In one season the Denver Broncos have transformed themselves from a 4-12 football team that finished last in the AFC West to division winners. This past Sunday, despite being heavy underdogs at home, the Broncos found a way to defeat the heavily injured Pittsburgh Steelers in a Wild Card game to advance to the divisional round to take on Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
This turnaround can be attributed mainly to one person and despite what you would think it is not Tim Tebow. The person most responsible for raising the Broncos up and out of the hell that Josh McDaniels was allowed to create is John Elway.
The former Bronco star quarterback and Hall of Famer was named the Executive Vice President of Football Operations by Broncos owner Pat Bowlen in January of 2011. Some people looked at this as a desperate move by a desperate team looking to try and win back some support from their fanbase. His only front office experience came as a co-owner and CEO of the Colorado Crush of the Arena Football League. Now he would be trying to bring an NFL team out of the division basement and he would have to do so going up against respected veteran general managers in the same division such as Scott Pioli and A.J. Smith.
One of the first things that Elway did while in charge was to retain the Broncos general manager Brian Xanders. While Xanders technically was the general manager when McDaniels was the head coach, it was well known that he was not in charge of player personnel decisions. In the new structure, Elway still has the final say but Xanders has been given more freedom to help build the Broncos overall roster. An example of Xanders influence was his finding of cornerback Chris Harris as an undrafted rookie out of the University of Kansas. Making the team because of an injury, Harris has stepped up and provided the Broncos with a solid nickel cornerback and he appears to have a long term future in the NFL.
In what could be considered Elway's first major move he brought in John Fox to be the teams head coach. Considered by some to be a castoff, Fox had been let go by the Carolina Panthers the previous season after the Panthers had went 2-14. The hiring of Fox was met with some initial criticism as he is a defensive minded coach and the NFL is ever increasingly becoming an offensive driven league.
The Broncos though had just gone through two offensive minded head coaches in Mike Shanahan and Josh McDaniels and were desperately in need of a culture change. In 2010, the Broncos defense hit rock bottom as they ranked dead last in the NFL as they gave up on average 29.4 points a game. Bringing the defense back to a level of respectability is something that Elway put a major emphasis upon.
Following the hiring of Fox as head coach the Broncos followed that up by grabbing up and coming coach Dennis Allen to fill the void at defensive coordinator. In Allen, Elway hired an aggressive young coach to team with Fox in helping the Broncos transition away from a 3-4 defense back to a 4-3 look. And while the final defensive rankings of the 2011 regular season show the team only moved up from 32nd to 24th in average points allowed per game most everyone can agree that the defense improved as the season went along.
A factor that obviously helped the defense this year was the fact that the Broncos led the league in rushing in 2011. Once again a coaching move made by Elway and his staff helped to make this possible as they decided to retain Mike McCoy as offensive coordinator. This allowed for continuity on the offensive side of the ball which presumably helped Tim Tebow's development despite their being a lockout this past offseason.
With the lack of mini-camps and an abbreviated training camp there is a strong likelihood that Tebow would be even less developed as a quarterback now if the Broncos had made a change at the coordinator position and installed a new system. Even though the Broncos are not a juggernaut by any means on the offensive side of the ball, McCoy has been praised for his adaptability to scheme an offense tailored to fit Tebow's strengths. This was never more visible than the in the wild card round against the Steelers as McCoy consistently made play calls that put Tebow into favorable positions to succeed.
Both coordinators, Allen and McCoy, have had their names bandied about recently for possible head coaching jobs. Recently the jobs they were rumored to be possible candidates for have been filled so it appears for the present time that both will be back in Denver for the 2012 season which has to be good news for Elway.
Coaching is obviously very important in the NFL but everyone knows that even the greatest coach cannot win without talent on the field. In the two main ways an NFL team can instantly upgrade their talent, the draft and free agency, Elway made many solid moves and appeared to have hit one major home run.
In his first draft as an executive, Elway was given a favorable position as the Broncos had the #2 overall selection. When a team picks this high the thought is they should be able to select a future Pro Bowler but if that team misses it could set the franchise back even further. It was initially thought that the Broncos would take defensive tackle Marcell Dareus out of Alabama to help shore up a porous defensive line but as the draft neared word begin to spread that the Broncos were looking elsewhere.
The new name now associated with the Broncos was outside linebacker Von Miller from Texas A&M. While all the analysts thought Miller could be an effective pass rusher in the pros he was thought to be more of a 3-4 player and with the Broncos switching back to a 4-3 alignment this pick was not a sure thing for the Broncos. Following the pick of Miller it was reported that Elway looked at him and he was reminded of former Kansas City Chief great Derrick Thomas who had sacked Elway more than any other player during his career. It appears that Elway was correct in his evaluation as Miller has gone out this season and produced 11.5 sacks despite a late season thumb injury which has hampered his production as a pass rusher.
Following up on the Miller pick, Elway had two second round picks to try and improve the team. One of those picks was used to select offensive right tackle Orlando Franklin who has started every game this year and at times been a dominant run blocker while the other pick was used to select top safety prospect Rahim Moore. What the team has in Moore is still to be determined as he has started a few games this season but was not the impact player the team had hoped for.
In the fourth round though it appears that Elway may have found a solid player for years to come in the Broncos secondary as Quinton Carter was selected out of the University of Oklahoma. Despite not being a starter all season he has been thrust into a starting role late in the year and he responded with his first interception of the season last week against Ben Roethlisberger in the playoffs.
The rest of the draft for Elway and the Broncos was filled with players who are more of projects who did not contribute much this season. While with any team a proper draft grade won't be known for a few years the early returns are encouraging as the team drafted a Pro Bowl rush linebacker to team opposite Elvis Dumervil and appears to have long term answers at the right tackle position as well as at safety.
Moving onto free agency, Elway and company once again made solid personnel decisions which have helped propel the Broncos to the current situation they are in. Perhaps the best signing of a player was getting All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey to agree to a new four year contract to stay in Denver. It appeared that the Broncos may lose Bailey after a new contract had been pulled off the table by the previous regime in Denver but Elway was able to lure him back. Despite being on the wrong side of thirty, Bailey still provides the team with high level play and flexibility on their defense.
One of the most well known signings that Elway made was bringing in veteran running back Willis McGahee from Baltimore. He was brought in to help complement former first round pick Knowshon Moreno but when Moreno once again was lost due to injuries it was McGahee who stepped up and showed he still had some life left in his legs. After running for just 380 yards in the 2010 season with Baltimore, McGahee ran for 1,199 yards for Denver this season and provided the team with a runner who could handle the pounding running in between the tackles. While one couldn't imagine that Elway and Fox believed McGahee had that much gas left in the tank it goes down as a great pickup.
To the dismay of some Broncos fans the signing of McGahee was the biggest name free agent the team signed. Instead of getting involved with the high profile names available, Elway tried to make solid low key moves to help improve the overall depth of the team.
He re-signed defensive tackle Marcus Thomas and traded a 2013 draft pick to the Eagles for defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley. These two moves, while not high profile, provided the team with two solid players on the inside of the line. Another low key move was the signing of unrestricted free agent tight end Daniel Fells. His overall numbers will now wow you as Fells finished the year with only 19 catches but he helped provide solid blocking for Tebow and the Broncos running backs and in the playoff game against the Steelers it was Fells who had two big catches for 57 yards.
This is not to say that every move that Elway made turned out to be wonderful. He took a gamble and signed former Patriots defensive tackle Ty Warren before the season to a two year contract for eight million dollars with $2.5 million of that being a signing bonus. This was after Warren had missed the entire 2010 season with New England due to a hip injury. Before the season ever had gotten under way, Warren sustained a triceps tear in practice and he was lost for the year. While injuries happen and especially it seems this season with the shortened training camp and offseason the signing of Warren always seemed questionable and for Elway it blew up in his face.
Another move that Elway was rightfully criticized for was his late season release of former starting quarterback Kyle Orton. In a move that appeared to only save the Broncos money, Orton was picked up by a division rival Kansas City where he started and led the Chiefs to a victory over Denver in the regular season finale. This move could have been disastrous for Elway and the Broncos if Oakland would not have saved the Broncos season with a victory over the Chiefs in Week 16 and then a loss against San Diego to end the year which gave the Broncos the AFC West title.
Finally the area where Elway has received the most press is on the subject of his comments regarding Tim Tebow. Initially it was thought that the Broncos decision to turn the team over to Tebow was simply so the fans could see that Tebow was not the long term answer and it would give the Broncos a high draft choice which would allow Elway to hand pick the next Broncos quarterback. As the Broncos and Tebow continued to win games, Elway was criticized by some for his truthful comments regarding the shortcomings that Tebow and the Broncos were still experiencing on the offensive side of the ball.
Later in the season it appeared that Elway started to warm up to the idea of Tebow being the Broncos starting quarterback for the foreseeable future. Whether this is due to Elway truly believing in Tebow or the fact that Denver's first round draft position will likely preclude them from having a shot at an impact quarterback is a question that remains to be answered.
No matter how the game against New England turns out it can not be argued that Elway had a banner year in 2011. He helped lead the Broncos out of the division basement and to their first playoff victory since 2005 and he did so while injecting the team with some much needed youth.
While this season was a major success the real work will begin for Elway in 2012. The Broncos will be facing a first place schedule next season and the ever present Tebow quarterback situation still remains a major question mark that Elway will have to make a decision on at some point this year. For the time being though, Bronco fans have to feel confident after his first year on the job that Elway is not in over his head as he once again might be the important person in the organization.