Why John Elway Deserves Failing Grade as Denver Broncos Executive

Travis Wakeman@@traviswakeman10Featured Columnist IVMay 30, 2014

Denver Broncos vice president John Elway talks about this weeks NFL football draft during a news conference at the team's headquarters in Englewood, Colo., on Monday, May 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)
ed andrieski/Associated Press

Yes, you read the headline correctly. The great John Elway isn't the best front office executive in the NFL. At least not yet.

The word "failure" is something with which most Broncos fans would never tag Elway.

Elway has been part of Denver's front office since the 2011 season and once that season was complete, the team and general manager Brian Xanders parted ways. This gave Elway complete control of the team from a football perspective.

There is no doubting Elway's passion for the Denver Broncos. He wants to put the team in a position to win the Super Bowl every year. He would also like to get team owner Pat Bowlen at least one more Lombardi Trophy.

However, his career in the front office is starting out much like his playing career did.

Being the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft, Elway came to Denver via a trade, and with him came plenty of hype.

But as a rookie, he completed just 47.5 percent of his passes and threw twice as many interceptions as he did touchdowns. Now, we all know that he went on to become one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game, but he went through some growing pains.

As an executive, he is experiencing some of the same thing. Let's dissect some of his poor decisions.

Free Agency

Elway has been aggressive on the free-agent market the past two seasons, bringing in players like Wes Welker, DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib. He has not been afraid to hand out hefty contracts to make the team better.

It's hard to consider the moves to get Ware and Talib excellent decisions at this point because of the fact that they've yet to do anything in a Denver uniform. Sure, they're great moves on paper, but that won't win football games.

DENVER, CO - JANUARY 19:  Aqib Talib #31 of the New England Patriots kneels over on the ground after colliding with Wes Welker #83 of the Denver Broncos during the AFC Championship game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on January 19, 2014 in Denver,
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

In the case of Talib, Elway seriously overspent. The Broncos reportedly signed the veteran corner to a six-year deal worth up to $57 million.

The very next day, the New England Patriots managed to bring in Darrelle Revis to play cornerback for them.

So while the Broncos wrestled away a former member of the Patriots, New England landed a player who still has the ability to be the league's best at his position.

What did Denver get? They got a guy who has left the last two AFC Championship Games due to injury and one who has never played a full 16-game season in his career. Not one.

Elway should have worked harder to land Revis. Not only did the Broncos get the lesser of the two cornerbacks, but it also allowed one of the main roadblocks to a Super Bowl in the AFC, New England, to get him.

Now Revis can pester Peyton Manning whenever the late-season showdown between Denver and New England occurs.

Questionable Draft Picks

Sharon Ellman/Associated Press

It's nearly impossible to hit on every one of your draft picks, but Elway needs to get much better in the earlier portion of the draft.

In 2012, Elway traded out of the first round and the team's first pick was used in the second round on defensive lineman Derek Wolfe.

Wolfe had a good rookie season, but he was saddled with injuries his second year. The Broncos hope he can get back his rookie form.

However, Doug Martin was on the board and the Broncos had the chance to select him. Running back was a need for the Broncos in that draft, and all Martin did as a rookie was rush for 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also caught 49 passes.

But he did all of that for Tampa Bay, the team that selected him after the Broncos traded out of the round.

What did Elway do for a running back? He chose Ronnie Hillman, a player with a fumbling issue who will be lucky to make the team in 2014.

This pick came after Elway used the team's other second-round choice on quarterback Brock Osweiler, an intriguing prospect but one who hasn't started a game in two seasons and won't as long as Manning is in town.

When Manning leaves, is Osweiler the answer as his successor? No one really knows based on the small sample size we've seen. Elway sure believed in him, though.

In 2013, the Broncos chose defensive tackle Sylvester Williams out of North Carolina and this year, Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby was the choice.

Where is the middle linebacker the team hasn't had for what seems like an eternity?

The jury is still out on Williams, but with Kevin Vickerson, Terrance Knighton and even Mitch Unrein already in the mix, selecting him wasn't a wise choice in the first round.

Linebacker Alec Ogletree went two picks later. He'd sure look good in a Broncos uniform right about now.

Knowshon Moreno

Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Is Knowshon Moreno an elite running back? Probably not, but he performed very well in 2013 and was key in the team's run to the Super Bowl.

Not only did Moreno atone for the disappointing years he had since being drafted No. 12 overall in 2009, but he became the first player in Broncos history to run for over 1,000 yards and have at least 500 yards receiving in the same season.

How was he rewarded? Well, he wasn't. Denver made no attempt to retain him and let him leave via free agency.

The Broncos will turn to second-year running back Montee Ball, asking him to shoulder a heavy load.

All of that could be overlooked if not for two major reasons. Elway could have kept Moreno in Denver, even if just for one more season, for relatively cheap. The Miami Dolphins were able to sign him to a one-year, $3 million deal.

Troubling matters is the fact that behind Ball, the Broncos have no certainties. They will choose between fumble-prone Hillman, the unproven C.J. Anderson or an undrafted rookie to be Ball's main backup.

Having the combination of Moreno and Ball, as they did last season, would make the Broncos much better as a unit than they are right now.

Peyton Manning

That brings us to Elway's biggest decision since obtaining his position within the organization. This is the transaction that separates Elway from every other general manager in the league.

This wouldn't even be a discussion if not for the fact that Elway was able to lure Manning to Denver after the Indianapolis Colts severed ties with the best player in their team's history since moving from Baltimore.

But was it the right decision for the Broncos?

Elway risked quite a bit in signing Manning to a five-year deal. That wasn't because of Manning's history with neck surgeries. The bigger risk was the fact that Elway put himself in a position where the team would need to do one thing and one thing only—win the Super Bowl.

No one is going to argue Manning's place in NFL history. He is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, without any doubt. He has come to Denver and torched the record books, giving fans hope that the team will indeed hoist the Lombardi Trophy again very soon.

They almost did last year when Manning put up 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns through the air. The argument can be made that it was the greatest statistical season any player has ever had.

But when the Broncos got to the Super Bowl, they were flattened by a superior opponent.

In signing Manning, Elway was able to usher Tim Tebow and all the hoopla he brought with him out the door. He did this despite Tebow being nearly 12 years younger than Manning and fresh off leading the team to the divisional round of the playoffs.

Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

If you want to mention that Tebow "can't throw" and had poor mechanics, make sure you also consider that he was 7-4 as a starter in 2011, and he led the team to a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, the defending AFC champions, in the playoffs.

Sure, the defense stepped up in a big way and Matt Prater's leg helped them win some of those games, but does any of that happen with Kyle Orton under center? Very simply, no. Tebow may have been unconventional, but he was a natural leader who still had plenty of good football in front of him. Elway chose to go another direction and in doing so, painted himself into a corner.

If Manning doesn't win the Super Bowl while he's in Denver, then his signing can and will be considered a bad move. He can continue to set records and put up astounding numbers. They'll all be meaningless if it doesn't lead to the team's ultimate goal.

The difference between losing in the Super Bowl and having the worst record in the league is a matter of where you pick in the draft. 

Organizations such as Seattle and San Francisco have emerged as two of the strongest teams in the league with great scouting and excellent drafting. Elway could take some notes from them.  

Starting with defense and finding tough, athletic players has turned them into two of the most physical teams in the league.

On offense, neither team is very flashy, just consistent. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson was drafted in the third round and still wouldn't be listed by most as one of the top 10 or even top 15 quarterbacks in the league. But he is a perfect fit for his team, and he now has a Super Bowl ring because of it.

Teams win championships, not players. Elway should know that as well as anyone. No matter how many big names he brings in, he won't be able to buy a Super Bowl.

You may be telling yourself that Elway has been marvelous with some of the moves he has made. But everything reverts back to the decision that changed the franchise in March 2012. Elway put this on himself when he brought Manning to Denver. He has to be given a failing grade based on his own expectations.

Unless and until the Broncos win a Super Bowl, any talk of Elway being listed among the best executives in the league is premature.

If it happens, Elway will look like a hero for striking the deal with Manning. Denver fans likely don't want to consider the alternate scenario.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.