January 03, 2017

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) John Elway faces a familiar to-do list in his earlier-than-expected offseason:

-Find a new coach.

-Fix a leaky offensive line.

-Repair the run defense.

He ought to be used to this by now.

Denver's general manager is conducting his third coaching search in six seasons after Gary Kubiak stepped down Monday for health reasons just two years after rejoining his buddy in Denver.

''He's the king of the comeback,'' linebacker Von Miller said, expressing confidence that Elway will find the right coach just as he did two years ago when Kubiak took over and guided Denver to its Super Bowl 50 win.

For his successor, Kubiak, 55, leaves behind an all-consuming QB competition, an offense that never really clicked since he replaced John Fox and a dazzling defense that couldn't carry the Broncos (9-7) back to the playoffs.

Denver is once again the most desirable opening in NFL coaching circles, at least for candidates who can handle the pressure cooker of a win-now roster, win-or-else expectations and a win-from-now-on general manager with a gold jacket from Canton.

''It's a great place to come to work and play, but there's always pressure,'' said team president Joe Ellis, who is in talks to extend Elway's contract beyond this year.

After finding his next coach, Elway will embark upon fortifying the trenches where deficiencies led to Denver's first non-playoff season since 2010 .

The Broncos were built to play from ahead so they could unleash superstar Von Miller and force quarterbacks to throw into the teeth of their ''No Fly Zone'' secondary featuring Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib.

By playing from behind so often, failing to run or stop the run, the Broncos neutralized those strengths. They led the league in pass defense again, but fell from third to 28th against the run after losing Malik Jackson to free agency and Vance Walker to injury.

QUARTERBACK QUANDARY: Even if Kubiak had stayed, there were going to be major changes on the offensive side after the Broncos sputtered behind a porous offensive line that failed to spring a battered backfield or keep Trevor Siemian safe.

Pin-balled all season, Peyton Manning's surprise successor will have offseason surgery on his left (non-throwing) shoulder, which he hurt in Week 4, one of three injuries that sapped Siemian's mobility and shrunk Kubiak's call sheet.

First-round draft pick Paxton Lynch could need another season of seasoning in 2017 after finding the jump from Memphis to the pros a tall task.

WHERE TO START: Elway replaced four-fifths of his offensive line a year ago only to watch free agent tackles Russell Okung and Donald Stephenson flop and youngsters Max Garcia, Michael Schofield and Ty Sambrailo either regress or struggle mightily.

So, now Elway has to ''go back and work on it and try to fix it again.''

Their best lineman was center Matt Paradis, who toughed it out, but now needs to have both hips surgically repaired this offseason.

There were times that Denver's secondary had words with the Broncos offensive linemen for their lack of improvement and/or protection.

While Elway knows he has to upgrade his offense, he said job No. 1 is making sure his defense remains top-notch and challenging his offense to keep pace.

''Defense has become our identity. I think offensively we have to take that on as a challenge and find guys who want to compete,'' Elway said. ''... The players have to take it as a challenge as well as the coaches.

''Listen, we are going to be solid on defense, we're great on defense, but that should be a challenge to us offensively to want to be that great, too.''

DIVISION DOMINANCE: The Broncos' five-year stranglehold on the AFC West ended as they fell behind Kansas City and Oakland, both 12-4. But they beat the Raiders 24-6 in Kubiak's farewell Sunday, denying their bitter rivals a division crown and a bye and sending them on the road as a wild card instead.

''It's hard to leave a job when that's your dream job, that's what you want to do, that's what you love to do,'' Harris said. ''When you have to step down and go away from it it's tough. So we wanted to send him out happy.''

It was a good way to start the new year, but it didn't assuage their pain.

''We should have been playing like this the whole season,'' Harris said. ''We know that we're good enough to be playing in the playoffs and we let a lot of games slip.''

IF ONLY: The Broncos are kicking themselves over missed opportunities that would have allowed them to sneak into the playoffs as a dangerous wild card.

''It's not a good feeling,'' tight end Virgil Green said. ''Every year that I've been here we've been contenders, regardless of whether we had Tim Tebow at quarterback or Brock Osweiler or Peyton Manning at quarterback. And you love to be in a situation where you're one of the last teams: all eyes on you.''

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Follow Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton

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