If Colorado sports fans were to carve the images of four of their greatest idols into the side of some granite cliffside, they’d no doubt have to reserve at least two places for John Elway. The Duke of Denver is a golden god among loyal sports fans in the Rocky Mountain west. So, when owner Pat Bowlen hired the Hall of Fame gunslinger to run the Denver Broncos football operations prior to the 2011 campaign, a palpable giddiness could be felt in sports bars all across the Mile High City.
On the surface, Elway’s time as Broncos Vice President of Football Operations and General Manager could be described as a smashing success. The team’s gone 49-22 with Elway at the helm. They’ve won four consecutive division titles. They even played in their first Super Bowl in a decade and a half. However, if fans take a closer look at just how Elway has built this roster, they’ll find more holes than a field full of prairie dogs.
Elway’s disguised those holes by throwing piles upon piles of cash at veteran free agents. He’s created a top-heavy roster with lots of big names, but little depth or homegrown talent. Whether it’s Wes Welker, Shaun Phillips, DeMarcus Ware, or Peyton Manning (the king of all high-priced free agents), Elway’s become a master at throwing his legacy around and convincing players on the back nine of their careers to sign in Denver.
Instead of curing what’s ailed the Broncos roster, most of these signings have been nothing more than a series of overpriced Band-Aids. John Elway has spent his time as Denver’s GM trying to find enough cotton balls to fill the hole in the side of the Titanic. And as a result, after four remarkably successful seasons, this team is finally starting to take on water.
If any other NFL GM fired a head coach with a winning percentage of nearly 70%, there’d be serious questions about that GM’s ability to do the job. Yet, when Elway fired head coach John Fox, few asked questions.
If any other NFL GM repeatedly missed on early round draft picks, there’d be serious questions about that GM’s ability to do the job. Yet, out of Elway’s twelve picks in the first three rounds of the draft, only four (Von Miller, Rahim Moore, Orlando Franklin, and Derek Wolfe) have started more than thirteen games in the NFL. Few have asked serious questions about Elway’s competency on draft day.
If any other NFL GM promised to conduct a thorough search for their team’s next head coach, only to hire one of their best friends a week later, there’d be serious questions about that GM’s ability to do the job. Yet, when Elway hired his old roommate Gary Kubiak, in what is perhaps one of the most nepotistic hiring decisions of the modern NFL era, few asked questions. `
After three heart wrenching post-season defeats, wherein this team’s lack of depth and mental aptitude shined brighter than a fireworks show on the Fourth of July, Broncos fans must ask themselves the difficult question so few in local or national media have been willing to ask. Does John Elway actually know what he’s doing?
The history of great former players becoming front office executives in the NFL isn’t exactly what you’d call “storied.” In fact, Baltimore’s Ozzie Newsome is the only former Hall of Fame player in the modern era to have hoisted Lombardi’s trophy as a GM.
Many in NFL circles question Elway’s style of roster building. NFL consultant Chris Landry has publicly called him, “an incompetent general manager.” To Landry, and many like him around the league, Elway simply isn’t equipped to run a pro football franchise. Landry opined on #7’s style to Denver’s 104.3 the FAN earlier this month, “John’s a good guy. I like John. But, you can’t simply throw money at your roster and expect to build a champion. He’s got to draft better. John’s a player. He’s not a football guy.” Whether Landry’s assessment of Elway is entirely accurate or not, his point shouldn’t be underestimated.
For all of the considerable difficulties Elway's had in the early rounds of the draft, it should be noted that he's hit on late round players with fairly regular consistency. Nate Irving, Julius Thomas, Danny Trevathan, Malik Jackson and Virgil Green have all contributed to the team's recent success. And Elway's found some diamonds in the rough off the post-draft refuse pile in Chris Harris, Jr. and C.J. Anderson.
However, Elway's mantra has been to win "from now on." To meet that goal, Elway has to succeed in drafts 1-3 the same way as he's succeeded in rounds 4-7. Elway's greatest accomplishment since becoming head honcho at Dove Valley is the signing of Peyton Manning. That move paid dividends for Denver. Had Elway not been in charge, Manning almost certainly would have signed elsewhere.
Elway can no longer afford to fill his roster with hired mercenaries. Including Demaryius Thomas’ impending franchise tag, and the $6-7M it will take to sign their draft picks, the Broncos will likely only have around $8M to work with this off-season. That means, for the first time since he’s been in charge, John Elway can’t afford to go on a spending spree when free agency opens up on March 10th.
Elway will have to rely on the draft to fill his team’s needs. Whether or not he fills the many holes on this roster, including glaring deficiencies along the offensive and defensive lines, could be the defining question of Elway’s time as General Manager of the Denver Broncos. This off-season will be the most important of Elway’s career.
Despite many promises, and flashy free agent signings, John Elway’s Denver Broncos have yet to deliver a world championship. However, for whatever reason, no one seems to be placing any blame whatsoever on the man in charge of the operation. Elway has consistently missed on his draft picks, made questionable hiring decisions, and overspent on free agent players.
If the Denver Broncos are going to finally claim that elusive world championship, Elway must address not just his roster’s deficiencies, but his own shortcomings as a front office executive. If 2015 ends in the familiar gut-wrenching despair that signaled the demise of the three previous Broncos seasons, the only person fans will be able to blame is the man they’ve spent nearly thirty two years idolizing.
It took John Elway fifteen years to win a world championship for the Denver Broncos wearing the team’s uniform. If he can’t honestly look himself in the mirror and asses what it takes to become a competent executive, it will take far longer for him to win another ring wearing a suit and tie.