A storied NFL franchise with an all-time great quarterback at the controls got blown out Sunday. That team was the Denver Broncos. The all-time great quarterback is John Elway, the team’s top football executive since 2011 and general manager since 2012.
Embarrassing as the 51-23 defeat to the Philadelphia Eagles might have been, the outcome could not have surprised even a Broncos optimist. Philly is rolling behind dynamic young quarterback Carson Wentz. Denver lacks the ground game and pass protection to support its lower-tier quarterbacks, and if 2016 first-round pick Paxton Lynch does not clear those hurdles when his turn behind center inevitably comes, then what?
The Broncos’ four-game slide into a 3-5 record at their season’s midpoint has been brewing for a while. Denver was 9-7 last season despite a statistically dominant defense. Vegas oddsmakers set the Broncos’ win total at eight in 2017 under the assumption little would change. Peyton Manning’s retirement and a series of less-than-stellar drafts are taking a toll, bringing Elway face to face with the next challenge in his Mile High executive tenure.
Elway has long relished the challenge born of great responsibility. A franchise savior as a player, he wasn’t content with simply being part of the team. He sought and won full control of the Broncos’ football operation, and when results have not met expectations, he has not hesitated making changes that have left him standing as the most responsible party.
Drafts not riding to the rescue
Twenty-nine NFL teams have drafted at least one Pro Bowler since 2012. The Broncos — who used a second-round pick on Brock Osweiler in 2012 — are one of the three who have not. Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
The Broncos pointed to an impressive array of organizational accomplishments since 2011 in announcing a contract extension for Elway over the summer. Second-most total wins in the league. Five AFC West titles. Two Super Bowl appearances. One Super Bowl victory.
“During his six seasons as an executive,” the Broncos declared, “Elway is the only general manager in the NFL during that span who has acquired future Pro Bowl players through the NFL draft, street free agency, unrestricted free agency and college free agency.”
While Elway arrived as executive vice president of football operations 2011, he did not become GM until 2012, when the team announced that 2009-11 GM Brian Xanders would be leaving the organization as Elway asserted fuller control.
Even if Elway deserves credit for a 2011 draft class featuring No. 2 overall pick Von Miller, it’s notable that Denver is one of only three organizations, along with Cleveland and New Orleans, to have zero Pro Bowl players drafted since 2012. Pro Bowls are not the only or even the best way to size up draft classes — Derek Wolfe and others have become important contributors — but that still seems like a surprising realization running counter to perception.
The Chiefs (five), Raiders (four) and Chargers (two) have combined to draft 11 Pro Bowlers over the same span: Tyreek Hill, Marcus Peters, D.J. Alexander, Travis Kelce and Dontari Poe for the Chiefs; Amari Cooper, Khalil Mack, Derek Carr and Latavius Murray for the Raiders; Melvin Gordon and Jason Verrett for the Chargers.
Offensive players drafted by Denver in the first three rounds since Elway became GM include Brock Osweiler and Lynch at quarterback; offensive linemen Michael Schofield, Ty Sambrailo and Garett Bolles; running backs Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman; receivers Cody Latimer and Carlos Henderson; and tight end Jeff Heuerman. Center Matt Paradis was a late-round find, and Trevor Siemian has provided more than what a seventh-round quarterback typically would. But for a team that has needed help on offense, the drafts have not been transforming.
Free agency is tougher now
The Broncos have shined during Elway’s tenure when adding high-profile free agents such as Aqib Talib and DeMarcus Ware. Yet, while money tends to carry the day in free agency, Manning’s presence on the roster made Denver a prime destination for veteran free agents. As the Broncos try to keep their edge defensively while supplementing a lagging offense, will they succeed in free agency to the degree they could in building a championship roster?
It’s official: The Broncos’ list of problems goes way beyond quarterback
A 51-23 loss to the Eagles confirmed that Denver’s D can’t snipe at the offense’s struggles — because they’ve got plenty of problems of their own.
Elway himself was the key for landing Manning in free agency years ago. No GM could have been better qualified or equipped for luring an all-time great quarterback. Then, once Manning arrived, he became the best recruiter the Broncos could have had.
“Peyton controlled the atmosphere, had everyone playing and focusing because he would chew their ass if they didn’t,” a veteran coach from the AFC said. “There was a high level of accountability because of him. That all gets placed on the coaching staff, which [Gary] Kubiak and his crew wasn’t able to match, and nobody has matched since. There is just a huge void that did not get filled anywhere.”
Denver can still succeed in free agency, but where there was once an edge, there is now less of one — unless the Broncos dive into the market for another veteran quarterback, in which case the Broncos’ defense could be attractive.
The path forward at QB
Is it time for the Broncos to turn the offense over to Paxton Lynch? Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
Trevor Siemian has 20 interceptions and an 11-10 record in 21 starts for Denver since the start of last season. He was reasonably efficient when the Broncos protected him, but that was not the case frequently enough, and when Siemian threw the ball back across the field for a pick at Kansas City in Week 8, his fate appeared sealed.
Osweiler, whose two picks Sunday gave him 18 in 15 starts for Houston and Denver duringthe past two seasons, actually owns a higher Total QBR than Siemian in both players’ starts since the 2016 opener (Siemian has the higher passer rating).
All of this puts Lynch front and center. He was the quarterback Dallas coveted before “settling” for Dak Prescott, which in the spring of 2016 led Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to publicly lament his team’s decision against trading up for the player Denver picked 26th overall that year. It all seems farcical in light of Prescott’s success, but Lynch hasn’t played enough for anyone to make a final judgment. Lynch has made two starts and will presumably take over the job from Osweiler once his injured shoulder heals — perhaps this coming week.
Lynch, unlike Siemian and Osweiler, has the athleticism to improvise behind a shaky line. The Broncos could build zone-read concepts into their offense to maximize Lynch’s skill set. There’s a chance Lynch will stabilize the offense and help Denver win lower-scoring games while limiting turnovers. Of course, Lynch also might flounder.
“They are sliding because they don’t have a quarterback, period,” a veteran AFC coach said.
In looking at the Broncos’ recent Elway-era drafts, it’s tough to know how much responsibility coaches should bear on the player development front. Elway holds coaches to a high standard forged during his playing career. He knows what he wants. And if the current staff winds up helping Lynch develop into a quarterback Denver can win with, the Broncos won’t be hurting for new material when the time comes to announce Elway’s next extension.
But with New England on the schedule in Week 10, this nosedive might not be finished, and the future appears a little tenuous.