David Zalubowski/Associated Press
Recently fired head coach Vance Joseph didn’t stand a chance the last two seasons because the team’s front office never placed him in a position to succeed.
Did Joseph fall short in certain areas? Absolutely. But he’s not entirely at fault for the team’s downturn.
Elway said in a team release after Joseph’s firing:
“Vance made a lot of strides and deserves credit for how hard and competitively the team played this season. There’s always going to be a high standard here—The bottom line is we need to win more football games. We’re excited about the foundation that’s being built and look forward to putting in the work to get the Broncos back on the winning track.”
But the Broncos are 20-28 since they won Super Bowl 50 and haven’t finished better than third in the AFC West. That includes the franchise’s first set of back-to-back losing seasons since 1971 and ’72.
Joseph may not be NFL head coaching material, but the foundation Elway spoke of is crumbling, and the team’s players understand a full-on rebuild is likely underway. Three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Chris Harris Jr. explained the situation to The Athletic’s Nicki Jhabvala:
Nicki Jhabvala @NickiJhabvala
More from Chris Harris, who said he expects a total rebuild in Denver: https://t.co/OzH2Ocs10P
Elway failed his coach by assembling a subpar roster, and he did Joseph no favors by waffling on his status a year ago.
“Vance and I had a great talk this morning about our plan to attack this offseason and get better as a team,” Elway tweeted—after the fact. “We believe in Vance as our head coach. Together, we’ll put in the work to improve in all areas and win in 2018.”
The Broncos made one significant move last offseason when they signed quarterback Case Keenum to a two-year, $36 million deal. But even that was a fallback plan after Elway failed to land top free-agent quarterback Kirk Cousins, who didn’t seriously entertain joining the Broncos.
Quarterback, as a whole, has been a stumbling block. Elway’s biggest failures have come at the position he once played at a Hall of Fame level.
Manning’s 2016 retirement forced the organization’s hand, and Elway invested a first-round pick in Paxton Lynch after the GM traded up to select the signal-caller. This came after Elway drafted and developed Brock Osweiler to become Manning’s heir.
Osweiler signed a four-year, $72 million contract with the Houston Texans even though Denver wanted to re-sign him. The Osweiler move worked out in the Broncos’ favor, but Lynch never proved ready and is out of the league.
Meanwhile, the Broncos have relied upon physically limited, average signal-callers. Trevor Siemian started 24 games and completed 59.3 percent of his passes with a 30-to-24 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Keenum’s been a slight upgrade in 2018 with a 62.3 completion percentage and 18-to-15 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Justin Edmonds/Getty Images
And Elway didn’t draft a legitimate alternative.
How the general manager addresses the game’s most important position will determine the organization’s long-term stability. It can release Keenum and save $11 million against 2019’s cap, according to Spotrac. Established starters Joe Flacco (once the Baltimore Ravens release him), Nick Foles (once the Philadelphia Eagles decline his 2019 option), Teddy Bridgewater and Tyrod Taylor are possibilities.
The team should also consider drafting another signal-caller even though the 2019 class is inferior 2018’s. A developmental draft selection with high upside coupled with a veteran bridge would be ideal.
Quarterback is only part of the equation, though. Multiple difficult contract decisions await.
By cutting Keenum, Harris, defensive end Derek Wolfe and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (all four are entering the final years of their contracts), the Broncos can save $37.7 million against the 2019 salary cap.
Denver already has a projected $44.59 million in cap space before any of those moves. By cutting each of those older, more expensive veterans, the Broncos could enter the offseason with the league’s fourth-most cap space at $82.29 million and address numerous roster problems (specifically the offensive line, defensive interior and cornerback).
Center Matt Paradis and defensive lineman Shelby Harris are the only free agents the Broncos should re-sign. Denver has to commit to rebuilding. That approach doesn’t seem likely to happen, though, since Elway wants to win now instead of focusing on the franchise’s long-term health.
“We’re not that far off,” Elway told reporters Monday. “Obviously, when you only win six games, it feels like you are.”
He added: “We always talk about rebuild. If I say ‘rebuild’ it sounds like we’re using an excuse.”
A few cornerstones are in place with running back Phillip Lindsay, wide receiver Courtland Sutton and outside linebackers Von Miller and Bradley Chubb. This year’s draft class succeeded but only made up for the failures of former first-rounders Bradley Roby and Shane Ray—both of whom could leave in free agency. Neither lived up to expectations and shouldn’t be priorities.
Here are Elway’s first-round picks since he took over in January 2011: Miller, Sylvester Williams, Roby, Ray, Lynch, Garett Bolles and Chubb. Miller and Chubb are stars, but the rest of the group is mediocre at best.
Jack Dempsey/Associated Press
Elway can’t fix this on the fly. The Broncos are bad, and they’re far behind the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers in the AFC West. They’re close to being on par with the Oakland Raiders, who often serve as the butt of league jokes.
This is Denver’s reality, and everyone who’s contributed should be called into question—especially at the top.
“This league is all about winning,” safety Justin Simmons said, per Jhabvala. “It doesn’t matter the progress you’ve made—if it’s not productive in the win column, unfortunately, things got to change, whether that’s coaches, players.”
Elway was a great player. He even helped lead the organization to its third title as its general manager. He falls short of both of those standards, though. He’s the face of a failing franchise and should be treated as such.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.