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PHILADELPHIA, PA - NOVEMBER 5: Emmanuel Sanders #10 of the Denver Broncos looks on prior to the game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on November 5, 2017 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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Did the Broncos trade Emmanuel Sanders because he quit on the team?

(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

On the surface, the Broncos trading Emmanuel Sanders to the 49ers looks like the team getting a jump on their rebuilding program. It’s seen as a sign that they’re waving the white flag on the season, the first of several moves involving veteran players that could happen between now and the NFL trade deadline on Oct. 29.

But is that really the case? Or is there more to the story?

John Elway talked to the media on Tuesday afternoon, answering questions about the trade. And he suggested it wasn’t about the franchise deciding to go with a youth movement at wide receiver or any other position.

“I think the team understands the move,” Elway said. “The bottom line is we’re still trying to win football games, and we’re not throwing in the towel by any means. We’re still trying to win football games.”

Okay, fair enough. No general manager is going to come out and publicly say that his team isn’t trying to rack up W’s. So this isn’t exactly a shocking comment from Elway. But the rest of his answer falls into that category.

“I think with the message that it sends to the rest of the team is they know what message is being sent because they’ve been around,” Elway added. “They have a good feel of what’s going on.”

The message that is being sent? Now that’s interesting.

What could that message be? Well, there is evidence to suggest that Elway is letting everyone in the locker room know that they’re either all in or they’re all out. There’s no room for selfishness. In Denver, it’s about team above individual.

Other answers from the Broncos general manager support this theory.

“I think eventually with what happened after the Tennessee game, where we were and the opportunity with the value that we’re getting for him, we decided it was the best thing for our football team to trade Emmanuel,” Elway said during a conference call on Tuesday.

What happened after the Tennessee game? Elway wouldn’t elaborate.

“Nope,” the general manager said when asked if he’d like to explain. “I’m not going to get into it.”

Connecting the dots is pretty easy, however. Well, start with what did and didn’t happen during the game.

In the first half, Sanders recorded one reception for a grand total of zero yards. He was targeted just three times. That’s not exactly being a featured part of the offense. Then, the wideout didn’t play in the second half, which the team blamed on a knee injury.

But was that really the case? Was Sanders really hurt or did he pull himself from the game due to unhappiness with the game plan?

That sounds hard to believe, but it wouldn’t be the first time it happened this season. Sanders did the same thing in Green Bay during a Week 3 loss to the Packers.

Trailing 27-16 with 5:49 to play, Denver was trying to march down the field to make it a one-score game before the two-minute warning. With a pair of timeouts in hand, a field goal or a touchdown would’ve kept them in the game.

But midway through the drive, Sanders stormed toward the sidelines, took off his helmet and chucked it to the ground, and found a seat on the bench. After pouting for a couple of plays, he returned to drop a pass on second-and-17.

After the game, Sanders was chirping in the locker room about his lack of production. On the day, he had two catches for 10 yards, and was only targeted five times.

When that outburst didn’t result in a change to his role, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that Sanders upped the ante. A two-play protest could easily graduate to a two-quarter pouting session.

What happened after the Tennessee game? Elway revealed that during his conversation with the media, as well.

“Yes, he did,” the Broncos general manager said when asked if Sanders requested a trade.

After the press conference, the timing of that request was revealed.

After the Titans game, before the Thursday night loss to the Chiefs, Sanders let Fangio and Elway know that he’d like to be traded. In other words, he wasn’t completely in. And to a large extent, he wanted out. That didn’t set well with Elway.

“When we looked at it, Emmanuel had issues and we had issues,” the general manager added on Tuesday. “That is why it was a good time for us to go different directions, for Emmanuel to go in a different direction and for us to go in a different direction.”

Will other Broncos veterans be traded? Perhaps. But a shift in direction isn’t the sole reason why Sanders was sent packing.

Clearly, there is some bad blood between the wideout and the franchise. Elway’s comments suggested that was the case. And the team’s short press release announcing the trade, especially when compared to what they said when they sent Demaryius Thomas to the Texans during last season, reiterates the point.