When John Elway pursued Peyton Manning in free agency in 2012, he had a saying that was both marketing pitch and mantra:
“We don’t have a Plan B,” was his famous line.
It came to fruition then, and it has come to fruition now.
Elway landed Manning in 2012, and it led to four straight division titles, two conference championships, and a Super Bowl trophy.
But the Broncos have been sputtering under Elway’s leadership ever since Manning retired after the 2015 season. The 1-3 Broncos enter Monday’s game against the Patriots headed toward a fifth straight season with no playoffs, and fourth straight losing season. Their .412 winning percentage since the start of the 2016 season ranks 24th in the NFL.
“The shine of the Super Bowl 50 trophy is wearing off really quickly,” said former 15-year NFL receiver Brandon Stokley, now the host of a midday radio show on Denver’s 104.3 The Fan. “They’ve been in rebuild mode without rebuilding.”
The Broncos' woes trace to the fact that Elway, a Hall of Fame quarterback and one of the greatest ever to lace them up, has been painfully bad at finding Manning’s replacement. The Broncos have started an NFL-high nine quarterbacks since the start of 2016, and have consistently struck out.
Elway used a first-round pick on Paxton Lynch, but he couldn’t beat out seventh-round pick Trevor Siemian, who eventually gave way to Brock Osweiler. The Broncos brought in Case Keenum in 2018 after he had a great season in Minnesota, but he flopped and was gone in a year. A broken-down Joe Flacco lasted a half-season in 2019, and youngsters Brandon Allen and Drew Lock finished out the season. The Broncos have tried building around Lock in 2020, but he got hurt in Week 2, leaving the last few weeks to youngsters Jeff Driskel and Brett Rypien.
“Everything we’re seeing now is coming to fruition because there wasn’t a plan,” said Nick Ferguson, a former 10-year NFL defensive back who hosts the night show on 104.3 The Fan. “With Elway, he’s just fallen in love with a quarterback with a big arm. ‘Let’s get a big, tall quarterback who’s a gunslinger.’ John has made mistake after mistake after mistake.”
Elway was hired in 2011 as the head of the Broncos' football operation to clean up the mess left by Josh McDaniels. In his first few years, he had the Midas touch. Elway’s first draft landed Von Miller and Julius Thomas. Elway won the Manning sweepstakes. He built a record-setting offense and a Super Bowl-winning defense and brought the Lombardi Trophy back to Denver.
But Elway has flopped since Manning retired. Not only has he consistently gotten it wrong at quarterback, but the Broncos have cycled through three coaches in five years and haven’t drafted well.
Elway’s plan at quarterback this year was especially baffling. The Broncos' first mistake was anointing Lock the unquestioned starter, even though he was a second-round pick who got injured in his first training camp and only started five games as a rookie. They didn’t bring in anyone to push him in a competition, or sign a capable veteran to be a mentor and keep the team afloat if Lock got injured. His backups are Driskel, a former sixth-round pick with a 1-8 record as a starter, and Rypien, a practice squad arm. Blake Bortles is also on the roster.
Sure enough, it took Lock all of two weeks to get hurt, and the Broncos once again are in a quarterback abyss. Meanwhile, they could have had Cam Newton for pennies on the dollar this offseason, or could have signed Andy Dalton for $3 million.
“They didn’t bring in a quality backup, and that’s where they made a big mistake,” Ferguson said. “The Patriots have always been a smart organization as far as being ahead of the curve. The Broncos are just now trying to catch up, and they’re too far behind.”
Elway’s other big mistake was changing Lock’s coach this year. Lock played well down the stretch in 2019, going 4-1 as a starter under offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello. But the Broncos fired Scangarello after the season and replaced him with Pat Shurmur, and learning a new coach and new system may have stunted Lock’s development in 2020.
“Scangarello and Lock meshed well together,” Stokley said. “Drew played really good football, you’re 4-1 with him, you’d think they’d want to keep that consistency there.”
Elway is forever a legend in Denver, and will always be the heart and soul of the Broncos. But Elway’s quest to find a successor to Manning has been nothing short of quixotic, and it has sunk the team’s fortunes. Broncos fans aren’t used to four, soon to be five, straight seasons without the playoffs.
“He’s definitely on the hot seat, and the temperature has been turned up,” Ferguson said. “The patience has worn thin for a lot of fans. You have to be able to field the right players as far as depth and development, and that’s where John hasn’t done well. He hasn’t really drafted well and hasn’t really developed the talent, and the fan base is sick and tired.”
Titans affected in many ways
Some notes on the Titans' COVID-19 outbreak of the past two weeks:
▪ Practice squad defensive back Greg Mabin first hit the COVID-IR list on Sept. 24 and the outbreak had affected 23 Titans as of Friday — 13 players (nine active roster, four practice squad) and 10 coaches or staff members. But if the Titans can continue to pass their tests, they will play their Week 5 game on Tuesday night against the Bills.
The Titans will certainly be shorthanded because of COVID-19. All 13 players were still on the list as of Saturday, including their top two receivers (Adam Humphries and Corey Davis), two starters on the defensive line (DaQuan Jones and Jeffery Simmons), their long snapper, and a few key backups.
▪ Assuming it is played, Bills-Titans will be just the sixth Tuesday game in NFL history, and second since 1946. A 2010 Vikings-Eagles game had to be played on Tuesday because of a blizzard.
▪ The Titans should brace for a punishment — a big, potentially historic punishment given the reports of players working out on their own recently while they were supposed to be isolating at home. The NFL is investigating the workouts to determine how much they played into the spread of COVID-19, and the Titans players and coaches could be looking at massive fines or even suspensions, and the organization could be docked draft picks in addition to fines.
▪ But you’ll notice that the Titans won’t have to forfeit this Bills game, even if they blatantly broke the NFL’s protocols. A forfeit is truly a last resort for the owners, for several reasons. They don’t want to pay players for games that aren’t played (the Bills at least would get paid). They don’t want to reduce the game inventory for the networks, which means less money for everyone. And the owners don’t want to discard the game-day revenue, however small. The Titans are expecting about 8,600 fans Tuesday.
▪ And don’t hold your breath on the NFL pausing the season if another team suffers an outbreak. I say that based on the pushback I got from a league executive this past week with regard to my column suggesting the NFL might want to soon call a timeout on the season. As long as the virus doesn’t get transmitted from team to team, and outbreaks remain contained inside one building, the NFL will likely push ahead with the games.
▪ Did you know: Per rule 11.1.1 of the NFL’s 2020 Official Playing Rules, a forfeit goes down as a 2-0 score, but “the points will not be added to the winning team’s record for the purposes of offensive production or tiebreakers.”
▪ It’s most likely just an unfortunate coincidence, but it is noteworthy that Titans director of sports medicine Todd Toriscelli, one of the main point of contacts for implementing and overseeing the Titans' COVID-19 protocols, is now involved in his second infectious outbreak in the NFL.
Toriscelli was the director of sports medicine with the Buccaneers in 2013 when they had a MRSA outbreak that infected at least three players. Former players Lawrence Tynes and Carl Nicks sued for millions and settled with the Bucs, on the basis that Toriscelli had his own MRSA infection that led to the outbreak. Toriscelli left the Bucs after 17 years and joined the Titans in 2014.
CLAIM TO FAME
A pick to remember in Denver
The Twitter bio for former defensive back turned Denver radio host Nick Ferguson has an interesting line: “Forced @ChampBailey INT vs Patriots.”
Ferguson, who played for three NFL teams in 10 seasons, is referring to Champ Bailey’s 100-yard interception return against the Patriots in the 2005 playoffs. The interception is also famous for Patriots tight end Ben Watson chasing down Bailey over 100 yards and knocking him out at the 1-yard line.
Ferguson was a Broncos safety that season and his pressure on Tom Brady forced the interception. We’ll let Ferguson take it over from here:
“That year our defensive coordinator, Larry Coyer, never really blitzed me. The guy who would always be the designated blitzer was John Lynch. He would line me up down there, but it would always be a bluff, make them think that I’ll blitz but I don’t.
“Coming into that week, the Patriots watched the film. And I could tell because a couple times during the game I went down in a blitzing type of formation, and I heard the guard and the tackle, ‘Don’t worry about 25, he’s not coming.’ But in my head I’m laughing because I know this is the first time they’re actually going to send me.
“That week of practice, I worked with the D-line coach because when you line up showing the blitz, you never line up in the gap that you’re going to blitz. So when the ball was snapped I saw it parted like the Red Sea. I was just as surprised as Tom was because I didn’t think that they were going to just allow me to go free.
“Everything was happening in slow motion. I was like, ‘I can’t believe this, I’m about to sack Tom Brady.’ But as I got to touch him, he released the ball at his highest release point, Champ Bailey steps in front of it, races down the sideline, and the rest is history.”
After the interception, Ferguson helped escort Bailey up the left sideline.
“As we’re running down our sideline, I’m looking to my right or left, it was Kevin Faulk who had the first shot and then it was Troy Brown. Never once did I ever see Ben Watson, ever," said Ferguson. "That dude came out of nowhere. I remember the next week in practice my DB coach went over that play and everyone got mad at me because, ‘You didn’t block Ben Watson.’ I’m like, ‘I never saw him!' When you’re running, no one stops and turns their head 360 degrees like an owl to look backwards and see the guy running.”
Texans' firing of O’Brien says it all
In the least shocking news of the week, the Houston Chronicle reported that a fiery argument between J.J. Watt and Bill O’Brien took place on the practice field recently, and that O’Brien had also gotten into “verbal altercations” with other coaches on his staff.
O’Brien has always been a little rough around the edges. He has a legendary temper, which we remember in New England when he and Tom Brady exploded on the sideline against Washington in 2011. O’Brien curses like a sailor, as we saw on “Hard Knocks” in 2015 when he had to create a swear jar. And there are countless stories of O’Brien getting physical at practice or wrestling with pre-draft prospects, like when he grappled with Rob Gronkowski on a pre-draft visit.
O’Brien’s style can be endearing when things are going well, but his intensity clearly wore people out in Houston after six-plus seasons as the Texans' coach. Watt declined to talk about his recent altercation with O’Brien, but his comments about interim coach Romeo Crennel seem pointed at his former coach.
“RAC is a great man. He has rings. He has a positive air about him. He has a jolly nature to him,” Watt said. “You can’t help but smile being around RAC. It should be fun.”
Washington again in tough spot at QB
The problem in Washington is owner Dan Snyder keeps sticking coaches with quarterbacks that they don’t want. He forced Donovan McNabb on Mike Shanahan, then Robert Griffin III (Shanahan smartly drafted Kirk Cousins the same year, just in case). Snyder forced RG3 and Dwayne Haskins on Jay Gruden, and this year he forced Haskins on Ron Rivera.
It’s probably too early for Washington to give up on Haskins, last year’s 15th overall pick who is only 23 years old. But Haskins has been benched in favor of Kyle Allen for Sunday’s game against the Rams, and Haskins has been relegated to third string, behind Alex Smith. Haskins may be coming off his first career 300-yard game, but the coaching staff’s frustration with him is palpable.
“There’s some mistakes that showed up that frankly were repeat kind of mistakes,” offensive coordinator Scott Turner said. “You see things happening over and over and over again.”
The Buccaneers trailed the Bears, 14-13, at halftime after jumping out to a 13-0 lead Thursday, continuing a trouble trend for Tom Brady’s squad. The Bucs lead the NFL with a plus-34 scoring differential in the first quarter, but rank 27th with a minus-21 differential in the second quarter. They were outscored, 17-0, in a loss to the Saints and, 14-3, in the loss to the Bears. “Started the game well, finished the game well — it’s just that middle part,” Brady said after last week’s win over the Chargers . . . Per online retailer Fanatics, which operates the NFL’s official online shop as well as several team sites (including the Patriots'), Brady’s Bucs jersey barely edged Cam Newton’s Patriots jersey as the top seller for September. Newton’s jersey is No. 1 in Boston and the six New England states, but Brady ranks No. 2. And Newton has three of the top-five-selling Patriots jerseys so far . . . Sam Darnold has a sprained AC joint in his throwing shoulder, the same injury that knocked Jimmy Garoppolo out for 2½ games in 2016 (though some believed he could play through it) . . . Unexpectedly best game of the day: 3-1 Colts at the 3-1 Browns. The Browns have been on fire, but now face the NFL’s No. 1-ranked defense without Nick Chubb.