The biggest dilemma for the Denver Broncos in the post-John Elway era has been finding the next John Elway.
His legacy left a massive hole that’s impossible to fill. And while it’s impossible, even absurd and unnecessary, it’s still the reality around here.
The quarterback position is the most celebrated, and most fundamentally important, position in football. But in Denver, that importance is magnified times ten.
True, the expectations are unfair. Most quarterbacks in the NFL would just like to become a regular starter. Having to be the next John Elway is asking too much.
But the precedent has been set: the memories of dramatic come-from-behind wins and Super Bowl victories...and there is just no getting around it.
Brian Griese never had a chance. Jake Plummer was inconsistent, but at times very productive and even exceptional. He led the Broncos to the playoffs in three straight seasons.
He was productive enough to match and even surpass some of Elway’s passing records. And in the end, it wasn’t enough.
He lost to Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger in the playoffs. He was no Elway.
Then came Jay Cutler, who seemed to fit a lot of the prerequisites. His passes were magnificent at times. He was blessed with a great arm, and could throw his way back into any game. Then again, he could easily throw his way out of any game. Then he would sit and pout.
Always with that smug, wretched look; perhaps he never looked right in a Broncos uniform. Fans could sense this, but many chose to overlook it because of Jay’s obvious talent.
The Cutler era was quickly ended with the arrival of head coach Josh McDaniels. And many had initially thought that McDaniels could solve the dilemma of replacing Elway.
The early belief was that McDaniels was a young, hoodie-wearing wizard when it came to game-planning and X’s and O’s. His system could transform any quarterback with reasonable accuracy and arm into Tom Brady.
The quest to replace John Elway had been replaced with the need to find the next Tom Brady.
With some emphasis off the quarterback, and more of it on the system, the thinking was that Kyle Orton could be more than adequate. Jay Cutler was long gone.
But once the losing started in Denver, and when it was clear that the wizardry and magic would never come, questions began emerging about whether Kyle Orton was the right fit.
He threw a lot of safe, short passes that didn’t add up to much in 2009. And there must have also been questions and concerns for Josh McDaniels, since he traded for Brady Quinn and drafted Tim Tebow in the offseason.
The Brady Quinn trade was a big move at the time, but was invalidated by the drafting of Tim Tebow. It helped expose Josh McDaniels and the illusion that he could make any quarterback great in his offense.
It became apparent that Josh was not ready for this level of decision-making. He lacked patience and prudence.
Meanwhile, his system had been exposed on the football field. The bubble-screens and gimmick plays weren’t going to cut it, and it turned out that replacing Tom Brady wasn’t so easy after all.
McDaniels was removed, but the dilemma persists.
The Denver Broncos have three potential starting quarterbacks (Orton, Tebow and Quinn), thanks to the lockout, and will struggle to find a new identity until this riddle is solved.
Elway must know that the Denver Broncos cannot make the next step until they establish a very distinguishable line between starting quarterback and back-up.
The line does not have to be created now, not during the lockout, since there is the obvious need to create trade value for whichever quarterback is deemed expendable.
But this question can’t go unanswered for too long. The Colts, Saints, Chargers, Patriots, Packers, Falcons, Steelers, Ravens don’t have this problem going into 2011, and not surprisingly, those are the premier teams in the NFL.
John Elway realizes that his departure created this void. He must also know that his return can signal an end to this relentless, but avoidable, search for the next John Elway.
Maybe Elway’s return is more symbolic than we initially thought. The hope is that Elway and John Fox can bring Denver a very good quarterback that can get them back to the Super Bowl.
That’s the real goal, after all. And it’s far more realistic than replacing John Elway.