At one point, John Elway looked like a star general manager, just like he was a star quarterback.
You wouldn’t know it by the reaction to Elway these days, but he built a Super Bowl champion. From 2012-15, the Denver Broncos were a fantastic team. The first part of that run was fueled by Peyton Manning’s incredible second chapter to his career. When Manning fell off a cliff in 2015, the team Elway built was still good enough to win a title in spite of Manning and his 67.9 passer rating. Also, Elway deserved credit for landing Manning in the first place.
Things turn fast in the NFL. Elway is no longer the GM who built a champion, he’s a punchline for his post-Manning failures. At the heart of it is his inability to find an answer at quarterback, which is ironic from the legendary quarterback. The latest turn on the carousel belongs to Joe Flacco, who Denver will reportedly acquire in a trade with Baltimore when the league year starts on March 13.
Maybe Elway envisions this turning out just like Manning did for Denver. Everyone else seems pretty unimpressed by the move. And if it doesn’t work out, well, the good vibes for Elway from that Super Bowl 50 win can’t last forever.
John Elway has struggled to find a QB after Peyton Manning
Brock Osweiler. Paxton Lynch. Trevor Siemian. Case Keenum.
At least Elway keeps trying? He drafted Osweiler over Russell Wilson and Lynch over Dak Prescott, among others. Siemian was a limited seventh-round pick who was never going to be the answer. Keenum came on a two-year, $36 million deal and Denver grew tired of him after one season. He’ll have a $10 million dead cap hit if he’s let go. The Broncos will try to trade him first, and we’ll see if they can find a taker.
The problem is, Flacco isn’t what he once was. And what he was, aside from some hot streaks in the playoffs, was never great. He has lived off of that Super Bowl win for a long time. It’s hard to start 11 seasons for the same team and never make a Pro Bowl, but Flacco has done it. His passer rating hasn’t been above 84 since 2014. He’s 34, and has dealt with significant injuries the past two years (he played 16 games through a back injury in 2017). Any scan of his numbers for the past few years doesn’t indicate he’ll be Denver’s long-term answer. He also has base salaries of $18.5 million, $20.25 million and $24.25 million the next three years.
If Flacco does have some great seasons in Denver — one of Elway’s post-Manning decisions at quarterback has to turn out well, right? — then Elway will have the last laugh. Most likely, Denver still needs to invest a high pick in a draft prospect to sit and learn behind Flacco (Missouri’s Drew Lock has been the one in this class most often linked to Denver) and hope it works out a heck of a lot better than Lynch.
And if Flacco or whatever young player Elway picks next doesn’t work out, eventually the questions about Elway’s job security will have to start, as strange as that seems given Elway’s stature in the organization.
Could Elway be on the hot seat?
Aside from maybe Drew Brees in New Orleans, no single person is more closely associated with an NFL franchise than Elway and the Broncos. He raised Denver’s stature in the NFL during his playing career, won two Super Bowls as a quarterback and then another as a GM, saving the franchise from the horrendous and short-lived Josh McDaniels era.
That’s why it’s hard to put Elway’s job security in proper context. He hasn’t been good lately. The quarterback question looms over everything, but what’s not talked about as much is his failures building the roster as a whole. The 2018 rookie class looks like a winner, but some fruitless drafts before that have eaten away at the depth on the roster. Also, Elway hiring Vance Joseph as head coach when other teams hired Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan and Anthony Lynn was a failure. Elway did build a Super Bowl champion just three seasons ago. But the NFL offers patience for nobody. Not even someone like Elway who is virtually synonymous with the franchise itself.
The Flacco trade seems desperate. Part of it might be Elway’s desire to never rebuild, but it also might be a reaction to some pressure to win right now. The Broncos are coming off consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 1972. Since Flacco is 34, on a decline and arguably not even better than Keenum, the trade has to be viewed as grasping at a win-now move. A general manager with more time might have saved the draft pick, stuck it out with Keenum (again, you can argue Keenum is at least as good as Flacco these days) and drafted the long-term answer in one of the next two drafts.
Even someone with Elway’s history in Denver can’t be given unlimited mulligans. If the Flacco move doesn’t work out, then what?
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