DENVER – Amazing to consider, but it’s only been 23 months since John Elway walked into a locker room party at Santa Clara. He stood there, radiant in suit and tie, as emperor of the NFL.
He had been one of the top four quarterbacks ever, leading the Broncos to five Super Bowls.
And on that day in Santa Clara, Calif., minutes after the Broncos pounded the Panthers in the Super Bowl, it seemed a superlative quarterback doubled as a genius at designing teams.
On Sunday at Mile High, I was thinking back to that moment while standing at halftime near a west gate to the stadium. Over the past 15 seasons, I almost always take a quick halftime walk to this gate, where I’ve seen a total of a few hundred fans take an early exit from all things Bronco.
On Sunday, thousands of fans hurried to their cars to escape a gray afternoon that froze their bodies and a vicious season that broke their hearts.
The Broncos were irrelevant. The Broncos had fallen apart.
And the blame for this collapse belongs with Elway, the lead villain in The Disaster of 2017.
Since Elway’s triumphant entrance in Santa Clara, the team has lost 18 of 32, and 2017’s 5-11 finish leaves rookie coach Vance Joseph teetering on the edge of his own exit.
Let’s be clear about who is most responsible. Elway didn’t find a worthy quarterback for Joseph, didn’t build a sturdy offensive line and didn’t sign an elite running back.
Elway did allow defensive coordinator extraordinaire Wade Phillips to depart to the Rams. You might have noticed Wade will again coach in the playoffs. No surprise there. The man is a genius.
The easy move is for Elway to dump Joseph. The rookie coach did not inherit a playoff-ready team, but he should have won at least two more games. He should have found ways to stop the team’s wandering. He should have yanked Trevor Siemian early against the Giants and in the Chargers shutout.
He should have. That could become his Bronco epitaph.
And yet ...
Joseph has less responsibility for the current Broncos struggles than Elway. Because of his past with the franchise, Elway isn’t worried about employment. I get that. I support that.
Let’s see what Joseph can do with a properly constructed team. Let’s see how many wins Joseph can deliver with a legit quarterback (Case Keenum?) and offense.
Dumping Joseph after a season will satisfy millions of enraged and depressed Bronco fans, but dumping Joseph will welcome chaos into the heart of a proud franchise.
Free agents, at least the wise ones, will not flock to a franchise that hires a coach in January and fires him in December. And it will be the wise, tough free agents who transform this broken team.
“I want to be here,” Joseph said in a steady voice a few minutes after the Chiefs defeated his Broncos 27-24. “... I want to be here to fix it.”
Still, everyone knows who the prime fixer will be. And everyone knows his history.
After the 2013 season, Elway rebuilt the Broncos from a space-age, hugely entertaining and kind of soft offensive machine into a stone-age and brutish defensive squad inhabited by football muggers. This reconstruction was the work of a master, and the master’s mind has not gone anywhere.
He can deliver those wonders again.
Von Miller spent most of his time with the media in a rambling monologue, his thoughts scrambled after a long, bitter season.
Von was clear about one subject:
“He’s going to take care of this,” Miller said of Elway. “I have all the faith in Elway.”
Only 23 months ago, the entire population of the Front Range carried this faith deep in their guts. No. 7 could solve any football problem. He had once changed, while scrambling around the field, defeat to victory. Then he did the same changing while wearing a suit.
Anything seemed possible in that locker room in Santa Clara. Anything still is.
If Elway returns to being Elway after his two-year vacation.