Has a Super Bowl champion ever been more mired in uncertainty? In the era of free agency and a calcified salary cap, you expect a team to be poached of its better players. Indeed, one of the rites of NFL autumn is to lose two or three studs as the low-end vultures circle the high-end rosters.
But has a Super Bowl champion ever lost their starting QB and his successor?
Peyton Manning joined Jerome Bettis, Michael Strahan and his boss and predecessor as Broncos QB, John Elway, in the high orbit of Hall of Famers who retired with a Lombardi Trophy under his right arm. But not even Elway saw this coming.
Brock Osweiler was supposed to slide seamlessly into Manning’s spot. Instead he went from backup to Bill Gates after the Houston Texans made it rain on the reigning champion. Now the Broncos are reduced to Trevor Siemian.
Indeed. While many NFL teams are armed with bejeweled backups, few third-stringers are household names. It’s hard to think of anyone west of Mel Kiper who has a book on Trevor Siemian.
Scrambling for a decent QB, Denver recently spoke with Ryan Fitzpatrick’s people, and have expressed interest in Colin Kaepernick. One is a football gypsy whose next team will be his seventh, while the other has plunged from Super Bowl starter to benchwarmer behind Blaine Gabbert.
Likewise, the Jets flew Robert Griffin III into town, and hosted the downtrodden quarterback for two days. Perhaps it’s posturing, but it’s hard to find a QB with more incentive to improve his name and game than RG3. He went from NFL golden child to last seat on the bench in Washington, DC. RG3 fell down the football tree, and hit every branch on the way down, from the Heisman Trophy to Rookie of the Year to two slots behind Kirk Cousins to cut by the very team that traded half its draft to bag him.
Denver won’t want any part of that. Not if Elway stays true to his corporate coda of financial, physical and emotional prudence. Few GMs have the personal pliability to rebuild a roster they already took to a Super Bowl. But Elway did.
After Seattle vaporized the Broncos two years ago, Elway retooled his beloved Broncos from an offensive behemoth that dropped 35 points by halftime into a run-first, grind-the-clock club. He tilted his draft board toward defense, and relied on Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware to batter the quarterback and a potent secondary of Chris Harris and Aqib Talib to pick off the resultant, errant passes.
Frankly, the Jets want Fitzpatrick back and the feeling is mutual. Besides, Denver is a reflection of their boss. Elway believes in fiscal discipline, which is often the best business model. But it’s likely, with the benefit of hindsight, that Denver would have slapped the franchise tag on Osweiler and given Von Miller his money. Instead, they tagged the one player who doesn’t want to go anywhere and let the QB with the wandering eye go on a date with the well-heeled enemy.
Add to that the meat-hook realities of free agency, where the Broncos have been gutted by the competition. Stud DE Malik Jackson just signed a $90 million deal with the free-spending Jacksonville Jaguars, while OLB Danny Trevathan fled to the Chicago Bears for $24.5 million.
Neither player was peripheral. Both were key cogs in a perfect defensive machine that hounded league MVP Cam Newton and thwarted the 17-1 Carolina Panthers, who were thumping teams on their way to Super Bowl 50.
Ware is now a year older. Victory is always a variable or two away. So add potential injury to the defensive defections and the Broncos are a hot mess. Then we have RB stalwart C.J. Anderson, who wrenched the starting gig from Ronnie Hillman last season.
Anderson may join Trevathan and Jackson on the free agent bandwagon, if he signs a four-year, $18 million offer from the Dolphins. Denver has until tomorrow to match the offer to Anderson, who has led the Broncos in rushing the last two years.
Elway has been reduced to plan C, signing Mark Sanchez, he of Butt Fumble fame. If Sanchez couldn’t keep the Jets’ QB job, a black hole since Joe Namath hung up his fur coats and sideburns in the ’70s, then how will he possibly prosper under Elway’s sharp blue eyes? After two good seasons under Rex Ryan, Sanchez fell apart in New York City, and became way more caricature than character. The infamous fumble against the Patriots was just the end of an inelegant PR string of frat party videos and magazine covers.
For all Elway’s athletic splendor, and his unprecedented, dual talents for playing and picking players, he can’t possibly be happy over the direction of his team. But he’s still speaking in corporate cliches about “process” and such.
“We’ve stayed true to our philosophy of building a team with players who want to be Denver Broncos and want to be here,” Elway said in a statement. “That’s been a successful approach for us.”
Losing your best players is never a successful approach. No. 7 is used to being no. 1. But if no. 6 is under center next season, it’s hard to see any Roman numerals in Denver’s near future.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.