DENVER — In 10 years leading the front office, John Elway helped the Broncos to five AFC West titles, two Super Bowls and one world title in 2015. However, the Broncos became the first team in history to win a Super Bowl and miss the playoffs in each of the next five seasons.
The Broncos are no closer to the postseason. They finished 5-11 on Sunday, six games back in the playoff race, and have not been over .500 once in two years. This is not a reboot, but more like a rebuild. This is not the job Elway was accustomed to as he rarely had a Plan B and was always aiming to compete for championships.
Taking stock of the position, his age and the need for a fresh set of eyes in the building, Elway stepped down Monday as the general manager into an "elevated role" that will allow him to be involved in big decisions, but not bogged down by the daily operations.
"I’ve done that for a long time. I’ve retired before. I have experienced retiring. But I was excited about was opportunity to move up, and still be involved with the football team," Elway said. "I had my seventh grandchild born this morning. It's time to spend time with them too. It's time to have flexibility."
Elway will hire the new GM with input from coach Vic Fangio and CEO Joe Ellis. In conversations with Ellis a few weeks ago, Elway began pondering a move. He was presented with a promotion that suited his lifestyle at age 60. He is also not cutting ties. Will he allow for open lines of communication and more input than in years past? That remains an important question moving forward.
Elway explained that the new GM would control the roster and free agency. It is also unclear how long Elway will serve in this position. His contract expires after next season.
"Selfishly, yeah, I think it's something where I would be interested in staying," Elway said. "We will see how it goes. I am excited for the opportunity to move up. Our goal is to get back to competing for world championships."
Ellis said this decision came after several honest conversations with Elway this season. The Broncos staggered to another disappointing finish, securing their fourth straight losing season for the first time since 1963-72. Elway has been unable to find the longterm answer at quarterback since Peyton Manning retired. The Broncos have used 10 different starters since with the hope that Drew Lock can become The Guy in 2021 after an uneven 2020 season.
"I think he's a young quarterback who has the potential to be very good in this league, and lead teams to victories. But obviously he's very young. He showed a lot of good signs this year," Elway said of Lock, who is 8-10 as a starter over two seasons. "Obviously with young quarterbacks you can run into some consistency problems which Drew had this year. When I look at Drew's makeup, he wants to learn, he wants to get better. I think he has a chance to be a darn good football player in this league."
Elway is the Mount Rushmore of Colorado sports. For him to step down helps create a new path forward rather than having to let him go. He deserves credit for reviving the franchise after the Josh McDaniels debacle, but the last five years have cast doubt if this was still the job for him.
There will be multiple candidates for the position, but not assistant Matt Russell. He has elected to retire to spend more time with his family. Former Broncos executive and current 49ers front office man Adam Peters is expected to be among those interviewed along with Champ Kelly, the assistant director of player personnel for the Chicago Bears.
Multiple former Broncos reached out to Denver7 advocating for Kelly, who worked with Fangio in Chicago. They praised his ability to find talent.
"We will cast a wide net," Elway said.
What is unclear is how this process will work. Elway is stepping aside, but not cutting ties. A new GM needs power to succeed. Will he have enough with Elway still involved in big picture decisions, like the future of Von Miller?
Elway told me Monday he wants Miller to stay put. He has a club option for $18 million that must be picked up by March 17, guaranteeing Miller $7 million.
"We’d love to have Von finish here,” Elway said. "Our goal is to get Von back and have him end his career here."
For Elway, it has been a difficult year. His mother passed away. The team experienced several embarrassing moments, including fines for breaking mask protocols and losing all the quarterbacks for the Saints game. Elway also had a bout with COVID-19, though he said his health played no role in the decision, going as far as to explain that he likely would have made this move had the team gone 13-3.
"Probably. I can’t say that for sure. I have been thinking about for a couple years and when the transition would be right. Hypotheticals are always tough. If we were 13-3 we would feel better about ourselves," Elway said. "But on top of that, above that, i started thinking about what i want to do with my life. Being 60 years old, I want to take advantage of some hard work I’ve put in."
For Elway, it ends a fascinating run as GM. He will forever be linked to landing Manning, the greatest free agent signing in franchise history. He also returned the franchise to glory, handpicked by late owner Pat Bowlen to restore the shine. Elway's legacy will always be secure, even if the road after Super Bowl 50 was littered with challenges and missed goals.
"I’m proud of what i did. I’m not proud of what happened the last four years and how things have gone. But this league is getting tougher and tougher," Elway said. "It’s competitive. There is so much work that goes into it. I’ve worried about my competitive side. I thought it’d get easier the older I got but it doesn’t. It hasn’t gone away. I am excited to move into this position. It was the right time. We’ve got to get better. Expectations are still the same. I think if we hire right guy, it will give us good perspective where we are and we will get better."