Your opinion of the Denver Broncos' decision not to outbid the Houston Texans for quarterback Brock Osweiler on Wednesday probably comes down to this: Do you trust John Elway's judgment of a player he drafted and whose development he has overseen more than you believe that a Super Bowl champion with a young quarterback waiting in the wings should be held together under any circumstances?
Elway's judgment of Osweiler was made clear when Osweiler left for the Houston Texans and a four-year, $72 million contract that includes $37 million guaranteed. That would be staggering money for a player with just seven career starts under his belt, until you consider that the NFL was awash in nearly $1 billion of salary cap space as free agency opened, and the desperation for viable quarterbacks is as acute as ever. After a meltdown by Brian Hoyerin the playoffs last season, it was obvious that Houston would target a quarterback to complement its championship-caliber defense. After Wednesday, the Texans now have a new starting quarterback, running back (Lamar Miller)and tackle (Jeff Allen).
The first day of free agency appears to have upgraded the Texans, one of the big winners on the day. The other was the New York Giants, who, on the first day, landed three huge defensive free agents -- defensive end Olivier Vernon (five years, $85 million, with $52.5 million fully guaranteed), cornerback Janoris Jenkins and defensive tackle Damon Harrison -- to go along with their own defensive end, Jason Pierre-Paul, who will return on a one-year contract. It was an atypically active free-agent day for the Giants, whose owner, John Mara, made publicly clear that it was up to general manager Jerry Reese to fix the many holes in their roster.
Elway is less desperate than everybody else, though. He enjoys the currency of a recently captured Lombardi Trophy and a string of smart personnel moves -- from moving on from Tim Tebow at the height of Tebowmania, to having a viable backup in Osweiler available when Peyton Manning's body broke down this season, to signing Aqib Talib and DeMarcus Wareas free agents in 2014. And he had already secured defensive end Derek Wolfe at what is now a woefully below-market-rate extension (four years for $36.7 million, with $17.5 million in guarantees).
That gave Elway the ability to let linebacker Danny Trevathan go, to get nowhere near the money Jacksonville gave ($90 million, with $42 million in guarantees, over six years) to former Bronco Malik Jackson, and to draw his line in the sand with Osweiler. Elway's offer to Osweiler was just over $16 million per year, with $30 million guaranteed, according to NFL Media's Albert Breer. That is plenty of money to indicate that the Broncos wanted to keep the player they drafted within weeks of signing Manning in 2012 with a long-range succession plan in mind. But NFL Media's Jeff Darlington reported that the Broncos got the impression Osweiler didn't want to return. And NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport reported that Osweiler's benching in favor of Manning in the final game of the regular season -- setting Manning up to ride the Broncos' defense to another Super Bowl title -- affected Osweiler's thinking about returning to the Broncos.
There isn't much reading between the lines necessary there to understand the brush-off Elway just delivered. If Osweiler was truly bothered by being benched for Manning, it is worrisome for a player expected to have the mental toughness required of a franchise quarterback. Osweiler made seven starts, went 5-2 and showed some promise. But he was not able to seize the job outright in that time, giving Elway and Gary Kubiak enough pause that when the offense sputtered in the first half of the regular-season finale, it opened the door for Manning -- limited though he was -- to reassume the starting job. Still, it was the rare time that Elway failed to close a deal with a player he wanted.
The story on the Broncos' website included two paragraphs that bluntly laid out the team's thinking about the quarterbacking level it had moved on from this week:
"The Broncos won Super Bowl 50 last season despite having the second-lowest team passing efficiency rating -- a combined 74.3 rating for the regular season and postseason, 13.5 points lower than the league average of 87.8," the story read. "Only the then-St. Louis Rams had a worse collective quarterback rating.
"Considering that the Broncos won it all with sub-optimal, near-replacement-level quarterbacking, they like their chances of remaining a contender with even modest improvement under center."
Elway said in his statement that the Broncos were now turning their attention to finding a quarterback. They will be just the second defending Super Bowl champions in NFL history to enter the next season without the top two quarterbacks from the championship team. The 2001 Baltimore Ravens were the other, and while they made the playoffs, they did not win another championship.
But the Broncos still have their two most important pieces (Von Miller and Ware), and they need only marginally better quarterback play and just a semblance of a running game to be a more well-balanced team than the one that won Super Bowl 50. And their offense emphasizes the run while being orchestrated by a coach in Kubiak who won playoff games in Houston with T.J. Yates and Matt Schaub as his quarterbacks.
Elway should be able to produce someone who is at least the equivalent of those. While free agency spins on and other teams make big splashes, the Broncos remain in the hands of a man responsible for delivering all three of Denver's championships. That is not a bad place to be.