Tag Archives: John Elway

Two stats suggest Broncos growing into legit contender

Five weeks ago, the Broncos were 2-3 and ranked 19th in the NFL in points allowed. Peyton Manning and the offense were coming together, week by week, but the Broncos had all kinds of questions on the other side of the ball. Having surrendered 62 points to Houston and New England over the previous three weeks, their defense scared no one.

Sunday, the Broncos won their fourth consecutive game since then. For the first time, Manning was not the main reason. The Denver defense, which had improved to 13th in points allowed in the interim, dominated Carolina, forcing Cam Newton to run for his life most of the day.

Two stats best reflected this defensive dominance:

— Seven quarterback sacks by six different Broncos defenders, the first time they’ve had that many in a game in nine years.

— The Panthers’ astonishing 0-for-12 success rate on third down, the first time the Broncos have shut out an opponent on third down in 12 years.

Jack Del Rio’s unit had improved from 29th to 20th in third-down defense over the past three weeks, and that ranking will rise again when all of this weekend’s action is over.

Combine a stifling defense that held Carolina to 250 yards of offense (the Broncos had 360) with another kick return for a touchdown by Trindon Holliday — a kickoff last week in Cincinnati, a punt this week in Carolina — and the Broncos resembled, for the first time, a complete team that could be a legitimate championship contender.

“It was a heck of an effort by the defense today,” Manning told KOA afterward. “They really put a lot of pressure on Carolina’s offense. And, boy, that’s two straight weeks with a (special teams) return for a touchdown. Just can’t tell you what that does for a team. Just a huge swing. Holliday and the entire return team has done a heck of a job. So, good overall team win. Offensively, obviously, some things we need to do better, but it sure was a good win.”

This is the key intangible the Broncos have going for them — veterans on both sides of the ball who are dissatisfied after a convincing 36-14 road win.

Asked by Channel 4’s Gary Miller if the defense was coming along faster than he expected, cornerback Champ Bailey did not hesitate.

“No,” he said. “I think we’re going too slow. We need to pick it up a little bit.”

It sounded like a joke, but if you know Bailey, who held the great Panthers receiver Steve Smith to one catch on seven targets for 19 yards, you know it wasn’t. At 34, Bailey’s sense of urgency to get to his first Super Bowl is palpable.

Similarly, Manning returns to Denver determined to work on flaws in the offense.

“I thought we were close on offense all day and really had some chances to put some more points and maybe have a little more separation,” he said. “We still had a few self-inflicted wounds. I’ve learned never to take winning for granted in the NFL, but certainly some things we can improve on and hopefully correct on offense.”

Even on a relatively modest day for Manning — he completed 27 of 38 passes for 301 yards, one touchdown and a passer rating of 103.1 — the Broncos’ quarterback continued his assault on the record book. The touchdown tied Dan Marino for second on the career list at 420. Only Brett Favre, with 508, had more. The win tied him with Marino for third on that list with 147, behind only John Elway (148) and Favre (186).

Now in charge of the Broncos’ front office, Elway gets appropriate credit for courting and signing Manning, giving the franchise instant credibility on offense. The front office he leads has continued to add veteran pieces that have played major roles, among them linebacker Keith Brooking, center Dan Koppen and safety Jim Leonhard.

But no pickup on the fly has had a bigger impact than Holliday, just the third player in Broncos history to return both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns in the same season, joining Al Frazier in 1961 and Eddie Royal in 2009. The Broncos claimed him off waivers from Houston last month.

“We look at the wire every single day to see who’s on that wire and if there’s a possibility that we can improve our football team,” Elway said on the Dave Logan Show last week.

“When we had a chance to get Trindon Holliday and claimed him a couple weeks ago, it was key for us because we needed a returner and he’d had so much success in preseason and even earlier this season . . . It was kind of an area of need and we saw what he could do last week. He’s really upgraded our return game.”

Holliday’s 76-yard punt return on the first play of the second quarter broke a 7-7 tie. Returners with the ability to break one at any time are a rare breed and provide a dimension that few teams have. To add that, in midseason, to improving units on offense and defense, makes the Broncos a threat to score in all three phases of the game, as they did Sunday.

“Especially a guy with that kind of speed,” Elway said. “If we can get people on people and get him some space, then he’s going to be very dangerous and it puts that much pressure on the other team. We really can look at it as another offensive weapon that when we do get in the return game, we have the ability to make some big plays.”

Indeed, the 5-foot-5-inch, 170-pound Holliday has been so impressive the Broncos are working him into the passing game. In Carolina, he had his first two NFL catches.

On the other hand, replays appeared to show Holliday flipping the ball away before crossing the goal line on the punt return. Neither the officials nor the Panthers noticed. Broncos coach John Fox told him to bring him the ball next time.

Meanwhile, Von Miller continued his ascent into one of the dominant defensive players in the league. Although he got credit for just one of the Broncos’ sacks after registering three the week before, he seemed to be in the Carolina backfield all day. He denied any special motivation going after the one player picked ahead of him in the 2011 NFL draft, but his teammates knew better.

“It was important not only for our head coach coming back here, but the first time Von has gone up against Cam,” said fellow linebacker Wesley Woodyard. “So it was exciting for him.”

Fox, of course, coached the Panthers for nine seasons and was less than thrilled when he was set up to fail with a stripped-down roster in his final season. But Fox, like Miller, declined to talk about his motivation publicly.

Broncos defenders credited with quarterback sacks in addition to Miller were defensive linemen Kevin Vickerson (two), Robert Ayers and Elvis Dumervil; and defensive backs Mike Adams and Chris Harris.

About the only negative for the Broncos was the running game, which put up only 65 yards, averaging three yards per rush. The starter, Willis McGahee, fumbled twice. Luckily, one rolled back to him. The other became his third lost fumble of the season.

Still, their turnover ratio continued to improve from a horrible start with interceptions by cornerback Tony Carter — a third-quarter pick six that extended the lead to 24-7 — and safety Rahim Moore. They improved to minus three on the season.

Combined with the Chargers’ loss to Tampa Bay, the Broncos’ fourth straight victory gave them a two-game lead in the AFC West with a chance to make it effectively four by beating San Diego next week and sweeping the head-to-head matchups, the first tie-breaker.

“It’s certainly a big game, and we all know how the game went last time,” Manning said, referring to the turning point of the Broncos’ season so far. It came at halftime of the game in San Diego on Oct. 15. The Chargers led 24-0 and the Broncos were 30 minutes from falling to 2-4. Instead, they came back with 35 second-half points and haven’t lost since.

“Everybody talks about the comeback, but we were down 24-0 for a reason, because they are a good team and they forced us into some mistakes,” Manning said. “So we’re going to have to play a whole lot better than we did last time . . . We need a good week of practice.”

Now 6-3 on the season, the Broncos’ record is beginning to reflect the quality of their game. One memorable stat that made the rounds last spring, just after Manning signed, seems increasingly relevant these days. Throughout his career, Manning’s teams have averaged 26 points a game. Throughout his career, Fox’s defensively-oriented teams have won more than 90 percent of the time when they score at least 26 points.

It’s working so far. When the Broncos have scored 26 points or more this season, they are 6-0. If the defense continues to improve at its recent rate, they could be as scary as any team when the playoffs get underway.


Tom Jackson: ‘There is a collective sigh of relief and a sense of joy in this building’

As a former teammate, Tom Jackson felt for John Elway from afar last year.

“Some of the stuff that I heard, and I hear everything that goes on in this town, some of the stuff that was happening over the net and the tweets that were coming when he attempted to tell the truth about his feelings about Tim (Tebow), I think he was somewhat shocked by the reaction of fans: ‘You need to leave town.’ ‘You’re jealous of him.’ It was hurtful. I wish I would have been around here when that happened. They would have heard an earful,” Jackson said during a recent visit to Broncos training camp.

As a member of the Orange Crush defense of the late 1970s, Jackson admits he’s partial to the Broncos, but it’s as a long-time analyst for ESPN that he says the Broncos with Peyton Manning are the best story in the NFL going into the 2012 season. And he thinks the events of Elway’s first 18 months running the Broncos front office may represent the most dramatic change of direction in NFL history.

“The stars had to be perfectly aligned for this to happen,” he said. “I always speak frankly: What happened last year is that there was a clamoring from the Tebow faithful for Tim to play football. I think that the Broncos resisted that as long as they could.

“At some point they said, and it had to do somewhat with Kyle Orton not playing very well, they said, ‘OK, we’re going to let you see him and see what we see.’ I believe they used the term at times in a different context, ‘You don’t see him every day.’ So they were going to go, OK, you’re going to get to see what we see every day. And they put him in.

“And then Tim won. And he won a lot. And he won in the most remarkable fashion that I’ve ever seen. So by the time you got to the end of the year with the win against Pittsburgh, if you were John, if you were this organization — and I think it’s the right of every GM, vice president of football operations, to do two things: name your head coach and name your quarterback — and John was having that opportunity taken from him. And I believe that without this alignment of the stars, Tim was your quarterback, period. And maybe more than a year. He was just going to be entrenched as the quarterback.

“Peyton becomes available, somehow John and Pat Bowlen land him, and now we’re going to have a revision of what goes on here in Denver. This is the story in the NFL, is this guy returning to play football, the once and only four-time MVP of the National Football League, returning to play football. And it’s a remarkable story.”

But will he be the Peyton Manning of old? Studies of late-stage veterans changing teams are all the rage. Will Manning be more like Ray Bourque in Denver or John Unitas in San Diego? Or maybe somewhere in between — say, Joe Montana in Kansas City? What about the Broncos’ receivers? What about the defense? (And, in light of Saturday’s intra-squad scrimmage, what about the offensive line?) Are they good enough to constitute the supporting cast of a championship contender?

“I think that they’re going to be a pretty good team because I have faith that Peyton is going to be a pretty good quarterback,” Jackson said. “John Elway did his homework before he made this move. I was just like a lot of people — very pessimistic about the fact that Peyton could come back and return to form.

“You talk to some medical experts, they all say the same thing: His neck is fine. As soon as he strengthens the arm, as he has, he should be fine to play. I worry a little bit about the rust. When he lines up against the Steelers (in the Sept. 9 season opener), he will be 20 months having not played a meaningful game.

“But given that, if Peyton is back to form, which I think he will be, then all of those things that you talked about become better. You lose 20-25 percent of your running game because Tim Tebow leaves. You gain 20-25 percent because Peyton’s going to pull two or three guys out of the box, at least one or two.

“The defense, I was talking to Von Miller, Von and Elvis get 21 sacks (last season). I told him, ‘I have no idea how you do that when you’re behind all the time.’  If Peyton comes in and puts up 20-plus points per game, then you’re going to have a better opportunity to play defense because it’s easier to play when you have the lead.

“The wide receivers, (Eric) Decker, Demaryius Thomas, (Brandon) Stokley; the tight ends, (Jacob) Tamme, (Joel) Dreessen, all of those players are pretty good players. They will be made better by the guy pulling the trigger.

“All you need do is be around here to understand that there is a collective sigh of relief and a sense of joy in this building that did not exist when I was here last year. And I can feel it and it’s permeating every area of this football team.

“I think they’re almost hesitant to talk about it because they see it as a bashing of what they did last year, or a bashing of Tebow, to really go overboard on what they’re feeling about Peyton being here. But I think as time goes on they’ll get more and more relaxed with the fact that this, as Gene Hackman said in Hoosiers, this is your team. Feel comfortable this is your squad. Not something that’s going on in New York. Not the attention given to someone else. This is your team.”

Jackson’s Broncos career overlapped with Elway’s for four seasons: 1983-86, so he’s known him since he was the fresh-faced rookie who once lined up under guard. Having watched him since, he thinks Elway has a good chance to be a notable exception to the old saw about great players not being great executives or coaches.

“I believe that John is going to have great success over the long run, whether it’s in terms of the players that they’re picking — Von Miller probably the most high profile amongst them thus far — or going out and being able to get a Peyton Manning when there were numerous teams that wanted him. That move is going to resonate for a long time with him and this organization.

“John just has a golden touch. He understands the game. I think he has a clear vision of what he wants to do. And that’s why I felt for him last year because my thought was that vision was being taken away from him.

“I said this actually on ESPN, for those that think that he was jealous, if you heard his comment about Peyton upon arrival — “I want Peyton Manning to be the greatest quarterback of all time.” — well, that would mean that he’s better than John.

“So I think it speaks really to what’s important to John right now. And I want people to know this: John has a great love and affection for Pat Bowlen. So I don’t think it’s as much John doing it for John as it is John doing it for Pat.”

I reminded Jackson of Bowlen’s famous line, “This one’s for John,” holding aloft the Vince Lombardi Trophy when the Broncos won their first Super Bowl in Elway’s 15th season, and asked if he thought Elway was trying to return the favor.

“This one’s for John,” Jackson said, smiling. “This one’s for Pat.”


Do the Broncos have enough weapons for Peyton Manning?

It’s not that fewer people had opinions in the old days. It’s just that before Twitter and Facebook, we didn’t experience the pleasure of hearing every single one of them.

Today, in order to stand out from the technologically-enhanced peanut gallery, your opinion has to be different, or at least loud, which is why any unexpressed view, no matter how inane, is just a vacuum waiting to be filled.

So we had the original reaction to the Broncos’ signing of Peyton Manning, natural and reasonable, that any team quarterbacked by a four-time Most Valuable Player should likely be included on any list of prospective championship contenders. That’s why there are nearly as many national media types at Dove Valley this week as there are players on the Broncos’ training camp roster.

Then came the first wave of blowback — the harbingers of wait just a minute. They wonder about the defense, they wonder about Manning’s health and even his prodigal perspicacity after a year off and multiple neck surgeries. But mostly, they wonder about Manning’s weapons.

Demaryius Thomas may have been a first-round draft pick, they allow, but through his first two pro campaigns, his high-water mark for catches in a season is 32. Eric Decker strikes a similar national profile — big, fast and athletic, granted, but also a similarly modest career high in receptions of 44.

Certain facts tend to go unmentioned in these revisionist bits of analysis. For example, the fact that each is entering just his third season. Or the fact that Kyle Orton threw nearly all of his passes to Brandon Lloyd during their rookie season. Or the fact that the Broncos reverted to a single wing offense last season, producing the 31st-ranked passing game in a 32-team league.

Mere details. Those who now differentiate themselves from the crowd argue Manning won’t be Manning without the crew of Hall of Fame-bound receivers he enjoyed in Indianapolis.

Of course, Manning had a little something to do with the pending Canton reservations of Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. Good receivers make a good quarterback better, but a great quarterback makes good receivers better, too.

Anyway, we turn to someone who knows a little something about quarterbacking championship teams for an expert view on this dispute.

John Elway might be a tad biased — he’s the architect of the Broncos’ roster — but he’s also a guy who helped make famous largely unknown young receivers named Shannon Sharpe, Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey.

“As a former quarterback, I like the targets,” Elway said when he stopped by the KOA broadcast tent at Dove Valley.

“When I look at Demaryius Thomas going into his third year and the way he played the last half of (last) year and the confidence that he’s going to come back into this year with, and the OTAs, I mean, he improved immensely in the OTAs. He had a great day (Thursday). Eric Decker I really like. Those are big, fast wide receivers that I always liked.

“Brandon Stokley’s going to come in and add some experience. Bubba Caldwell from Cincinnati has got some experience in the league and has great speed, has the ability to make the big play. And then we’ve got some young guys that we’re excited about — D’Andre Goodwin, Mark Dell, who got hurt in the preseason last year.

“Plus we feel really good about the tight ends (Joel Dreessen, Jacob Tamme, Virgil Green, Julius Thomas). We’ve got (Ronnie) Hillman in the backfield with Willis (McGahee) and so I believe we’ve got a lot of good things going on on the offensive side also.”

Elway was convinced last season that the Broncos’ biggest weakness was not the receiving corps but the defensive backfield. Aside from the courtship of Manning, that’s where he concentrated his attention during the offseason.

“Other than the quarterback position, that’s probably where we’ve improved the most,” he said. “If you look at the football team last year, when we got exposed is when people spread us out — Detroit, New England, even San Diego, although we did a good job against San Diego.

“When we got spread out, we struggled. But Tracy Porter coming in with the experience he has, Drayton Florence has great experience, and then Omar Bolden, who we drafted in the fourth round. Chris Harris, the year he had last year. We bring Mike Adams in at safety and then Rahim Moore and Quinton Carter are going to have a year under their belts. So I’m excited about what we’ve got back there.”

Elway isn’t afraid to talk about championship contention — he thinks the potential is there if fortune smiles — but he knows from experience that predictions in July are subject to the vicissitudes of November and December.

“If you look at where we started a year and a half ago (when Elway took over the front office) and where we are right now, we’re really excited about it,” he said.

“Like any season, you have to get lucky. Injuries can always kill you. The unknown is always there and that’s why I always kind of temper my enthusiasm and excitement, because you never know what can happen. But I think with the people that we’ve got on this football field, we have an opportunity to compete for a world championship. There’s a lot of things that have to fall in line. But we’re excited about where we are.”


It took a whole town to raise Derek Wolfe

The Broncos’ newest defensive tackle has a story made for the movies. Not quite as extreme as that of Michael Oher, the homeless kid who became an offensive tackle for the Baltimore Ravens and inspired the movie The Blind Side, but pretty close.

Derek Wolfe doesn’t remember being homeless, exactly. He does remember staying at various friends’ houses growing up in Lisbon, Ohio. The closest he came to family were the sisters of his stepfather, not blood relatives but women who helped out when they could. He remembers one of them providing Christmas presents when he was little.

“I’ve never met my real father,” Wolfe told the Cincinnati Enquirer last summer as he prepared for his senior season at the University of Cincinnati. “I couldn’t even tell you his name.”

That fact contributed to his estrangement from his mother. “My mom just won’t tell me anything about him,” he said then. “I guarantee he doesn’t even know I exist. I’ve given my mom chances and chances and chances, but she obviously has some issues.

“I lived with my mother only when she was married to my stepfather. My mother married him when I was only about three months old, but after they got divorced, I moved out and lived with him. My stepfather and I got along well when I was young, and even after he got divorced from my mom, but when he got remarried, that’s when everything fell apart.”

Wolfe’s best friend was a kid named Logan Hoppel. “His family told me if I ever needed a place to stay, I could stay with them.”

When he found himself a child on his own, he took the Hoppels up on their offer. For the rest of his childhood, he stayed with various friends. Getting him to adulthood became sort of a community project.

“That’s who I was raised by, is my friends,” Wolfe told me Saturday just after his introductory press conference at Dove Valley. “I have great friends. They’re like brothers to me. Anytime I needed advice or needed some structure, they gave it to me. I can’t pick one out. I have a lot of friends, a lot of families. I’ve got two aunts that helped me a lot. There’s a ton of families that helped me; my whole town.”

As it happened, Hoppel had an older cousin, Adam, who ended up playing football at the University of Cincinnati. Wolfe didn’t know it at the time, but the generosity of his friend’s family had set him on a career path.

“My childhood, it was what it was, and it formed me into the man I am today,” Wolfe said less than 24 hours after the Broncos made the 6-foot-5-inch, 300-pound defensive tackle their first pick in the 2012 draft, No. 36 overall.

“It’s never where you start, it’s always where you finish. Just like the draft. I may not have been a first-round pick, but I was their first pick. Now I’ve got to live up to that. I’m happy about it. I could dwell on the past if I wanted to, but what is that going to do? Just forgive and forget. That’s the way I like to look at it. If you sit around worrying about things, it’s just going to tear you down and tear you apart.”

As far back as he can remember, football was his escape from a life that was hard and frustrating in almost every other area. When I asked when he started playing, he knew exactly.

“I was seven. I liked to watch Reggie White. Don’t tell Mr. Elway this, but I liked Brett Favre. I wanted to be a quarterback and a defensive end. So that’s what I did. I played quarterback and defensive end my first year. Then they moved me to running back. I played running back until I got to like eighth grade or something.

“I actually cried when Elway beat us. Wait, I can’t say ‘us’ anymore. When we beat them. I was going to write hate mail to Mr. Elway because I was so upset. I told him that upstairs, too. I said, ‘You made me cry when I was eight years old.’ He just laughed at me and said, ‘Well, welcome to the good side.'”

It didn’t take Wolfe long to realize that playing football was what he wanted to do. His only other sport was wrestling, and he wrestled mainly to achieve better body control for football.

“When I was a junior in high school, I was like, ‘I want to play this forever; I don’t ever want to stop,'” he said. “Once I really started focusing on players and what to do, I started watching guys like J.J. Watt, guys like Justin Smith, just those guys that played every snap like it’s their last. Those are the guys I watched.”

Which is exactly what the Broncos saw in him — a motor that never stops. Some scouts have issues with him, which is why it was something of a surprise when the Broncos took him ahead of better-known defensive linemen such as Kendall Reyes of Connecticut, Jerel Worthy of Michigan State and Devon Still of Penn State. Not athletic enough, some say. Doesn’t deal well with double teams. Short arms.

The Broncos love his fire, his will to compete.

“On some testing things we do, he’s a high character guy and a guy that I think will bring a great attitude to our defense,” coach John Fox said.

“His background, you can see it in the way he plays,” Elway said.

“He’s really hungry,” Fox added.

“And that’s what makes him the player that he is,” Elway said. “And that’s why he’ll make us hungry on defense and he’s going to rub off on a lot of guys because he’s got a motor that doesn’t stop.”

A year ago, Wolfe almost made what he calls now “the worst decision of my life.” He nearly left school a year early to enter the draft, mainly to get a paycheck and escape poverty. He remembers sitting on his bed staring at seven dollars, all the money he had in the world.

“It was just like a breaking point,” he explained. “I was hungry. I was a month late on rent. Thank God one of my best friend’s mom owned the house we were staying at. I was just looking at it, like, ‘Seven bucks? Come on.’ I always have somebody I can go to, I’m never going to be without, but it’s like, when is enough enough? I’m tired of asking for things, you know?  I’m tired of having to go ask my friend. It’s demoralizing when you have to do that because I’m a very private person. I don’t like asking for anything. So it hurts when you have to do stuff like that. I was just tired of it.”

Cincinnati football coach Butch Jones used the most practical of arguments to change his mind: He told him he’d be costing himself a bundle by coming out early.

“I decided I came this far, why stop now?” Wolfe said. “Why cut it short? Why not just ride it out? I can do one more year, grinding and eating nothing but what they give me, basically. It all worked out.”

Adam Hoppel, whom he followed to the University of Cincinnati, was signed to the Cleveland Browns’ practice squad for a while but never played in a regular season game. Wolfe, the kid his family took in, now has a chance to compete for a starting job on the Broncos’ defensive line. How his skills play out remains to be seen, but he will never need motivation.

“If you could see my area, it’s dead,” Wolfe said. “There’s not a lot going on. I was on my own for a little while and I didn’t have anything. That’s the best way I can say it. Growing up, I didn’t have anything. It was hard to get cleats sometimes. It was hard to get wrestling shoes. It was hard to do anything. You had to fight for everything you had. That’s why I fight so hard. I’ll play this game as long as I possibly can because it’s my escape from what’s really going on.”


Fans hate, love second day of Broncos’ draft

The magic of the NFL draft, the thing that turns a soporific scouting exercise into must-see TV, is simple:

When it comes to football, everybody knows everything, and nobody knows nuthin’.

Anyone who has spent more than ten minutes around the game acknowledges you can’t actually judge a draft for a minimum of two or three years. Nevertheless, the entertainment imperative means everyone is going to grade it immediately anyway.

With that in mind, I invited reaction on Twitter (maximum 140 characters) to the Broncos’ second day, in which they selected defensive tackle Derek Wolfe of the University of Cincinnati, quarterback Brock Osweiler of Arizona State and running back Ronnie Hillman of San Diego State. Here’s a sample:

“C- minus for today, at best.”

“Quality draft so far, good picks for next year and the future, I really like the choices.”

“I would give them a D for the draft so far.”

“I’m not impressed either, but since I don’t pretend to be smarter than EFX, I’ll let the pros do their jobs.”

“In Elway I Trust. Go Broncos!!”

“I think Wolfe is excellent, Hillman is underrated and Osweiler is quizzical. EFX knows more about football than I do GO BRONCOS”

“McDaniels.”

“I’ll give you a single word… nonsensicle.”

“No cookie jar is out of the Broncos reach.”

“Unknown pig farmer to stuff the run, Small forward for a QB, and a firecracker RB. I am confused, not optimistic, but hopeful.”

“Drafting Plan B.”

“Puzzling – even if you like Osweiller he doesn’t help us win now – thought plan was to go all in while Manning here.”

“Did someone let Josh McDaniels back in the bldg?”

“Draft grade D-. Elway needs water wings as he is completely out of his depth with this debacle.”

“1) Need filled – DT 2) wasted pick on friend of Elway’s son – QB 3) Need filled – RB”

“Peyton Manning is the tree, the lights, and the stand. Now looking for tinsel. I’m happy.”

“I love how media experts think Elway was saviour for getting PM, but they now compare his draft to McDaniels.”

“All good except Osweiller. WTF? Need help now with Manning, not 4 yrs from now! He will never play. Hope I’m wrong.”

“Really, what does anyone really know at this point??”

“Need, toy, project…I had no idea the #Broncos were that close to a championship?”

“Broncos got who they wanted, not who others thought they should want. Elway said they don’t view the team the way others do.”

“Draft 2012 as grade C. Like DT Wolfe but really a QB and RB? NEED DEFENSE. Got lit up too much last year. Need CB SS LBs”

“East Coast brawn meets West Coast skills”

“it seems everyone knows better than those making decisions for the Broncos.”

“reminded me of mcdaniels drafts. Reaching when you don’t need to, leaving obvious picks on the board. Qb pick a waste”

“love it. Reached a lil on Wolfe, Qb of the future, and we have the next Lesean McCoy at RB! Not to bad.”

“whet a joke. Osweiler is a 4th round pick. @Denver_Broncos have so badly mismanaged this draft it’s incredible.”

“Underwhelmed. Could have waited for Wolfe and Hillman, no one would have picked them up…”

“Underwhelmed. Hoping time will tell, but we could have obtained each of these three later in the draft.”

Yes, those last two were different people, even if it doesn’t sound like it.

Anyway, you get the idea. I started fixing the spelling mistakes, then I stopped, so please don’t point them out.

The fact is, despite what people say, none of them can actually see the future. If they could, they’d be breaking the sports books in Vegas, not hanging out on Twitter. There have been hated picks on draft day that turned out well and picks greeted orgasmically that turned out poorly. Boring as it is, the tweet that comes closest to my own view was this one:

“I’ll let u know my reaction to the Broncos draft picks in 5 years. Because at this point, nobody really knows.”

Before we get to the Broncos’ take, here’s a sample of commentary from the players selected:

“There wasn’t a lot of contact like there was from the other teams,” said Wolfe, the 6-foot-5-inch, 300-pound defensive tackle selected with the 36th pick after the Broncos had traded down twice, from Nos. 25 and 31. “It was kind of put under wraps; there was kind of a shock when they took me. I’m pretty excited.”

By the way, if you want to hear the interview Dave Logan and I did with Wolfe on KOA shortly after he was selected, you can find it here.

“I’m just absolutely ecstatic to be a Denver Bronco,” said Osweiler, the 6-foot-7, 242-pound quarterback selected with the 57th pick. “It’s a dream come true. I absolutely can’t wait to get to Denver and can’t wait to get to work and give everything I have to that organization.”

As for holding a clipboard behind Peyton Manning for a while, Osweiler said he was unconcerned: “A lot of quarterbacks might be upset about having to sit behind somebody, whereas I look at it as a tremendous opportunity to learn from one of the best, if not the best, quarterback to ever play the game.”

Personally, I like any draft pick who uses the word “whereas,” but that’s just me.

And, yes, Osweiler called Jack Elway, John’s son, one of his best friends at ASU, so if you want to believe the elder Elway used a second-round pick to do a favor to one of his kid’s pals, well, I’m guessing you may also think aliens killed President Kennedy.

Finally, we have Hillman, the 5-9, 200-pound running back that was perhaps the most electric offensive player in the Mountain West Conference. He played last year at 189 pounds, but weighed in at the NFL Combine at 200.

He is a man of few words. Asked if he had any contact with the Broncos prior to his selection, he replied: “Not that much.” Asked if he was therefore surprised to be selected by them, he replied: “Yes, I was. I was very surprised.

“I’m just going to come in and try to help win, that’s all I can do,” he added. “I’ll just bring my versatility to the team and being able to create more on offense.”

The Broncos gave the media wretches a change of pace when the second and third rounds were finished, sending coach John Fox downstairs in place of Elway, who had the duty the night before. So these comments are all from Fox.

On Wolfe:

“Derek’s a guy that played both 5-technique (defensive end in a 3-4 defense) as well as 3-technique, defensive tackle. He’s got good length, he’s got good speed for that length, 6-5, 300 pounds. He’s got a great frame. He can get bigger. Very, very productive as far as creating havoc on the quarterback mostly because he does a great job with his hands as far as snatching off things. I think the most productive sack guy of all the tackles in the draft. He’s got a great motor. On some testing things that we do, he’s a high character guy and a guy that I think will bring a great attitude to our defense.”

On Osweiler:

“He’s a guy that when we went to visit I thought had an outstanding interview, outstanding workout. I think he has a bright future. I don’t think you can ever have too many quarterbacks. I don’t think it’s going to be one of those things where Peyton Manning’s going to feel threatened by any stretch. He’s got great mobility for a guy that big, he’s got quick twitch. A tall body helps you see through some of those lanes you get in this league. All in all, I thought he was what you’re looking for in a prototypical quarterback in the National Football League.”

On who Hillman reminds him of:

“One of the big things was, no offense to Marshall (Faulk), but he broke all his records there at San Diego State. He fared pretty well. I think (Faulk) would be an example. That’s the first one that comes to mind. That’s pretty big shoes to fill. He’s kind of (Darren) Sproles-like. Very explosive. He’s dynamic when you hand it to him, check it down to him or even long passes to him. So he’s a pretty all-around running back.”

Fox was asked what separated Osweiler from the other quarterbacks available late in the second round in his mind.

“Everybody has their own evaluations,” he said. “The thing that was most impressive to us was his accuracy and mobility for a big guy and just his production in a young guy coming out. I’m sure he’ll learn a lot from Peyton Manning.”

I mentioned to Fox that Elway said the Broncos’ goal this year, like last year, was to find three starters in the draft. So I wondered if Fox had any misgivings about using the club’s second pick on a quarterback who obviously would not be starting.

“To create that competition, grooming a guy, bringing a guy in, I think is always good because it’s such a premium position,” he said. “And you never know what happens. It’s important to have depth. That’s an important position moving forward in time.”

Several questions tried to get at why the Broncos had Wolfe rated higher than a number of better-known defensive linemen who were available at No. 36, including Kendall Reyes of Connecticut, Jerel Worthy of Michigan State and Devon Still of Penn State.

“We evaluate it,” he said. “We look at a lot of tape. We work at it probably in most cases harder than most people who talk about it on TV. So we’ll stay true to what we do, not so much public opinion, and obviously we thought very highly of Derek.”

Was his high level of effort, his constant motor, a big part of what set him apart on the Broncos’ board?

“When we have our first team meeting, everybody that has one of those chairs obviously has some God-given talent or they wouldn’t have one of those chairs,” Fox said. “From experience, it’s the makeup of a guy that makes the difference. So we put a lot of stock in that.”

Just before he headed back upstairs, I asked if the Broncos took Osweiler with their second pick, at No. 57, because they had information that he was about to be taken by somebody else.

“Again, you just stay true to your board,” he said. “You don’t get all upset about that. That guy’s there, you like him, you’re committed to him, we’re committed to him and you pick your guy.”

The Broncos traded two picks to move up in the third round to take Hillman, so they are back to seven picks overall, meaning they have four remaining today: two in the fourth round (Nos. 6 and 13), one in the fifth (No. 2) and one in the sixth (No. 18). Tracking them by their overall numbers, they have Nos. 101, 108, 137 and 188 still to exercise.

Let me leave you with the line of the night. Janoris Jenkins, the cornerback from North Alabama by way of Florida, was taken by the Rams in the second round. He’s had some off-field issues, so someone asked him what made him different from the talented but troubled Adam “Pacman” Jones.

Replied Jenkins: “I never shot up a strip club.”


Broncos duck first day of NFL draft

Well, he wasn’t blowing smoke.

Here’s John Elway’s quote from Monday when I asked him about trading away the 25th pick in the NFL draft:

“We’re open,” he said then, at his pre-draft press conference. “I think that preferably, we’d like to go back. If there is somebody that likes somebody in our position at No. 25, we’re fine there, but we’re always open to go either way.”

Turned out that New England liked somebody at No. 25, Alabama linebacker Dont’a Hightower, so Elway moved back to No. 31, picking up a late fourth-round pick in the bargain.

Then it turned out Tampa Bay liked somebody at No. 31, Boise State running back Doug Martin, so Elway moved back again, to No. 36, trading in the late fourth-rounder he’d just obtained for an early fourth-rounder as part of the exchange.

“Well, we didn’t get anybody yet, but we will tomorrow,” Elway said when the long night was over. “When we looked at where we were, obviously we had some guys targeted that didn’t quite make it to us at 25, so we had some opportunities to move back with New England to pick up a fourth. We liked that, thought that was great.

“Then, when we had a chance to move back from 31 to 36 with Tampa again, our board looked the same. We thought we’d be able to get the same people at 36 that we could at 31 — or have the same pool of players there at 36 as we did at 31. By doing that, we moved up 25 spots to the top of the fourth.

“We really believe this is a deep draft. It’s not real thick at the top, but it’s pretty deep through the middle rounds. We thought by adding another good pick it gives us more options going into tomorrow. Plus we’ll still be able to get the same people that we had targeted that made it to us at 25, at 36.

“We’re excited about the day. Obviously, it’s a little bit of a downer when you don’t have a new player. But we’re excited about where we sit and the next two days are going to be exciting.”

So it sounds like everything went according to plan. Except you could make an argument that the Broncos should have taken either of the players taken in the spots they vacated.

Hightower is a 265-pound beast who was a team captain and called the defensive signals for Nick Saban at Alabama. Adding him to a linebacking corps that already includes Von Miller could have given the Broncos’ defense a muscular middle and a potential long-term leader. With D.J. Williams facing a suspension to start next season, adding a stud linebacker seemed to make sense, particularly one as talented as Hightower. Consider that the Patriots, who have made a habit of trading back in the draft, actually traded up to get him.

Martin is a versatile running back who could have served as the complement to Willis McGahee that everyone thinks the Broncos need.

So the players selected with the two picks the Broncos got in exchange — Nos. 36 and 101 — are likely to be compared to Hightower and Martin as time goes on to see if these moves were wise.

The bottom line is the Broncos traded out of the first round altogether, moving back eleven spots from 25 to 36, and received that early fourth-round pick (No. 101) in exchange. According to the draft value chart, No. 25 is worth 720 points and No. 36 is worth 540. So the Broncos lost 180 points by moving down, then regained 96 by adding No. 101. That’s a net loss of 84 points, although, if the Broncos actually do take the same player at 36 they would have taken at 25, the point loss is purely theoretical.

Going into today’s second round, the Broncos are holding two second-round picks (Nos. 4 and 25), one third (No. 25), three fourths (Nos. 6, 13 and 25), one fifth (No. 2) and one sixth (No. 18). Tracking the overall numbers, they hold Nos. 36, 57, 87, 101, 108, 120, 137 and 188.

When Elway said the Broncos’ board at No. 36 looks pretty much like the board at 25, he was also saying that neither Hightower nor Martin was near the top of their board at 25. When I asked if he knew that Tampa intended to take Martin at No. 31, he said he did not. If he didn’t ask, it seems clear he wasn’t overly concerned whether Martin would still be around later.

If he’s looking at defensive tackles, his statement about the board makes sense. Once Dontari Poe (No. 11, to Kansas City), Fletcher Cox (No. 12, to Philadelphia) and Michael Brockers (No. 14, to St. Louis) went off the board, the next group of interior linemen — Kendell Reyes of Connecticut, Jerel Worthy of Michigan State and Devon Still of Penn State — was available at 25, still available at 31 and remains available when the draft resumes Saturday evening with No. 33.

“Everyone saw the talent that we saw too,” Elway said of the top three defensive tackles. “When those guys started going like that, they went in a hurry. We thought we were going to have to get a little bit lucky for them to fall to us anyways. They’re good football players, and when they didn’t get to us that gave us the opportunity to start moving back a little bit.”

If Elway is looking at defensive backs, which he suggested Monday was a priority against the spread offenses that exploited the Broncos’ secondary last season, the top group of cover corners was also gone by the time No. 25 rolled around. Morris Claiborne of LSU went to Jacksonville at No. 5, Stephon Gilmore of South Carolina went to Buffalo at No. 10 and Dre Kirkpatrick of Alabama went to Cincinnati at No. 17.

Cover corners who remain on the board include Janoris Jenkins of North Alabama, Josh Robinson of Central Florida, Brandon Boykin of Georgia, Jayron Hosley of Virginia Tech, Trumaine Johnson of Montana, Leonard Johnson of Iowa State and Jamell Fleming of Oklahoma, although most of them would be considered reaches near the top of the second round.

Three offensive options worth considering near the top of the second round are Wisconsin center Peter Konz, Stanford tight end Coby Fleener and Georgia Tech wide receiver Stephen Hill.

One other note from the first round merits mention. When Indianapolis made Andrew Luck the first pick, he became the tenth quarterback in the last twelve years to be the first overall pick. That only confirms the primacy of the quarterback position in today’s NFL. So it’s worth remembering that whatever they do in the draft, the Broncos’ biggest offseason move by far remains signing quarterback Peyton Manning as a free agent.


Elway: Broncos open to moving back in the draft

John Elway didn’t give away much in his mandatory pre-draft meeting with the media wretches Monday, but then, why would he? If he were more Machiavellian — and one day he might be, you never know — he would have engaged in a little misdirection of the sort Mike Shanahan used to attempt.

But Elway is still trying to be as honest as he can, which includes explaining why it would make no sense for him to show his hand publicly just before the draft.

Knowing his willingness to entertain specific position questions probably wouldn’t last long, I did get responses on two, and they were pretty different.

First I asked about defensive tackle, routinely listed by outsiders as the team’s greatest need. That need seems to dovetail nicely with a pick late in the first round because the class of 2012 is judged so deep at defensive tackle that as many as seven prospects have first-round grades from one analyst or another. Peter King of Sports Illustrated is not alone in matching the Broncos with LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers in his mock first round, although other observers have Brockers coming off the board well before the 25th pick.

Outsiders have been calling defensive tackle the Broncos’ greatest need ever since Elway and John Fox took over — in fact, since before that — and the Broncos’ brain trust has given no indication it agrees. It was widely expected to take Alabama tackle Marcell Dareus with the second pick last year, but chose Texas A&M linebacker and pass rusher Von Miller instead, judging him a higher impact player. The decision was vindicated in the short run: Miller was named the Associated Press defensive rookie of the year.

They signed veteran Ty Warren to play tackle, but when Warren went down in training camp, they picked up Brodrick Bunkley from the Eagles at the last minute. He played well enough to earn a five-year, $25 million free agent contract from New Orleans.

“We wanted to keep him but couldn’t do that,” Elway said of Bunkley. “We don’t feel as bad about our tackles as everybody else does. I think that we feel OK there. Ty Warren will be back coming off an injury and (Kevin) Vickerson is coming back and then we have some young guys in there where we feel like we’ll be OK. It’s not nearly the need in our minds that people think it is.”

Elway didn’t even mention veteran Justin Bannan, signed to return a year after being released just prior to the lockout. That doesn’t make the Broncos deep in talent in the interior line, but there’s a popular theory that when Peyton Manning is your quarterback, you’re going to be facing the pass a lot more than the run.

For that reason, the other area I asked about was the defensive secondary. I might have mentioned that Tom Brady toasted Broncos defensive backs in the playoffs last season with New England’s spread passing attack.

“We struggled all last year against anybody that spread us out,” Elway said. “That’s the thing. Every team has needs. It’s just a matter of the impact of the people you can find to help solve that need.

“You can never have enough good corners; you can never have enough good pass rushers. There is no question corner is another spot that is very vital if you’re going to be good on the defensive side because of where the game is going and the amount of spread offense that we’re seeing now, you have to be good in the secondary. But you’re only as good as your pass rush, too. You have to combine both of those. Obviously, our pass rush is better than it’s been, but we have to get better when people spread us out.”

In other words, unless Elway was blowing smoke, the Broncos’ interest in cover guys is greater than their interest in defensive tackles.

Since well before he took over the front office fifteen months ago, Elway has believed the modern NFL is all about the passing game. Offensively, he responded by wooing and winning Manning to play quarterback.

Defensively, he knows his team needs more capable defensive backs. He hopes free agent Tracy Porter will play a more physical style than released starter Andre Goodman, but changing the name tag opposite Champ Bailey didn’t affect the numbers game. Three young players — Chris Harris, Syd’Quan Thompson and Cassius Vaughn also figure in the pre-draft depth chart.

Still, as Elway reiterated several times, it all depends on how the board falls. He is determined not to overlook a potential difference-maker by reaching for a lesser player who would fill a need.

“The bottom line is we want to come out with players that are impact players,” he said. “As I said last year, you have a lot more misses in my mind when you draft to need. So we’re going to find the best players in positions of need but also try to find those impact players that are going to come in and help us right away.”

Repeatedly, Elways was asked to predict who might be available at No. 25. Repeatedly, he said he had no idea, which explains not only why attempts to predict the course of the draft are so entertaining, but also why they’re so futile.

“It’s just fluid,” he said. “It’s always changing. There are always surprises and you never know. Even though you know everybody has their mocks and everybody has their opinions on where different players should go or different viewpoints, when you have 32 teams, they are going to have different viewpoints on different players. I think No. 1, it’s very fluid and No. 2 is that you can’t rely on anything. It is going to be changing all the time. I think that’s probably the fun part about it. It’s so unexpected.”

So Elway views the draft pretty much the way he viewed playing the game. You go in with a game plan, knowing it may be turned on its head by an early surprise or two. Ultimately, success or failure is very likely to rest on the ability to make good decisions on the fly.

Offensively, speculation centers on the need for a running back to complement Willis McGahee and the possibility of adding a young quarterback to develop behind Manning. By the time he was asked about running backs, Elway had retreated to a general assurance that the club will consider players at every position. He was not much more forthcoming on the quarterbacks.

“There are some good prospects,” he said. “You never know. When you look at the two guys at the top (Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III), everyone kind of has them as franchise guys. I think for the most part it’s always a crapshoot, especially lower in the draft—not only that position, but all the different positions. You want to try to find the best packages that you can. There are some guys that are good athletes that are going to have a chance to be successful in the league. It’s just a matter of them getting in the right situations.”

The Broncos currently have Manning, Caleb Hanie and Adam Weber on their depth chart at quarterback. If they don’t draft one, they’re likely to bring in a street free agent or another undrafted college free agent (like Weber a year ago), at least for training camp.

When I asked if he was open to trading the No. 25 pick, Elway said he was. He also volunteered he is more likely to trade back than trade up.

“We’re open,” he said. “I think that preferably, we’d like to go back. If there is somebody that likes somebody in our position at No. 25, we’re fine there, but we’re always open to go either way.”

Elway and his front office crew are generally credited with a pretty good inaugural effort in the draft. Of course, starting at No. 2 is a lot easier than starting at No. 25. Their first and third picks last year, Miller and offensive tackle Orlando Franklin, settled in as starters. Their second, safety Rahim Moore, was an early starter who played his way out of the lineup, to the benefit of their fifth, Quinton Carter. Their fourth, linebacker Nate Irving, was advertised as a middle backer but ended up mainly a special teams player.

(The order of their picks does not necessarily reflect the round in which they were selected; Moore and Franklin were both second-round picks; Irving was a third and Carter a fourth.)

Their last four picks of 2011 didn’t do much as rookies, but Harris, an undrafted free agent, became the nickel back.

Once again, Elway’s goal is to find three starters. To do that, he insists, the Broncos will have to stick to their board and avoid reaching to fill needs.

“I think you can look at a lot of different areas that we have, but the bottom line is that we’re going to take the best player on the board at that point in time when it comes to us,” he said. “That’s why I don’t want to get into what our needs are. We’ll let other people figure that out. Going into the draft it’s important that other teams are guessing where you’re going to go. We’ll continue to do that.”


Elway: As a leader, Manning everything we thought

Almost a month after the Broncos announced the signing of Peyton Manning, the club’s brass is thrilled with the leadership role their new quarterback has assumed at Dove Valley.

Facing unprecedented restrictions in the new collective bargaining agreement on coaches working with players on the practice field, Manning immediately went to work organizing informal workouts with other members of the offense. When the rules prohibited them from working on the fields at Dove Valley, they scouted out high school fields they could use. As a result, he’s already had nearly a month of work with center J.D. Walton and receiver Eric Decker, among others.

“As a person, he’s everything that we thought he was,” Broncos executive vice president John Elway said Tuesday on the Dave Logan Show.

“As a football player, he’s a guy that is obviously a great leader and has taken control of that. Especially with the new offseason workout rules, with the coaches not being able to be on the field, we need a guy that takes control and Peyton’s done that Day 1. So he’s everything when it comes to the leadership side that we thought he was.”

Although neither Manning nor the Broncos are providing detailed updates on his progress rehabilitating from the multiple neck surgeries that forced him to miss all of last season, Elway confirmed the reports of other players that Manning is progressing well.

“He continues to improve and he’s out there throwing every day, so we couldn’t be happier,” he said. “I think the excitement in the building is extremely good and we’re looking forward to getting going. We’re looking forward to the draft and being able to find some guys there that can come in and help us this year. With the schedule coming out, we’re on our way, so we’re excited about it.”

When Manning met with reporters Monday, he was asked if he’d found time to get to know Denver and find a place to live or if it’s been all business. His reply:

“It’s been all business. Everybody’s asking me where I’m living. I been living over here, living here at the facility.”

The Broncos’ schedule, released Tuesday, is the second-toughest in the league based on the records of their opponents a year ago (139-117). But while the difficult early stretch jumped off the page — the Broncos play four playoff teams from last season in their first six games — Elway focused more on the road-heavy midsection of the schedule.

After playing three of their first four at home, the Broncos travel to seven of their next ten before finishing with two home games. That’s why, despite the degree of difficulty of the opponents, Elway believes the Broncos must get off to a quick start by taking advantage of the early home games.

“After the bye (following Week 6), we’re on the road five out of (eight) weeks,” he said. “That’s why it’s going to be so crucial to us to get off to a good start. I think we did a better job on the road last year than we have in the past, but we’re going to have to go in with the mentality of being able to win big games against good football teams on the road.”

The Broncos have five nationally-televised prime-time games — two Sunday night games, two Monday night games and a Thursday night game — including the first two, a Sunday night game at home against Pittsburgh in a rematch of last season’s playoff contest and a Monday night game at Atlanta.

It’s the first time they’ve had back-to-back prime time games since 2007 and the first time they’ve ever opened a season that way. They could also end up with a sixth national TV game if one of their Sunday games is flexed into a Sunday night game during Weeks 11-17.

“It’s going to be exciting opening at home against the Steelers,” Elway said. “Anytime you open at home on Sunday night there’s going to be great excitement with that, but we know that’s going to be an important football game for us because we’ve got to win those football games at home, especially the openers.”

In all, the Broncos play seven games against teams that qualified for the playoffs last year. Only the Super Bowl champion New York Giants’ opponents had a better combined record in 2011 (140-116).

“It’s an exciting schedule,” Elway said. “The fans should be excited about it. We’ll be ready for the challenge. We’ve got five playoff teams out of the first seven and the other two are San Diego and Oakland in our division. So we’re going to try to get off to a quick start. That’s why this offseason is going to be that important to us.”

Before any of that, of course, Elway and his front office and coaching staffs get a chance to fortify the roster further in next week’s NFL draft.

“With a year under my belt, I’m in a lot better shape than I was last year, even though I felt I was in pretty good shape last year,” Elway said. “But I think the experience and plus everybody working together, our personnel staff, Matt Russell, Brian Xanders, everybody’s done a tremendous job. And getting involved with the coaches and understanding the coaches, what we’re looking for on the defensive side as well as the offensive side, I just think that year of everybody being together is going to help us tremendously.”

Elway also said the club’s most recent addition, Manning’s friend and former teammate Brandon Stokley, should help other players adapt to the new quarterback and offense. Stokley is also a former Bronco and resident of Castle Rock. He was a workhorse slot receiver for Manning in Indianapolis from 2003-06, catching 68 passes for 1,077 yards in 2004.

“Obviously, he brings great experience,” Elway said. “He’s worked with Peyton before, he’s been in the type offense that Peyton has run. He understands what Peyton’s all about. Not only is he a fantastic receiver, he’s also going to be able to help everybody else, especially the receivers, understand the way the Peyton thinks and what he expects. So he’ll be a great leader for us in that room.”


The two things Peyton Manning will need to survive in Denver

Peyton Manning’s short free agency prompted a healthy debate about the merits of putting the fortunes of your franchise in the hands of a 36-year-old quarterback coming off a neck injury serious enough to require multiple surgeries and sideline him for an entire season.

Skeptics cited Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath as examples of once-great quarterbacks who tried and failed to rekindle past glory with new teams late in their careers. But then, Unitas was 40 when he played his final, forgettable season in San Diego after 17 years in Baltimore, and Namath could barely walk by the time he played an equally cringe-worthy final season for the Rams after 12 years with the Jets.

(By the way, these two greats put on what some consider the best passing exhibition in NFL history on Sept. 24, 1972 in Baltimore, where they combined for 872 passing yards. Namath threw for 496 yards and six touchdowns in a 44-34 win, the Jets’ first victory over the Colts since Super Bowl III almost four years before. Unitas threw for 376 and three touchdowns.)

On the other hand, although John Elway never changed teams, he did achieve his greatest success very late in the day, winning his two Super Bowls with the Broncos at ages 37 and 38.

The best example of a quarterback changing teams and achieving success late in his career is Jim Plunkett, like Elway a Stanford star and first overall pick in the draft. Plunkett struggled in his early stops at New England and San Francisco. He joined the Raiders in 1979, the year he turned 32. A year later, at 33, he led them to the first of his two Super Bowl championships. He threw for 261 yards and three touchdowns and was named most valuable player as the Raiders became the first wild-card team to win a title, beating the Eagles 27-10. Three years later, at 36, he led them to his second, a 38-9 romp over the Redskins.

“It’s about the all-around personnel,” Plunkett explained recently during an appearance on the Dave Logan Show. “You’re playing with a better group of people. You’re playing with a team that has a defense. You’re not always playing catch-up all the time. A team that’s used to winning. That’s a big plus as well. They expect to win each and every game every time they step on the field.

“It was a struggle initially for me both at New England and San Francisco. I wanted it to work out in the worst possible way for me back in my home area and it just did not. I joined the Raiders and I’m playing with a lot of Hall of Famers-to-be, guys who are used to winning, guys who have a winning past. They just surround you with more better players to get the job done.”

I mentioned Unitas and Namath and asked Plunkett what the primary differences are between older quarterbacks who save their best for last and those clearly on the downhill side of their careers.

“Part of it has to do with health,” he said. “Part of it has to do with the team you’re around. As you get older, you get hurt more. I just found that to be my case after that second Super Bowl, and even a little bit before. It was hard for me to stay healthy. I’d get nicked up a little easier. Of course, part of it was my style of play. Instead of going down like I should, I’d hang in there and get my head knocked off and in the process got beat up quite a bit.

“Peyton Manning’s had a lot of luck in that regard up until lately. And it still remains to be seen how well he bounces back. One of the things everybody’s hoping, especially the Broncos, is that he hardly misses a beat and he comes back strong. But then you’ve got to still surround him with the type of people and run the kind of offense that he’s used to, I think. That would be a big plus for him. The personnel’s just different. It was geared (in Indianapolis) to make Peyton Manning a better quarterback on offense. Right now, they might not have those kind of people at Denver in place yet.”

Plunkett, who continues to cover the game as a radio and television host for the Raiders, offered this overall assessment of Manning as a quarterback and his prospects moving to Denver:

“I see a guy who gets rid of the ball quickly, who reads defenses quickly, throws prior to the break. I’ve seen him a lot. I saw him in that great championship game when they were down 21-3, I believe, to the Patriots at halftime (the 2006 season AFC championship on Jan. 21, 2007, in which the Patriots led 21-6 at the half and the Colts came back to win, 38-34). To watch him bring that team back against a very good football team was quite impressive. The Patriots were able to put a lot of pressure on him, but the guy’s just got a great ability to anticipate where that receiver’s going to be and get rid of the ball, even though the protection’s not that good. Hopefully, that’s the kind of quarterback that Denver’s going to get.

“But also you’ve seen guys with injuries, and I’ve seen it a lot with broken jaws for some players, especially linebackers and running backs. Those guys that have broken their jaw, for whatever reason, when they come back, they’re kind of tentative. They’re afraid to put their head in there because it hurts. It’s something you’ve got to overcome. I had a few knee operations when I was playing and after you get your first hit and you get knocked down, you’re kind of testing out your knee to see if it’s OK. And I think Peyton might have to go through some of that when he comes back and starts to get hit and knocked around: ‘Is my neck going to hold up?’ And he might be kind of tentative until he takes a few shots and sees how sturdy or not that his neck is.”

Immediately after signing Manning, Elway moved to improve the quality of the weapons around him. He added wide receiver Andre Caldwell to incumbents Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. He also signed a pair of receiving tight ends in Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme, the latter a teammate of Manning’s with the Colts.

Plunkett put his finger on the two key ingredients if the Broncos are going to enjoy the kind of success with Manning that Elway is banking on:

1. Manning must stay healthy, fully recovered from his neck injury and not suffering other, nagging injuries that often contribute to the deterioration of play in older quarterbacks.

2. Elway must surround him with the right personnel. If anyone understands this, Elway should. After three Super Bowl losses, it was the arrival of Terrell Davis that finally gave him the opportunity to win championships. Manning may not need a 2,000-yard rusher, but Elway will have to get the supporting cast right for the $96 million gamble on a 36-year-old Hall of Famer-to-be to succeed.

The Broncos ranked 23rd in total offense and 25th in scoring offense last season. Some of that, obviously, was the result of a run-dominated scheme built around the skill set of quarterback Tim Tebow. The Broncos ranked first in rushing, at 165 yards a game, and 31st in passing, at 152. Those numbers are likely to change quite dramatically with Manning at the controls.

Somewhere along the way, Manning will have to find the sort of working relationship with Broncos receivers that he enjoyed with Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark for him to replicate the success in the passing game he achieved in Indianapolis.

Do the Broncos have receivers capable of that on the roster currently? We’ll soon find out.


Tebowmania changes time zones

Tebowmania in Colorado was as much a cultural phenomenon as a sports story, which is why limiting it to sports makes it almost impossible to understand.

Take the Broncos’ trade of Tebow to the New York Jets, finally consummated last night after a day of dickering over a $5 million payback provision in Tebow’s contract.

The Broncos traded three draft picks — one each from the second, third and fourth rounds — to move up into the first round in 2010 to draft Tebow with the 25th pick. In the 23 months he was a Bronco, Tebow became a national phenomenon, topped all NFL players in jersey sales for a while, won more games than he lost and led his team to an unexpected playoff berth and a more unexpected playoff win.

Yet, after all that, his value in the NFL marketplace depreciated substantially. John Elway dealt Tebow and a seventh-round draft pick to the Jets and for a fourth-round pick and a sixth. If Tebow’s name were not attached to it, that would be a minor trade on the books of both teams.

Already reviled by Tebow’s most ardent admirers, Elway can now expect criticism for not getting enough in exchange for him, but the consensus among personnel executives around the league over the past two weeks was that Tebow would fetch either a third-round pick or a fourth straight up. So a fourth and a jump from a seventh to a sixth was basically the market price.

But why was that the market price? Why wasn’t a quarterback who pulled off last season’s serial miracles more valuable than that?

Three reasons:

1. The consensus within the league, right or wrong, is that Tebow’s results with the Broncos last year were a fluke, the product of a gimmick offense no one was prepared to defend. The most important stat to NFL club officials is not the record (Tebow was 8-5 including playoffs) or even the completion percentage (46.5 percent last season), although they do cite the latter number with regularity, suggesting it is so low that even dramatic improvement will yield only a mediocre result in a league in which the top four passers last season had completion percentages of 68, 71, 65 and 66.

The most important stat to many league execs is that Tebow won seven of his first eight starts and lost four of his last five. The consensus is that defenses, with the exception of the stubborn Steelers, figured out how to play him — less aggression yielded better results — and would have refined the approach this season.

2. The offense the Broncos built for Tebow required him to be part quarterback, part running back. Taking that many hits, it’s only a matter of time until he’s injured, league executives believe, at which point they would have to revert to a conventional NFL offense or commit totally to an option offense by signing more than one quarterback who can run it. The injuries Tebow suffered in the playoffs against New England — he would not have been able to play in the AFC championship game had the Broncos won — only served as confirmation of this view.

3. Tebow brings with him a legion of followers who believe all of the foregoing is pure hogwash. Winning is what Tebow does, they insist. The end-of-game miracles are a bonus. At the least, those in the NFL who can’t see this are blind. At the most, they might be anti-Christian, turned off by Tebow’s evangelical zeal. As a result, any perceived slight of Tebow becomes a public controversy. A significant number of league executives simply don’t want that headache.

That last part, not to mention celestial explanations of the miracle finishes by Tebow’s more zealous followers, moves the story into religious and cultural areas that perplex and frustrate NFL officials, many of whom spend so much time in their bunkers they couldn’t tell you who’s running for president, let alone who’s trending on Facebook or Twitter. If Elway, a Denver icon, can be drawn and quartered for his treatment of Tebow, what’s the upside of a mere mortal front office type wading into this pond? Not a single team expressed interest in acquiring Tebow to be its starting quarterback.

Still, as a sports story, the dispute cries out for resolution, which is why following Tebow’s career from a distance will remain interesting. The Jets just extended the contract of their starting quarterback, Mark Sanchez, to a five-year deal that includes $20.5 million of guaranteed money. Tebow was acquired to be his backup and to operate variations on the wildcat offense as a change of pace.

Jets coach Rex Ryan and offensive coordinator Tony Sparano have both run the wildcat with some success, Ryan with Brad Smith in New York and Sparano with Ronnie Brown in Miami. The fact that Tebow beat both of them last season (Sparano was coaching the Dolphins then) didn’t hurt.

Why the Jacksonville Jaguars didn’t trump the Jets’ offer remains something of a mystery. Tebow was a natural for the Jags. He played his high school football in Jacksonville and is immensely popular there. The Jags went 5-11 last season and got poor quarterback play from rookie Blaine Gabbert, the tenth overall pick of the 2011 draft. They went out and signed a veteran free agent, Chad Henne, as insurance, but he wasn’t much better in four seasons with Miami. The Jags could also use somebody to help them sell tickets so they don’t have to put a tarpaulin over thousands of seats in the upper deck of their stadium.

Evidently, the Jaguars’ new owner, Shad Kahn, was interested but his football people were not, including general manager Gene Smith, who drafted Gabbert. Smith wasn’t ready to give up on Gabbert after one year and had the same reservations about Tebow that other executives do (see above). When the trade to the Jets was finally completed, Kahn issued this statement:

“Earlier this week, I asked Gene Smith and his staff to explore the potential of acquiring Tim Tebow. I think we have a duty to consider all avenues of improving the Jaguars on and off the field, especially given the unique circumstances involving the player.

“I appreciate the high level of due diligence Gene and his staff dedicated to this matter, even as late as (Wednesday) evening, and I am very satisfied with the outcome. Our commitment to developing Blaine Gabbert was, and still is, central to our goal of returning the Jaguars to elite status in the NFL. We’re looking ahead with zero regrets.”

In the end, the Jags and the Jets made very similar offers. The Jags offered a fourth-round pick and $3 million of the $5 million the Broncos had advanced Tebow on his salaries for 2012, 2013 and 2014. The Jets offered the fourth and sixth, getting a seventh in exchange for the sixth, and $2.53 million. Because the Jags draft earlier in each round than the Jets, the draft pick offers were almost identical according to the draft value chart.

Although it was widely assumed Tebow wanted to return to Florida, site of his glorious high school and college careers, New York offers more endorsement opportunities and a much larger platform for his evangelism. In any case, Tebow did not sound unhappy about his landing spot.

“I wanted to play for Coach Ryan ever since I saw ‘Hard Knocks,’ ” Tebow said with his customary laugh. “He just seemed like a coach who loves football and is passionate about the game of football. He’s definitely a players’ coach. I just love that about him.”

Not everyone was so sanguine about Tebow’s move. Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie lobbied against the deal Tuesday on Twitter.

“We don’t need Tebow,” Cromartie wrote. “We sell out every home game. Let him go to Jacksonville, Tampa or Miami.”

Legendary former Jets quarterback Joe Namath also weighed in against it, saying, “It stinks.” And Drew Stanton, signed to back up Sanchez just a week earlier, reacted to the deal by asking for his release.

For Elway and the Broncos, such headaches are now in the rearview mirror. The Broncos return to a conventional quarterback setup with Peyton Manning the undisputed starter and a traditional backup to be signed. Former Colorado State quarterback Caleb Hanie is one candidate. Stanton might even be a candidate if he gets his wish to be released by the Jets.

And the Broncos moved immediately to shore up the receiving corps for Manning, a career 65 percent passer, signing Andre Caldwell to join Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. Caldwell said the Manning signingplayed a major role in his decision to join the Broncos.

Leading a regime that took over the front office nine months after Josh McDaniels drafted Tebow, Elway found himself caught in a crossfire from the beginning, targeted by Tebowmaniacs who accused him of betrayal, envy and some of the other deadly sins. Passionate as quarterback controversies often are, Tebowmania took it to a whole new level.

At first, pursuing an agenda of transparency following the opaque, Bill Belichick-inspired McDaniels era, Elway acknowledged his reservations about Tebow as a passer. As he came under attack for failing to support the young quarterback sufficiently, he dialed back the openness, praising Tebow’s character and competitive fire, while still noting almost parenthetically that he needed to improve as a pocket passer.

Tebow’s fan base should not have been surprised. When he was hired to run the front office, Elway made it clear his sole goal was to win a Super Bowl and he believed Super Bowls today are won by great pocket passers. As proof, he cited the last nine Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks: Tom Brady (2), Eli Manning (2), Ben Roethlisberger (2), Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers.

John Fox’s coaching staff overhauled the Broncos offense into a run-heavy, read-option collegiate scheme to suit Tebow’s skill set, and it got the Broncos to the playoffs in a mediocre division. But that relative success, combined with Tebow’s following, left Elway presiding over a team running an offense he didn’t believe in.

So Manning’s sudden free agency was manna from heaven. A four-time most valuable player and certain Hall of Famer, Manning was not only the elite passer Elway sought, he provided unassailable cover to get out from under Tebowmania.

Well, not entirely unassailable. A significant minority opinion remains among Broncos fans that Tebow was a better choice than Manning to be the team’s starting quarterback. This baffles people in the game — Elway said any logical analysis would conclude pursuing Manning was the right move — and it reinforces their perception that Tebowmania is beyond the reach of logic.

Tebow’s legion of followers, of course, have their own logic. Tebow is 24, Manning is 36. Tebow is healthy, Manning is coming off multiple neck surgeries and a one-year layoff. They compare Tebow’s stats as a first-year starter to Elway’s rookie stats in 1983 and Manning’s rookie stats in 1998 and conclude Tebow could turn out to be the better player.

The dispute is interminable. It can only be resolved by giving Tebow an extended opportunity to be a starting quarterback in the league and seeing what he does with it. Jacksonville would have provided a better opportunity for that than New York, although, if Sanchez plays this season the way he played last season, Jets fans could be calling for Tebow a month in.

Elway will absorb the departing shots from the Tebow faithful. He has his passer and Tebowmania is now somebody else’s problem. Around the NFL, Elway is seen as having had a masterful week.

“Elway inherited Tebow and in essence dealt TT and a 7th-round pick for Manning (on a great contract), plus a 4th and a 6th and $2.53M,” tweeted Jason LaCanfora of the NFL Network. “Wow.”