There was a time not so long ago when John Elway could end a season and say the Broncos’ expectations had not diminished, that Plan A remained the only plan, that competing for a Super Bowl title was the only option.
That was then.
The new reality is the Broncos’ general manager admitting his latest annual reconstruction will require a bit more work. And more time.
“When you’re 5-11, there are obviously some issues that we have to get handled,” Elway said. “I think that is our goal. That’s our mindset. Whether we can get there or not, I don’t want to raise the expectation level by saying, ‘Yes, automatically we’re going to get back there.’ But, our goals have not changed for the Denver Broncos and what we want to do — and that’s to compete for world championships. Now, we have to build towards that process. That starts now.”
It starts with finding new coaches for the vacancies they have. It continues with evaluating their current roster and potential pieces of their next one, via free agency, trades and the draft.
And it will focus primarily on finding a quarterback, some way, somehow, with Elway, a Hall of Fame quarterback, and Gary Kubiak, once his backup and now his right-hand man in the front office, leading the way. Kubiak rejoined the franchise last July and will take on a larger role this year as an evaluator of not just offensive talent in the upcoming draft, but also free agency.
The Broncos can choose from one of three options in finding their starting quarterback for 2018 and, as of now, they say they’re not sure which door offers the best solution.
With enough cap space, they could chase a veteran on the free-agent market or even trade for one.
With three quarterbacks under contract for next season, they could turn to Paxton Lynch or Trevor Siemian or Chad Kelly, though this increasingly appears to be the least likely option, if it’s truly one at all.
Or, with the No. 5 pick in the 2018 draft, they could snag a young quarterback with potential but likely needing time to develop.
“Going into it, we don’t know,” Elway said. “I think there is no doubt we have to get better at that position.”
In coming weeks the Broncos will scout free-agent candidates and the potential of draft prospects, a task that’s arduous and, many times, produces unexpected results.
They witnessed it first hand with their current crop of quarterbacks, whom Elway said didn’t perform as well as he expected in 2017. And the Broncos could very well be looking at developing a young quarterback again.
“In college you’re allowed to be a kid,” Elway said. “You come to the NFL and the expectation levels rise, especially if you’re a high pick. You’re expected to be good or show signs of being a very good player early. … What gets you here is your swagger and your confidence as quarterback. You have a chance to play in the NFL and that’s what gets you here and you can’t be afraid of it. Then all of a sudden if you get in the world and all of a sudden things aren’t going well, the world starts caving in on you and you lose that swagger or you lose that confidence, it’s very, very difficult to get it back.”
Mike Shanahan, former Broncos head coach, said evaluating the skills of a future NFL quarterback requires examination of his athletic talents but also the intangibles. The things the stat sheets can’t quantify.
“Work ethic is a big key,” Shanahan said. “Does he really love football? How does he process things? What’s his mental makeup? Is he a guy that’s shooting for perfection all the time? Or is he a guy that may be talented but doesn’t have the little things that are going to separate him from the rest of the pack?”
And, can they adjust to the pro game? Can they handle the really bad times, along with the good times.
“The college game has made it much more difficult to evaluate and, again, it goes back to the same thing as far as how we adjust our game in the NFL to take advantage of what those guys can do,” Elway said. “Can they be taught different things to be able to do in the pro game that you really need? You have to be under center more. You can’t be in shotgun every down. … That’s all part of the evaluation and trying to figure out if those guys can make that transition.”
The transition has proved difficult for some quarterbacks, especially those who ran a spread offense in college. That transition can also require time and the perfect environment, and there was perhaps no greater testament to that than Jared Goff, the Rams’ No. 1 overall pick in 2016 who struggled as a rookie but blossomed in his second season under rookie head coach Sean McVay.
Creating that perfect storm with a young quarterback isn’t easy. The Broncos’ top football decision-maker should know.
“Obviously it’s not ideal, but I would say this: I did it. It was tough,” Elway said. “You drink through a fire hose. But then again, if you make it through that, you have a chance to be tough enough to handle it in this league, too.”
Though the Broncos have found talent on the defensive side through the draft and the pool of college free agents, their offensive selections have paled in comparison and as Elway begins his next roster remake, he does so with a less sturdy foundation.
Denver still has a top-five defense, but with so many moving parts, they could find themselves having to pony up more money to convince a free agent to join a rebuild. And should Elway opt for a rookie quarterback, the year of transition could easily spill over into 2019.
“I think every time you make a choice or make a decision on a guy, you see how it turns out. Then you look at it and ask, ‘How could I have gotten better? What did I miss? What did I get?’ ” Elway said. “… I don’t have all the answers. I want to search and find all the answers because I want this team to be as good as they can possibly be. I’m fortunate in the fact that I played for a long time. I’ve been in this job now for seven years, therefore, I’m always trying to get better. As soon as I think I have it down, I’ll retire.”