ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — For many, John Elway is the Denver Broncos.
His No. 7 is a familiar sight each day in the Rocky Mountain region, adorning both those who saw him play and those who wear a onesie a decade after he started his last game. With the Broncos opening training camp Wednesday, Elway, everybody’s All-American or not, is now in his ninth season as the Broncos’ top football executive and has arrived at a difficult football crossroads.
Maybe Elway’s job as the Broncos’ general manager and vice president of football operations is as difficult and all-consuming as his 15-year quest to win a Super Bowl as a player with the Broncos after three trips to the title game. The bottom line, as Elway approaches the decade mark as a team executive, is that the franchise he has called home for more than 30 years is on wobbly legs, and he has been unable to steady it.
“It was way worse when he was a player,” former Broncos wide receiver Rod Smith said. “I promise you it was worse when he played. It’s just social media makes it look worse now. The difference is when he played, he was in control of everything he did, and the result was in his hands. Now it’s a different job.”
It’s a job that now includes the following: The Broncos are coming off back-to-back seasons with at least 10 losses for the first time since the 1960s. They have two draft classes in the past four years — 2016 and 2017 — that have yielded far less pop than hoped. Linebacker Von Miller is the only Broncos draft pick on the current roster who has been named to a Pro Bowl (Chris Harris Jr. and Phillip Lindsay are undrafted players who were selected to the all-star game), and Miller was selected in 2011, Elway’s first year in his current job.
Perhaps most startling, in Elway’s tenure, the Broncos have had just one winning season — a 9-7 finish in 2016 — when Peyton Manning wasn’t on the roster.
It all has turned the clock back on Elway to a time former coach, former Broncos quarterback and longtime Elway friend Gary Kubiak has joked about: the time when “people used to stop me in the store and tell me I should be starting instead of [Elway] because they didn’t like the way things were going right then.”
“I mean, Peyton’s years count too,” former quarterback Jake Plummer said. “Signing Peyton was [Elway] too. It wasn’t like that was a no-brainer then with Peyton coming off the injury. I think people are so used to the Broncos winning, even [Elway] can’t escape that scrutiny. It just tells you how good the team has been for a long time.”
Plummer is correct. Elway orchestrated the recruiting of Manning and built the team around him. Those years, 2012-15, were a confetti-filled festival that included four division titles, four seasons of at least 12 wins, two Super Bowl appearances and one Super Bowl win.
The pre- and post-Manning years of Elway’s tenure have been marked by the team’s pursuit of somebody to play the position Elway played at a Hall of Fame level. There was the first-round fumble on Paxton Lynch and the one-year run of Case Keenum, plus the latest frustrating tenures now on the list. Elway’s first season on the job will be remembered by many fans as the Year of Tebow, with the Broncos going 8-8, winning a down AFC West and notching a notable wild-card win.
The three years since Super Bowl 50 have seen four starting quarterbacks (Trevor Siemian, Lynch, Brock Osweiler and Keenum), a balky, ill-fitting offense and a defense that has fallen hard off its 2015 perch as the league’s best.
Vic Fangio is the team’s fourth head coach in the past six years. The Broncos’ brass, including Elway, have often named “continuity” as a goal but have found it to be elusive at some of the most important jobs with the team — notably, quarterback and head coach.
“When you’ve been on both sides of it, winning and losing, when you know what it takes to get it done and what it looks like when you don’t get it done, that’s always the gap you’re trying to cross,” said former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, who met with Elway about a potential return before Fangio was hired.
“I think he’s done what I would expect him to do,” Shanahan said. “Look at the personnel, look at your coaching staff, and then look at yourself. He has looked at himself and said, ‘OK, how did we get in this situation?’ The most important thing for anybody in that job is to look and say, ‘How did we get here?’ That’s big. Sometimes I think we all want to avoid that kind of a thought, but it’s the key.”
Those who know him best say Elway is the single most competitive person they know, one who is beyond fierce in the pursuit of success.
For his part, Elway has said repeatedly this offseason that he has “looked in the mirror.”
“This is on me too. I’m responsible too,” Elway said. “And we have looked at everything — at all of our decisions, personnel and coaching.”
The two biggest decisions Elway made this offseason that must work if the Broncos want to climb out of their current hole were hiring the 60-year-old Fangio and signing 34-year-old quarterback Joe Flacco. Manning said earlier this summer that he believes Fangio will restore the kind of discipline and attention to detail “we need around here,” and Elway has been adamant that Flacco has plenty of “good football” left in him.
“Look, people need to understand the guy you’re talking about,” Smith said. “I’ve sat and watched him watch film while we were on a plane to go to [former Broncos assistant coach] Mike Heimerdinger’s funeral. Of course he’s frustrated, but successful people have thought about what they have to do when things don’t work out, not just about when things work out. … It takes a hard look at yourself to fix things, and I really don’t know anybody that takes a harder look at himself than he does.”