Elway was introduced during a ceremony that honored the 100 greatest Broncos as part of the NFL’s 100th season. Sporting his gold Hall of Fame jacket, Elway waved to a thunderous ovation.
John Elway’s football life comes with and without his gold jacket. With the jacket, Elway is on the NFL’s Mount Rushmore with a résumé of comebacks, wins and remember-when moments. A league and Super Bowl MVP, Elway made the Broncos a premier franchise during his 16-year career.
Even without the jacket, his presence remains everywhere in the Denver region, with vast business interests that include restaurants and auto dealerships as well as a variety of commercials.
He has also been the Broncos’ top football executive since 2011, and he built a Super Bowl team around an injured Peyton Manning while his first draft pick, Von Miller, emerged as Super Bowl 50 MVP.
But three straight non-playoff seasons, two straight losing seasons for the first time since the 1970s and a slow start to 2019 have fans conflicted about their feelings for Elway. With the jacket, support for Elway is unquestioned and unwavering. Without it, he pulls the strings for a team that is 13-27 since the beginning of the 2017 season, which makes him a constant drive-time piñata on local sports radio.
“I’ve always said I don’t know how you’re John Elway in this town,” former Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer said. “You don’t get bad days, you know what I mean? You’re John Elway, and you always have to win.”
Perhaps for the first time since he was a struggling rookie quarterback in 1983, the scoreboard isn’t in Elway’s favor.
“It’s hard to separate, in a lot of ways, for people, even for people who’ve played in the league, the player and the general manager,” former Broncos wide receiver Mike Pritchard said. “It’s John Elway, it’s the Broncos. But right now, it’s almost like people look at him like he’s two different people.”
After the Broncos’ 0-4 start this season, Elway steadfastly said none of his team’s players is on the trading block. The Broncos won their past two games but next face the defending division champion Kansas City Chiefs on Thursday (8:20 p.m. ET, Fox/NFL). The 0-4 start was the first by the Broncos since 1999, the year Elway retired as a player, and the back-to-back seasons of double-digit losses were the first since the 1960s.
The threat of three straight losing seasons is forcing opinions about Elway to change. As former Broncos guard Mark Schlereth, a national analyst for Fox and host of a morning radio show in Denver, said: “This is the first time since I’ve started doing radio the last four years that the fans are kind of coming after John Elway. All of the people who had posters of John Elway in their rooms, were John Elway fanboys … are now looking at what’s happened and kind of pointing to him.”
“He’s earned a lot of praise in this town — and deservedly so. He’s John Elway,” former Broncos tackle Tyler Polumbus said. “He’s missed on some draft picks, but Bill Belichick has missed on some draft picks. … This is the most heat John Elway has ever gotten in this town from the fanbase, and it’s not even close. The pressure is real, and it’s mounting, and it’s significant.”
Elway believes a team is measured by how it does over the long haul, and you have to “stack good seasons, stack good drafts” to consider yourself successful. But he is facing perhaps his tallest task in football now: being honest, accountable and aggressive enough to repair what he has overseen.
“The hardest thing about losing is you get in a situation where something bad happens in a game, and you say, ‘here we go again,’ and that is a very tough thing to break,” Elway said. “That’s what we’ve got to get out of. I think that’s hurt us a couple times.”
“Losing culture is like a virus. It just spreads,” Polumbus said. “… It’s a virus, and there is nothing that is harder to get rid of in the NFL.”
Based on interviews with more than three dozen former players, coaches, league sources and many others who have long associations with Elway on and off the field, the how-did-the-Broncos-get-here question boils down to three items: lackluster drafts, bad free-agency moves made to cover for bad drafts and turnover — at quarterback, head coach and the coordinator positions.
Let’s break down each of those points:
Edge rusher Von Miller is now 30 years old and in his ninth season. He was the first draft pick of Elway’s tenure and is the only Broncos draftee from 2011 through 2018 on the current roster who has been named to a Pro Bowl. (Running back Phillip Lindsay and cornerback Chris Harris Jr. were undrafted Pro Bowl players.)
Players taken in the first round are usually the foundation for a team from their rookie contracts to their second deals. Of the Broncos’ first-round picks between 2011 and 2015, however, Miller was the only one to sign a contract extension.
The roster-suffocating 2016 and 2017 drafts — when the Broncos shifted philosophy and took athletes over established players and far more players with injury concerns — continue to hamper the Broncos.
“Just a horrendous track record in those [years],” Schlereth said. “… [Elway] certainly knows it.”
The Broncos made 16 selections in the 2016 and 2017 drafts, and this past Sunday, three were in the starting lineup — safety Justin Simmons, center Connor McGovern and tackle Garett Bolles — and seven were in uniform for the game.
“That happens. You miss there, and decisions are made in free agency after that to spend, and then if those don’t work out, be it injuries or other reasons, there is no recourse. Those are the only two ways to get players,” former Broncos tackle Ryan Harris said. “And then if you trade Aqib Talib in his prime, trade Demaryius Thomas as well, things like that, it’s going to be difficult to overcome all of that together.”
Many in the league point to Elway’s long-standing relationship with director of player personnel Matt Russell as a potential issue during the post-Super Bowl lull. The Broncos lost two important voices in the personnel department during those years: former director of college scouting Adam Peters to the San Francisco 49ers and Tom Heckert to illness.
Heckert — a longtime personnel man — died in 2017 at age 51. He was the Broncos’ director of player personnel for four seasons and senior personnel adviser in 2017 before he stepped away from the team after the season.
The Broncos’ work in the drafts between 2011 and 2015 formed the guts of a two-time Super Bowl team. But the free-agency haul in 2014 — Talib, Emmanuel Sanders, DeMarcus Ware and T.J. Ward — paired with the addition of Manning in 2012 also played a major part.
The team’s free-agency record since then has been spotty. Although Sanders, Ware, Ward and Talib were all named to at least one Pro Bowl after they signed with Broncos, the only free agent signed after 2014 to be named to the Pro Bowl was safety Darian Stewart, who went as an injury replacement after the 2017 season.
That’s going to cause problems, Schlereth said. “They’ve spent huge money on really average players — just the right tackle position alone in the last four years: [Jared] Veldheer, Menelik Watson, Donald Stephenson and now Ja’Wuan James — and they haven’t gotten that return. Whether that’s injuries, performance, bad luck or whatever … that’s just one spot that represents a lot of others.”
Six games into the season, this year’s big-ticket free agents have been feast or famine. The Broncos made James the highest-paid right tackle in the league (four years, $51 million) and were optimistic about his arrival, but a knee injury 10 snaps into the season opener in Oakland has kept him off the field. Cornerback Bryce Callahan (three years, $21 million) hasn’t played at all because of complications from surgery in December to repair the foot fracture he was recovering from when the Broncos signed him. On the other hand, defensive back Kareem Jackson has been one of the defense’s best players thus far.
Since Manning retired 54 games ago, Joe Flacco is the fifth quarterback to start a game for the Broncos, Rich Scangarello is the fourth offensive coordinator, and Fangio is the third head coach.
“I don’t care who you are, what kind of team you had, nobody is getting through that unscathed,” one rival general manager said. “Every head coach, every coordinator wants a different kind of player, so you’re constantly stocking for the new guy. Can’t work, won’t work, never has worked.
“And if you miss on the quarterback, you’re f—ed. Get all three of those things [wrong], and you have the makings of a problem none of us wants.”
After leading the Broncos to their third Super Bowl victory, coach Gary Kubiak went 9-7 in 2016 and missed the playoffs before stepping away because of health concerns. Kubiak has long been considered an important voice the strong-willed Elway listened to through the years. The two were teammates before Kubiak became the Broncos’ offensive coordinator during Elway’s playing career.
Kubiak’s departure — he stayed with the Broncos in a personnel position until he returned to coaching with the Minnesota Vikings this season — led to Vance Joseph’s hiring. Joseph struggled to find the right mix at the three coordinator spots, and the Broncos missed on quarterback Paxton Lynch in the first round of the 2016 draft.
That’s when the dominoes started falling.
“The one word you want to hear from successful franchises is development, and there has been a time here when you haven’t really heard that because there’s been that change,” Ryan Harris said. “We’re seeing the start of it with Vic Fangio, but when I was with the Steelers, you couldn’t go 20 steps around the building, around the players, around the coaches without hearing about development of their own young players. … If you don’t develop your talent, you’re going to have the holes the Broncos have had, and you can’t develop if you’re moving on to the next guy all the time, calling plays or whatever, without some consistency somewhere in the chain.”
Fangio and Elway talked to Kubiak about a return to coaching when Fangio was hired in January, but Kubiak wanted to reconstruct much of his offensive staff from his time with the Broncos, including the addition of Rick Dennison, Brian Pariani and Klint Kubiak. Fangio and Elway had targeted others for those positions, including Mike Munchak as offensive line coach, and wanted only Kubiak, so Kubiak walked away, bringing his assistants with him to Minnesota.
“If Gary was still here, what is different? I don’t know,” Polumbus said. “… but stability at the head coach is by far the most important part of an organization. I think Vic has a chance to give them that.”
The long-term answer at quarterback continues to be an unsolved riddle. The Broncos are committed financially to Flacco next season. Beyond that, it’s unclear. Drew Lock, the team’s second-round pick in 2019, has plenty of work to do even if he returns from injured reserve this season.
“They just need some continuity in there. They can’t keep changing and changing and changing,” Plummer said. “It’s hard to overcome that. Assistant coaches are always going to leave if you do well, but if there’s a structure in place at the top, especially with the head coach and the QB, you overcome that.”
Can Elway turn it around?
Barring something unforeseen on or off the field, it’s unlikely that the Broncos will ever part with Elway. But if Elway can’t make this work, how long will he stick around?
As another longtime associate said: “The guy doesn’t need the headache. He’s succeeded at everything he does. He doesn’t need the money, but he won’t walk away without doing everything he can to fix it. Just my opinion, but he knows what’s happened — he does — and he’ll address it, and there is no way he hasn’t been harder on himself than any criticism he’s gotten anywhere else. People always said, ‘Hey, it’s Peyton F—ing Manning,’ when things got tough. Well, he’s been John F—ing Elway for his whole life. This is as important to him as anything can be.”
This past weekend, Elway said, “We dug the hole. We got to take it one at a time and dig out.”
Just before the dinner Friday night to celebrate the team’s top 100 players and former Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey’s addition to the team’s Ring of Fame, Elway was asked about the frustration of losing and whether he is in it for the long haul.
“Yeah,” he said emphatically, without hesitation. “I don’t like to lose, you know. It’s not enjoyable. All we can do is continue to work. Not a whole lot now we can do except try to play better.”
With that, Elway the Hall of Famer and Elway the football executive strolled into the dinner to celebrate the success he’s trying to replicate.