How John Elway and the Broncos Plan to Get Back to Their Winning Ways

Albert Breer

John Elway went to five Super Bowls, and won two, as a player. He’s been to two, and won one, as an exec. He turns 60 years old in less than a year. His family is set for generations to come. He could walk away tomorrow, with as complete a legacy as anyone in the history of the sport.

And on Thursday morning, at 9:15 a.m. Mountain Time, he’ll be the first NFL general manager to set foot on a practice field for training camp in 2019.

Things are different in Denver, without question, than it was over Elway’s first half-decade in charge. Big decisions loom over the coming years concerning the team’s ownership. The team has a new coach for the third time in five seasons. They’ll have their third different opening day starting quarterback in their fourth season since Peyton Manning retired. And to me, this begs the question of whether or not Elway’s started to think about when it will be time to walk away. After all, for all the reasons above, it’s not like he needs to be doing this.

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“You know, I haven’t,” Elway answers. “I’ve got two and a half years left on my contract, I’m getting close to 60, which is hard to believe. At that point in time, you start to kind of look at it day-to-day and week-to-week. I’m still enjoying what I’m doing. I want to be able to put a quality product on the field and compete for a championship. I think we’re headed in that direction. I’m excited about Vic [Fangio].

“So we’ll take it a year at a time and see how it goes.”

And if you look closely, what Elway means by that is written all over his roster.

It’s time! Again, the Broncos start training camp on Thursday. The Falcons start Monday. Within 10 days, all 32 teams will have a full complement of players out on the field. The Bears and Packers kick off the NFL’s 100th season seven weeks from tonight. And so the six-month grind to Super Bowl LIV in Miami is underway.

Also back after a couple weeks off: The Game Plan. In this week’s camp kickoff edition, I’m getting to your questions on …

• Why five first-round picks remain unsigned.

• The Patriots, Nick Caserio and Rob Gronkowski.

• The Browns’ chances of winning the AFC North.

Mitchell Trubisky’s prospects in Chicago.

• Why so many throwback unis have gone to die.

But we’re starting with the team lauching training camp on Thursday.

Elway has no problem falling on the sword for what’s happened to the post-Super Bowl, post-Manning Broncos. The team slumped in the draft. It’s been a struggle with coaches and quarterbacks. There are other tangential reasons for it, of course, but Elway knows the buck stops with him—and looking at the players taking the field Thursday reveals a few things about how he plans to right the ship. 

On one hand, Denver has come out of the aforementioned draft slump, with a promising crew of young guys on hand. Last year’s rookie class delivered—seven members of the group combined for 55 starts, and eight exceeded 300 snaps played. Bradley Chubb, Courtland Sutton, Josey Jewell and Phillip Lindsay could be cornerstones. Even better, they’ve grown close as a crew (some live together). And this year’s draft class, led by Noah Fant, Drew Lock and Dalton Risner, is brimming with potential, too.

On the other, there’s what Elway said about being year-to-year, reflected in the seven players left from the Super Bowl 50 roster, and with acquisitions of Joe Flacco (34 years old), Kareem Jackson (31) and Ju’Wuan James (27). That even extends to the hire of Fangio, who’s 10 months older than Elway himself.

“You’re building with youth, but also trying to be competitive in the year that you’re in,” Elway says. “If you had the success that we had back in 2013, ’14, ’15, it’s hard to keep the whole band together—and then you lose the quarterback. Our goal is always to be competitive, and improve, and add youth to that too. That’s always the tough thing to do, while you try to get the right mentality that you better win football games.”

The underlying theme: While the team needed to get younger and go through an overhaul, neither 5-11 (two years ago) nor 6-10 (last year) is acceptable. Elway is running the team with the urgency of a man who is, in his words, year-to-year—and that was clearly illustrated in few points Elway made during our talk.

Acquiring Flacco accomplished more than adding a player to the roster. As Elway sees it, it also worked to instill that year-to-year thing, while adding some credibility to a position that’s, to a degree, been lacking that since Manning retired.

“That position is so important, not just in the player you have there, but also the confidence it adds to the rest of your team,” Elway said. “And I think our players know, the young guys as well as the veterans, that [Flacco] has been in battles, he’s won a championship, and he know what it takes. So just the confidence that the rest of the team has in that position and the player that’s playing that position is extremely important.

“And that’s what [Flacco] brings with him, in addition to his ability on the football field. I think we’re better off as a team because [Flacco’s] here. He’s still got a lot of good football left in him, we like the system that he’s in, and what it’s gonna provide him. We’re excited about [Flacco].”

The remaining players from the 2015 Super Bowl champion team should have a similar effect. The guys still in Denver from the championship season (LB Von Miller, CB Chris Harris, DL Derek Wolfe, WR Emmanuel Sander, LB Todd Davis, K Brandon McManus, TE Jeff Heuerman) are still here for reasons that go beyond how they’ve played. Elway’s hope is those intangible qualities rub off the younger guys.

“They look at them and they watch how they work,” Elway said. “They go about their own business, but they get to learn what it takes to be a pro. Obviously, this is an entertainment league. But you’re trying to find guys that are more interested in winning football games than being on TV. That’s important, especially with entertainment value now of the players in the league, where that’s gone.

“We’ve been looking for guys where football’s No. 1 to them, and winning’s No. 1 to them. That’s what we have in a Von Miller and Joe Flacco and a Ju’Wuan James. They have that mentality, they want to come in here and win.”

And with the right environment in place, the sophomores would have a great shot at turning another corner. History tells us they won’t all develop as the Broncos hope. But based on the sheer number of guys who won roles as 2018 rookies, the odds are in Denver’s favor that the class will provide a nice foundation for the next few years.

“It was a really good draft for us, and the players have come in and done it,” Elway said. “As you know, when you pick higher in the round, you’re gonna have the opportunity to get better football players. We don’t want to be picking that high. But obviously, it’s a class that we’re proud of. We’re happy with this class that we’ve got this year, too.”

There is reason to feel good, which brings us back to the reality of Denver’s situation.

The last two years, the Broncos posted consecutive sub-.500 seasons for the first time since the early ’70s (more than a decade before Elway arrived as a player). That hasn’t been easy on anyone, and it’s why a lot of people are gone. And yet, Elway is still standing, and he’s learning from it as best he knows how.

“You learn when you win. You learn when you’re bad,” Elway says. “It’s much tougher in the years after you win a Super Bowl than it is in the years you’re putting into building it. The expectations rise. Being able to keep the players focused there, that’s always difficult. And I think the one thing that hurt us, we lost Gary [Kubiak] the next year. Vance [Joseph] came into a tough situation, because of expectations. Coming off a Super Bowl, the expectations were obviously high. And it just didn’t work out.

“But you learn a ton from different things, going back and looking at it when you lose, and then the transition from coach to coach. Sometimes, they don’t work. This one didn’t work. And that’s not, by any means, all VJ’s fault. I had a big part of that too. It’s what you learn from that, the type of coaches you had there, the locker room you had. You learn a lot.”

We’ll see soon how well those lessons have served him. And after talking to Elway on Wednesday, I got the feeling that getting to see it for himself is another good reason to be back out on that practice field for another year.

On to your mail …

Mark Brown/Getty Images
Mark Brown/Getty Images

MAILBAG!

From Gavin David Buck (@gavdbuck): Hi Albert, Gavin here from London, U.K. I was wondering if there was anything had heard regarding any hold-ups with the signing of the unsigned rookies? I am mostly concerned about Quinnen Williams, being a Jets fan, but am curious about the others also. Thanks.

Gavin, some teams won’t have their full staff back in-house again until Monday. So while that may not prevent deals from getting done, it’s certainly possible that some were, and remain, tabled until everyone returns. That said, it’s notable that five first-rounders (Williams, 49ers DE Nick Bosa, Bucs LB Devin White, Giants QB Daniel Jones, Panthers DE Brian Burns) remain unsigned.

Obviously, with the rookie wage scale in place, there’s less for the teams and agents to haggle over than there used to be. But there still are areas that are important to those people—for precedent reasons on the team side, and recruiting reasons on the agent side. Two that come up a lot would be the presence of offset language in a deal, and the structure/timing of bonus payouts.

One that might be bigger, if it’s less talked about, is language in deals allowing teams to void guarantees in the rookies’ contracts. It came up last year in the Bears’ negotiation with Roquan Smith. And Leonard Fournette is an example of a player who actually wound up having his guarantees voided – the Jaguars tailback is now playing on a non-guaranteed deal. So it’s not to figure why these things could be sticking points for a player, particularly if teams try to include on-field infractions in the language.

As for those guys still unsigned? It’s not a big deal, yet. Check back with me in a week.

From Stephen Sheehan (@StephenPSheehan): Better chance of happening: @RobGronkowski returns to the Patriots mid-season or Nick Caserio ends up in Houston in 2020?

Slick question, Stephen. And a tough one to answer. Let’s start with Gronk. As of right now, I’d toss a guess out there that it’s less than a 50/50 chance (but close) that he comes out of retirement. Keep in mind that he’s had three major surgeries on his back, and there was a point last year where he was at risk of needing a fourth. Back injuries can affect your quality of life down the line, and I think Gronk is mindful of that, particularly with that bullet of a fourth surgery dodged.

I also think Gronk is enjoying his retirement. Will he want to play again when the bell rings in September? Maybe. But my sense is that Patriots people aren’t expecting him anytime this summer or early in the season. Maybe he comes back in October or November. I don’t think he even knows if that’ll happen or not.

As for Caserio, one of the reasons why the Patriots felt emboldened to hold firm on a clause in his contract that prevented him from interviewing elsewhere was, interestingly enough, their scouting chief’s professionalism. They knew he’d be able to compartmentalize this whole affair, and do a good job for them in 2019, regardless of what lies ahead. So not being a vindictive jerk? It actually worked against Caserio here.

But the question of whether it’ll affect his decision-making next year is something else entirely. And while I’d expect Caserio to keep his cards close to the vest, there could be signs he’s on his way out.

Maybe he’s not on the headsets and in Josh McDaniels’s ear on Sundays. Maybe there’s increased responsibility for others in scouting, like pro scouting director Dave Ziegler—although that’s further complicated by college scouting director Monti Ossenfort also being in a contract year. Maybe an old friend (Scott Pioli?) joins up at some point, like Floyd Reese did to ease Caserio’s transition to a lead role a decade ago.

So taking all of that and adding it up? I’d say there’s a slightly better chance Caserio lands in Houston than there is Gronk comes back. But it’s a fluid situation.

From AJ Rondini (@ajrondini): Do the Browns host a home playoff game this year?

AJ, this would likely require Cleveland winning the division. I think the Browns will be good, but I think they’ll have some growing pains, and as a result, I’m leaning towards picking the Steelers winning the division.

Now, I know Pittsburgh hasn’t been the buzziest team over the last few months, but there are some things that get lost with the Steelers. At one point last year, they were 7-2-1. Even after a slump, they were 8-5-1 coming off a win over the eventual champion Patriots. Yes, they lost Le’Veon Bell, but they didn’t have him last year either. And great as Antonio Brown is, he plays a position the Steelers have never had any issue filling at a high level.

Add to that rookie Devin Bush in the middle of a defense that has a good base of young talent, and I see Mike Tomlin and Co., free of a lot of the drama of last fall, bouncing back and holding off the young Browns to finish atop the AFC North.

From KnightWhoSaysNih (@KonSeanneryy):  Your prediction for best players cut this summer?

One pro scouting director said that with the way the league works now, a lot of the salary cap casualties—guys like Malik Jackson, formerly with the Jaguars and Gerald McCoy, formerly with the Buccaneers—happen earlier, making it a little harder to forecast who might be cut or traded at the cut-down deadline on August 31.

Another scouting director raised Buffalo’s surplus of tailbacks, and where progress from rookie Devin Singletary could lead to one of the team’s veterans (LeSean McCoy, Frank Gore, T.J. Yeldon) becoming available in one form or fashion or another. McCoy’s cap and cash, for what it’s worth, are way beyond what Yeldon’s and Gore’s are.

From Joe Phillips (@jphil_22): How big of an impact will Gary Kubiak have on the Vikings offense?

Joe, I think it’ll be significant, for two reasons.

One, it’s not all him there. Kevin Stefanski, who took over as coordinator at the end of last year, brings an established relationship with Kirk Cousins, and is a very well-regarded young coach—which is why he emerged as a darkhorse for the Browns job last year. Two, Cousins was raised as an NFL player in the Mike/Kyle Shanahan offense and flourished running that system under Sean McVay in DC. You probably don’t need me to explain how close Kubiak is to the Shanahans. Bottom line, he can look at what Cousins did as a Redskin, and it should translate right over.

Ultimately, so much of what happens with the Vikings offense will ride on the improvement of the offensive line (Do Riley Reiff and Pat Elflein bounce back? Will Garrett Bradbury be as good right away as so many expect? Can Rick Dennison be what Tony Sparano was this group two years ago?). That’s the variable here, and will be until September. But I do think Mike Zimmer has a reason to feel good about the coaches he has on that side of the ball.

From Drew Lock Szn (@TheDollarist):  If the Broncos sputter on offense but the defense is rocking early in the year, any chance we see [Drew] Lock? If so, when?

I’m not ruling out anything with the rookie quarterbacks – and I know how highly the Broncos regard Lock. They fell for him in Mobile at the Senior Bowl in January, and he wound up atop their quarterback board. And so there is conviction there on who Lock can be, which does matter.

But the Broncos have made an investment in Flacco, too, that shouldn’t be ignored. The 12th-year vet is on the books for $18.5 million, and his acquisition ties to the type of offense they’re running – Flacco had great success under Kubiak in 2014, and the Broncos hired ex-Kyle Shanahan assistant Rich Scangarello to be OC after losing Kubiak in January. On top of that, you have the rust he’ll need to knock off, not having played real snaps since a November hip injury, which should give him some leeway with any early hiccups.

Put that together, and I think if Lock plays, it’d most likely be because of injury or the Broncos falling from contention, and needing to know what they have in the rookie to plan for 2020. But crazier things have happened. And like I said, the Broncos do really like Lock.

From Robert Bouika (@bouika971): Why is there so much hate outside of Chicago for Mitch [Trubisky]? He improved in his second year and was in a brand new system. Plus he played well in the playoff game??

I may be missing it, Robert, but I don’t sense hate for Trubisky outside of Chicago. I do sense some skepticism, based on where he is when compared to draft classmates Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. It’s natural, considering how Mahomes and Watson played in 2018 and considering the perception that the Bears defense, paired with Matt Nagy’s offensive creativity, carried Chicago through its leap year last fall.

Here’s something from a conversation I had with Nagy last September, after the Bears beat the Bucs and Trubisky had his best game as a pro. We were discussing where the quarterback/coach relationship was at that point. And I’ll him take it from there.

“It’s still gonna take time,” Nagy said. “This isn’t gonna happen, like now all of a sudden, we’ve figured it all out. It’s one of those days, where we had a good day and everything was clicking, but we still have a ways to go. I’d say that after a loss and I’ll say it after a win. You saw it in Kansas City—it was a good two-and-a-half years before you start really, truly feeling good not only as a player in the system, but as a coach too. I have to retrain my brain on how to call plays for Mitch, which is totally fine, but it’s something I have to do because he’s totally different than Alex [Smith]. And that’s the fun part.

“I have to kick my brain back to Year 1 in K.C. and not be in Year 5 with a 13-year vet quarterback that was the No. 1 pick. It’s different. We’re talking about a quarterback that played 12 or 13 games in college, 12 games in the pros, you’re talking about 25 games as a starting quarterback, and now here we are in Week 5. It’s gonna take time and that’s what I’ve been trying to stress to everybody. This thing’s not gonna happen overnight, but when we do get and when it does click, it can be special.”

I circled back with Nagy in early November after Trubisky shredded the Lions for 355 yards and three touchdowns on this, and he said then that they were still “at least a full year” from being aligned like he wanted. And the reason I’m telling you this, Robert, is because quarterback development does take time.

The good news is I think Trubisky’s got really nice infrastructure around him.

From Anil Adyanthaya (@AnilAdyanthaya): Has the NFL given any thought to relaxing its one helmet rule for the 100th anniversary season? We’re missing out on seeing some great throwbacks this season if not (Patriots, Buccaneers).

We’ll finish with a fun question here from Anil. To my knowledge, the league has not considered that, and I can’t imagine they will. I do get questions from time to time on why some throwbacks have vanished. The owners were advised six years ago, in the midst of the concussion litigation, that players switching helmets in-season increased risk of head injuries. So the NFL decided to mandate that teams only use one set.

And as much as I’d love to see Bucco Bruce and Pat Patrot back in action, I’m fine with the NFL having this rule in place. If it even makes the game .00001 percent safer, from a head-injury standpoint, it’s worth it.

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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