Updated: Aug 23, 2021
Ever since John Elway raised the Lombardi Trophy with Peyton Manning on February 7th, 2016, the Broncos Executive VP and General Manager has seen his franchise take a nosedive, missing the playoffs the next four seasons, going 27-37 during that time period.
Part of the reason for this was John Elway’s odd obsession with Paxton Lynch. In early May of 2018, an article written by Chris Wesseling for NFL.com quoted Elway as saying “We are not kicking him to the curb…..He [Lynch] can still develop. When we drafted him two years ago, as I said, we knew it was going to take some time." However, after multiple seasons of Lynch failing to seize the starting spot over several others (Trevor Semien, Case Keenum) he was released in 2019, making the QB position even more of a jostle between veteran field generals while the former first-round pick was cut and is now fighting for a roster spot in the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback room.
Fast forward to the last offseason and there were a lot of questions about whether John Elway was still capable of success on the executive level, despite only being three years removed from his victory in Super Bowl 50 and having a long history of successful drafting with the exception of Paxton Lynch (Von Miller, Danny Trevathan, Courtland Sutton, Dalton Risner, Connor McGovern and several other key players throughout his tenure). Even the Denver faithful who had watched John Elway give up his body to win their city their first (and second) Lombardi Trophy were beginning to question Elway and his management skills. In an article written for ESPN in late 2019, Jeff Legwold used a quote from former Broncos player Mark Schlereth who described Broncos fans morale towards Elway at an all-time low, even suggesting that the ‘Elway Fanboys’ would be tearing down their posters on the wall and joining the growing ranks of Broncos fans who had finally had enough of the 2x Super Bowl champion and wanted him to step out of the way So with all of this pressure mounting in mid-2019, Elway’s job was questioned more than ever. He had just drafted Drew Lock, who, while promising, did not excite Broncos fans as their franchise QB (until he went word-for-word with Jeezy), and at the beginning of the season, it seemed as though his last efforts to save the roster and possibly his job may have been hopeless, starting the season 3-8 heading into week 13, when Elway and the Broncos organization made their final possible move and started the rookie QB against the Los Angeles Chargers. In his debut Drew Lock threw for just over 130 yards and 2 TDs with 1 INT in a win, not the worst debut, not the best; but the following week, in Houston against the eventual AFC South champions, Lock put on a show, throwing for 3 TDs and over 300 yards, out-dueling the established and experienced Deshaun Watson on the other side of the ball and winning on the road against a playoff team. Lock would finish the season 4-1 as a starter, with his only loss coming from the eventual Super Bowl champions, the Kansas City Chiefs, as the Broncos would end up 7-9 on the year.
With the development of Drew Lock comes the need to bring him skill position assets and help on the offensive line. After the drafting of Paxton Lynch, Elway finished the draft by picking two tailbacks, two safeties, a guard, and a punter. One offensive lineman, and no wideouts or tight ends to develop chemistry with, and that was one of the reasons that Paxton Lynch never really settled into Denver. Elway made sure not to make the same mistake in this years NFL Draft, taking three receivers (one of whom was rated by many as the best WR in the draft) a tight end to pair up with Noah Fant, and signed Melvin Gordon to assist Phillip Lindsay in the backfield. Meanwhile, the defense that has ranked below league average in points allowed/game only twice during Elway’s tenure remained stable under the leadership of Von Miller, Justin Simmons, and Vic Fangio.
John Elway had a career that was defined by persistence and optimism, only winning a Super Bowl in the final two years of a 16-year career, and putting it all on the line to do so; but over the past few years, his extent of football knowledge and his ability to build a winning team without an all-time-great like Peyton Manning have been consistently questioned due to a lack of immediate success. But Broncos fans should know good and well that John Elway may just need a little time to get started, and when he has a core that he likes he will go all in, just like he did in 1997-1998 and 1998/1999. Broncos fans have been waiting for that time to come again, but it may just be on the horizon as the Broncos face a challenging schedule in 2020 led by their ever-consistent defense, their franchise QB, one of the best running back tandems in the NFL, and a WR core with an average age of 22.75 across their top 4 (Sutton, Jeudy, Hamler, Patrick). With the Raiders and Chargers both making major improvements to their roster as well (as we have discussed in our AFC West preview) the Broncos will have to scrap it out for a wild card spot, but they are in a great opportunistic position to shock the rest of the football world once again.