“But I will tell you, I think we got a little bit soft. To be dead honest with you, we got a little bit soft. We went 4-0 in preseason, we started out 3-1, we get a bye week and if you exhale in this league, you’re in trouble. To be dead honest with you, I think we exhaled and it’s hard to recover from that. It’ll be a lesson that hopefully we all learn and prevent from happening in the future.” — John Elway, Nov. 17, 2017


On Sunday, those same “soft” Broncos lost their sixth straight game, this time to the visiting Cincinnati Bengals. Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy was fired on Monday morning and replaced by quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave. Certainly, the Broncos have been regressing instead of progressing, and it’s entirely possible that McCoy won’t be the last Broncos coach out the door by the time their disastrous season finally comes to a merciful close.

There’s plenty of blame left to go around: Head coach Vance Joseph has looked as if he’s in over his head for most of the season, and has been badly out-coached in multiple games. Special teams coordinator Brock Olivo hasn’t been able to improve the Broncos’ performance there in any discernible way, despite his exuberant, gung-ho nature. Defensive coordinator Joe Woods has overseen a defense whose cracks have begun to show, given the unfair burden placed upon them by the turnover-happy offense.

Those are just the coaches, each of which is in his first season in his current role.

Free-agent additions Ronald Leary and Menelik Watson have underperformed, though at different levels — Leary has been merely pedestrian, while Watson was a disaster at right tackle before injuries ended his season. A.J. Derby was by far, the best receiving tight end on the team, and he was cut last week, just the same.

Those are just the veterans; all relative newcomers to the team.

The Broncos’ youth movement has hit significant bumps in the road, as well. In this year’s draft alone, second-round pick DeMarcus Walker hasn’t made any impact whatsoever, Isaiah McKenzie fumbled away the punt returner’s job, and running back De’Angelo Henderson went from a possible starter to an afterthought in the blink of an eye.

Those are just the rookies — and that list didn’t include out-for-the-season tight end Jake Butt and quarterback Chad Kelly, both of whom were injured when Denver drafted them.

The vaunted “No-Fly Zone” has looked vulnerable, with youngsters Bradley Roby and Justin Simmons too often exposed. With the passing offense struggling mightily, one would imagine things might be easier if former second-rounder Cody Latimer and former third-round pick Jeff Heuerman could earn any more than a few snaps per game. Of course, that’s all made worse by the fact that the Broncos — for the second year in a row — can’t find a quarterback. Trevor Siemian, the starter for the last year and half, went from taking the snaps to being inactive on Sunday — and he was voted a captain this season by his teammates. Brock Osweiler, in his second tour of duty after being paid to go away by the Texans and the Browns, looks like a career backup who’s being paid a Pro Bowler’s salary (though, fortunately, not by the Broncos).

Next on the list is Paxton Lynch, the would-be star, the future of the franchise. Expected to be a project when the Broncos traded up for him, the team nevertheless watched him fail to claim the starting role over Siemian, who didn’t even shine at Northwestern, which isn’t exactly a football factory. If Lynch, a first-rounder out of Memphis, was a “project,” what in the world was Siemian? And he’s already beaten Lynch out for the job — twice.

So there’s plenty of blame to go around for these Broncos — and everyone’s been put on notice by Elway after his comments and McCoy’s dismissal. Everyone, it seems, except for the one person that’s ultimately responsible for bringing in each and every name that’s listed above.

“The buck stops here.” — President Harry Truman, on his motto, Jan. 20, 1953

John Elway hired a first-year head coach and let beloved defensive coordinator Wade Phillips depart, replacing him with a first-year coordinator. Elway negotiated the deals with free agents. Elway made the trades. Elway oversaw selection of the draft picks. And then Elway called them all “soft.”

The pantheon of Colorado sports greats grows larger every year, but Elway towers so far above it that his position is unassailable — and with good reason. He’s unquestionably one of the very finest players in the history of the NFL, and his record as the Broncos’ general manager includes a Super Bowl title, two AFC championships and five AFC West crowns in seven seasons — by any measurement, a resounding success.

Justifiably beloved in town and seemingly coated in Teflon at times, Elway could have easily changed the tone of the discussion — and perhaps defused the emotional blast that sundered the locker room afterwards — by taking personal responsibility for the state of the team that he’s assembled from top to bottom. Perhaps Elway does indeed feel responsible; there’s no way of knowing. That’s the problem.

There’s no need for a public mea culpa, no desire to embarrass a local legend that’s done more for Colorado sports than anyone in history, but there is a need to show his team — the people he hired to work for him — that he sees himself as part of the problem; not apart from it.

When he played for the Broncos, battling in the trenches, sweating and bleeding and spending nights in ice baths, Elway could have said whatever he wanted about his teammates and it would have been received differently because he was one of them. Now, almost 19 years removed from taking his last snap as a player, he’s their boss — respected and revered, to be certain, but in the end, still the guy wearing the bespoke suit instead of a uniform.

‘Tis easier to follow a warrior than a king, and heavy is the head that wears the crown. Elway, once the Broncos’ greatest warrior on the field, has ascended to that even loftier status within the organization, and not every lesson he learned on that field still applies in his current role.

“I can respectfully disagree with what he said as long as I’m going out and giving 100 percent every game, which is what I’m doing. I can respectfully disagree and there are a lot of guys that actually disagree with him, but people just don’t say it. I respectfully disagree.” — Linebacker Brandon Marshall, on being called “soft” by John Elway, Nov. 20, 2017

There’s every reason to believe that Elway possesses both the acumen and the desire to fix what’s ailing the team — his team. But first, his team has to believe in him as their leader, instead of their adversary. Elway threw 226 interceptions as a player, but left the field as a two-time champion and the all-time leader in wins. Honest mistakes are always forgivable, especially if you’re in Denver and your name is John Elway.

For No. 7, the player’s mentality is what’s needed once more. Just like he used to do after throwing an untimely interception, Elway needs only to point the finger at himself — and let his colleagues know that they’re all in this mess together.