By Accepting the Mess He Created in Denver, John Elway May Find a Way to Fix It

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterOctober 3, 2019

Denver Broncos general manager and president of football operations John Elway is seen before the start of an NFL football game between the Denver Broncos and Green Bay Packers Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019, in Green Bay, Wis. (AP Photo/Mike Roemer)
Mike Roemer/Associated Press

The hardest thing about writing a column on the sorry state of the Denver Broncos is finding something new to say.

Should we rip John ElwayBeen there, done that. Roast Joe Flacco? That got stale circa 2014. Rehash the litany of post-Peyton Manning quarterback catastrophes? Let's give Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch and Brock Osweiler the rest of this article off. 

This year's 0-4 Broncos are not very different from last year's 6-10 Broncos, which were a lot like 2017's 5-11 Broncos, who were a version of 2016's 9-7 Broncos that were left out of the refrigerator overnight, and all of them were just straight-to-video sequels of the 2015 Super Bowl Broncos. 

But instead of dwelling on the past, it's time to figure out what Elway and the Broncos can do to create a brighter future.

The only new development in the wake of Denver's miserable start is that it sounds like the veterans want out.

"I ain't saying nothing. Thirteen more weeks for me," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said after Sunday's loss to the Jaguars, per Mark Kiszla of the Denver Post

"Same [bleep], different week," Shelby Harris said in Ryan O'Halloran's Denver Post game autopsy, which also mentions "intense words" between Broncos veterans and youngsters. 

Even before Sunday's loss, there was Von Miller's 13-second press conference, which wasn't exactly a sign of happy locker room leadership in Denver. 

Disgruntled veterans would be a problem for most teams. But they may be the solution for the Broncos, because their disenchantment could finally prompt Elway to clean house.

Denver is the most poorly self-scouted team in the NFL. Well-run organizations aggressively, painfully self-evaluate, making sure they recognize and correct their own flaws before opponents can exploit them. The Broncos have been looking in the mirror for four years and seeing champions, even as the roster around the Miller core got weaker each year.

So while Elway may have sown the seeds for this year's disaster with his preference for conservative head coaches and game-manager quarterbacks, those decisions all earned Miller and company's seal of approval. 

Chris Harris Jr. is among a number of veterans who have done little to hide their disappointment with the direction of the Broncos.
Chris Harris Jr. is among a number of veterans who have done little to hide their disappointment with the direction of the Broncos.David Zalubowski/Associated Press/Associated Press

Broncos veterans hailed Case Keenum's arrival last year and stressed the need for leadership from the quarterback position after two years of flailing youngsters. Flacco's arrival was praised via very similar words. New coach Vic Fangio was also a popular choice among veterans, particularly on defense: Derek Wolfe called him "exactly the type of coach this team needs." Miller said things were going to be "10 times better" under Fangio. About a dozen Broncos veterans attended Fangio's press conference in January, like Senate leadership that publicly shows up to support a controversial bill.

Miller, Emmanuel Sanders, Harris and others remain very good players, but they are not a scouting department or a front office. Their belief that the Broncos could still be defense-first, ball-control champions made them Elway's enablers: The worse his decisions were, the more popular in the locker room his choices became.

It took four years for everything to bottom out. The offense now does what it's designed to do: methodically hammer out 17-20 points and hope the defense will do the rest. But the defense can no longer keep up appearances: It still hasn't forced a turnover and was held without a sack through three games, Leonard Fournette gouged the unit for 225 rushing yards last week, and Bradley Chubb's season-ending torn ACL is about to make things even worse.

Elway has given the veterans everything they wanted for years. He should grant them one last favor and set them free.

Harris could fetch a premium from any team that needs cornerback help but is balking at Jalen Ramsey's price tag and baggage. Sanders could start for just about any contender in the league. Veterans like Wolfe might also appeal to contenders who are looking for a short-term boost. Miller's giant contract and face-of-the-franchise status might make him untradeable, but Elway should at least listen to any Khalil Mack-sized offers.

We're not talking about tanking for a decade or anything. After suffering through a near-biblical draft famine from 2012 through 2017, the Broncos finally have some young talent on the roster. Chubb, Courtland Sutton, Phillip Lindsay, Royce Freeman, Josey Jewell, Dalton Risner and Noah Fant are quality building blocks for the immediate future. A veteran fire sale would force the Broncos to start over, but they wouldn't be starting from scratch.

Denver also has a potential quarterback of the future in Drew Lock, who is like a freewheeling designer-knockoff version of Patrick Mahomes. Lock looked like a kitten who wandered into the Westminster Kennel Club in preseason action before he suffered a thumb injury, so he may not be ready to replace Flacco just yet. Just as important, the Broncos may not be ready for a quarterback like Lock.

Elway prefers the sort of offensive scheme his longtime majordomo, Gary Kubiak, successfully orchestrated 10-15 years ago: zone-stretch running, play-action passing, simple under-center formations—the strategic equivalents of a flip phone or a 16-bit gaming console. 

Drew Lock showed some signs in the preseason that he could be the Broncos' quarterback of the future, but an injury to his finger and an offensive scheme not built for his talents have delayed his impact.
Drew Lock showed some signs in the preseason that he could be the Broncos' quarterback of the future, but an injury to his finger and an offensive scheme not built for his talents have delayed his impact.Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Elway even wanted Kubiak to step down from his front-office consigliere role to be Denver's offensive coordinator this year; Kubiak opted for an advisory role in Minnesota instead (and gee, that's turned out swell so far), so Elway turned to longtime knockaround assistant Rich Scangarello. He got precisely what he hoped for: a copy of a copy of an offense better suited for dreary game-managing veterans than an improvisor like Lock or most other top quarterback prospects. 

The Broncos need fresh ideas and voices, particularly on offense. Fangio—who deserves more than four games to be evaluated as a head coach after 40 years as an assistantis the perfect coach to pair with some wunderkind, whether it's a Sean McVay clone (the McVay coaching tree is a close cousin to the Kubiak-Mike Shanahan tree, so the whippersnappers shouldn't intimidate Elway too much), a Big 12 guru or anyone else who realizes that handing off on 2nd-and-10 and throwing shallow crosses on 3rd-and-9 are bad ideas.

Fiddling and meddling with the coaching staff is the sort of classic Elway move that got the Broncos into this mess in the first place. But just as appeasing his veterans now means cutting them loose, a proper coaching-staff housecleaning would be a way of turning Elway's impulses into positive changes. 

Elway's greatest asset as a team president has always been that he's John Freakin' Elway. He's NFL royalty. He has clout and job security (aided, in part, by the Broncos' unfortunate ownership situation) that few other executives can match. He could trade Von Miller because he's a bigger name than Von Miller. He can make rock-star coaching candidates offers they could not refuse. He can take the biggest swings and not worry about the consequences of striking out. But he has squandered his powers on has-been quarterbacks and play-it-safe philosophies while trying to re-create an unrepeatable Super Bowl run.

Elway can turn things around, though, by going Full Elway: bold trades, aggressive decisions, taking the organizational equivalent of the down-the-field shots no one else in the NFL would dare to attempt back when he was a quarterback.

But the first step is for Elway to actually want to do those things. Veteran frustration may finally be what it takes for him to take that step and give us something new to talk about in Denver.


 Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.