Make the Right Call  

 

Denver Broncos' Super Bowl fate will shape offseason verdict

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John Elway oozed toughness as a player, always answering the gut checks pro football demands. Think of Elway selling out on a leap to win a Lombardi Trophy at age 37, or putting his body through the rigors of an injury-filled final campaign to repeat the following year -- basically, providing the kind of gumption Elway is surely looking for from Peyton Manning now.

The mental toughness Elway and his teams displayed in upsetting the favored Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXII -- or in outlasting the Bill Parcells-led Jets in the 1998 AFC Championship Game -- was missing from the Broncos of the past three seasons. Thus, Elway the executive made a change at head coach -- at least, we think that was why. Regardless of the reason, parting ways with one of the most successful NFL head coaches of the past few years took guts.

But was it the right call?

Elliot Harrison examines some of the busiest NFL teams this offseason and attempts to answer whether the moves they've made will pay off in the 2015 campaign.

And speaking of mental toughness ... Denver's fortitude will be put to the test in the wake of the big injury blow that hit Thursday: Ryan Clady, Manning's blind-side protector, tore his ACL and is likely to miss the entire season. Can the Broncos overcome the loss of the four-time Pro Bowler, especially given that O-line depth was already an issue?

Before we answer that question, let's start this offseason review from the beginning. And as always, feel free to share your take ... @HarrisonNFL is the place.

The Fox trot

When news broke that John Fox and the Broncos were parting ways in January, it set myriad theories swirling. The move read more like a firing than Fox walking out of his own accord, or by virtue of the "mutual" agreement that was cited afterward. Many felt Denver's poor performance at home in the playoffs -- the second-seeded Broncos fell to the Colts, 24-13, in the Divisional Round -- was a big factor. Some floated the idea that Peyton Manning got Fox fired, or that then-offensive coordinator Adam Gase -- who, when all was said and done, landed on Fox's Bears staff -- was poised to be promoted. Still others felt Elway and Fox simply weren't getting along.

Having worked with Jay Glazer for three years at Fox Sports and knowing Glazer's relationship with John Fox, I buy into his idea that it was "a marriage gone bad" -- two philosophies going in different directions. You know, like you and your college girlfriend after graduation. This would make sense, as by today's standards, four years -- the length of Fox's tenure in Denver -- is enough time for there to be change in the air.

Unlike ex-Niners coach Jim Harbaugh, who also split from his team this offseason, Fox doesn't have a reputation for being headstrong. But like Harbaugh (who went 44-19-1 in San Francisco), he leaves behind a four-season record of immense success (46-18 in Denver). There aren't many coaching runs this fruitful (four division titles, one Super Bowl berth) that have ended because of a "mutual decision." Outside of Harbaugh, perhaps only Jimmy Johnson's departure from Dallas following a clash of egos with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is comparable.

Johnson's Super Bowl run with the Cowboys ended in an awkward side hug, with Barry Switzer ultimately taking Dallas to the NFC Championship Game the season after Johnson exited. So what's next for Denver?

An old friend returns

Enter Gary Kubiak, who was the subject of yet another theory: the Elway got rid of Fox to bring in his buddy, longtime teammate and former quarterback coach hypothesis. But while I predicted Kubiak would get hired the day Fox left (... was fired? ... was dismissed? ... decided to go?), I have a hard time buying the nefarious aspects of that yarn.

The real question now is whether Kubiak is the right man to lead Denver to Super Bowl 50. If the plan is to balance the passing attack with an effective running game while hiring someone who can communicate with a future Hall of Fame quarterback, then Kubiak is the guy. But if the split with Fox stemmed from the weak manner in which Denver was bounced from the playoffs, is Kubiak the answer? Does he strike you as someone who can create the intensity to will his roster to big-game success?

Texans fans, it's your serve.

Win one more for the road?

So much of what the Broncos can do hinges on Manning ... and health. While we could see a repeat of late last season, when Manning struggled mightily, welcoming the future Hall of Famer back for another season -- after he took a small pay cut, no less -- seemed, on the surface, like the right call.

Denver's defense was vastly improved last year. Couple that with the emergence of running back C.J. Anderson, and it seems Manning will have the kind of support a quarterback needs -- even more than great receivers -- to thrive. Essentially, this feels like a "Let's take one more shot at this thing" campaign for Manning, similar to when Elway returned in 1998 to make another Lombardi run.

Of course, Elway missed four starts that year, with Bubby Brister picking up the slack. Could Brock Osweiler do the same in the event Manning breaks down? What we do know is that, when healthy, Manning was still at the top of his game in 2014. The only thing that stops Hall of Fame quarterbacks from producing is health-induced retirement, a subject we've broached before.

No more Orange Julius

Julius Thomas headed southeast to Jacksonville this offseason without much apparent objection from the Broncos. Fans minimized the departure with comments along the lines of, "Manning can succeed with any tight end; look what he did with Dallas Clark and Jacob Tamme." But tight ends who catch 24 touchdown passes in a two-season span -- as Thomas did in 2013 and '14 -- aren't exactly growing out of the stage at Red Rocks. Plus, those other tight ends Manning elevated were decent players, especially Clark, who was actually pretty good. And if the goal is to take one more monster swing at a Lombardi Trophy -- and presumably, that's what Manning is back for -- then having Thomas in the lineup sure would've made sense.

But let's consider the Broncos' side. Before last season, the team reportedly floated Thomas an offer worth $8 million per year, but he didn't bite. Then he went on to sign with the Jaguars for $9.2 million per year -- with $24 million guaranteed -- this offseason. A new coach, a new system and the financial reality in Denver dictated that Thomas had to find what he was seeking elsewhere. The kind of money he's getting in Jacksonville would be a lot for a club with the Broncos' priorities to spend on a TE not known for his run-blocking abilities.

What about the other Thomas?

Slapping the franchise tag on receiver Demaryius Thomas made sense and bought both sides time. The Broncos and Thomas' camp now have until midsummer to come to a long-term agreement, a process that might have been made easier by not re-signing Julius Thomas. Whatever happens going forward, Demaryius will get paid $12.823 million in 2015. He's earned that. Meanwhile, Elway and his staff can consider their options. If 2015 ends up being Manning's last season, the quarterback's exit will free up available monies for the second, third and fourth years of D.T.'s prospective long-term deal.

Looking for a Ray of light ...

Denver fans vigorously defended the move, but many draftniks were scratching their heads at the Broncos' decision to trade up with the Lions and take Shane Ray 23rd overall, for the following reasons:

a) Ray comes with off-field question marks.
b) The Broncos' OLB position is already quite strong, as is their pass rush (although DeMarcus Ware is entering Year 11 of his career).
c) Denver coughed up two fifth-round picks as part of the deal -- and a starting offensive lineman in Manny Ramirez.

That last point is crucial, especially considering ...

Clady goes down and O-line questions abound

I was already concerned about offensive line depth following the Ramirez trade and Denver's decision to let Orlando Franklin walk in free agency. On the other hand, many Broncos fans seemed fine letting those two go. But then on Thursday afternoon, news broke of Clady's torn ACL. Hindsight's 20-20, for sure, but here's the cold, hard reality: Denver's in for a major reshuffling across the offensive line without much quality veteran experience to draw from. This is very concerning, considering Manning's 39 years old and we saw his body break down in the back half of last season.

On the plus side, Denver did expend two draft picks on O-linemen. The selection of center Max Garcia -- Round 4, No. 133 overall -- seemed like a nice Day 3 value buy. Second-round tackle Ty Sambrailo, though, drew some mixed reviews. Following the pick, NFL Network draft guru Mike Mayock had this to say: "He's kind of a finesse guy in the passing game. I like his upside, he just needs to keep getting stronger." Well, the time is now, young man. The Broncos better hope Sambrailo realizes that upside quickly, because in the wake of Clady's injury, he could be starting in Week 1.

I'm not trying to be a revisionist historian following the loss of Clady, but the Broncos thinned out their O-line depth by bidding adieu to Ramirez and Franklin. Now we'll have to see how they cope with the fallout of a major injury.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Broncos reportedly agreed to terms with veteran OT Ryan Harris on Thursday afternoon.

Did the Broncos make the right calls?

Of course, the Broncos also made other moves, signing tight end Owen Daniels and safety Darian Stewart while saying goodbye to former key contributors Terrance Knighton (defensive tackle) and Rahim Moore (safety). But those were small marbles compared to the decisions laid out above.

The bottom line is, $9 million a year was too much to pay for a tight end who might not fit the new offense. Franchising Demaryius Thomas was necessary. As for the draft, we need two to three years to evaluate it properly -- but after Clady's injury, the Broncos will need to get early returns from the two O-linemen.

To me, the biggest area of concern this offseason remains the change at head coach. And we likely won't get a verdict on that until the playoffs. Because if Denver doesn't win the Super Bowl, can we consider the decision to bring in Kubiak to have been the right call? Even if Manning leads the Broncos as far as the AFC title game, without a Lombardi Trophy to show for their trouble, it'll be difficult to argue they're any better off than they were last season under Fox.

Making the tough call isn't always the same as making the right one. When it comes to what happened in Denver this offseason, time will tell.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.

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