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John Elway’s greatest hits and misses as a Denver Broncos team executive

John Elway and the Denver Broncos officially parted ways this week, so let’s take a look back on the moves, both good and bad, that left their mark

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Denver Broncos Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

John Elway, one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game, and the man who led the Denver Broncos to become an annual contender, has officially spent his final day of employment with the only professional team he’s been a part of.

Elway officially began his executive career with the Broncos in 2011, being named the team’s general manager and vice president of football operations, and served in that capacity through the 2020 season, at which time he stepped down, paving the way for the team to hire George Paton. He still remained employed as a consultant, however, serving an advisory role to Paton, but as of this week, that is no longer the case.

He is officially hanging up his executive career with the team. Maybe the role of consultant just was too dull for him, maybe after being so close to the Bowlen's for so long that working with new ownership felt uneasy to him, or maybe he just wants to kick up his feet and enjoy retirement.

Regardless, he left his mark on the team with his moves, mostly of the aggressive nature, and he’ll be remembered fondly for some and not so fondly for others. Let’s review number seven’s greatest hits and misses as team GM.

Hit - Peyton F***ing Manning

The Broncos were an improbable playoff team in 2011, led by the even more improbable success of Tim Tebow’s clutch moment heroics. Even after a surprise win over the Pittsburgh Steelers that will go down in history as an all-time classic, though, Elway knew the young QB out of Florida would not be the long term solution. And it just so happened that an all-time great in one Peyton Manning was parting ways with his former team, the Indianapolis Colts, who were going all in on Andrew Luck after securing the number one pick.

Manning ultimately chose the Broncos over teams like the Miami Dolphins, Tennessee Titans, San Francisco 49ers, and others due in huge part to Elway’s pitch and how he approached their meetings. Once the great number 18 suited up, the Broncos went from fringe playoff team to contender. Manning would ultimately lead the team to the best offensive show in the league, four straight double digit win seasons, two Super Bowl appearances, one Super Bowl win, and who knows what would’ve happened had Rahim Moore just did his job against the Ravens in 2013.

Miss - Post-Manning QBs

Manning was a grand slam, but after he cleared the bases, it was nothing but whiff after whiff attempting to replace him.

Elway attempted to plan for Manning’s heir early, drafting tall, but raw and unproven QB Brock Osweiler the same year the team signed Manning. And while Osweiler did play a pivotal role during the team’s Super Bowl year filling in for an injured Manning, he would later sign with the Texans, where he abruptly bust.

With the most critical spot on the team now vacant, the team signed Mark Sanchez, who would be cut before the ink on his contract was dry, drafted Paxton Lynch in the first round, another tall, raw, unproven guy who ended up making Osweiler look like a star by comparison, and ended up relying on Trevor Siemian for longer than should have been allowed. After another redemption project miss in Joe Flacco, Elway went with a big-armed, more proven college QB in the draft in Drew Lock. didn’t work out.

It’s possible that his lack of success finding the heir to Peyton made him balk at grabbing Josh Allen in the 2018 NFL Draft. Alas, it is now 2023, and the team is still searching for an answer at QB.

Hit - Free Agent Frenzy

Okay, so maybe this is more of a testament to Manning’s appeal than Elway’s, but regardless, the team he built following Manning’s signing, and his ability to close the deal on these big names were what put the team in contention each year.

He ultimately signed guys like Jacob Tamme, Joel Dreesen, and Keith Brooking to go along with Manning. The following offseason, he turned up the heat, signing guys like Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Shaun Phillips, Terrance Knighton, and even surprised the league when he signed superstar slot receiver Wes Welker away from his longtime team the New England Patriots. This roster would get them to the Super Bowl.

The next moves would help them win it. The following offseason in which the team was regrouping from the Super Bowl 48 bludgeoning, Elway pulled in Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware, and TJ Ward. All these signings contributed in some way to the Broncos once again holding up the Lombardi trophy.

Miss - Drafting Strategy in the Post-Peyton Years

There are the aforementioned QB misses listed above, but Elway didn’t exactly crush it in the others areas as well in the post-Manning drafts.

It wasn’t that there were zero good picks or anything, as guys like Justin Simmons and Josey Jewell were Elway picks, but the man had quite the share of early round misses.

Names like Adam Gotsis, DeMarcus Walker, Carlos Henderson, Royce Freeman, KJ Hamler, and McTelvin Agim were all picks that didn’t exactly pan out as hoped. Even guys picked early who have been productive like Garrett Bolles, Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, Dalton Risner, and even Bradley Chubb (who outside of last season did not exactly set the world on fire) have not proven themselves to be the difference makers they were hoped to be.

Hit - The Gary Kubiak/Wade Phillips Years

Even with Peyton Manning, the big name free agents, and offensive fireworks, The Broncos couldn’t get the big one done. The Rahim Moore debacle in Baltimore, the humiliation Super Bowl loss a year later, and a divisional loss to underdog Indianapolis Colts was enough for Elway to make a move.

Out was John Fox, and in was Gary Kubiak, Elway’s old backup who had recent success with the Houston Texans. Not only Kubiak, though, also being brought back was former coordinator and head coach of the Broncos Wade Phillips, a known defensive mastermind.

Elway knew Manning’s age and wear-and-tear were catching up with him and could no longer carry the load like he used to. He was going to need more of a sure thing on the sidelines, and he certainly got it with Kubiak and Phillips.

While it did seem like Kubiak’s playbook and Manning’s abilities were an oil-and-water situation at times, both parties ultimately made it work as well as they could, and Kubiak’s handling of Osweiler coming in for an injured Manning deserves credit. Phillips’ defense was the ultimate show that would lead the team back to the Super Bowl, this time winning it. The staff would only remain together two seasons, the latter of which was the most recent winning season by the Broncos, as health concerns forced Kubiak to step down, which leads to...

Miss - Vance Joseph

Perhaps it’s unfair to pick on the guy after he was just hired back in a coordinator role, but with all the available candidates to pick from following Kubiak’s retirement, this was just a perplexing move and remains so to this day.

This was the year Kyle Shanahan also interviewed with the Broncos, but the decision not to take him was reportedly ultimately always going to be vetoed by team president Joe Ellis, so putting that all on Elway seems unfair. But still...Vance Joseph?

He had one year of experience as a coordinator prior to his hiring, and his defense was ranked at the bottom of the league. Joseph’s inexperience showed early, and he never got his ground, going 11-21 in two seasons before being fired.

Elway brought in Vic Fangio to replace him, but it was just more of the same. Had Elway gone a different direction and hired a coach with more experience than Joseph, would the team have done coaching musical chairs like they have?

Let’s just hope Joseph 2.0 as coordinator goes better this time around.

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