Plenty of thoughts raced through John Elway’s mind as the confetti fell on his Broncos on Feb. 7 in Santa Clara and, to be sure, jubilation was primary among them.
But as the man tasked with building the team, what was coming next was there too.
“We knew we were in for it in the offseason,” the Denver GM said from his office in the lunchtime hour Wednesday. “Having been through it before [as a player], it’s always difficult when you’re [coming off a title]. It’s going to be a rough offseason. And it was. But we battled through it. I’m excited about where we are. We’ve got a long way to go. The AFC West is by far the best division, so we’ve got a dogfight ahead.”
In this week’s Game Plan, we’ll take you through Dallas’s ability to weather the Tony Romo-less storm better than they have in the past, the Patriots’ newest innovation, the Cardinals’ and Chargers’ rebound, the trade deadline, and a lot more.
We start, though, with the last team to win a game last season, and the last one to win a game in Week 7, and how that team—the reigning-champion Broncos—emerged from the tumult that came in between relatively unscathed, and with a future uncompromised by the trappings that take down so many title teams.
So let’s go through it. The Broncos lost an all-time great at quarterback and his 25-year-old heir apparent; watched two big-ticket free agents on defense leave; went through a sometimes-ugly contract dispute with the best player on the team; and had an All-Pro corner shoot himself in the leg at an ungodly hour outside a Dallas strip club.
Were the Broncos metaphorically stumbling home from the championship bar, cruising for a vicious hangover? Not even close.
Denver rolled to a 4-0 start. And after losses to the Falcons and Chargers four days apart, the Broncos bounced back to blast the Texans on Monday night, which sets the stage for a rematch with San Diego in Week 8 to kick off a run of three division showdowns in a four-game stretch.
But the best part of all might be that all of this happened without Denver moving off its spot in how Elway has charted the club’s long-term course. The temptations were there, too. To overextend for Brock Osweiler. To pay Super Bowl MVP Von Miller whatever he wanted. To mortgage cap space to keep Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan. Even to overreact to the Talib situation.
Nine months later, it’s clear that standing firm, on every account, was the right call.
“It’s easy to take the easy way out,” Elway says now. “The easy way would’ve been to give in to everything coming off a Super Bowl. And you can make it easy. We could’ve done all that. But to remain good, and remain disciplined, you have to sometimes do the hard thing. It’s more difficult to do it that way, but in the long run it’s the right way. That’s where my focus was.
“One quote I always remember from my dad: ‘It’s not about taking the easy way out all the time. Sometimes, what makes you better is taking the tough way,’” Elway says. “So we’ve focused on not taking the easy way out, but taking the right way out.”
And so much of that “right way” has run right through the alignment the Broncos have struck with Elway as executive vice president/general manager, and Gary Kubiak as coach. Division of power within the organization—and each guy’s acceptance of that—allows Elway to run the franchise in a cold, cunning manner, and Kubiak to run the team his own way.
In other words, the trust Elway has in how Kubiak manages the most important people, the players, frees the boss to make the tough calls on all of them.
“I watch how close [my relationships] get,” Elway says. “I don’t want the emotional side to fog my decisions. I have to make the best decision for the organization. We’ve got a great football team, and I do have relationships with some of them. But I don’t try to get too close. It’s Gary’s football team. I don’t want to get in his way either. The bottom line, he’s the go-to guy for those guys, and I support Gary on that.”
So while Elway fought all the offseason battles, Kubiak had no blood on his hands, and the chemistry the team had in getting to a world title in February remained unaltered. That meant Miller’s return to the roster was seamless. And it meant the quarterback switch wasn’t as big a deal internally as we made it externally. And it meant the Talib drama was a total non-issue on the club’s ground level.
I asked Elway for his synopsis of each of those situations:
• Quarterbacks: “If you look at the way we won as a football team last year, we relied so heavily on the defense that we figured we still had some time to fix the quarterback position. You lose a guy like Peyton and you lose a lot of leadership, so that’s tough. And losing Brock, it was another bump in the road and one where we weren’t sure how it was going to go. We didn’t know who else was interested in him, but you only need one other suitor to make it tough, and obviously Houston was out there. At that point it was to continue to get better offensive-line wise, focus on the draft, getting a quarterback there. And [Mark] Sanchez allowed us a little leeway there. And the great thing is Trevor [Siemian] has come on, and we liked him last year when we drafted him in the seventh. He’s done a tremendous job.”
• Von Miller: “I would’ve told you, from my point of view, that thing was gonna get worked out, period. You’re right, it didn’t go the way we wanted it to. But the bottom line is I had a relationship with Von. I knew Von. And I knew that as soon as I got a chance to sit down with Von, everything was going to be fine. There were other circumstances that made that bigger than it should’ve been. Eventually I knew it’d be done. It was a matter of when. I knew it would go to the deadline. They’re gonna keep asking, they don’t believe you until the deadline, and you say, ‘no’, and that’s the end. I knew Von, I knew a lot of it wasn’t coming from him. So I knew the relationship was not going to be tarnished. It was a matter of getting to July 15 and getting it done.”
Aqib Talib: “The key was we know Aqib, and we know what he’s about, and we know what he’s like in this building, how he plays and what he is. And he came in here and told us the truth. So at that point in time, obviously we don’t have to agree sometimes with where he is, he’s a grown man. Our concern was the fact that he was OK, and we expressed concern that hopefully in the future he can stay out of those situations. So our concern was him, but once he told us the story, we supported him, knowing what he was about, and we let the league handle it from there.”
Could the Broncos have gotten to 5-2 if Elway handled things “the easy way?” Sure, absolutely.
What’s impressive here is that Denver’s now in an enviable position for the present and future. Elway is quick to heap praise on Kubiak for all he’s done: “Coming in with expectations, and managing a team that’s won four AFC West titles and had been to a Super Bowl, then he comes in with a new staff, manages them to where they can win a world championship? That has gone so far under the radar, it’s unbelievable.”
But the truth is, the way the whole operation is set up, considering how sideways so many other clubs are, is more impressive. And it’s why the best may be yet to come.
“To this day, we’ve never had a cross word with each other,” Elway says. “It’s good to be able to air everything out, have an understanding, come out with a consensus and a decision on which way we want to go. And when we make a decision, we go in that direction, we deal with that decision and we don’t look back.”
Based on how this season’s gone, Elway can sure say that again.
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FIVE NAMES FOR THE WEEKEND
• Blake Bortles is right when he says the Jaguars need to be “better all around,” but he also needs to do more to build on his 2015 season—his current 9-9 TD-INT ratio says plenty—and tonight in Nashville would be a good place to start.
• The Eagles’ pass-rush looked frightening against the Vikings, and that highlights the important role Ezekiel Elliott will play for Dallas on Sunday night, in both pass protection and getting Philly’s aggressive front to back off.
• Interesting spotlight on Marvin Lewis going up against old offensive coordinator Jay Gruden in London for Bengals-Redskins. Cincinnati is just 3-4, and you have to wonder if the staff attrition there has finally taken its toll.
• Andy Benoit wrote with so much insight on Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham as he gets set to face his former team. Last year, Graham seemed like a forced fit in Seattle, as Percy Harvin once was. Not anymore.
• Now comes the real challenge for Falcons coach Dan Quinn. His players have heard all week about last year’s collapse, following two straight losses. Will it be in their heads going into a crucial showdown against Green Bay?
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1. The Cowboys are better all around the quarterback.Dak Prescott will get the start Sunday against the Eagles, and the Cowboys will be patient with Tony Romo. But decision time is coming, and I’ve come around on this. The chance Prescott keeps the job is very real, to the point where people inside the Dallas building are mulling reasons to give Romo the job back, rather than thinking about whether or not the rookie has done enough to stake his claim. (He has.) The underlying story here is that Dallas was much better equipped to deal with a quarterback injury this season than the past few years, even if the backup wasn’t as good as Prescott has been. So as far as Jason Garrett is concerned, mission accomplished.
“The things we talked about coming out of last season, we have to build our team better to withstand the adversities of the season,” Garrett told me the other day. “So what does that mean? The first thing is who we bring in, the players, that’s the big part—guys who are capable of having some success if they have to go in and play. But also, it’s about building your team the right way with the right kind of character guys who are embracing adversity. And then, it’s about building your team the right way every day as a coaching staff, instilling toughness in them, a mentality in them that there’s no adversity we can’t handle, we can’t overcome. To me, that’s what it is. That’s been a process we’ve gone through, literally from the first week of January. That’s how we evaluated the season last year—we have to be able to handle adversity better.”
The Cowboys coach pointed out how the team kept fighting last year but was undone in close games, losing six of seven games decided by a TD or less. This year, they’re 2-1 in those kinds of contests, a sign of the growing character he mentioned. Left unsaid by Garrett, but acknowledged by others, is how the addition-by-subtraction of Greg Hardy has affected the makeup of the locker room. The addition of Ezekiel Elliott has brought an edge to offense too, and the coaches built more flexibility into their system in the offseason (naturally becoming less Romo-centric), which has helped Prescott. And there’s more proof it’s working as they’ve fought through injuries to all-world left tackle Tyron Smith and receiver Dez Bryant, and a slew of suspensions to defensive players. “It certainly was a point of emphasis for us to do that better,” Garrett said. “Every team I’ve ever been on has had to handle adversity. Whether it’s an injury or whatever happens over the course of 16 games, the teams that responded the best are the ones that had success in the end. We just had to do it better.” The proof that they have is how they’ll carry a game-and-a-half division lead into Sunday’s NFC East showdown in Philly.
2. Patriots already preparing for January. The Patriots believe that every season there’s a better-than-good chance they’ll win their division and play more than 16 games. That confidence has created an inherent advantage that they’ve quietly worked to exploit. And here’s how: Knowing that the season won’t crumble if they have a bad week in September or October has given them flexibility to experiment early. One example was taking the unorthodox step of rotating offensive linemen (to help develop depth at a spot where it’s difficult, thanks to the 2011 CBA rules) the past two seasons. They did scrap that one. In five of their seven games this year, they’ve remained completely unchanged at the five line spots, with the exceptions relating to injury management.
But as that disappeared, a new strategy has emerged. As I understand it, the experience of going into the AFC title game beaten to a pulp with injuries last January has prompted New England to handle its players a little differently this season. In essence, there are games where they’ve accepted not going with a full roster. They were cautious with the oft-injured Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, who were both beat up last January, as well as Dont’a Hightower, and the suspension of Tom Brady gave him what could be termed an organic four-game break at 39 years old. So far it hasn’t hurt the team’s bottom line much—they’re 6-1—and the benefits, at least on paper, are still a ways off from being realized. It’s also fair to see where this idea could extend into on-field strategy, too, with the team tinkering or holding back its offensive or defensive calls, with an eye on the higher-stakes parts of the season.
Before the opener Bill Belichick told the New England media, “I don’t think you really know your team until the middle of October.” In years past we’ve heard him reference Thanksgiving as a time when you can figure out who the real contenders are. All of this, plus the reduction in offseason work, explains why the Patriots have really started to use the time they get early in the year in a way few other teams can: to develop their roster. And this year, since they like the depth they have and carry the experience of falling just shy last year, they’ve pushed it to another level.
3. Charging ahead. Two weeks ago it sure seemed like Mike McCoy was fighting for his job in San Diego. That makes what his message to the players was that week all the more remarkable. With the 1-4 Chargers coming off another soul-crusher of a loss to Oakland, sealed by a bad snap on a field-goal try, and with just three days to prepare for the world champions, the coach told his crew: You’re only five weeks in. There’s so much football left. We’ve got a good team. Let’s go play our best game of the year. So as it seemed the employment reaper was coming, McCoy had his players take a big-picture look at how much potential they’d showed, and how much was in front of them, and—boom—here they are ready to face the Broncos again with a chance to sweep and pull within a game of the five-time defending division kingpin. “There was never any lack of confidence that we could do it,” said one Chargers staffer. “We just weren’t making the plays. … But these guys have been through a ton.”
Last year was about as injury-plagued a season as a team could have, and the move-to-L.A. question hovered over the franchise throughout. This year the injury bug bit again with Jason Verrett, Keenan Allen, Stevie Johnson, Danny Woodhead and Manti Te’o all on IR, and added to the almost comical late-game bad breaks the Chargers suffered. McCoy and his staff believe that’s strengthened the group, and the culture they set has carried them through. I was pointed to this video of Philip Rivers as an explanation of it. And another example that was given to me was the tone set in practice battles between veteran free-agent additions Matt Slauson and Brandon Mebane, imported to help in the run game on both sides of the ball. The result is a group that’s rising with a hard edge and pretty impressive young core that includes Joey Bosa, Denzel Perryman, Hunter Henry, Melvin Gordon, Jatavis Brown, Tyrell Williams, plus Allen, Te’o and Verrett in 2017 and beyond.
4. Cardinals defense making up for the offense. Sunday sets up a really interesting spot for the Arizona defense: It’s a 10 a.m. PT game against a desperate Panthers team coming off a bye with a history of pulling itself off the mat, and an offense that’s scored more than 30 points in three of its six games. The Cardinals haven’t allowed an opponent into the end zone since Columbus Day. On Sunday night the Seahawks didn’t pick up a first down until the second quarter, didn’t cross midfield until overtime (the team’s fourth-quarter field goal came after a blocked punt) and went three-and-out on six of their 13 possessions. So the trip to Charlotte is another chance for a group that’s long been overshadowed by a star-studded offense and an offensive-minded head coach to stamp itself as one of the sport’s elite units.
If you watch them, what you’ll see is Steve Keim’s vision to have Swiss Army knife players at every level coming to life—whether it’s Chandler Jones up front, Deone Bucannon at linebacker or Tyrann Mathieu on the back end. The difference the past couple weeks has been, largely, two things falling into place. First, the Cardinals had new pieces in the secondary (D.J. Swearinger, Marcus Cooper, Tharold Simon, Brandon Williams) and were sorting out roles there (Tony Jefferson’s changed, Mathieu was working back from injury), and so the problems on the back end early were almost always a result of coverage busts rather than anyone being physically deficient. Having Mathieu’s legs underneath him and back in his hybrid role hasn’t hurt either. Second, the pass rush has become a strength. Jones has come better than advertised and looks like a long-term piece in Arizona, and sophomore rusher Markus Golden has been a revelation on the opposite edge. Add it up, and the past two weeks don’t look like a fluke. We’ll see if Cam Newton and company have anything to say about that.
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• You should listen to my podcast every week, but especially this week (and yeah, maybe I’ll say that every week) for my conversation with Adam Gase. The first-year Dolphins coach was fantastic at the end in discussing quarterback development, and how he believes young players at that position are actually more prepared than ever coming out of college because of the single-sport phenomenon (and resulting death of the three-sport athlete) at the high school level. His point was that they’ve been fed so much football, they can’t help but be more educated. Give it a listen.
• Not that players were all that trusting of the league office to begin with—horrific NFL/NFLPA relations haven’t helped—but the Josh Brown affair has rankled some established veterans. A couple players I communicated with the past few days aren’t pleased with the NFL’s handling of Brown, because they know that in cases like this the larger group is painted with a broad brush. That’s why many players were happy two years ago when the NFL put muscle behind its domestic violence policy, and why they’re disappointed that it hasn’t been enacted in this case as the league advertised it (minimum six-game suspension) two years ago. “If they knew he abused her, they should’ve suspended him indefinitely immediately,” said one 30-something player. “No room in the NFL for that.”
• Here’s a line you wouldn’t expect: Jay Cutler has been far more professional and graceful than Ryan Fitzpatrick this week. After face-planting through six weeks, Fitzpatrick was benched and then lamented how his coach, GM and owner felt about him. That came after an injury to Geno Smith put Fitz back in the lineup. Cutler, too, is starting again, in part because the man who replaced him was injured. Cutler’s response when asked whether the Bears believed in him? He smiled and said his coaches had no choice. Cutler knew the circumstance wasn’t one in which he should seek sympathy. Fitzpatrick should have known, too.
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TWO COLLEGE PLAYERS TO WATCH SATURDAY
1. Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer (vs. Miami, NBC, 3:30 p.m. ET): Seeing The U in South Bend won’t just be a throwback to Catholics vs. Convicts. It’ll serve as a great character test for the home team’s redshirt sophomore quarterback, who has a shot at being a high first-round pick in April. Why? The Irish are 2-5, and Kizer is coming off a bye. That gave him plenty of time to think about the two worst games of his career, which just so happen to be Notre Dame’s last two games (losses to N.C. State and Stanford). And on the other side, he gets to face an athletic defense, plus another quarterback, in Brad Kaaya, who is jockeying for draft position. One NFC personnel exec who regards Kizer as a top-10 pick summed him up like this: “Pocket passer with a very good arm, has the athletic ability to get out and make plays with his feet. All the tools are there. He’s struggled a little bit over the last month but was excellent on film last year and the beginning of this year.” An NFC area scout, whose opinion of Kizer wasn’t quite as high, added that, “velocity and arm strength are pluses, good athlete for his size too, but he needs to make better decisions and get better with his ball placement.”
2. Washington CB Sidney Jones (at Utah, Fox Sports 1, 3:30 p.m.): Last week I had a talk with an AFC executive about the most impressive compilations of college talent he’d seen in his travels thus far this fall. What he said was the best group—Urban Meyer’s NFL assembly line at Ohio State—came as no surprise. The second best was, though. Chris Peterson has quietly built a loaded roster in Seattle that has pro evaluators salivating, and so it’s no mistake that the reborn Huskies are 7-0. Early in the year, in this space, we put the spotlight on one of those players, receiver John Ross. Jones is another who’ll have a shot to go on the first night of April’s draft. He and safety Budda Baker anchor a secondary that ranks up there with Ohio State and Alabama in NFL-ready talent, and Jones brings a nastiness to one of the most important positions in any defense. “He oozes confidence,” said the AFC exec. “He’s a little small, but he’s got good instincts and ball skills. Competitive kid.” And in a game with big conference-title implications, it’ll be good for scouts to see Jones go toe-to-toe with Utes super-sized star receiver Tim Patrick.
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So you want next Tuesday’s trade deadline to be more like the deadlines in baseball or basketball or hockey, do you?
“You’re looking for one-on-one guys in those [sports],” said one NFC team’s top personnel man. “The pitcher-hitter dynamic, that translates. Football’s a team game. That’s why you see teams sign free agents for a lot of money—and those guys have the whole offseason to assimilate—and it usually doesn’t work out. Fit matters. They have to learn a system, verbiage. Linemen have to fit within other guys. It’s hard.”
There’s also the issue of the salary cap (per the NFL’s Wednesday internal cap report, only Carolina, Cleveland, Jacksonville, San Francisco, Tennessee and Washington have $10 million of breathing room), and the fact that very few teams are both a) ready to give up on their season; and b) led by decision-makers who aren’t fighting for their jobs.
That means the moves you have will usually be like A.J. Derby-to-Denver or Kyle Van Noy-to-New England—both of which happened this week, and involved role players and low draft picks rather than brand names.
With that in mind, I asked a number of personnel people this week how contenders could get creative on players to target in a deal. Some of the names are obvious and have been out there, but here’s the list I came up with:
Patriots LBs Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower.Before anyone in New England freaks out, this is not to say either is on the block. It is to say that another team should ask, since there’s only one franchise tag for the two pending free agents, rookie Elandon Roberts has impressed, and the Patriots like to get in front of those sorts of problems. It’d likely cost more than the third-round pick either player would fetch in the compensatory formula.
Browns WR Josh Gordon:This would be the ultimate case of buying low. Gordon’s clearly not out of the woods yet with his demons. But he showed in August he can still play. So should a team like Minnesota (offensive coordinator Norv Turner was in Cleveland for Gordon’s amazing 2013 campaign) ask about his availability and try to stash him?
Browns CB Joe Haden: Even with the injuries he’s had, it’s hard to see Cleveland moving the 27-year-old. But it wouldn’t hurt to ask.
Jets WR Brandon Marshall: He’s been nothing short of great for the franchise, but he’s also turning 33 in March, making him a win-now piece for a team that’s trying to rebuild on the fly. If you’re the Eagles, knowing you get to keep him for $7.5 million next year, would you make a call?
Rams DE Robert Quinn: He’s been hurt, carries the biggest contract on the team, and Los Angeles is looking at giving Aaron Donald a monster deal soon and has a deficit of draft picks following the Jared Goff trade. The flip side is that Quinn is still just 26 and isn’t that expensive, given what top rushers make.
Jets DL Sheldon Richardson: New York just invested in Mo Wilkerson, and Leonard Williams looks like he’ll become a cornerstone. Richardson's price tag goes up in 2017, which is the final (option) year of his rookie deal, and the Jets could be looking to stockpile draft capital to get a quarterback.
Panthers DT Kawann Short: This falls into the “doesn’t hurt to ask” department. Carolina has depth on the interior of its defensive line and went through a protracted contract song-and-dance last year with Josh Norman. Maybe the Panthers would listen, with their season flagging?
49ers WR Torrey Smith: It makes sense that the Niners would try to get something for Smith. And the team trading for him would then have him under contract through 2019. The problem is that he’s due $9.6 million in each of the next three years, making him more likely a shorter-term rental.
Browns OT Joe Thomas: He’ll be 32 in December, but he’s quickly been a rock for Hue Jackson, which is probably why the coach was adamant that Thomas isn’t on the block. But for a great player, his financials aren’t crazy (due $20 million in 2017-18) and Cleveland does value draft assets.
Dolphins DE Cameron Wake: He’s settled into a situational role at age 34, and still has juice as a pass-rusher. But at $7 million for 2017, he could be a candidate to be moved after this season. Easy to see where a contender might see him as an affordable, short-term option at a position where premium players are pricey.
Titans WR Kendall Wright. GM Jon Robinson has quickly established depth at receiver, which made Dorial Green-Beckham expendable. And the talented Wright is in a contract year, has injury issues and hasn’t played a role that justifies his $7.33 million number, despite one very big game against Cleveland in Week 6.
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