracts (low risk/high reward), such as Jurrell Casey and A.J. Bouye. If those players fit (leadership) and hit, the team will really excel, or if they miss, you can cut bait with little harm done.

Next, identify your plan at quarterback. Is Lock the guy for 2021, or isn’t he?

Though Lock has been inconsistent, if the organization believes in him, they need to continue to invest in him. We have seen what happens when organizations are patient with players they believe in, such as Buffalo’s Josh Allen or Las Vegas’ Derek Carr. Both are examples of organizations being patient and the player rewarding them with stellar play.

Like Lock, each of those players’ progress wasn’t meteoric. Their progress wasn’t linear. Lock has shown similar steps as of late that may lead the team to invest in him longer.

If the Broncos do not think he is the answer and feel confident in their data, they must be aggressive in finding their “guy”. The team cannot draft a quarterback for the sake of doing so. There are too many examples of a team reaching for a quarterback and not being the guy (Paxton Lynch, Christan Ponder, Jake Locker, etc.).

Lastly, the team needs to continue to build for tomorrow, and not just today. Teams that routinely draft good talent, regardless of need, put themselves in much better positions down the road in-depth and salary cap management.

It is okay to feel frustrated and want results. It is okay to question the process or disagree with the plan.

But hopefully, accepting where this team is and seeing the direction they are going can help you survive an organizational rebuild.