John Elway confronts the second most, and perhaps last, significant challenge of his career as a football executive.
He must procure a Mile High-quality quarterback.
“For us to have a chance to get better, we’ve got to get better at that position,’’ the Broncos’ president of football operations said the past week.
Better get after it, John.
Elway’s first major gamble was persuading Peyton Manning to come to Denver. He succeeded, and the Broncos won 55 of 72 games, captured four division titles, advanced to two Super Bowls, and were ultimately world champions.
In two seasons since, the Broncos are 14-18 with no playoff appearances.
John loves to meet tackles head-on -- The Drive and The Helicopter. And his inaugural resolution after turning professional was to refuse to play for the franchise that drafted him No.1 overall.
Elway is excited and incited by the quarterback possibilities. Especially because he was the one of the five greatest to play the game, yet his own judgement about young quarterbacks has been disapproved, disparaged and decried.
None of the five QBs he drafted in six seasons has become a promising star or even a legitimate starter. Of the past season, he said: “Obviously, that position didn’t perform as well as we wanted it to.’’
Notice that Elway couldn’t even say “quarterback’’ to describe the three who were on a careening, out-of-control carousel the past season.
Elway learned to evaluate talent from his late father Jack Elway – the long-time successful college football coach who was prominent in the Broncos’ scouting and personnel department for eight years in the 1990s when the Broncos had the best three-season run in NFL history (45-10, with two Super Bowl victories).
When Elway turned 50, he mused to me about studying films of college players with his dad. The younger Elway dismissed a quarterback for being too short. Elway the Elder said he had to look beyond size “and at the player’s competitiveness and into his heart.’’ That quarterback was Drew Brees.
Elway will recall his father’s advice as he considers the college and veteran quarterbacks the Broncos reach for in 2018.
This choice will be critical to the Broncos’ future and their attempts to return to glory. Elway will be 58 in June. His five-year contract is scheduled to run through the 2021 season. He likely will stay until the Broncos are stable or in the Super Bowl again, and after either Beth Bowlen Wallace or Brittany Bowlen, or both, take over their father Pat’s ownership.
John seeks a quarterback who will be the Broncos’ starter and star for 10 years, or even 16 (the number of seasons he played), before he leaves.
He can’t make another bad pick.
The Broncos have the fifth overall pick in the first round, and five quarterbacks – Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Heisman Trophy winners Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson – will be debated, deliberated and drafted among the first 32.
Do the Broncos end up with one of that quintet, or with a quarterback from another team – Kirk Cousins, Case Keenum, Eli Manning, Sam Bradford, Tyrod Taylor, A.J. McCarron, Alex Smith. When Elway describes the assets of a QB, he always seems to be talking about his own virtues. “Swagger’’ is one attribute he likes. That’s why John was nicknamed “The Duke,’’ after John Wayne.
Mayfield has swagger, attitude, talent, but he’s shorter than advertised. Tall quarterbacks haven’t served Elway well. Cousins is the guy who screamed after a victory over the Washington victory over the Packers “How do you like me now?’’
A college quarterback’s contract will cost the Broncos $25 million over four years. Cousin’s price will be about $30 million a year.
Does Elway attempt to “get better at the position’’ with one veteran free agent – Bradford (who the Broncos contemplated before) – for the short run and one rookie – Allen – for the long term, or does he go all-in on Cousins, or put all hopes in on trading up to draft Darnold?
Elway will have a Plan A, and B (as in Baker) and C (as in Cousins) and several other letter plans in the next four months.
The game, as Sherlock Holmes suggested, is afoot.