Pinpointing Where John Elway Went Wrong With Past QB Decisions
It's certainly frustrating that the Denver Broncos are likely to have another losing season. There are a number of issues we can point to, ranging from those in which you have control (poor coaching decisions) to those in which you don't have control (injuries).
But one issue that definitely tops the list is the quarterback. Since Peyton Manning retired, the Broncos have been unable to find the next guy to build around.
Again, there are plenty of factors that come into play, but one constant has been that general manager John Elway has overseen operations since 2011 and, ultimately, the buck stops with him regarding quarterback decisions.
But to understand where Elway has gone wrong with the quarterback evaluation process, you have to do more than just look at 'he could have taken this guy instead of that guy' retrospective alternatives.
Case in point: If Elway was bad in evaluating Brock Osweiler versus Russell Wilson, he wasn't the only one. Most scouts in ahead of the 2012 NFL draft put Osweiler ahead of Wilson — and they also put Brandon Weeden ahead of Wilson (and Osweiler, for that matter).
If scouts across the NFL missed on Wilson, it's hard to expect Elway not to have missed, too. After all, it's those scouts whose advice Elway is going to take.
This doesn't mean you can absolve Elway for every quarterback miss. Rather, it means you have to look at the situation at the time Elway made a decision, what he knew for certain, how he reacted, and how things developed from there.
When you understand those things, you will have a better idea about where to point the finger at where Elway got it wrong, and how he needed to correct it.
So let's look at quarterback decisions Elway made and what unfolded from there.
2012: Brock Osweiler vs. Russell Wilson
Every Broncos fan should know that Elway successfully got Manning to sign with the team, but there were questions as to whether or not Manning — an all-time great, for sure — could come back and play well after neck surgery.
Elway thus drafted a Plan B in case Manning didn't work out and went with Osweiler late in the second round.
Of course, we know how things unfolded with Osweiler and what Wilson did with the Seahawks. However, before people get tuned up, keep in mind that Manning went on to have three productive seasons with the Broncos, including a record-setting campaign in 2013 in which the team went to the Super Bowl.
That means that, if the Broncos had taken Wilson, he would have done the same thing as Osweiler for three years; sit on the bench and hold the tablet for Manning.
Of course, Osweiler started multiple games in 2015 and played an important role in ensuring the Broncos got to Super Bowl 50. However, there's the issue of the final regular-season game in which he was benched.
True, Osweiler wasn't really at fault for the team's first-half struggles, but the team wasn't responding to Osweiler's presence on the field. Manning came in and we know what happened from there.
So what if Wilson had been the player Elway drafted? I don't know for certain how he would have performed when Manning was injured in 2015, but it's not hard to imagine that, if the Broncos were struggling in a game, they wouldn't respond to Wilson because they saw Manning as the guy.
In fact, I don't think any quarterback would have been able to take control in that situation. Manning had such a presence on the team that it would have been difficult for other quarterbacks to overcome that.
And if Wilson was in that position of getting pulled for Manning, it wouldn't surprise me if he decides to leave, too, not because he's selfish, but because he felt slighted and wanted to play for a team who would commit to him.
As for Wilson's development, my stance is that Wilson needed to enter a situation, as a rookie, in which he could compete for the starting job and force a team to recognize what everyone overlooked in evaluating him. The Seahawks were the right situation because Wilson could compete for the job right from the start, rather than sit on the bench for several years.
It's easy to talk about how things worked out with the Packers and Aaron Rodgers, but with the new rookie pay scale, your best bet is to get a quarterback drafted early, on the field sooner than later, to take advantage of that cost-controlled contract.
Regardless, I'm not sold on the idea that the Broncos have a smooth transition if you swap out Osweiler for Wilson. The only way things work out for a QB drafted in 2012 is if Manning was gone after one season. Because that didn't happen, and the way events unfolded after that, I can't fault Elway for anything here.
2016: Paxton Lynch vs. Dak Prescott
This one is easier, but it does come with a familiar caveat that it wasn't just Elway who missed on Prescott, but nearly every NFL scout, who mostly ranked Lynch ahead of him.
That aside, the problem at hand wasn't simply drafting Lynch — it was not putting him into a competition from the start. Anointing Lynch the backup, while Mark Sanchez and Trevor Siemian competed for the starting job, sent Lynch the message that his spot was already earned.
Of course, there's no guarantee Lynch puts in the work if he has to compete for his job. But you still need to send the message to the rookie, no matter how high you draft him, that you earn your roster spot, period.
It goes without saying the Broncos still should have done that if they had taken Prescott instead. But there is one other minor point to consider: Would Gary Kubiak have been willing to give Prescott a fair shot, or would he have focused too much on developing Siemian, a guy he really liked?
I won't speculate further, but it's worth asking how Kubiak and his staff evaluate Prescott. We can safely say Prescott would have put the work in to get better, but beyond that, who knows for certain.
2017: Paxton Lynch vs. Draft Class
With Kubiak gone, and the Broncos knowing that Lynch wasn't putting the time in to get better, Elway needed to hit the reset button at the QB position, even if Siemian looked respectable in 2016.
It goes without saying that the Broncos weren't going to trade up for Mitchell Trubisky, even knowing what we know now about him. It would have been too high of a jump up the board for Elway's tastes.
And while it's fun to think about Patrick Mahomes, the Kansas City Chiefs showed they were willing to swing for the fences to get him, so I'm not positive Elway would have landed Mahomes.
But Deshaun Watson is another story. The Texans drafted 25th overall, five spots later in the first round than the Broncos, and all it took was that first-round pick, plus a 2018 first-round pick, to move up for Watson.
Imagine if Elway offered two firsts (with the 2017 pick 20th overall) and threw in a 2017 third-rounder (he had two, and those became Carlos Henderson and Brendan Langley). You'd have to think the Browns would jump at that offer.
We've seen that Watson can overcome deficiencies in coaching and personnel to make a team competitive, one that has a realistic shot at the playoffs. He may not be a miracle worker, but he's clearly a guy you can build around.
So Elway's mistake here was hanging onto Lynch for too long. If his 2016 first-round pick wasn't willing to put in the time to improve, Elway needed to cut bait quickly, and he didn't.
2018: Lynch vs. Half-Hearted Attempts to Trade Up
There are two things that happened here. First, the Broncos reportedly tried to move up the board, but the Giants wouldn't bite and they couldn't work out a trade with the Colts.
Along came the Jets, who offered three second-round picks to the Colts to move up three spots. Elway found that price too steep.
He did, of course, rule out Josh Allen, though he reportedly liked him. However, this is one in which it's hard to blame Elway, considering that most quarterbacks who had accuracy issues in college didn't make it far in the NFL.
Furthermore, Allen really needed to enter a stable situation. In 2018, Vance Joseph and several others on staff were served notice to "win or else." That's not a situation in which Allen would have likely found success.
I think Allen really needed to go to a team in which the regime was fairly new and rebuilding, not one that was served notice to 'win or else.' The Bills were such a team and that stability took some pressure off Allen.
Given that Joseph and company were on notice, I'm not entirely certain that Elway needed to go "all in" on a QB in 2018. All I can do is go back to 2017 and say that was the year to do it.
The Present Bottom Line
Since 2019, Elway has actually had a better thought process than he did in 2016. If this was 2016 Elway, he likely still trades down from No. 10 overall in 2019, but then takes Drew Lock at No. 20 instead of waiting it out.
He also corrected the issue of not having a drafted quarterback compete for a job. Sure, Kevin Hogan was terrible, but Lock having to compete with him in 2019 sent the message early that the rookie needs to earn his spot.
We know things haven't worked out thus far with Lock as hoped, so would Elway get a mulligan? He might — if it weren't for the fact that time is now running out on him.
On one hand, Elway is likely to be back in 2021. On the other hand, 2021 is the last year of his current contract. It's one thing for him to finish out his contract, but to get it renewed? There's no guarantee of that.
So Elway is faced with a difficult situation — he still needs to find a quarterback, but he's likely got one full season left to find that quarterback.
I don't know whether Elway can find that guy, but one thing is clear: He can't go into 2021 like he went into 2016 and not have a drafted quarterback compete for the job. I would hope he's at least got that corrected.
But depending on how the draft order plays out, Elway may need to be more aggressive in moving up the board, something he's shied away from doing.
There are still plenty of games left to play, and while it's not likely the Broncos will get Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields, Elway is really going to have to do his homework and ask himself what price he's willing to pay to find his guy — and perhaps to ensure he gets to build around that guy after 2021.