The return of Elway

When John Elway took the podium on Wednesday to being his tenure as the Executive VP of Football Operations for the Denver Broncos, he wasn’t shy about taking on some touchy subjects. On the other hand, John Elway has rarely been shy about too much of anything.

He talked at length about things like integrity and dedication, about the unique relationship that the Broncos have with their fans, and how his new position is something that he’s looked forward to for a long time. He’s already hit the ground running, with 25-minute meetings with each of the incumbent assistant coaches. The coaches had already been required to do their year-end player analyses, and Elway wanted their input on the players as much as he wanted to get up to speed on who, on the staff and on the roster, he might consider suggesting the next head coach keep. But Elway also made it clear that GM Brian Xanders will handle personnel decisions for the most part, and the head coach will provide his own input.

Elway also identified what is one of the problems, if not the primary problem, on defense - the lack of consistency in scheme and identity. He promised that this will end, and those words are music to my ears. There are advantages to the 3-4, 5-2, and 4-3, as well as the 4-3 over- and under formations, but there’s a huge advantage to building toward one system over a period of time. That’s been lacking since Larry Coyer ‘only’ got Denver to the AFC Championship and was fired but a year later.

Even Greg Robinson, who had helped Denver win back-to-back Super Bowls, was fired after one poor season by the defense - albeit an 11-win season. Basically, Denver has tended to ignore the defense for going on ten years now. I think that it was Champ Bailey who said that the defensive players were like second-class citizens under Mike Shanahan's watch. Sadly, other players agreed. Champ forgot to mention that the defensive coordinators were closer to endangered species - every year, quite nearly (and literally, for the past five) Denver seemed to have one less. With the level of scheme-specific personnel needed to win in the modern NFL, that’s not enough time to establish anything but a pattern that leads to losses.

The idea that Elway is inexperienced is a classic example of a statement that is half true. John covered that effectively:

I think the experience that I got in the Arena League — that was important. I started that thing, I was the first employee and I started that from the ground up, did that for six years. Now granted as I said, it is not the NFL, but it is good front-office experience. As I go back to what I said earlier, I know what I don’t know and I am really good, and I think we are really good as an organization, in getting great people around us and great people around me and great people in this organization...

If John didn’t have the front office experience of the Arena League and of winning a championship there, as well as successful ventures in two other businesses, a lifetime in football and his own vast experience, I’d be far less willing to express the same level of enthusiasm. But the fact is that he does - and that, more than the ‘Elway Mystique’ was what stood out to me on Wednesday.

As far as the new coach, the list was to start, chronologically, with Mike Mularkey’s interview on Friday (now canceled), and Eric Studesville on Sunday. Perry Fewell, from the Giants and formerly of Buffalo, will be in this weekend as well. Elway will have a corporate headhunter in the room during each interview, something I found both interesting and comforting. Elway has, as he noted in his press conference, always been a man who was good at building teams, whether in football, restaurants or car dealerships. However - one of Elway’s other strengths is that he knows what he doesn’t know, and he’s not shy about getting input and advice from someone who is more proficient in that field. More power to him.

That’s been a problem with the Broncos for a while now. Pat Bowlen, Joe Ellis and even Jim Goodman were impressed with Josh McDaniels, but even the FO admits that they almost immediately pulled the rug out from under his feet by leaving a GM with no experience as a GM and a head coach with no experience as a head coach in place and letting Jim Goodman walk. What went wrong was as much a lack of established procedure as anything else. Regardless of who said what and when, the personnel decisions were not as bad as some would have us believe and not as good as they could have been.

The head coach was running the offense as well as the team and doing much of the personnel work, and the defense struggled mightily. The head coach may, and John seemed to allude to this, have not been as qualified in terms of handling people and egos as he might have been. There was really no clear, effective flow of information and responsibility in the corporate structure. Elway is adamant that this time will be different, and it makes sense that it will. John has been a success in great part through a willingness to talk about what he doesn’t know and to find it out. It’s one of the benefits that he’s bringing to the Broncos right now, and it was one of the first quotes to come out of the presser.

I know what I don't know...The inexperience that I do have I plan on eradicating as soon as possible and going to work. I will find out what I don't know as fast as I possibly can.

After years of teaching Oriental Medicine and working in both eastern and western medical environments, one of the things that I’ve found most common in terms of making serious errors has been an inability to admit to what someone doesn’t know and to make very sure that they learn it. The hard part has often been getting the person involved to know what they don’t know - it’s a blind spot that many of us have. The human ego is a remarkable thing. But that’s why Elway is, well, Elway. His presser was as far ranging as some of his scrambles.

He included a subject that is on the lips and minds of a lot of Broncos fans right now - the future of Tim Tebow. All of the coaching assistants, according to the Denver Post, agreed that Tebow was a well-used draft pick. However, John was clear that Tebow has a long way to go, and stopped short of pronouncing him the QB of the future. In order to achieve that, Tebow will have to move towards becoming the pocket passer that Josh McDaniels insisted on, as well as the scrambler he already is. Coming from a fan, pundit or even a player or coach, it’s one thing. When John Elway says that you need to become more of a pocket passer, it’s a done deal. That doesn’t mean that Tebow can’t be both; he can, and if he becomes proficient in both, look out! But, he needs to work hard on his pocket skills.

This is not, of course, a new theory. However, it’s a good example of how thoroughly Elway is willing to look at the organization. Tebow’s intangibles are off the charts, and John noted that more than once. His ability to run and extend a play is top level. His ability to throw well is probably fairly normal for a rookie, but if he is going to start as the QB next time the NFL holds a season, he’s got a lot of work to do between now and then. Despite how many fans might feel, if Elway comes to the conclusion that Tebow isn’t the best option for Denver, that will be dealt with. I don’t expect that, and I’m not claiming that Tebow should be farther along - my feelings since the draft have been that he’s a Bronco, I support him on that basis, and that I want him to be the best QB for the Broncos that he can be. That’s why I didn’t want him to play this season if possible - he’s still got a long way to go, and I wanted to see him spending his time with a QB coach and working to bring his weaknesses up to strengths.

The wisest man I ever met noted several times that ‘We (as people) aren’t here (in life) to work on what we’re good at. We’re here to work on what we’re not. “ Most people try to get by on their strengths, which is only sensible - to a point. But to grow, to develop and to improve, it’s often your weaknesses that need to be overcome and that will provide the best lessons, if often the hardest ones. The point applies here as well. It’s not an excuse to shirk working hard to maintain the better skills a person has, but a reminder that you win by developing your weaknesses until they are strengths, not just coasting on your talents. Elway noted, as everyone rightfully does, that Tebow is a hard worker and as such, he will get his shot.

The possibilities of Tebow’s potential are substantial, and the options his skills create are impressive, but by bringing up TT’s situation in an open, straightforward manner, Elway is telling everyone that at this point, he doesn’t think that he has a handle on everything that's going on with Tebow, and that he will help oversee making that a reality. Let’s face it - Elway knows a lot about playing QB. His words carry a weight that very few people can manage. Even Joe Ellis referenced this directly:

"We need better football leadership in here," Ellis said. "We need more competitive fire, we need to get better on the field and we need to get better in football, and that starts with John.

Elway covered some territory that may have been indirectly referencing Josh McDaniels, or at least the one that the media put out there. His next coach, he made clear, will understand the relationship between the Denver Broncos organization and its fans, something that Josh McDaniels may never have understood. The next coach will have to be a master of people as well as formations, schemes and plays. When you hire a 32-year-old man to be a head coach, if you don’t expect that to be a weaker point, you’re generally on shaky ground. Most first-time head coaches need seasoning, and younger ones tend to take longer. If you don’t factor that into your decision - and the Broncos apparently did not - the outcome tends to look a lot like Denver’s did this year.

Elway also said two things, back to back, that could be seen as contradictory, but I don’t think that they are. He talked about winning, and he talked about winning quickly, both of which are laudable goals. He also then spoke immediately of the fact that winning will not happen overnight, and I’m glad that he brought this up. McDaniels’ comment that he’d be doing things that no one else had done (and we’re still waiting to find out what they were), came across badly for a number of reasons, and the first was his belief that he could turn around a sinking ship in a single offseason and start it winning again. By setting himself up for that situation, he earned the enmity of many more fans than he might have if he’d said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we did the numbers and more than half of the last Broncos team aren't good enough to play in the NFL. This is going to take longer than we first thought, but our only goal is winning and we’re going to ask you for some understanding on that. I can promise you that we’re working day and night to get us back there.”

Would it have been enough? Probably not. There were lots of people who never forgave Pat Bowlen for firing Shanahan, and Jay Cutler’s near-legendary petulance and McD’s inability to overcome that didn’t change that, nor did he do enough to change the public perception of him. There’s no question that McDaniels also made plenty of legitimate mistakes. But, would it have helped? I think that it would have. It would have helped torpedo the "He thinks he’s smarter than anyone else in the room" whine that came often from the Denver media, and it might have helped people to recognize that he understood the price of the job and the difficulties that it would present. John has been around a lot of clubs, businesses and organizations, and he’s seen the problems that over-promising and underachieving can bring.  He’s not doing that, and I’m glad to see that.

What did Elway promise? Not much, per se. Hard work, dedication, and a proven skill at team building are a good, even great, start. He did give a lot of info that was on the level of precision that is possible prior to hiring a new coach. He noted that he’d like to have Champ Bailey back and I hope that comes through, although he ended his statement with the comment "Champ has been a great player for the Broncos and he was a guy that gave his all for the Broncos.” The past tense is a bit uncomfortable for me, but it could have simply been a manner of speaking - we all do that at times, and yet as fans we all parse every word and inflection from coaches and players. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. I hope this is such a case.

Elway sees his own areas of inexperience clearly, and that’s a rare quality in general that you often find in the best executives. One of his first calls, interestingly, was to Ernie Accorsi, and I’ll let John tell the story:

“I have had a couple of conversations with Ernie Accorsi and he has been very helpful. I talked with him  for about an hour on the phone. If you don’t know who Ernie was, to have that conversation, it was a nice conversation because we has actually the one that drafted me in Baltimore and then he was in Cleveland when we had ‘The Drive,’ so thank God there was no animosity and he took my call, but there is a guy that has a great deal of experience, has been a very successful GM in the NFL for a long time (and) he is now retired. So, I said, ‘I am hopeful that you will continue to take my calls because there are a lot of things that I would like to bounce off you,’ and he was very generous and said he would love to be able to do that. I look forward to learning from him and seeking his advice.”

So, beyond the mystique of Elway, what I brought away from this was a man who has a degree in Economics from Stanford, reached the top of his first profession in the NFL, and was successful in the automobile industry. Plus, he was a front office leader in Arena football where he had to fire an old family friend, and led to his team there to a championship, gaining useful experience along the way. He also garnered success in the restaurant industry, creating teams to operate the key functions in each business. He’s excited, he’s aware of his limitations and as he wants for the QB, he wants for himself to identify and overcome any weaknesses in his own skillset, and to be able to depend on the people around him to do their part.

After the past few months, with an increasing sense that no one was really minding the ship and a sinking feeling in my stomach whenever the name Joe Ellis came up, this is the first time that I’ve felt a serious level of optimism regarding the Broncos. There will be problems, travails, struggles and missteps - it’s a part of life, and to ignore that is to invite disappointment. But with the solid, basic, intelligent business approaches that John described, I do have a sense that the ship is being righted, and the team may be at the beginning of a return to the sense that this is a franchise that people want to play for, coach for, and be associated with. That had faded, and for any Denver fan, that’s a bitter thing to swallow.

Whether it will be the ultimate answer or not, only time will tell. But everything that I heard from Elway indicated to me that he understood the extent of the challenge, that he sees his own areas of weakness and intends to remedy them ASAP and that he has, thankfully, a clear plan for moving from here back to the land of winning seasons. I don’t know if the play will work, and it will almost certainly see changes - every plan of battle is perfect until the first shots are fired (or, in boxing, until the first time you get hit). But you have to start with a plan, and Elway’s ability to talk extemporaneously and at length, with organization and logic, on what his approach is and will be, speaks well for the future, and was a breath of fresh air after a long Denver temperature inversion in Dove Valley.

Go for it, John. And - Go Broncos!

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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