Joe Ellis knows what you're thinking.
And he understands.
All that was missing from Wednesday's introduction of John Elway as the Broncos' vice president were the cheerleaders and streamers. This full-blown pep rally for a Denver revival revved up the masses, to be sure. But at the end of the day, that's all it was -- a fancy way for the team to get a pessimistic fan base back on board.
Now that it's over, it's time for those guys to go to work, and we find out whether Elway's more than a legendary quarterback and nice face for the Broncos to put on highway billboards.
"I recognize the skepticism that comes with hiring somebody on the front-office level who has not been involved in an NFL team since his playing days were over," said Ellis, the team president, and a man charged with finding the right people to fix what was broken in Denver. "Here's what he does bring: He knows the game, and had some experience running a pro sports franchise, albeit on the Arena League level. He's also been working us on a consulting basis on a distant level the last 5-6 years, and on a formal level over the last 12-18 months. He's been an advisory to Pat Bowlen and our staff.
"He's got great football knowledge, great common sense and intelligence, and he's got leadership, that's clear. He also has a clear vision of where we need to go."
And it's not where they've been over the last five years.
The Broncos had their heyday, with championships in 1997 and '98, but they stayed competitive after Elway retired and the team slipped a little. Mike Shanahan got the team in the playoffs four times from 2000 through 2005, and Denver hosted the AFC title game in January 2006.
Since then, the franchise had a four-year flatline (record from 2006-09: 32-32) before bottoming out at 4-12 this fall. And after firing Shanahan's successor, Josh McDaniels, a month ago, Ellis went about trying to figure out the "why" to that "what."
"I think the biggest thing that needed to be fixed was football leadership," Ellis said. "We had a void in that area. We needed someone who had the right competitive fire, who could draw respect, and come in and oversee all of football for Pat Bowlen. You can have a strong head coach, or a strong general manager, and have them report directly to the owner. That can be successful. But this is the way we're going."
The model Ellis concocted is drawn from the way the Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns set up their football operations. Both those chose to have a strong singular voice atop the flowchart -- Bill Parcells in Miami and Mike Holmgren in Cleveland -- to set the culture and keep everyone aligned and adhering to a singular philosophy. The coach and general manager, in both places, report to that person.
The difference in Denver is that Elway doesn't have the experience that Parcells and Holmgren do. But Ellis is confident he'll make up for it.
"He understands and appreciates what the Broncos mean to the community, our fans and also our owner of 27 years, and he's got an appreciation for who (Bowlen) is," Ellis said. "John worked for him as a player, a consultant, and he's been a friend and cohort for all of Pat's time here. It's a special relationship, it's very natural that he'll slide into that role. This is a full-time role. He has a clear vision, and all those attributes he had as a player are there. This is not some PR stunt. This is a legitimate appointment with legitimate duties."
The first task for Elway is finding a coach, and that process is just getting started. Ellis said there's no set mold for the third leg of the "three-legged" leadership structure (with Elway and GM Brian Xanders as the other), but Denver will require that man have an open door to the fans as the team tries to rebuild the public trust.
Ellis added that the coach won't be required to pledge himself to Tim Tebow going forward, but hinted strongly that the rookie has gotten a good evaluation from those already in the building. Tebow's due a $6.275 million roster bonus 29 days into the 2011 league year, whenever that begins, and it looks like that check will be cut by Bowlen.
"The hope is the coach likes Tim Tebow," Ellis said. "John knows he's a good football player, and the hope is, with the new coach, he can become a good quarterback. I wouldn't call it a marriage (that the coach will have to have with Tebow), because you don't do that. But John went back with the personnel staff to evaluate, and they all came to the consensus that if we had to do the deal again to get Tim Tebow, we would've done it.
"The coach is going to know that many people here, if not all, feel that way."
Whoever the coach is, and whoever the quarterback is, the Broncos seem to be further away from winning big now than they have been in decades. Remember, as tumultuous as recent history has been, this was a stable-as-they-come franchise that had Bowlen's first coach, Dan Reeves, for 12 years, and Shanahan for 14.
Somehow, the Elway hire has instilled a renewed resolve in Ellis.
"I guard against too much optimism, knowing it's very hard to win in this league, and we still have not hired a new coach, and we have to make a lot of the right decisions," Ellis said. "We have to re-evaluate the roster, make a lot of tough calls, so I'd like to wait and be a realist. But I am optimistic about what happened (on Wednesday), and what's happened the last couple weeks. It's given me great hope, but we still have a long way to go."
Maybe most heartening of all for Ellis was seeing Bowlen himself. This process has shaken the owner, who so valued the continuity of having those coaches for extended periods, and a quarterback like Elway for a great part of his career.
Wednesday, it turns out, was a good day for him as well.
"It was emotional for him," Ellis said. "The last few years have been difficult on him. If John Elway's the most competitive person in this building, Pat's tied or a close second, and for him to have to sit and endure what he has, it's tough as the owner and a guy that brings such great dignity, integrity, grace and kindness to this organization. He'd never lose his temper to a great extent, and he's the most patient guy I know, give the situation last year.
"Because of that, yesterday was uplifting for all of us, seeing how fun it was for him."
And now, the hard part begins.
Going deep ...
With some scouts, University of Texas players hit the college all-star games with a stigma to overcome, and deal with that all the way through the April draft. And with the Titans' decision this week to whack Vince Young, the posterboy for that Longhorn rep, the image of the Texas football player has once again come to light.
|Frederick Breedon / Associated Press|
|The latest development surrounding Vince Young has raised questions about the Texas football program.|
» Where will Young land?
Pretty simple one: Spoiled. Coddled. Entitled.
"I think the stigma and the actual reality is the same," said one AFC personnel director. "They come in and they're soft. They're prima donnas. They're coddled at Texas and expect the same treatment in the NFL. They're all physically ready to play. They're well-prepared from a physical standpoint. From a technique standpoint, they're well-taught. They're well-coached in general.
"The problem is the culture. They're allowed to be superstars. The ones that can deal with that are the ones that have success. But the NFL's a culture shock for them, because their teammates don't treat them that way. They'll just say, 'What's your deal?' "
Young embodies a lot of the above, but he's not the only one who has justified the stereotype. Former first-rounders Mike Williams, Roy Williams and Michael Huff are considered other prime examples, while others -- like Cedric Benson, Leonard Davis, Quentin Jammer, Shaun Rogers and Derrick Johnson -- went through a longer adjustment to the pros after being treated like kings in Austin.
"Vince Young is more of an extreme, and his case was so amplified because of his upbringing, his high school career, he's been treated like a god for a long time," said an AFC scout. "With these other kids, it's almost like they've been pro athletes for four years at Texas, then they come into the league and they already have that arrogance about them. It's not all of them. Unfortunately, there's a kid named Sam Acho (Longhorns defensive end) this year that's going to have to live with his, and he's about as good a guy as you'll get."
One problem some scouts have complained about is a lack of access at Texas, and how insulated the players are. Assistant coaches are often off-limits, and those who do talk often just give them the company line. "They're all tough and smart, they're all good kids, which is BS," said the scout.
Not every scout agrees with this, of course. One NFC personnel executive said the connections you need to get the truth at Texas are like anywhere else, and the problem with spoiled athletes is simply a result of Mack Brown's recruiting success.
"If you're a good football player, there's a reason, and it's because you're tough, instinctive and you know how to play," said the NFC exec. "The school doesn't matter. If you're a football player, you're a football player -- plain and simple. Are they treated well? Hell yeah. Same thing at Florida or Florida State. This stereotype that they're a country club, I don't agree with that at all.
"The University of Texas gets the best of the best, and you're gonna deal with that anywhere. Some guys are spoiled. They're so good, they've always been seen as superstars."
Guys like Jamaal Charles and Brian Orakpo and Colt McCoy fuel the counterargument. No matter how you see it, it's something Texas guys have to deal with, and Young's 2010 didn't help matters in that regard.
I know this truth ...
Simple storyline those folks are waiting to play out: Coach talks a big game, swaggers around, and eventually all that gets exposed to be a whole lot of bluster. Team stops playing for coach, and then it's all over.
The problem is that didn't happen in 2009, when the Jets struggled through midseason, and it's not happening now, as the team struggled late in the season and dealt with a slew of off-field distractions that seem to come weekly.
"There's definitely a feeling of 'us against the world' now," said guard Brandon Moore. "We have a chip on our shoulder. It's not only for Rex. We go home, talk to friends, they see it as being undisciplined, out of control. They don't understand. Then, they hear the real story. People look at us and want to correct what we're doing. And we know Rex has been going through some tough things, and that just fuels into the 'us against the world' thing. Rex has done a good job of keeping the distractions from us."
And somehow, the Jets are turning the ones that do get through into a positive.
"As many people as have tried to pull us apart, we've done a great job of staying the course," said Calvin Pace, who called this team the closest he's been a part of. "It's tough to play against great players each week, it's that much harder to do it if you're worried about the outside stuff. It is about playing for each other, but we have Rex's back. Some people make comments. I think it rallies us and makes us play that much harder for him."
I don't know a thing ...
About just how far off the St. Louis Rams are from being a true championship contender, because those things are unpredictable. But I'm pretty sure, even after losing in Seattle last week, that they're on the right track.
That much might have been lost as the nation laughed at a 7-8 team fighting a 6-9 club for a division title in primetime. But with the biggest piece, quarterback Sam Bradford, in place, it doesn't seem like it'll be long until these Rams have to be taken seriously by everyone.
Putting that young core -- headed by Bradford, young tackles Rodger Saffold and Jason Smith, and linebacker James Laurinaitis and defensive end Chris Long -- in a high-stakes situation like the Seattle game can only help St. Louis get there.
"It's hard to see right now, it doesn't feel like any good can come from that, when you're feeling this bad," general manager Billy Devaney said. "But we hope to be in those types of games next year, and the year after that. We had a lot of those games this year, where we had leads and didn't come close, and it came back to bite us in the butt. But there's a lot of lessons there for a young team, not only in the last game, but also in those that got away."
The young core needs supplementing, of course. The team clearly has to get a big-time receiver or two to help Bradford out, and could use another edge rusher and outside linebacker for Spagnuolo's defense.
But the Rams have plenty to hang their hat on going forward, starting with, as Devaney puts it, "a big-time quarterback for years to come, someone to build around." Now, it's time to do just that -- build around Bradford.
With seasons ending this week, players from 20 teams went into the offseason with little idea of what's ahead. After exit physicals, coaches couldn't hand out schedules for the start of offseason programs, OTAs or spring minicamps, because there's little telling when the league's labor issue will be worked out.
But most players seem optimistic that the powers that be won't kill the golden goose.
"For me, you control what you can control," Giants defensive end Justin Tuck said. "We've got great people over there on both sides. They'll figure it out. You put your trust in them. And I'm just gonna go home and play with my son and wait for the call or the internet blog or whatever to see what's happening."
The situation's a little more testy for players whose contracts are up, since free agency won't start until a new CBA is reached.
He was one of the fourth- and fifth-year players who, last year, would've been an unrestricted free agent under the old rules, but was restricted under the uncapped year's regulations. That led to Tulloch signing a one-year, $2.521 million tender for 2010, and now the former fourth-round pick finds himself in limbo.
Tulloch has put money aside, even more than the 25 percent the union recommended all players save in 2010, and is ready for what's ahead. He's educated himself on the issues, and considers himself prepared.
"You have to be smart with your money, how you take care of yourself, and just be educated," he said. "A lot of young guys miss that, knowing where you stand financially, and where you stand life-wise."
If this thing does drag out, and players don't have offseason programs to go to, or coaches to push them, it'll be awfully interesting to see where they all stand physically when things are resolved. Many will be as mature as Tulloch seems to be. But some, no doubt, will come back with ground to make up.
... and 10
1. Carolina not on his mind
Andrew Luck's decision to stay in school seems shocking now, since it just happened, but it's actually consistent with what the Stanford quarterback has said all along. The fallout? It seriously devalues Carolina's pick, the first one in the draft, which figured to be as marketable as any in recent memory. And the reason why is simple. "Andrew Luck," one college scout told me, "is the safest quarterback prospect to come along since Peyton Manning." What you were bound to hear over the next few months, had Luck come out, was how Arkansas' Ryan Mallett has a stronger arm. Which is exactly what folks said about Manning in comparison to Ryan Leaf. That brings us to the second point of impact. You might hear now that no quarterback can rise to No. 1. Like when Matt Leinart decided to return to USC in 2005 (Alex Smith went first), or when Sam Bradford went back to Oklahoma in 2009 (Matthew Stafford went first). Someone will, inevitably, go up there. The first candidate would be Mallett, but sources say off-field concerns are likely to affect his stock. That brings us to Missouri's Blaine Gabbert, with Auburn's Cam Newton as the dark horse.
2. Together they stand
The added emphasis on head-hunting and fines to follow have been a major story throughout the NFL, with the crescendo having hit in Week 6 with knockout blows delivered by Brandon Meriweather, Dunta Robinson and James Harrison. A steady stream of flags and FedEx letters to locker rooms -- invoices enclosed -- has come since. And in one locker room, as a pile of overnight deliveries has grown, so too has togetherness for one of the league's best teams. "I won't say that's what led to this team doing what it had done, but my teammates were definitely behind me," said Harrison, the NFL's most fined player in this regard. "We definitely stuck together." The Steelers have also done their best to keep quiet when the NFL Films cameras come into their locker room, since that is a league-run operation. I have, for the record, had no problems dealing with Pittsburgh in recent weeks, and Harrison has always been very cooperative with me. I'll let you know if that continues.
3. Money matters
I touched on this in my Vince Young column earlier in the week (read it, and you'll see why this decision on Young is so ridiculously justifiable), but it's worth reiterating: The decision to part ways with the third pick in the 2006 draft didn't just make common sense; it made financial sense as well. Fisher is slated to make $6 million next year, so if Bud Adams decided to just fire him, he'd have to eat that. Had Young stayed, he'd collect a $4.25 million roster bonus on March 10 (or shortly after a new CBA is reached), and $8.5 million in base salary next season. Add it up, and the cost of firing Fisher and keeping Young would've been $18.75 million, and that's before you spend on a new coach. Conversely, the team can cut Young (or trade him) and spend just that $6 million to keep Fisher. That's a divide of $12.75 million, in Fisher's favor. You will have to pay the new quarterback, of course, but assuming that's not some sort of trade up to select a quarterback in the first round of the draft, it likely won't bust your payroll like Young was slated to. Hard to believe that all that didn't play into Adams' decision, and my hunch is that general manager Mike Reinfeldt and senior executive vice president Steve Underwood might have used that dynamic as part of their argument to whack Young.
4. In defense of Mangini
Eric Mangini's ouster in Cleveland might have needed to happen in order for Mike Holmgren to align the organization in his vision, but say this for the exiled coach: He left that place in better shape than he found it. How bad was the roster when Mangini arrived in 2009? Well, by November of his first year, the coach had just 11 players on his teams from the first 10 drafts (1999-2008) of the "new" Browns. There had been names in Cleveland (Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow were traded), but the only real foundation piece was left tackle Joe Thomas. Mangini walks away now from a team that's stout along the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, has a potentially dominant running game behind Peyton Hillis (remember, they lost rookie Montario Hardesty before the season started), and looks loaded in the secondary going forward. There's discipline and desire there, and whatever coach walks into take Mangini's place (smart money: Marty Mornhinweg) will inherit a much better situation than his predecessor did. The 39-year-old will have other opportunities, but even if this did have to happen, it's sort of a shame since he really seemed to be finding himself as a head coach simply by being himself more.
5. Continuity counts
There are storylines in each of this weekend's games (AFC title game redux, champs vs. supposed chumps in Seattle), but none is quite as instructive as Eagles-Packers, for those constantly calling for franchise upheaval. Philadelphia might have all those young players, and it's true that just two guys (David Akers and Quintin Mikell) remain with 2004 NFC title rings, but they've also been steady as they come with Andy Reid now in his 12th season. Reid, of course, came from Green Bay in 1999. Amazing to think that, today, a dozen seasons later, the current Packers regime is drawn directly from the one he left behind. GM Ted Thompson is a Ron Wolf disciple, and coach Mike McCarthy can be drawn back to the Bill Walsh coaching tree. The Packers haven't veered much since Wolf and Holmgren arrived in 1992. So this one provides an amazing case study in the power of continuity. "They're a stable organization from the board (of directors) on down," Reid said. "The continuity of being there throughout the Holmgren time period, and then some of them actually went to Seattle with Mike, and now they're back. And the personnel department was all taught by Ron Wolf, who has a legitimate shot at being a Hall of Fame general manager. That's a solid bunch."
6. Going toe-to-toe with his brother
If the Panthers really want to keep their head-coaching hire under budget, and make a splash at the same time, then, well, there's only one thing to do. And that's hire Rob Ryan, Cleveland's defensive coordinator who sits in limbo as Holmgren works on finding a new head coach. Ryan would surely jump at the chance to sit in the corner office. He would energize a malaise-laden locker room with a swaggering, fiery temperament and would provide a fan base bordering on indifference with a buzz-worthy hire. That last part is important, too. The Panthers are working on getting a new stadium, and I'm told they could actually be a quiet contender for the vacancy in Los Angeles. The reasons why are twofold: 1) The lease isn't iron-clad, and 2) owner Jerry Richardson's sons are no longer with the team, which means buyers believe they might be able to entice him to sell. The bottom line is the Charlotte market isn't delivering for the Panthers or the NFL right now, and the Panthers, with their financial issues, are largely to blame for that. Hiring a guy who can bring energy to that situation might not be a bad place to start.
7. Garrett hire makes sense
Because it's Dallas, and it's the Cowboys, most folks expected a spirited run at big-name coaches by Jerry Jones this offseason. But through this process, and since the firing of Wade Phillips, he's reminded everyone that no Super Bowl-winning coach has gone on to win another championship with another team. Holmgren and Bill Parcells came closest, getting Seattle and New England, respectively, to the big game, but not winning it. And there's more than just that to Jones' decision-making process on this one. The owner has made a massive investment in Jason Garrett's development as a coach. And it goes back to Garrett's days as a backup quarterback in Dallas (1993-'99). By the end, he was involved in game-planning and served as Troy Aikman's sounding board on game day. Jones brought Garrett back in 2007, hiring him before picking Phillips to be head coach, and from that point forward it was clear the vision was that he'd someday succeed Phillips. Jones upped Garrett's salary to $3 million per year, more than he ever made as a player, when Baltimore and Atlanta courted him after that first season, and stuck with him through the Terrell Owens mess in 2008. Add that all up, there's been a lot of time and money invested in Garrett, and it was hard to ever envision Jones not seeing Garrett's development through.
8. Pressure now on Chargers GM
It's hardly a surprise the Chargers pulled the plug on special teams coach Steve Crosby, whose units were among the worst in recent memory, and can be held largely responsible for the team's 2-5 start. The real question is what it says about the state of the San Diego roster right now. Jacob Hester, voted the team's special teams player of the year, told the San Diego Union-Tribune this week that "Crosby did a heck of a job getting us in position to make plays." And the inference there is that the players didn't make those plays. The Chargers' special teams, in the eight previous years under Crosby, benefitted from a constant stream of talent coming onto the team's roster through the draft. And as young special teamers became starters, new young players would replace them. The pipeline seems to have slowed, which is why the team had to put some guys like Hester -- once great special teams players who'd grown into roles on offense or defense -- back on coverage and return teams. What the team really needs now is the next generation of the Stephen Cooper and Eric Weddle types to come in the draft, and it's up to GM A.J. Smith to find them.
9. Deserving of second chances
It's interesting how second-chance coaches are coming up in this hiring cycle. It's always worth noting in these cases Bill Belichick and Mike Shanahan didn't hit it big until job No. 2. And maybe that bodes well for Mike Mularkey, Gregg Williams and Mornhinweg. After more than a decade out of the playoffs, it's clear Buffalo's problems are deeper than coaching, which helps to exonerate Williams and Mularkey, who have done phenomenal jobs in New Orleans and Atlanta, respectively, as coordinators. Mornhinweg, meanwhile, was Matt Millen's first coach in Detroit, and it's very difficult to blame any coach for failing in those circumstances. Mornhinweg has gone on to develop one bright young quarterback prospect (Kevin Kolb) in Philly, and helped resurrect the career of another one (Michael Vick). Whether any of the three get their shot remains to be seen. But each certainly deserves another look.
10. Sparano, Miami staff deserved better
I don't know how good an owner Stephen Ross is going to be. He's still in his NFL infancy, just two years removed from assuming control. But what he put Tony Sparano and his coaching staff through this week wasn't right, even if he ended up retaining his coach. This was an important decision for the Dolphins, and it made sense to be judicious and take time. But to let those coaches twist in the wind as links to flight-tracking Web sites were going up on Twitter -- showing the path from New York to San Jose -- was to tell the world that you think you can do better than Sparano and his people. And maybe he could have by hiring Jim Harbaugh. But in the process of finding out, he publicly embarrassed a lot of good people.
Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer