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David Ramsey: John Elway risked Broncos' future when he let Wade Phillips walk away

July 30, 2017 Updated: July 31, 2017 at 12:02 pm
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Risk. It’s John Elway’s thing.

In February, The King of the Broncos risked the 2017 season when he let Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips walk away from his violent, magnificent defense. Phillips had just completed another coaching masterpiece in 2016, nearly carrying a busted offense to the playoffs.

Elway, Mr. Risk, let him walk anyway.

If Wade had returned for 2017, the Broncos would have been in no danger of tumbling into the NFL’s bottom half. The defense, under Wade’s crafty direction, would have kept the Broncos hovering, at worst, around 8-8.

With Wade working in Los Angeles with the Rams, a long tumble in the direction of the bottom is possible. That’s the risk Elway took.

New coordinator Joe Woods was a wise hire. He’s coached the Broncos secondary the past two seasons. He shares Wade’s amped-up, attack-first philosophy and understands the complicated, volcanic personalities on the defensive roster. So, Elway and coach Vance Joseph made the right move after the potentially franchise-altering wrong move of allowing Wade to depart.

Safety Darian Stewart offered strong analysis of the transition.

“I felt like there wasn’t a better coach ready for the opportunity,” Stewart said. “Wade was a great coach, but if you replace him, what better person than Joe.”

Let’s get back to that wrong move.

In 2015, Wade became a Colorado folk hero after his defense lugged a broken-down offense to NFL supremacy. Peyton Manning looked more like a 79-year-old than a 39-year-old during the final three quarters of Super Bowl 50, but his struggles barely mattered. The defense, under Wade’s direction, devoured Cam Newton and his Panthers.

Wade and his defense were nearly as stingy and scary in 2016. If you want one game to sum up last season, examine the Dec. 18 battle with the Patriots. Denver defenders swarmed Tom Brady, beating up No.  12 while holding him to 188 yards passing. A mighty defense subdued a powerful offense. The Pats crawled to 16 points. (They would average 36 points in their next five games.)

One problem: The Broncos scored only three points. In the three weeks in December that buried the season, the Broncos offense scored a total of 23 points against the Titans, Patriots and Chiefs.

Phillips, meanwhile, delivered a near repeat of the wonders of 2015. The Broncos ranked third in points allowed (296) in 2015. They ranked fourth (297) in 2016.

A few days after Wade’s departure, Von Miller spoke truth about his former mentor.

“Phillips will go down as one of the best defensive coordinators to ever coach the game,” Miller said.

So why replace one of the all-time greats?

Answer:

That’s how Elway operates.

In 2012, he took a chance on a brittle quarterback who seemed well past his prime. Elway paid Manning $96 million over five seasons, a level of cash usually reserved for healthy superstars. All the thrills and triumphs of The Manning Era blur the initial risk of the venture.

On Jan. 12, 2015, Elway banished head coach John Fox. The move came less than a year after Fox led the Broncos to victory over Bill Belichick and the Patriots in the AFC Title Game. Fox had won 38 of 48 regular-season games along with four straight AFC West titles. The man even won the AFC West with Tim Tebow as his quarterback.

Elway, a gambler, wanted even more.

We all know how this risk turned out. Gary Kubiak again joined forces with Elway and directed the Broncos to a Super Bowl title. (With a lot of help from Wade.)

Taking risks is fun, which explains those humongous buildings on the Vegas Strip. But taking risks also carries danger, which explains those weeping, suddenly penniless men and women on the same Strip.

On June 6, 2013, the Kroenkes fired coach George Karl after Furious George led the Nuggets on nine straight trips to the playoffs. The Nuggets had won 57 games in 2012-13, a franchise record. Didn’t matter. The Kroenkes wanted more.

The Nuggets fell out of the sky after Karl’s departure. His dismissal remains a day that lives in Colorado sports infamy.

Elway was a superlative NFL quarterback, one of the two or three best ever. He’s become, largely because of his defiant nerve, a master NFL exec, too. He’s traveled beyond beloved status in Colorado.

He’s revered.

But allowing Wade to walk puts him, and his franchise, at risk of adding another day to that infamy list.

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