In the Broncos season-ending press conference, when asked about Drew Lock’s status as the Broncos starting quarterback for the 2020 season, John Elway said, “It’s unrealistic to say we’re going in a different direction.”
As weird as he worded that answer, Elway essentially said Lock is the starter for 2020. With the starting quarterback established, it’s time for Elway to do what he does best and that is build around his franchise quarterback.
Elway’s early years as a Broncos executive/general manager were known for splashy, big-name free-agent acquisitions. Since the team’s victory in Super Bowl 50, however, there have been fewer big names signed by the Broncos. Even worse, many free agents haven’t worked out well.
That’s because Elway and the Broncos have had uncertainty at quarterback. When Elway is unsure who is the franchise quarterback, he is much more selective with his free-agent signings. Lack of clarity at quarterback has made it difficult to identify which players the Broncos should sign in free agency.
Elway’s first year with the team, the 2011 offseason, the Broncos were coming off of a 4-12 season with questions surrounding the quarterback. The roster consisted of Kyle Orton, Tim Tebow and Brady Quinn at that position. Orton had spent the two previous seasons proving to be unexpected. Tebow, was young and exciting, but there are still questions about whether he could transition to the NFL. Quinn was just a first-round bust that looked like he had nothing to offer.
The Broncos were rebuilding and reestablishing a a culture destroyed by Josh McDaniels.
After the lockout ended, the Broncos signed Willis McGahee and Ty Warren. Both signings made sense, but were hardly front-page news.
McGahee turned out to be a solid pick up and Warren was the first of many injury-riddled players Elway would sign. Regardless of quality, neither signing would make or break the Broncos.
The Broncos quarterback situation was still a mystery, so it was understandable to hold back on breaking the bank until the team had better direction.
In 2012, Elway signed Peyton Manning and right away went to work. When Manning was signed, Elway had a solid young core around the veteran QB. The Broncos finished the 2012 season with a 13-3 record and earned the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.
The 2012 Broncos famously blew it in the divisional round, losing to the Baltimore. Many felt that team was the best of Manning’s Broncos teams. Elway decided he needed to improve an already great team.
That offseason, he signed wide receiver Wes Welker and guard Louis Vasquez. Welker would join Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Julius Thomas to form a receiving squad that would be impossible for any defense to stop. Vasquez joined an offensive line that already included stand outs Ryan Clady, Chris Kuper and Orlando Franklin.
The additions of Welker and Vazquez put the Broncos over the top. The 2013 Broncos offense would become the most-prolific in NFL history. To this day, that offense holds every major offensive record.
Much like 2012, the 2013 Broncos season ended in disappointment. The team made the Super Bowl, but was crushed 43-8 by the Seahawks. Seattle’s efense was physical and punished the Broncos for the entire game.
Elway built an all-time great offense, but he realized he needed defensive talent if he wanted to win a Super Bowl.
In the 2014 offseason, Elway signed cornerback Aqib Talib, defensive end Demarcus Ware and safety T.J. Ward. The three players were brought in bring toughness to the Broncos that resembled the Seahawks defense that had just embarrassed the Broncos.
In addition to the three defensive standouts, Elway would sign wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to replace Decker, who left in free agency.
The 2014 Broncos fell short and lost in the divisional round of the playoffs to the Colts. It was a game the team should have won. Again, Elway realized he needed to make changes.
That offseason, it wasn’t a big name free-agent signing that would be the big move for the Broncos. Instead, it was a change at head coach. Under John Fox, the Broncos had continually come up short. Sensing the window with Manning was closing, Elway made the decision to “part ways” with Fox and hire his old friend, Gary Kubiak.
With Kubiak came a new coaching staff. While Wade Phillips wasn’t the Broncos first choice for defensive coordinator, luckily, he’s who they ended up with.
The coaching changes paid off and the Broncos won Super Bowl 50.
Each season with Manning, Elway made significant improvements to the team until they were able to win the Super Bowl. Elway understood with a quarterback, he was always a contender.
The big-name signings seem like a no-brainer, but it’s not that easy. What if in 2014 Elway signed Jared Allen and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie instead of Ware and Talib?
It’s not that Elway signed big names. It’s that he signed the right big names.
The top free agents Elway signed after Manning came to Denver, were Welker, Vasquez, Ware, Ward, Talib and Sanders. All six players proved to be good decisions. Welker was gone by Super Bowl 50, but the others were major contributors to the victory.
In addition to the big names, during the Manning years Elway signed contributors such as Terrance Knighton, Brandon Marshall, Mike Adams, Jacob Tamme, Evan Mathis and Owen Daniels. Everybody the Broncos signed seemed to work out. Big or small name. Each player played a role in getting the Broncos to either Super Bowl 48 or Super Bowl 50.
The moves made by Elway during the Manning era are often dismissed as Manning being the reason the team attracted free agents. That is true, as an attractive quarterback situation is what draws free agents. But Elway understood this. That’s why he made the big-time moves that he did. It made sense to load up on a team that had legit championship capabilities.
Elway deserves more credit than to have his good decisions dismissed as he was able to do it just because head Peyton Manning. There are multiple Hall of Fame quarterbacks in the NFL that are continually on underachieving teams.
Figure this, Elway had as much success with Manning in four seasons that the Colts had with Manning in 13 seasons. Elway had more success with Manning in four seasons than the Packers have had with Aaron Rodgers in 12 seasons (as a starter) or the Saints have had with Drew Brees in 14 seasons.
When he had a franchise quarterback, Elway has performed better than most organizations at building a winning team. What was unfortunate for Elway was that he only had his guy for four seasons.
Since Manning retired, the Broncos have had trouble signing the right free agents. Mainly, this has been because when a team doesn’t have a stable quarterback situation, they don’t really have an identity.
A solid quarterback can help make up for deficiencies in other areas. When the quarterback situation is below average or even just average, you have to be perfect in other areas. This can make finding the right players more difficult.
The Broncos re-signed players like Thomas, Sanders, Stewart, Von Miller, Chris Harris Jr., Derek Wolfe, Brandon Marshall, C.J. Anderson and other Super Bowl 50 in hopes of keeping the core of his championship team together
Manning was not himself in 2015, but he was still Manning. Without the franchise quarterback, having great players in other areas doesn’t really matter.
Nobody knows if Drew Lock is the quarterback of the future, but he is the most-promising and exciting player the Broncos have had at that position since Manning retired. Lock is the first quarterback since 2016 that is the reason the Broncos started winning games.
Lock’s 4-1 finish makes the Broncos exciting again. Elway can now offer potential free agents the opportunity to play with a quarterback that has proven he can win. Lock is on a rookie deal and the Broncos have plenty of cap space. Elway is now in a prime position to prove he knows how to build a true winner.