Mike Freeman's 10-Point Stance: Is John Elway a Coach-Killer?

Mike FreemanNFL National Lead WriterNovember 22, 2017

Denver Broncos general manager John Elway watches his players prior to an NFL preseason football game against the Green Bay Packers, Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017, in Denver. AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

Has John Elway lost the trust of the coaching fraternity? Is Dak Prescott not who some of us thought he was? Can the Chiefs find themselves again? All that and more in this week's 10-Point Stance.

    

1. Denver, Where Coaches Get Hired to Be Fired

Talk to team executives and assistant coaches about John Elway, and you come away with the notion that there is great admiration and respect for him and what he's done in leading the Broncos front office. Some genuinely adore him.

He built a Super Bowl winner. He won a recruiting battle to get Peyton Manning. He built a once-in-a-decade defense. Elway also was a legendary player who worked hard to understand how front offices and scouting work, which became apparent in the top-notch talent he added around him.

But his admirers are almost stunned by what they are seeing from Elway now.

One NFC assistant coach who describes himself as an Elway fan said Elway is increasingly being seen as a coach-killer.

"Coaches are starting to see the Broncos as a death trap," another assistant told B/R.

The cycle started three years ago. The Broncos made the Super Bowl in 2013 but lost to Seattle. Then, after a loss to Indianapolis in the divisional round the following year, coach John Fox was gone, despite having won 38 games over his final three seasons in Denver.

"I think in any relationship, whether it be player-coach, coach-GM, you're always going to have bumpy patches," Elway said at a news conference to announce Fox's departure in 2015. "I think the main thing between John and I was we disagreed how to get to the next level. We accomplished so much, four AFC West championships. But I think the biggest miss between us was how we can take that next step and what it was going to take to get to that next step. I think that's where that disagreement came from."

Fox's departure wasn't all unusual. These things happen. Coaching tenures run their course.

Elway didn't push out Gary Kubiak, but there wasn't much chance for the relationship to sour. Kubiak walked away after winning a Super Bowl and only two seasons on the Denver sideline.

But now comes the latest chapter in this awkward story, kicked off last week when Elway called his team soft. Coaches around the league saw the comments as a direct shot at his head coach, Vance Joseph.

Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

Remarks like Elway's shouldn't be aired publicly, the coaches with whom I communicated said.

Days after Elway's comments, the team's offensive coordinator, Mike McCoy, was fired.

"It was my decision," Joseph said at a news conference, according to the team's transcript. "It was my decision only. John and I talk every day about the football team. He watches every practice and every meeting, but it was my decision."

Few people in football believe that. They say Elway's fingerprints are all over the move.

Team officials across the sport believe Elway is using Joseph and McCoy as scapegoats for his poor quarterback moves. Trevor Siemian has been awful. Brock Osweiler has been putrid and, according to ESPN's Dan Graziano, will get benched for Paxton Lynch. And there's no indication Lynch will be any good, either.

The common thread tying the three together: all were Elway decisions.

It's rare when you can trace a franchise's successes and failures so clearly to one man. But in the same way Denver's recent Super Bowl appearances can be traced to Elway, the struggles of the team can also be traced to him. Heading into the Thanksgiving weekend, Denver is 3-7 and in last place in the AFC West. That isn't because it is soft but because it lacks continuity.

Coaches around the NFL with whom I spoke believe more sideline changes are on the way for the Broncos. In other words, Joseph isn't safe.

As respected as he is as a player and executive, Elway is gaining a reputation as someone who is rash and impatient with his coaching staffs, someone who sees coaches as disposable. And someone who isn't taking full responsibility for his personnel decisions.

    

2. Is Dak Prescott Cracking Under the Pressure?

ARLINGTON, TX - NOVEMBER 19:  Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys scrambles against the Philadelphia Eagles in the fourth quarter of a football game at AT&T Stadium on November 19, 2017 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Dak Prescott committed four turnovers, including a fumble returned for a touchdown, in Dallas' blowout loss Sunday night against Philadelphia. He was pressing, and that has people talking about just how good he really is.

DeAngelo Williams, who spent 11 years as an NFL running back, tweeted:

That would be suspended running back Ezekiel Elliott.

The term "game manager" is often a slur in football. It means the quarterback isn't talented enough to carry a team by himself. When a Cowboys fan tweeted at Williams that Elliott was the main reason the Cowboys had a chance, Williams responded, "Correction zeke was your only chance."

To be perfectly clear, I still don't buy this narrative, but I can tell you a lot of people around football do.

There's plenty of finger-wagging toward people like me who went ahead and crowned Prescott's ass. Personnel people have told me for months, and for much of last season, that I was overstating Prescott's value to the team.

Admittedly, the Cowboys offense looks exceedingly pedestrian without Elliott. There is plenty of data to back that up, but you need only watch the Cowboys up close to see the effect.

In games before the suspension, many defenses devoted a lot of resources to stopping Elliott first and Prescott second.

Now those defenses are largely targeting Prescott. The Eagles practically ignored the Cowboys running game, and you could almost see the pressure build on Prescott. Then, like a cracking dam trying to hold back millions of gallons of water, the pressure overtook him.

It's not a coincidence Prescott had the first three-interception game of his career without Elliott.

Still, Prescott has his fans.

"He's a very tough guy," Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham said. "He's hard to rattle, and we felt like we needed to play him for four quarters."

"They needed him to play good, but let's not jump the gun," former NFL quarterback Steve Beuerlein said on NFL Monday QB. "He's still in his infancy as a quarterback. Did he make some bad decisions and some bad throws? Yes, he did. Was he under pressure sometimes? Yes, he was. But he's only a second-year quarterback. And let's be honest here. When Ezekiel Elliott is on the field, he is a much better football player. ... When he's out there and starts pressing a bit, bad things happen. I think we would all still agree that Dak Prescott is still a very special quarterback."

The power dynamics in Dallas have changed. I'm still Team Prescott, but the immediate future looks a bit grim, and until Elliott returns, that isn't likely to change.

    

3. Case Keenum Appears to Be Exactly What the Vikes Need

Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

Beuerlein also had some interesting thoughts on Vikings quarterback Case Keenum and why he is playing so well.

Said Beuerlein: "The Vikings were hoping to win in spite of their quarterback situation. Well, they're winning because of their quarterback situation as much as anything else. [Keenum] understands his role there. He's tough. He's smart. He's protecting the football. He's making plays when things break down. ... He's in the right situation for him to illustrate what he does. And that is just play football, be smart with it. Give your team a chance to win. And he's stepping up every week."

Keenum, believe it or not, has made the Vikings into a Super Bowl threat. Did anyone see that coming in August?

    

4. Chiefs Need to Take a Long Look in the Mirror

Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

The Chiefs have lost four of their last five, and a team that once looked like a Super Bowl contender appears to be in free fall. Simply, it appears they've lost their identity, according to NBC analyst Rodney Harrison.

"I think back to all the trick plays and all the gimmick plays that worked earlier in the season," Harrison said on NBC on Sunday evening. "They no longer work. The defenses are a lot more disciplined. You also don't see that same passion from the defensive side of the ball.

"They've got to get back to a mentality where they line up and they just pound people, they physically pound people instead of these trick plays."

Trick plays are demoralizing for a defense, which is why Andy Reid uses them perhaps more than other coaches. When they work, they are great. When they don't, they fail miserably.

"They get too cute," Harrison added. "Andy Reid gets too cute at times with all the different weapons."

    

5. Seattle's 1-Man Show

Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

Yes, I've gotten into my share of debates over Russell Wilson. And while everyone is entitled to their opinion, Wilson's worth to the Seahawks is all but settled fact.

Heading into Monday night, Wilson had accounted for 82.1 percent of the Seahawks' yards this season, the highest percentage of any player ever, according to Chase Stuart of FootballPerspective.com.

That is just a staggering. Most quarterbacks have this thing called a running back who helps them. Wilson has no running game to speak of. He is the running game, and that's why he also deserves to be an MVP candidate.

    

6. Right Idea, Wrong Place

George Bridges/Associated Press

Titans coach Mike Mularkey wants something that shouldn't be controversial but is. He wants officials to be held publicly accountable, per Paul Kuharsky of PaulKuharsky.com (via ProFootballTalk.com).

More specifically, he wants the grading process for officials to be made public.

It's not a bad idea, but this will never happen. The only thing the NFL is more secretive about than how much money the owners make is the grades the officials get.

So while Mularkey is right to want more transparency when it comes to the officials, there is a better chance Roger Goodell and Jerry Jones share a hug at the next owners' meetings.

    

7. Players United Against Trump [Tweets]

This week in the President of the United States Attacks an Athlete Chronicles, Donald Trump said Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch should be suspended for standing for the Mexico national anthem and not for the United States anthem.

I asked some players what they thought of Trump's tweet, and the reaction was interesting. They said they ignored it.

One told me: "I'm not going to fall for the bait."

    

8. Newton's Words of Wisdom

An interesting Instagram caption passed its way through social media this week. It's a bit hard to read and looks like something written by the Goa'uld. But it was not written by an alien species. It was written by Carolina quarterback Cam Newton.

The note, expressing regret for a mistake Newton made almost a decade ago, is inspiring, and it opened a window into the way he thinks and plays. It's worth a read. It actually made me emotional reading it because it's from his heart. Everything he does, it seems, is that way.

    

9. A Disgraceful Act That Should Not Stand

One of my favorite players is former NFL offensive lineman LeCharles Bentley. He breaks down line play as well as anyone. Recently, however, he did something far more important, shining a light on the sometimes toxic environment that permeates high school football.

Bentley acquired video of what looked like a coach shoving one of his players to the ground. When I remarked that the coach in that video should be fired, Bentley tweeted he had other examples of abuse.

Good for Bentley.

    

10. In the NFL's Defense...

Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

After I wrote about the sham that is the NFL's concussion protocol last week, the league sent me quotes from a media briefing in which Dr. Allen Sills, NFL chief medical officer, addressed questions about the procedures. There were two quotes from the lengthy discussion that I thought were relevant and worth sharing.

First, Sills was asked how many concussion evaluations there have been this season (the discussion happened before this past weekend's games).

"It is 379 that we have done in the preseason and the season thus far," Sills said. "Those are just the amount of times that people were screened. And to be clear, we want that number to remain high. We want to have a high bar set for screening. Our motto to all of our personnel on game day is if you see something, say something. We want anyone who has a concern to point it out; we want to be very aggressive in our screening."

Second, Sills spoke about the game's spotters, the ones who look for hard hits and alert medical professionals. The spotter system has been harshly criticized by some as ineffective.

"It is important to realize that you can't diagnose a concussion off of video," he said. "There is no medical professional or scientific body in the world that would say that video alone is sufficient to diagnose a concussion. We use the video and our ... spotters use the video to raise the possibility of an athlete needing to be screened. That is what the video is done for. Based on the video, we can identify if a player needs to be screened. We still rely on trained medical professionals to conduct an in-person, face-to-face examination of the players using our protocol to make the diagnosis of a concussion. That is what is done, and that is the recommendation that is made [by] every scientific body in the field."

    

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.