John Elway is a prime culprit in why Broncos are 'a little bit soft'

Charles Robinson
NFL columnist

Little by little, the impeccable track record has deteriorated. Beaten back by poor quarterback choices. Faded by unexceptional draft picks. Undermined by flickering coaching choices. In totality, it has altered John Elway’s reputation from titanium-plated can’t-miss general manager to something less.

If we’re borrowing from Elway’s managerial manual – to something softer.

To be fair, Elway vaguely used that descriptor on himself last week before the Cincinnati game, responding to the Broncos’ sixth loss in seven games by announcing, “We got a little bit soft.” (Denver would lose their sixth straight, a 20-17 defeat to the Bengals.) This is assuming that when Elway uses the term “we” he’s leaving a generous amount of space for his own accountability. Which would be nice, since nobody else in the organization has the power to do it.

John Elway is hoping a shakeup in the coaching ranks, namely offensive coordinator, will reverse the Broncos’ fortunes. (AP)

Frankly, it feels a little more like some 1990s Jerry Jones vocabulary – using “we” to disguise failings that often require more of a “me.” But this is the benefit of Elway being a de facto owner/general manager. He can spread his manure over a wider swath of acreage. Everybody smells a little bit of the stench.

At some point, these losses will deliver the Broncos and their general manager into unavoidable transparency. And when that happens, Elway’s role in all of this will become unmistakable, even without a team owner to hold him accountable.

Yes, the Denver Broncos are malfunctioning. And John Elway is to blame for a sizable portion of it.

In a bottom-line business, that’s where it settles. It’s Elway’s show. This is his coaching staff. This is his quarterbacks room. Every cent of that salary cap is assigned in the manner he saw fit. There’s a whole lot of Elway’s “me” inside that softening “we.” And until he can fix some fundamental problems, that reality is going to become only more obvious.

In a way, that’s already happening. Privately, a multitude of league sources have pointed at Elway’s recent drafts, which have failed to fill the void after losing multiple high-value pieces following a Super Bowl 50 win. Interestingly, these same sources have drawn a line to departed general manager Brian Xanders, who was pushed out the door by Elway following the 2012 draft.

“John successfully recruited Peyton Manning, but he also won a Super Bowl with a lot of Brian’s guys,” one league source said. “But John just had to be out front for all the credit, and now you’re seeing how well he drafts guys without Brian.”

Without Xanders in the fold, Elway has made 38 picks since 2013 and produced a few solid starters – but zero Pro Bowlers. Meanwhile, his greatest successes in free agency continue to be the aging foundation added from 2012-14. And then there is the quarterback position, which has come to define the struggles of 2017, more so than any other problem on the roster.

In a way, quarterback may come to define how quickly Elway can dig himself out of the hole he has helped create. And it started with firing offensive coordinator Mike McCoy and elevating Bill Musgrave into the firing line. All with one crystal-clear goal: fix the quarterbacks. More accurately, Elway would likely be satisfied with Musgrave fixing just one QB. Even better if that guy is from the Brock Osweiler/Paxton Lynch tandem that Elway is most responsible for. And Musgrave will get an extra pat on the back from his general manager if the successful reclamation project is Lynch, whose mediocrity continues to accentuate Elway’s post-Peyton Manning deficiencies as a quarterback evaluator.

The signs have not been encouraging for Lynch to date, although the second-year QB was reportedly elevated to the top of the depth chart for Sunday’s game against the Oakland Raiders. If the signing of a middling Osweiler in September didn’t speak volumes about Lynch’s inability to process McCoy’s offense, his play in the remainder of the season will deliver a final word.

That’s part of why Musgrave will end up paring down the offense. Partly to make it more approachable to Lynch – whom Elway still wants to see on the field – and partly to pull back on some of the problems McCoy caused. While it’s fair to argue McCoy’s firing was a scapegoating move, a league source said he McCoy employed an offensive playbook that was often far too expansive for his quarterbacks room. It even went as far as calling plays on Sunday that hadn’t been repped on the practice field during the week, one source said. That’s no problem when you’re coaching Peyton Manning or Philip Rivers. But it’s asking too much in a room of Lynch, Osweiler and Trevor Siemian.

It’s still unclear if Paxton Lynch is the future at quarterback for the Broncos. He’ll have a chance to change that perception for the better beginning on Sunday, when he reportedly will start for Denver against Oakland. (AP)

Tony Romo might have solved that. Heck, Josh McCown might have solved that. At least far better than the current state of things. That is why going forward, Elway’s “we” problem will be recognized as more of a “me” problem. Simply from the state of the dismal quarterback situation he created. It’s a situation that will likely force Elway into performing salary cap gymnastics this offseason, in hopes of making a run at some kind of fundamental fix while his defense still has a Super Bowl window.

That’s a lot hanging in the balance for a guy who has long been the toast of Denver and just a few months ago signed a lucrative five-year contract extension. It’s not to say Elway isn’t that revered guy anymore – one or two down seasons certainly aren’t enough to undo the peaks of success that he has achieved. But at some point, he has to be held responsible for his mistakes. It can’t always be about the coaching or the defensive failures or the quarterbacks who can’t get themselves right.

At some point, a large part of it has to be about Elway.

There’s a lot of “me” inside this general manager’s “we.” And the pillow on Elway’s throne isn’t the only thing looking soft at the top of this franchise.

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