John Elway and the Defending Champion Broncos Lose Big in Free Agency

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John Elway and the Defending Champion Broncos Lose Big in Free Agency
Darron Cummings/Associated Press

If NFL free agency were a chess tournament, John Elway would win every year—or at least face off with Bill Belichick and a few others in the late rounds. He's one of the NFL's great chess masters. 

But NFL free agency is not chess. Garry Kasparov never had to cope with pawns that signed with Anatoly Karpov for more money. It's more like high-stakes poker, with a little highway chicken thrown in and a dash of Hungry Hungry Hippos. It's a complicated game.

Elway is usually great at that game, too. But he lost badly this week.

Elway and the defending champion Denver Broncos on Friday traded a conditional draft pick to the Philadelphia Eagles for Mark Sanchez, the kind of custodial backup quarterback who can usually be grabbed from the free-agent discount rack. Sanchez—29 years old, 0-2 as a starter last year, four years removed from his brief tenure as a semi-capable quarterback—replaces Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler, a living legend and the hand-picked-and-nurtured replacement for that living legend.

The Sanchez trade comes at the end of a week in which defensive tackle Malik Jackson and linebacker Danny Trevathan signed with the Jaguars and Bears, respectively. Running back C.J. Anderson signed an offer sheet with the Dolphins that the Broncos have not yet matched. The Broncos released tight end Owen Daniels and guard Louis Vasquez, Super Bowl starters, in an effort to clear cap space. Before Sanchez, lineman Donald Stephenson was their only addition.

Duane Burleson/Associated Press

Osweiler signed with the Texans, of course, and Manning retired on Monday. The Broncos are sure to do more at quarterback than just shake Sanchez's hand and toss him on the field; the only other quarterback on the payroll is Trevor Siemian, a seventh-round pick last May. Colin Kaepernick could still arrive via trade. Another quarterback could arrive in the draft. But there is no positive answer lurking anywhere to the question: "Are you better off now than you were seven days ago?"

There is no sugar coating this awful week. Broncos fans can try to reassure themselves that Elway was operating according to some complicated chessboard gambit, and he certainly entered free agency with a plan—but free-agent plans fall through quickly, especially when the eight-figure contracts start popping up.

Elway cannot blame this lost week solely on the salary cap. Once Manning cleared the decks, the Broncos had the money to sign somebody. If not Osweiler, then Jackson. If not Jackson, then Osweiler. If not either, then certainly Trevathan and/or Anderson. Linebackers and running backs are far easier to replace than quarterbacks or defensive linemen, but it would only have cost them a little money and a measly free-agent tender to retain a pair of talented young starters (Anderson could still return, though at a higher price than the Broncos planned to pay) and simplify their agenda.

Instead of targeting Osweiler to stabilize the offense, targeting the defenders in preparation for a year of novice quarterbacking or making some other proactive move (locking up Von Miller for the rest of the decade instead of franchise-tagging him, perhaps), Elway and the Broncos tried to keep all the plates spinning at once. They might have negotiated with Jackson, Osweiler and Trevathan, but they didn't go out of their financial way to make any of them feel coveted.     

The plates began crashing at the start of this week and haven't stopped. The Jaguars priced Jackson out of the Broncos' market. Osweiler saw a rich quarterback market and a chance to escape Manning's shadow and stopped returning calls. The Broncos chose to remain within a tight budget for both players, and for others. That's a wise strategy up until the moment you don't have any players left.

It's as if the Broncos entered free agency with plenty of contingency plans but no primary plan. They hedged multiple bets and lost them all. In football cliche terms, they played to not lose instead of playing to win.

It all culminated in the Sanchez trade. Four years ago, Elway snookered the Jets out of a pair of draft picks for Tim Tebow because the Jets were seeking reasons to move on from Sanchez. Now Elway is the one spending resources on a backup quarterback with more fame than value.

The Broncos' organizational tone since the start of free agency has been defiantly anti-rebuilding, as the scorching barbs about Osweiler on the team website and Elway's remarks about "players who want to be here" indicate. The Broncos won the Super Bowl despite some iffy quarterbacking last year, so why not saddle up for a repeat?

Last year's Broncos could probably have won the AFC West with Mark Sanchez at quarterback. But last year's Broncos employed Jackson and the others, as well as free-agent contributors still dangling on the open market like Ronnie Hillman and Brandon Marshall.

This year's Broncos are not last year's Broncos. And this year's Raiders are not last year's Raiders, either, though that is a problem beyond Elway's control.

It's ludicrous to call the Broncos contenders after the week they just endured, even if they add the risky Kaepernick to the depth chart. The Broncos suddenly look more like last year's Texans or (with Sanchez at the helm) a Rex Ryan team, with the defense clamping down and hoping the offense commits less than three turnovers. Yes, parts of last season went down just like that, but Manning at his injury-plagued worst looked a lot like Sanchez on any given Sunday.

Perhaps Elway saw it all along. He knew Osweiler would garner money the Broncos would never want to pay a quarterback with seven starts. He knew the defenders would fetch an open-market premium. He tried the hometown-discount, repeat-champion sales pitch, then decided to polish his ring and bide his time after what was really a lightning-in-a-bottle championship.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Maybe Elway estimated the odds of repeating were slim, so he is letting the roster and budget refresh themselves, with Sanchez acting as a placeholder so he doesn't have to pull any triggers he doesn't want to pull. This week was just a calculated step backward to take steps forward with Miller and a younger roster in 2017 or beyond. Elway the gambler folded; Elway the chess master resigned so the board could be reset. The bluster about returning to the Super Bowl with "an even modest improvement under center" was a mix of smokescreen and poker face.

It's appealing to think so—just as it's appealing to think that Elway can MacGyver his way out of this free-agency quagmire with some 98-yard fourth-quarter drive. But sometimes free agency is like playing quarterback. You cannot hesitate when your first read is open. Not only will you miss your chance to throw to him, but your other reads will cover up as well, and the pocket will collapse.

Elway was one of the greatest quarterbacks ever. But even the greatest of the great hesitate now and then. And suffer the consequences.

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

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