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Major Broncos shakeup: Elway moves upstairs, Russell retires, team seeks new GM

The team CEO Joe Ellis met with Elway in recent weeks about football personnel changes.

COLORADO, USA — John Elway, the undisputed No. 1 icon in Broncos history, is essentially retiring as the team’s general manager to take on an elevated consultant role with the organization.

The move was first set in motion three weeks ago when Elway and Broncos' chief executive officer and president Joe Ellis met to discuss possible options of where the organization needed to go after missing the playoffs five consecutive years and losing 41 games in the last four.

Changing the coaching staff didn't seem like an option. The Broncos had three head coaches -- Gary Kubiak, Vance Joseph and Vic Fangio, who still possesses the job -- during their slump that started in the final six games of 2016. Since then, the Broncos have gone 25-45.

“We just started talking about where we were as a team and how do we make ourselves better and hopefully win some football games because obviously we’ve been struggling to do that the last several years,'' Elway said Monday in a sit-down interview with 9News. "Trying to think about different ways of how we can make that happen and me moving up became part of that conversation."

The competitor in Elway wanted to hang on for one more year, and fix the team before leaving the organization in good shape for his successor by the time his contract expired in the spring of 2022. John Albert Elway Jr., the husband, father, grandfather seven times over and the man who is now eligible for senior-citizen discounts at movie theatres was intrigued by a less stressful life.

"That’s why it took me a couple, three weeks because it’s always difficult when you decide to change direction,'' Elway said. "I think those three weeks was really good for me and I really started prioritizing things and where I was in my life – 60 years old and having been in football my whole life.

"And there were some things I wanted to start doing outside of football and have a little more free time. As I started thinking about things it led to this. And Joe gave me the opportunity to move up which is kind of the role I always wanted, especially when I took the job -- it was that I would eventually move into this position to where I could oversee things but not be involved in the day to day operations.

“It was a good opportunity. Obviously, disappointing we didn’t win more football games. But it was a good opportunity for me to move up and also to find a new GM. A guy with a different perspective who can come in here and hopefully change things around a little bit and get us back on the winning track.”

>>>WATCH BELOW: Broncos president Joe Ellis speaks after John Elway announces GM departure. 

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Elway’s top assistant, Matt Russell, is retiring after 20 years in the football operations business as a scout and personnel executive.

"I am retiring,’’ Russell said in an interview with 9NEWS. “I am going to help them with the (GM) search. I've been doing this since seventh grade. I've been at a camp every summer. I talked to my wife and we want to travel. John and I talked about this for a couple weeks. My relationship with John is great. I’ll be at every game next year. I’m going to help them with the search – that’s ultimately going to be up to Joe and John – but I’ll help them in any capacity they want.”

And so the Broncos have two football personnel jobs to fill -- the top two. Elway's GM role and Russell's director of player personnel position.

After five consecutive seasons of missing the playoffs and 41 losses in their last four years, this is a major shakeup in Broncos personnel, and it came after Ellis held several discussions with Elway.

“John Elway is the most important and impactful person in the history of the Denver Broncos,’’ Ellis said in a statement. “I have nothing but gratitude for how he accepted this challenge 10 years ago and helped us accomplish great things as an organization. In recent weeks, he and I have had a number of very positive—and honest—conversations about improving the team as well as his own future. John arrived at this decision, and I am fully supportive of him and this new structure. With all of his experience and competitive fire, I know John will be a tremendous resource for the Broncos in this role.”

>>WATCH BELOW: Mike Klis and Rod Mackey discuss the news of Elway's announcement on Monday.

A Hall of Fame quarterback who capped his 16-year career with back-to-back Super Bowl titles in 1997-98, Elway seemed to be on his way to a second bronze bust halfway through his stint as the Broncos’ top football executive. Elway had been hired by Broncos owner Pat Bowlen in January 2011 to take over the team’s football department. Inheriting a team that went 4-10 under Josh McDaniels in 2010 and had not been to the postseason since 2005, Elway immediately rebuilt the Broncos into a team that won five consecutive AFC West Division titles, played in two Super Bowls and won Super Bowl 50.

The Broncos 71-29 record at the beginning of Elway’s career is believed to be the best 100-game by any NFL GM.

Perhaps his most impressive accomplishment as a GM was putting together a team that led by quarterback Peyton Manning set several still-standing offensive records in reaching the Super Bowl in 2013, only to win Super Bowl 50 two years later on the strength of their defense. It was like transferring a roster from the Showtime Lakers to Bad Boy Pistons in two years.

“No question. We were grateful that Peyton came in here and we got him at the right time because he had a big chip on his shoulder,'' Elway said. "He came in and played great, set all the records in 2013 but then we got beat the Seahawks in the Super Bowl and we were able in two years to turn it around and concentrate on the defensive side. It was fun to be able to put that defense together with Wade Phillips as the defensive coordinator and Gary (Kubiak) being the head coach. And to turn around so we were adequate on the offensive side but be great on the defensive side. Yeah, that was my highlight and I’m very proud of that.’’

But after winning it all in 2015, Elway also oversaw a historic slump in which the Broncos have suffered four consecutive losing seasons for the first time since the franchise’s infancy years when it had 10 consecutive losing seasons from 1963-72. At the core of the Broncos’ ongoing slide has been their inability to find even an average-caliber NFL quarterback, never mind an elite one as Elway was from 1983-98.

"Hopefully, Drew’s that guy,'' Elway said of his second-year quarterback Drew Lock, who has showed flashes of great talent but has also been inconsistent and turnover-prone. "We’re still exploring all options at every position for this team but that is a very tough spot to find. Especially, too, with the way the rules are right now, it’s even more important you have that quarterback because they have so much control of the game. And the way the rules are, everything is built around that quarterback. So you’ve got to have one.”

As a GM, Elway did find one future Hall of Famer through 2012 free agency in Manning. It was the run-heavy/passing-challenged Tim Tebow who led the Broncos to the AFC West title in Elway’s first season of 2011, but the GM couldn’t resist going after one of the all-time great passers when the opportunity presented himself. Manning had 12 superlative seasons with the Indianapolis Colts but he missed his 13th season of 2011 with a neck injury.

When the Colts fell to the No. 1 overall draft pick in Manning’s absence, they decided to take once-every-generation quarterback prospect Andrew Luck. Manning was released to free agency. After a whirlwind recruiting process that involved several teams, Manning chose to sign with the Broncos in part because of Elway’s low-key sales pitch.

With Manning at quarterback, the Broncos posted records of 13-3, 13-3, 12-4 and 12-4 from 2012 through 2015. The Super Bowl title didn’t come, though, until Elway dramatically and mutually parted ways with head coach John Fox following the 2014 season and replaced him with his longtime friend, backup QB and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak.

Manning was injured in the final half of 2015, leaving the Broncos to finally give Brock Osweiler his chance. A second-round draft pick in 2012, Osweiler went 5-2 down the stretch to help the Broncos secure a No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. Manning, and a Von Miller-led defense took it from there.

But after beating Carolina in the Super Bowl, Manning retired and Elway struggled to find his worthy replacement. He first tried to recruit Colin Kaepernick from the 49ers. Kaepernick wouldn’t take a pay cut to join a Super Bowl winner.

Then came arguably Elway's biggest mistake as a GM. Trading up from No. 31 to the No. 26 overall pick in the first round of the 2016 draft, Elway took Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch, a 6-foot-7, strong-arm athletic prospect. As it turned out, Lynch struggled with decision-making areas of reading NFL defenses and was waived after two seasons.

Seventh-round draft pick Trevor Siemian overachieved for Kubiak in 2016 but shoulder injuries in back-to-back seasons led the Broncos to try veterans Case Keenum through free agency in 2018 and Joe Flacco through trade in 2019. Each was a disappointment, although in fairness to them, the overall state of the roster around them had begun to decline.

It appeared Elway might have finally found his quarterback in the second round of the 2019 draft when he took Lock out of Missouri. But after showing encouraging promise in a five-game audition to finish 2019, Lock struggled through much of this season. Elway, who has one year left on his contract, would prefer to stick with Lock as the team tries to rebound in 2021. 

But that is no longer Elway's call to make. He will help Ellis lead the search for a new GM, who will then have the authority to decide whether the Broncos need to upgrade the quarterback position by adding more significant competition to Lock either through free agency or the draft.

Elway has also been through his share of coaches. After Fox, Kubiak resigned as head coach for medical reasons following the 2016 season. Elway hired Vance Joseph instead of Kyle Shanahan and the Broncos dropped to 5-11 and 6-10 in back-to-back seasons. Elway hired Fangio, a longtime NFL defensive coordinator, to be his head coach in 2019. After a strong finish improved the Broncos’ record to 7-9, the team endured arguably its most crippling rash of injuries ever in 2020, losing its best defensive player, Miller, and offensive player, Courtland Sutton, to season-ending injuries.

Elway’s contract expires in April 2022. Even with the team’s recent slide, the Broncos’ 96-74 overall record (counting the postseason) since the start of the Elway executive era in 2011 is eighth-best in the league and only New England has been to more Super Bowls than Denver’s two in the past 10 seasons.

Possible replacements to Elway include former Atlanta GM Thomas Dimitroff, a longtime friend of Russell; Bears' assistant director of player personnel Champ Kelly; Vikings assistant general manager George Paton, whose nephew Rob Paton is a Broncos' scout; 49ers' vice president of player personnel Adam Peters; Patriots' assistant director of player personnel Dave Ziegler; former Houston Texans' GM Rick Smith and former Giants' GM Jerry Reese.

Kelly, Peters, Ziegler and Smith worked previously in the Broncos' personnel department before getting promotions elsewhere. The Ellis-Elway search committee is expected to move quickly as there are six other teams with GM openings. Permission slips to interview candidates could go out as soon as Tuesday.

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