The Mile High Club
Against the Cleveland Browns in the 1986 AFC Championship game, Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway led a game-winning drive. The play has gone done in NFL folklore known simply as The Drive. Elway marched his team 98 yards to tie the game with 37 seconds left, in a span of 5 minutes and 2 seconds. The Broncos won the game in overtime. Denver already knew after 24 different quarterbacks in 23 seasons that they had found their man in John Elway. After the drive, they knew they had a superstar. When you watch the tape of the drive you see back-up quarterback, Gary Kubiak, in the ear of head coach Dan Reeves on the sideline. It’s a scene that would be highly unconventional today. Elway gets out of bounds with 42 seconds left, is driven into mud and wipes his hands on his team-mate, like they’re playing in the dirt during the 11 o’clock break at school. You can hear the life being squeezed out of the Cleveland crowd, who start the drive boisterous and end it distraught. Today, I’ll talk about the rise of the Denver Broncos and how life in their AFC West Division is more difficult now that the Kansas City Chiefs have emerged as a football superpower. “This One’s For John!” John Elway came to Denver via a trade with the Baltimore Colts in the 1983 NFL draft, a draft that also included Dan Marino and Jim Kelly. Elway, who was a Stanford All-American, dangled the prospect of a baseball career as leverage to secure a trade from the hapless Colts. The Broncos were competitive from the time Elway arrived and Pat Bowlen took over as owner in 1984. Elway would go on to be one of the most successful quarterbacks in the NFL. He and Tom Brady are the first quarterbacks to start in five or more Super Bowls. He won two Super Bowls as a player in 1997 and 1998 with head coach Mike Shanahan, father of Kyle. When owner Pat Bowlen raised the Lombardi Trophy, he captured Elway’s two decade span in pursuit of a Super Bowl, exclaiming; “This one’s for John!” In the 2015 season, when Elway was general manager, and Peyton Manning was his quarterback, Denver won a third Super Bowl. And Gary Kubiak, Elways’ backup quarterback for nine years, was head coach. It demonstrates how long the levers of power in the Mile High City have run through John Elway.
Don’t Take Offense One might think a franchise that had a Hall of Fame and Super Bowl winning former quarterback as its general manager would be in fine fettle at the quarterback position. That has not been the case since Elway took over in 2011. Tim Tebow, Brock Osweiler, Trevor Siemian and Joe Flacco have all come and gone. Names that have flattered to deceive. Others past their prime. Peyton Manning bucked this trend. He came to Colorado in 2012 and played out his twilight years with the Broncos over four seasons. One Super Bowl loss and one glorious defensive victory over the Carolina Panthers ensued. When Manning left, Denver struggled. Now it has found a young quarterback of promise, albeit with a limited sample size. Drew Lock was handed the reins during the 2019 season after Joe Flacco proved to be a free agent bust. The team went 4-1 with Lock. In his four years playing college football at Missouri, he demonstrated continuous improvement. He needs to improve his movement in the pocket and the 10-yard plus throws. Last season he ranked last in this department. The Broncos have made attacking, structural changes around Lock, which should elevate his game. Existing wide receiver Courtland Sutton is a superb player and deep threat. In the 2020 NFL draft, Denver added the kind of speed, route running and after-the-catch ability that opens up the playbook and keeps defensive coordinators up at night. Receiver Jerry Jeudy has the uncanny ability to drop his hips, change direction and beat defenders. He is a very smart route runner. If he can consistently get separation from defensive backs, the Broncos offense could fire this season. Drafted alongside Jeudy to provide added punch was wide receiver K.J. Hamler.
An undrafted free agent, Phillip Lindsay thrived in his first two seasons at running back, in which he twice ranked in the top 10 among rushers. He ranks as a brilliant discovery, indicating there are occasional jewels to be found outside the draft. Melvin Gordon added more depth to the running backs room, joining from the Los Angeles Chargers.
Beyond The No Fly Zone The Broncos defense goes through outside linebacker Von Miller. Just ask Cam Newton, whose dreams Miller crushed in Super Bowl 50. Miller remains an elite edge rusher and run defender. He can deal with being double teamed and still make a play. He pressures and gets sacks when being held by offensive tackles. If fellow linebacker Bradley Chubb, who is coming off ACL surgery, can stay fit, Denver will continue to disrupt the opposition. Chubb was arguably the best player on the team last season before he got injured four games in. Elsewhere, the Broncos much vaunted No Fly Zone secondary - which was in place for Super Bowl 50 - has finally come to an end with cornerback Chris Harris Jnr. leaving in free agency. In positive news for the defensive backs, safety Justin Simmons signed the franchise tag and remains in town. Keeping Up With The Joneses The Broncos are moving in the right direction after a strong draft. Overall, the defense and offense looks solid. If head coach Vic Fangio can serve up a defense that wreaks havoc, then Denver will surprise teams this season. They have responded to Kansas City’s 2019 Super Bowl win and presumed-era of dominance by making an aggressive move to ensure their offense can keep scoring in shoot-outs against the Chiefs and other top teams. Getting the coveted second playoff spot in the division is what the Broncos are realistically after. Edging out the Los Angeles Chargers and Las Vegas Raiders is the mission. If John Elway, who made some questionable personnel decisions at quarterback, can turn Denver into a consistent playoff team that can stay the course with Kansas City in the division, it will rank up there with his finest achievements.