“We don’t have a plan B,” Elway said in March of 2012. “We’re going with plan A.”
The now infamous quote regarding Manning’s arrival and the team’s immediate aspirations by Elway was bold, definitive and a realistic approach to the coming years. After several great seasons, three AFC West titles and oh so close roster assemblies, Plan A has failed. Although Manning remains in orange and blue, his recent contract negotiations, the familiar faces leaving town and the new ones stepping into the coaching staff and in starting roles represents the start of Plan B.
Manning was obviously the catalyst that placed the Broncos in the direction of a championship and they got excruciatingly close in 2012, 13 and 14 but the experiment failed. Manning’s season numbers were astronomical and rank in the top five seasons of his illustrious career but 2014 showed his age and with it came doubts from the man who brought him to Denver.
John Elway knows more than anyone what it takes to win a Super Bowl and even more so, in the twilight of a great career and while in the spotlight things have seemed to be real “buddy-buddy” between the two great quarterbacks, recent events behind the scenes tell a different story.
Following the disheartening loss to the Indianapolis Colts in early January, Elway gave Manning time to contemplate his future and slowly a small fiasco ensued. Manning, fairly quickly declared through his camp that he was ready to return for a 19th season and stated that the pending physical was a mere formality.
Elway and the Broncos, strapped after the spending spree of 2013 did not welcome the signal caller back with any sort of announcement but proceeded to remain silent while trying to get the quarterback to come back on their terms.
Manning undoubtedly had some limitations in 2014 due to injury but he still performed well and gave his team the best chance to win and still does. Weeks ago Manning took a $4 million pay cut to return to the Broncos for another year and can only get that money back if he wins the Lombardi Trophy. Asking the quarterback to take that cut was a surprise, that fact Manning agreed to it was a shocker and the most stunning thing of the whole situation was the “no-trade clause” No. 18 had his agent slip into the new deal.
The “no-trade clause”, whether either party will ever admit it, says a great deal. It says that no matter how unlikely it seemed that Manning was on the trading block, just like evidently every teammate of his was and is, he sure believed it was a possibility.
As Manning struggled through the second half of the season and into the playoffs it seems that Plan B may have been in motion the day after the Colts left town with a victory.
John Fox’s departure was equally a major factor in the Plan A’s demise. He led the team to enormous success, going 46-18 in his tenure with the Broncos. Through all his success to get the most out of his players Fox couldn’t scheme his way to victory when it counted. Most of his staff followed suit and that fact doesn’t mean that they have been replaced with inferior coaches. In fact Kubiak and his staff may be better suited for both the offense and defensive rosters on the team but the learning process will surely set the team back and onto a different plan.
Defensively, the team should learn and adapt quickly to Wade Phillips and his 3-4 scheme. Unlike Jack Del Rio and his “sit back and wait” mentality, the blitzing and risk taking style of Phillips should be fun to watch.
The Broncos offense will not be that simple. The duo of Adam Gase and Peyton Manning put on a NFL-record setting clinic that may never be seen again. In 2013 in particular, the Broncos offense was a joy to behold and downright masterful. A learning period in 2015 of several games, to the entire season should be no surprise to onlookers.
The arrival of Gary Kubiak brings a zone-run, play-action type of system Manning has played in before but the big question will pertain to the youthful, inexperienced lineman protecting him and leading the way. Elway’s Plan A surely did not include shifting an entire offensive philosophy around after Manning turned 39.
Lastly, Manning joined a team with some exceptional players at key positions and a truckload of cash to spend on the missing pieces. The key pieces, Chris Harris Jr., Von Miller, Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas matured and blossomed while DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward, Wes Welker and Emmanuel Sanders jumped on board and flourished, yet the team goal remained out of reach.
While some big pieces were added over the years, until recently the core of the roster during Manning’s tenure has remained relatively intact. Since free agency in 2015 began mainstays and playmakers Julius Thomas, Orlando Franklin, Terrence Knighton, Rahim Moore, Nate Irving ALL left with little to no attempt from the Broncos to retaining them and absolutely no fan fare for their services during the team’s tremendous recent success.
The NFL remains big business and roster turnover is inevitable every year but the amount of change to the personnel for the Broncos screams “rebuild” regardless of Manning’s return. Plan A required symmetry and cooperation along every position of the roster with seasons of chemistry under their belts. Expecting either newly signed free agents or second-year and rookie starters to not only grasp the new system but to excel to a Super Bowl caliber level is preposterous and unrealistic.
Elway can preach to the high heavens about the Broncos year-in-year-out desire and expectations of competing for a championship but the reality of recent events within the Broncos organization proves that they are starting over. Plan B has begun and the Broncos and their fans need to accept reality. Will they win the AFC West? Yes, it is highly likely Manning and Kubiak can lead them into another playoff run but that may again be where the ride ends. Plan A, as exciting as it was, is over. Plan B can be as good or better in the long run but it will take a near miracle for the Broncos to achieve what they expected to in the previous three years.