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Vic Fangio has a nine-game window to win in Denver

(Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Vic Fangio will have a nine-game grace period during his first-ever season as a head coach. During that time, he’ll have a chance to prove that the Broncos can be a contender in 2019.

If he’s successful, John Elway will keep the “win-now” plan in place. That means Joe Flacco at quarterback and high-priced veterans on defense.

If he fails, however, Fangio will find himself in charge of a total rebuild. That’ll include a rookie behind center, the waning days of future Ring of Fame members in orange and blue, and other painful transitions.

Welcome to Denver, coach.

Here’s hoping you’re ready to hit the ground running. Because starting on September 9, when Denver travels to Oakland to take on the Raiders in their 2019 season opener, the clock will begin ticking on the current iteration of the Broncos.

The head-scratching deal Elway just gave to Chris Harris Jr. is the best evidence yet that the franchise is currently traveling down two paths at the same time. The fact that the cornerback got more money in the final year of his deal than he was originally scheduled to earn, without any additional years being added to his contract beyond 2019, is a sign of things to come.

If the Broncos bounce back from back-to-back losing seasons, getting above .500 and even making a playoff run, they’ll be motivated to spend the money necessary to keep one of the league’s best cornerbacks in Denver for 2020 and beyond. And at that point, they’ll be hoping Harris will see things trending in the right direction and want to stay.

If the downward spiral continues, with more losses piling up and another cellar-dwelling finish in the AFC West on the horizon, Elway will be happy he doesn’t have a high-priced, 30-year-old defensive back on the roster. And as he heads into the waning years of his career, with one final big payday to be had, Harris will enjoy the freedom that will allow him to get paid and play for a contender.

The odd contract adjustment wasn’t the only sign this offseason that the Broncos are keeping their options open. Elway’s moves at the quarterback position also provide a clue.

In March, he traded a fourth-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft to the Ravens to bring Flacco to town. That’s a huge upgrade at the most-important position in sports, as the 12-year veteran is light years better than Trevor Siemian, Case Keenum, Paxton Lynch and Brock Osweiler, the quartet of mediocre-at-best signal callers who’ve called Denver home since the Broncos won Super Bowl 50.

But the commitment to Flacco isn’t a solid one. The price to acquire him was relatively low, as third-day draft picks are a dime a dozen. And while the quarterback is slated to earn $18.5 million in 2019, there is no dead money attached to the remaining three years of his contract. In other words, the Broncos can cut ties with him at any time without having to endure any negative salary cap implications.

Prior to this year’s draft, it was hard to imagine a reason why Denver would want to move on from Flacco; they didn’t have another quarterback waiting in the wings, ready to take over. That all changed when the 42nd overall pick rolled around in Nashville, however, and Elway traded up to take Drew Lock in the second round. In an instant, the franchise’s “quarterback of the future” was on the roster.

The question isn’t if Lock will eventually replace Flacco, but rather when it will happen. That answer depends on wins and losses.

When the Broncos wrap up their ninth game of the season on November 3, a home match-up with Baker Mayfield and the Browns, the first window of opportunity to make the switch will open. Barring injury, that moment will provide the initial temptation for Elway and Company to turn the page.

If Denver sits at 7-2, 6-3 or 5-4 at the break, they’ll stay the course. The Broncos will ride out the rest of the season with Flacco at the helm to see if they can help them earn a postseason berth. And unless injuries strike, or a multiple-game losing streak ensues after the break, he’ll stay there through the rest of the season.

But if they’re below .500, especially sitting at two or three wins, there will be plenty of calls for Lock to see the field after the bye. Barring a miracle finish, a fourth-straight non-playoff season would appear imminent, so it would make no sense to miss out on the opportunity to get the rookie some much-needed reps.

That’s why November 4 will be Decision Day in Denver. The Monday of the bye week is the moment Elway will have to finally pick a path.

The win-now option was put in place for plenty of reasons. The Broncos are trying to give themselves the best chance possible to rebound from the franchise’s first back-to-back losing seasons in nearly a half century. Denver is trying to maximize the prime years of their best player, hoping to avoid wasting another season of Von Miller’s career. And Elway is trying to give Fangio a reasonable shot to succeed, especially given that the 60-year-old head coach has waited decades for an opportunity to run the show.

But ground has already been broken on the rebuilding project, as well. And that’s by design.

The Broncos want to be ready to go down that road if needed, which is why they have a young gunslinger on the roster and haven’t locked themselves into new big-money contracts with veteran players. If Elway needs to start from scratch in 2020, No. 7 wants to be off and running as early as possible. Using the final seven weeks of this season would definitely provide a head start.

That’s the situation facing Vic Fangio. He has nine games to prove the Broncos can win right now. Otherwise, he’ll be guiding the franchise through a full rebuild.

No pressure, coach.