ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — John Elway sat down in a chair facing a 9News TV camera for his final interview.
Just after lunchtime Monday, the boss of Broncos’ football for the past 10 years had sent out a companywide e-mail informing his staff he was stepping aside as general manager while staying on as president of football operations.
He also held a Zoom call with his immediate football personnel staff. His semi-farewell included the news that his right-hand man for most of those 10 years, Matt Russell, was retiring.
After then discussing the moves in various media settings for nearly an hour, Elway sat down to discuss his developments one more time. He appeared completely relaxed, utterly at peace.
“I am. I’m tired,’’ Elway told 9NEWS. “I worked hard at this. It’s meant a lot to me. Obviously, with the disappointing season we had this year … and then with the opportunity to move up, I think it’s time to take some time. I had my seventh grandchild this (Monday) morning and to be able to spend some time with them and do some different things because I’ve worked hard my whole life. And at 60 years old, that runway is getting shorter.”
Elway mentioned his 60 years of age, and his seventh grandchild, several times while explaining the move to various media outlets last week. He had been thinking off and on about the move from career to retirement for a year or two, but never seriously. Then came three events in a relatively close timeframe that would bring emotional introspection upon the strongest of men, even one as incomparable as Elway.
One, his mother Janet died after a battle with cancer on March 4. Nothing puts one’s life in perspective more than the loss of their mom.
A week later, the world shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic. The globe took stock on one’s priorities.
And three, came the satisfaction of a job well-done – followed by the disappointing reality that the job was far from done.
After a historic five-year start to his general managership, a period that included five of five AFC West Division titles, two Super Bowl appearances and a Super Bowl 50 title, Elway’s Broncos whirled 180 degrees into a historic dive: Four consecutive years of missing the playoffs and the worst three-year losing stretch in 45 years.
But as the Broncos finished the 2019 season with an encouraging 4-1 mark, Elway was confident he had found his quarterback in Drew Lock and head coach in Vic Fangio – the two most important components to any football team.
Elway dove into free agency and scored such proven stalwarts as defensive lineman Jurrell Casey, offensive guard Graham Glasgow, cornerback A.J. Bouye (via trade) and running back Melvin Gordon.
In the draft, Elway enhanced Lock’s chances to succeed by taking highly regarded receivers Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler in the first two rounds. There was brimming confidence the Broncos would win again, win right away, and win for a sustained period.
With Broncos’ headquarters essentially shut down through the summer, Elway spent a good deal of the offseason with his family at his homes in California and Idaho.
Then the 2020 NFL season began without an offseason, and without a preseason. The Broncos, with all their inexperience on offense along with a new offensive coordinator in Pat Shurmur, needed an offseason and preseason more than others.
They started 0-3 with a non-competitive 28-10 home loss to Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Bucs in Game 3, in which backup quarterback Jeff Driskel, filling in for the injured Lock, struggled to get the ball off.
After encouraging back-to-back wins against the Jets and Patriots that were sandwiched between a COVID postponement, the Broncos were routed at home in the snow against the Kansas City Chiefs, who five years earlier had supplanted Denver for reign of the AFC West.
After an exciting come-from-behind, final-second win against the Chargers, the Broncos were in position to reach .500 at the midway point of the season, only to get whipped by flagging Atlanta and mediocre Las Vegas.
It was about then that Broncos’ chief executive officer Joe Ellis and Elway first began to casually discuss Elway’s future. With three weeks left in the season, the talks became more serious. Ellis wanted Elway to stay on and remain involved in finding a solution, but they also talked about bringing in a new set of eyes to run the football operations department.
Uber-competitive as he has been throughout his life, which included a 16-year Hall of Fame career as a Broncos’ quarterback that was famously marked by a high number of fourth-quarter comebacks, Elway initially hesitated at the thought of stepping away from his day-to-day role with the team still a ways from Super Bowl-caliber.
“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 about his communication with Ellis. “Trying to think about different ways of how we can make that happen and me moving up became part of that conversation. That’s why it took me a couple, three weeks because it’s always difficult when you decide to change direction.’’
The more Elway thought about it, the more he liked the idea.
“I think those three weeks were 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,’’ he said. “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. Looking at what was best for my life, what was best for John Elway and what was best for the organization, those things went hand-in-hand and with the kind of team we have it was a good time for the transition.
“For me to move up and start my transition and bring in a new set of eyes, as you said, to be the GM and give us a different perspective and hopefully a perspective that gets us back on the winning track.”
Elway, Ellis and Fangio have interviewed five candidates for the Broncos’ new GM position. If the new GM has concern about the enormous Elway shadow hovering nearby, they shouldn’t. Once he helps picks his successor, Elway will ease into his consultant role from a distance.
Minnesota Vikings’ assistant George Paton is the most eminently qualified and appears to be the Broncos’ GM candidate to beat. But he has passed on the big job before.
After Paton, it’s difficult to rank the Patriots’ Dave Ziegler, the Saints’ Terry Fontenot and the Bears’ Champ Kelly. All have impressive qualities. All require a significant leap of faith they can handle the No. 1 job in the Broncos’ football department and work closely with Fangio in rebuilding the roster into a winner.
A fifth candidate, Broncos' college scouting director Brian Stark, is considered a future GM who earned the interview through his good work in recent years.
“Vic and the GM are still going to report to me,’’ Elway said. “They’ll work together and come up with solutions themselves. With the big decisions, I’ll be involved in those. But ultimately the GM will have to be in control. All I want is input. I think I can add valuable input to any GM or even to Vic on the football side. But ultimately it’s going to be something where the GM is going to have the reigns and be able to make the decisions he wants.”
Elway’s contract expires after the 2022 draft. At that point he will jet off further into retirement, although a smaller consultant role is possible. One day, the Broncos might erect a statue of Elway next to owner Pat Bowlen in the Broncos’ Ring of Fame Plaza. This transition away from the GM responsibility, but not out the door, helps ensure that Elway will always be part of the Broncos. Even if his role is to be nothing other than John Elway, it would be a significant role to the franchise.
The highlight of Elway’s tenure as GM? Building a team that reached Super Bowl 48 on the strength of Peyton Manning’s record-setting passing offense, only to flip the roster two years later so that it was Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and an iconic defense that brought the third Lombardi Trophy to Denver.
“Yeah, that was my highlight, and I’m very proud of that,’’ Elway said.
The toughest part of the GM job?
“Losing,’’ he said. “It’s hard to take losing. When you go through a year like we had this year where we had high hopes coming in with the young team, with the draft we had, and then with COVID hitting and no offseason and a new offensive coordinator and the way everything set up, it was probably the worst thing that could have happened to us.
“Now, everybody else in the league had to go through it also, but I think it was more impactful on us because of the youth we had especially on the offensive side. And then the injuries. There are so many things that are out of your control that when you lose key people like we lost this year, it’s difficult to be consistent and win a lot of football games.”
It may take another year or so before the Broncos are winners again. And with the sensational Patrick Mahomes quarterbacking the Chiefs for the next decade-plus, it may be even longer before the Broncos become big winners. But for Elway, the pressure of shouldering full responsibility for the Broncos’ fate has been greatly relieved.
Through the good and the bad, 10 years with Elway at the executive helm has been a slice.
“The good thing is I don’t have to say sayonara or goodbye at all,’’ Elway said. “I’m still going to be around to give a tough time every once in a while. Like I said, I’m excited about my new role and I’m excited about still being a part of the organization and hopefully being part of the solution to getting us back to winning ways.”
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