Denver is 3-0 and it’s been a dominant defense—and not the Peyton Manning-led offense—that’s led the way. Here’s how architect John Elway built a juggernaut on the other side of the ball. Plus reader mail
Sometimes things happen pretty fast in the NFL, and you don’t really notice them until you look up one day and say, “My gosh, Denver can play some defense.”
Then you start looking into it, and you say, “My gosh, John Elway’s a pretty good architect.”
Think of times in football history when a great player transitioned to the front office. How many have really worked out? Ozzie Newsome in Baltimore, to be sure. Hall of Fame safety Larry Wilson ran the Cardinals for 17 years, but never built a champion, or even a playoff team. Most great players find other things to do with their lives, things that require less than 24/7 dedication. Elway did that for a while, selling cars and running a restaurant and an arena football team.
But this is his fifth year managing the Broncos, and his fingerprints are all over the roster. Everyone thinks of Elway’s role in luring Peyton Manning to Denver, convincing him to restart his career in Denver in 2012. That’s been the biggest reason why Denver is 41-10 in the regular season since opening day 2012. But the defense, which surprisingly has been of Elway’s handiwork than the Denver offense, is no longer just along for the ride. It’s driving the bus.
First things first: Why do this, at the time in Elway's life when a football obsession wouldn’t be the priority for a fifty-something man?
“What I found out about myself,” Elway said from his office Tuesday, “is I enjoy having a scoreboard on the weekend.”
He went on. “Nothing will replace playing. But football is what I know best. To be able to get into it and run a team and have the opportunity to use all the assets I’ve learned, to put them all together, to be the architect, is a great challenge. I tell these guys here all the time what a gratifying feeling it was to work to build a championship team. I felt that as a player. I want to give these guys a chance to feel that. I want to give them the best opportunity to win one of those.”
I’d have thought Elway would be focused more on offense than defense, being a Hall of Fame quarterback. Not that he’s neglected the area around Manning, but three points to be made about Elway's defensive obsession:
• Denver is ranked 30th in the league on offense and first on defense through three weeks.
• In the five Denver drafts Elway has run, he’s chosen a defensive player first.
• Of the 20 defensive players with the most snaps in 2015 for Denver, Elway was responsible for bringing 19 into the fold in the past five years. The only player to precede Elway: reserve safety and special-teamer David Bruton.
“I guess, looking back to where I’ve come from, it might surprise you, but I have a defensive base,” Elway said. “My first 10 years in the league with [coach] Dan Reeves, we were very good on defense, first with Joe Collier as defensive coordinator, and then with Wade Phillips. I guess my philosophy came watching how we were set up defense-first when I played. Run the ball next, then the passing game complemented that. I wanted to be good on defense, and then I wanted to be as talented as I could be on offense. The way I saw it, if you’re good on defense, you always have a chance.”
For Denver, if you’re deep on defense, you’ve always got a chance. Elway’s first draft pick was Von Miller in 2011. He got a stereo rush guy, DeMarcus Ware, in free agency in 2014, and filled in with draft picks (Sylvester Williams, Malik Jackson, Shane Ray) and undrafted free agents (Shaquil Barrett) and street free agents (Brandon Marshall, Antonio Smith). But the strength, I think, is the secondary. Elway has brought in three prime corners in three different ways—through the draft (slot corner Bradley Roby), in undrafted free agency (Chris Harris) and in unrestricted free agency (Aqib Talib). Who else has three premier corners today? The safety group is just as diverse.
“One of the things that really helps us,” Bruton said, “is we’ve got a lot of bright guys who are really students of the game.”
One is Bruton, who speaks to former Eagle and Bronco Brian Dawkins often about little edges to the position. “I study ball-carriers,” Bruton said, “and I get a lot of help from Dawk. How ball-carriers carry the ball, how we should attack it. He’s big on ripping it out, and he seems to know something about a lot of guys still playing even though he’s retired. I think it helps us that because so many of the guys study the game so well we have a good idea where it’s going. We’ve got ball-hawking guys everywhere.”
Elway has figured out the equation to succeed today on defense. He could have built a great secondary, but it won’t look so great if he hasn’t built a front that gets significant pressure. “You need the pressure,” said Elway, “but if you don’t have three good corners it’s not going to work. You’re playing 50, 60 percent three corners now, so you need to have depth there now, more than when I played.”
It’s strange to think of Denver this way, with Manning playing almost a subservient role. But it’s the defense that’s played the biggest role so far, and the defense that will have to be huge if the Broncos are going to unseat the Patriots atop the AFC. The Broncos play against teams with moderately good offenses—Minnesota, Oakland and Cleveland—in October. But November will be tougher: Aaron Rodgers and the Packers on Nov. 1, a date at Indianapolis the next Sunday, and a Thanksgiving weekend match with the Patriots that could be New England’s biggest challenge all season. That game is in Denver. If the Broncos are healthy, it’ll be interesting to see how New England blocks Miller and Ware—and how Brady attacks the diverse secondary.
Come Nov. 29, the world will be hyping Brady versus Manning, perhaps for the last time. But Elway knows it’s more Brady versus Talib/Harris/Roby. That’s what the architect of the Broncos has done to a storied rivalry, and you won’t hear Manning complaining about it. For once, Manning knows he doesn’t have to score in the 30s every week to have a good chance to win big games.
Now, on to your email:
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ON QUARTERBACK SENIORITY
I don’t know what Ed Hochuli said to Cam Newton, but from watching football on Sunday, there are definitely different levels of contact allowed on QBs based on their standing in the league. If you watch young mobile QBs (Colin Kaepernick, Cam Newton, etc.) when they scramble and slide feet first, they always get a little shoulder to the chest from a defender. It doesn't get called, which is fine. However, if this is Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Manning or other traditional veteran QBs, it is always a penalty if they are touched after a slide. Hochuli might not have said it, but I think refs definitely make players earn that extra protection.
—Bryan, San Diego
Two seasons ago, in a story I did about a week in the life of an officiating crew, I watched Gene Steratore get graded negatively for a borderline hit on a no-name quarterback, Case Keenum. The men who grade the officials' performance are not looking at flags on QB hits and saying, “If this is Tom Brady, I have to be sure that we protect him.” You believe that Brady and Manning are protected more zealously than mobile quarterbacks, and you are certainly entitled to your opinion. I’m just not convinced at all that guys like Manning get breaks and guys like Newton do not.
EQUAL BYE WEEK
I know that you will be hard pressed to find anyone outside of New England or Tennessee feeling sorry for Patriots and Titans having to take a bye in Week 4, but why is this still happening in today's game? The timing of a team’s bye week is an advantage or disadvantage to teams. To those taking a bye this early, they now need to play 13 consecutive weeks while others only have to do so for stretches of eight to 10. How about this solution:
NFC teams have their bye in Week 8 while the AFC teams have theirs in Week 9. You schedule division games during these weeks to help provide games that non-fans would want to watch, and you can even brand it as NFC Week and AFC Week. You would provide each conference with a level playing field with its direct competitors. Why has this never been done?
—David P., Richland, Wash.
That certainly makes a lot of sense. The problem is byes are put in place not for football reasons, but for television reasons. You can’t have a week in the middle of the season where you take away eight of 16 games, and you can’t have a week where you take away, for instance, all of the Fox games with the NFC games and then another week where you take away all the CBS games with the AFC games. In a perfect world you would do something that would be very equal like what you propose. But that would simply take away too much inventory on a Sunday for the NFL to ever consider it.
ON DAILY FANTASY HYPOCRISY
Can you please explain to me the NFL’s sudden decision to embrace the online fantasy football sites FanDuel and DraftKings? For a league that is so openly opposed to gambling, isn’t this an obvious contradiction? These sites are nothing more than organized gambling rings. It seems as though this is just a blatant cash grab by the NFL. Why isn’t there more of a reaction?
— John, Erie, Pa.
The MMQB is in the process of working on a story on these fantasy sites and the league’s attitude towards them. You ask a legitimate question, and I want to give it a thoughtful answer, not a knee-jerk one. Give us a week or so and I’ll make sure that we publicize our stories so you can read them and see how the NFL explains its position on this.
While I appreciate that Tom Brady is a once in a generation talent, can you PLEASE reduce your coverage of him? Or, maybe you should start a new column called The MMTB: The Monday Morning Tom Brady column. With a column dedicated to Tom Brady you can get it all out of your system and we can read about other 1,695 players in the league.
The Patriots as of this morning are either the best team in football or one of the very best. Tom Brady, at 38, is probably having the best year of any old player to ever play the game, and he’s doing it after one of the most tumultuous offseasons a player has ever gone through. I appreciate your suggestion, and you are not the first one to tell me I am all Tom Brady all the time. But this would be my suggestion: skip the Brady stuff. I write approximately 10,000 words in my column each Monday morning. This week I wrote 624 words on the Patriots and Brady—that leaves 9,376 words to the other teams and other events of the week for you to enjoy.
How about a little love for my alma mater, Kansas State University, from which matriculated your two most dangerous return men, Darren Sproles and Tyler Lockett?
—Jim Spencer, Wichita, Kan.
You got it. Good job, Wildcats. There must be something about Manhattan, Kansas, that breeds NFL return men who cannot be tackled.
I find it strange that Montee Ball hasn't been signed with a team. Can you help me understand why a team wouldn't take a chance on him as a backup RB?
I’m a bit surprised by that, too. I think, and this is just a gut feeling, that people looking at his 2014 tape see a running back who rarely makes more than what is there. Although he had some strong impact toward the end of his rookie year, he didn’t follow that up in 2014. Part of that is because he was plagued by a groin injury, which ended up finishing his season. But the Broncos have always been the kind of team that is the land of opportunity for running backs, and Ball simply didn’t make the most of his. It does seem like he should get another chance, and I will be surprised if he didn’t.
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