Sometimes you can win so much and so consistently that reality doesn't feel like a daunting challenge. That probably explains what has been happening over the last few weeks with the Denver Broncos. The recent focus has centered on that team's uncertain quarterback situation and just exactly how general manager John Elway is going to resolve it. There hasn't been nearly enough time devoted to the fact that this story should feel eerily familiar in that city.
Let's see: A future Hall of Fame quarterback retires after leading the Broncosto a Lombardi Trophy, and the man calling the shots looks like a genius until he can't find a reliable successor. That was the case when Elway retired as a player following the 1998 season, and former Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan spent the next decade struggling to find somebody he could depend on under center. Elway is starting to stroll down the same path as his dear old friend. He's also likely to face the same frustration that ultimately tainted Shanahan's legacy.
We all suspected Peyton Manning was destined to retire after the Broncos beat the Carolina Panthersin Super Bowl 50. What was impossible to predict was Elway allowing backup Brock Osweiler to bolt for the Houston Texans in free agency. That double-whammy has left the Broncos trying to sell a March trade for Mark Sanchez as one option to steady their quarterback quandary. The other alternative is adding another beleaguered signal caller, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, via a long-discussed potential trade that took a hit this past week as both teams squabbled over player compensation.
People talk about these deals as if it's only a matter of time before Elway finds somebody to plug in and play for the reigning world champions. Common sense and recent history should tell us it really won't be that simple.
"If they have that defense playing at the same elite level, they can survive if Sanchez or Kap can become a competent game manager," said one AFC personnel director. "The problem is that, in the past, neither one has proven to be that guy. Their head coach [Gary Kubiak] is something of a quarterback whisperer, but this would be his best work yet."
The first issue that needs to be addressed before moving on with this topic is the obvious one: Elway should've never let Osweiler walk out the door in the first place. Osweiler had spent four years in Denver and helped that team win five of the seven games he started in 2015 after Manning was sidelined with a partially torn plantar fascia in his left foot. It's fair to say the Broncos wouldn't have even made the playoffs without Osweiler's contributions. He had shown enough to suggest he would continue maturing as a productive starter for that franchise.
It's difficult to know all the factors that played into Osweiler's departure, but it's clear Elway's hardline negotiating stance didn't help. The Texans were willing to pay Osweiler an extra $2 million in annual salary per year (and an extra $7 million in guaranteed money) to woo him to Houston, while Elway reportedly didn't want to make Osweiler one of the 10 highest-paid players at his position. You can make such decisions when you're the most beloved sports figure in Denver and fans are still celebrating the franchise's third Super Bowl win. It likely will be years before Elway faces any heavy criticism for making such a huge mistake.
It's ridiculous for people to suggest that either Sanchez or Kaepernick is going to instantly succeed in Denver. Yes, the Broncos have an exceptional defense, and that unit carried this team for most of last season. But life is never the same in the NFL from year to year. All sorts of problems can occur -- the Broncos already have lost key free agents like defensive end Malik Jackson and linebacker Danny Trevathan -- and Denver will need a dependable quarterback at some point.
It's a stretch to see Sanchez as that guy. He is now on his third team since being made the fifth overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. He was once hailed as a golden boy for the New York Jets -- he helped the team reach the AFC Championship Game in each of his first two seasons -- but only lasted five years with that franchise. Sanchez also spent the last two years with the Philadelphia Eagles producing mixed results. He appeared in 13 games (10 starts) in Philly, throwing 18 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions.
The discussions surrounding a Kaepernick trade already have been muddled by his unwillingness to take a pay cut (he reportedly would have to surrender $4.9 million in guaranteed salary to make this deal work with Denver's salary cap). We're also talking about a guy who needs an 18-wheeler to haul all the baggage he would bring with him if the Broncos did land him. Kaepernick went from being a budding superstar to a player who routinely pouted after losses, became overly defensive when criticized for his lousy fundamentals and lost support within his own locker room. And that was before the 49ers benched him in favor of Blaine Gabbert.
When asked about Kaepernick's potential in Denver, another AFC personnel director said, "Kap was at his best when he pressured the perimeter and was a running threat. Then he struggled when San Francisco tried to make him a dropback/pocket passer. As strong as his arm is, he lacked reliability with his accuracy. I just don't see how that gets corrected."
That is the overriding point in all of this -- that the Broncos' options are all too flawed to make it easy to believe they'll simply by remedied by Kubiak working his magic. Other names have been floated as possible candidates in the event a Kaepernick trade doesn't happen (including Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brian Hoyer), but that only reinforces the dilemma Elway has created for himself. It's hard to believe he wasn't caught off-guard when Osweiler walked. It's even tougher to buy into the notion that Denver always had a viable Plan B that revolved around simply plucking an embattled quarterback off the 49ers' roster.
Elway clearly underestimated Osweiler's market while overestimating how easy it would be to acquire Kaepernick in a deal. He shouldn't be so brazen in thinking that all it takes is a willing game manager to help this team defend its championship. As much as people want to bemoan the quarterback play in Denver last year -- when the Broncosled the league with 23 interceptions (17 by Manning alone) -- the reality is that both Manning and Osweiler made some big plays when Denver most needed them. The Broncos wouldn't have won a prime-time Week 2 game against Kansas City without a last-minute touchdown drive by Manning, while Osweiler led his team to a critical overtime win against New England in the second half of the season.
Now try to remember the last meaningful win Kaepernick or Sanchez had. If that proves too difficult, than just recall the last time Denver tried to navigate the NFL after a big-time quarterback called it a career. Elway was fortunate to sign Manning as a free agent in 2012, after the star quarterback had been released by Indianapolis following multiple neck operations. That happened to be one more notch in the legacy that Elway has built in Denver, one that stems from the very belief that he can win, regardless of the circumstances facing him.
That might have been true when Elway was playing. It's also been the case since he joined the front office in 2011, when, with Tim Tebow leading the offense, the Broncos captured the first of five consecutive AFC West titles. But now Denver's favorite son is about to deal with a different kind of challenge, one that was mostly of his own making. He's going to learn what life is really like when you think it's easy to find a starting NFL quarterback.