Broncos brilliant finish to 2019 makes John Elway look like football genius

John Elway at the Broncos - Raiders game in Week 17 of 2019. Credit: Ron Chenoy, USA TODAY Sports.
John Elway at the Broncos - Raiders game in Week 17 of 2019. Credit: Ron Chenoy, USA TODAY Sports.

When it comes to New Year’s slogans, John Elway’s must be, “Trust the process.”

Since the Super Bowl 50 victory, the Denver Broncos have seemed rudderless at times. Elway and Gary Kubiak had a falling out, the “Duke of Denver” hired Vance Joseph who was completely lost as a head coach and Elway’s 2017 draft was a disaster. On top of all that, Pat Bowlen passed ownership to his trust and sadly passed away.

However, Elway the GM has been able to right the ship thanks to dynamic drafts the last two years, a seemingly solid head coaching hire in Vic Fangio and other (mostly) positive personnel decisions along the way. After starting the season 0-4, the Broncos finished the year 4-1 with Drew Lock at quarterback and 7-9 overall.

How has Elway started looking like a football genius again?

It started in 2018 with that distinguished draft. Bradley Chubb at No. 5 was a slam-dunk, and even though he missed most of this season due to injury, he looks like a superstar in the making. Follow that pick up with Courtland Sutton, who just enjoyed his first 1,000-yard season (with 6 touchdowns), as he exploded onto the scene this year as a legitimate No. 1 receiver. And then continue down the list to find valuable backups in Royce Freeman, Josey Jewell and DaeSean Hamilton who really came on at the end of this year.

Finally, Elway did what he’s always done; discovered an incredible undrafted free agent in Phillip Lindsay. Lindsay just enjoyed back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons for the first time in history for an undrafted player and the first time in Denver since 2002-03 when Clinton Portis did so.

Before 2018’s regular season was even over, Elway sent Joseph packing, a needed move for the organization. And he made a solid selection with Fangio at head coach.

The Broncos — even in 2019 — employed a great group of defenders. This team has been built on defense first since 2014 and now Elway’s following that same blueprint to success, this time bringing in a defensive-minded head coach in Fangio.

In the offseason, Denver’s GM made a gamble on Joe Flacco, which didn’t pay off, and Bryce Callahan didn’t play a single down due to injury. Ja’Wuan James was injured for most of the season, too, meaning Elway hit on only one of his free agents; Kareem Jackson.

Although, Jackson was superb for the Broncos this season before being suspended for a DUI for the final two games. He’s a throwback to old-school safeties, punishing running backs and receivers alike to force fumbles (1) and pick off passes (2).

However, early on in 2019, there were many question marks not only about free agent signings but also Fangio’s chops as a head coach.

The Broncos were supposed to be better defensively in 2019 with Fangio in charge. He was supposed to make Von Miller an even improved pass-rusher. Denver was in win-now mode thanks to the talent they had on defense.

But, the Broncos started the season 0-4, with zero sacks through the first three games and zero turnovers in the first four contests. Not only that, but Elway’s 2019 draft picks stumbled out the gate; Drew Lock injured himself in the preseason, Noah Fant dropped passes and the defenders were relative no-shows. Only second-round pick Dalton Risner impressed early and he was able to do so throughout the year.

Elway was under a lot of fire early on this season, not only for another questionable draft, but because Fangio didn’t look like a head coach, failing to improve any aspect of Denver’s defense.

Slowly but surely, though, things came together for everyone involved with the orange and blue.

Fant, the tight end Denver gambled on in the first round, started catching passes with consistency and then quickly graduated into a big-play threat in the second half of the season. Dre’Mont Jones started flashing in Week 11 with a sack and then went out on a 2.5-sack day and was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week for his performance against Detroit. Even Justin Hollins enjoyed a sack.

Of course, the biggest rookie this season was Lock. The Broncos were undoubtedly better with Lock at quarterback than without him, and while no one can say for sure if he will become a star, Elway said the Broncos, “Don’t like to show our hand, but I think it’s unrealistic to say that we’re going a different direction.”

As for Fangio, like with the many rookies and sophomores this year, his coaching improved and his culture developed over the course of the season. Denver’s defense finished 10th in points allowed (19.8 PPG), 12th in yards allowed and first in the red zone.

Even more impressive than the team improving steadily overall was Fangio’s ability to discover players out of nowhere. Alexander Johnson and Mike Purcell became staples in the middle of the defense during their second-half surge and Trey Marshall balled out in the final two games of the year.

Fangio’s growth this season helps Elway’s cause, as does the Broncos’ salary cap situation going into 2020. According to spotrac.com, the Broncos have $60.7 million to work with, and that number will only increase once they move on from Flacco’s massive contract.

Of course, part of the reason why Denver’s cap space is so massive is their 29 free agents. Meaning, Elway’s work is far from over.

He must pick the right players to re-sign and the right ones to let go. Justin Simmons and Shelby Harris should be the first two he re-signs, and the list includes a group of core players that could change the short-term history of the Broncos for the good or the bad.

But, all Broncos fans have to do right now is trust the process. The Broncos have missed the playoffs for four straight years, and that’s incredibly frustrating for a fan base that expects postseason play every year. Nevertheless, Denver’s on the rise as we kick off a new decade today. Enjoy the ride.

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