And so, John Elway grabs another dart and again takes aim at the bull's-eye that is the Denver Broncos’ quarterback position.
Having reached an agreement to acquire Joe Flacco from the Baltimore Ravens, according to a person with knowledge of the deal who spoke to USA TODAY Sports on condition of anonymity due to the fact the move had not been made official, the Hall of Fame quarterback-turned-GM is hoping that another aging, former Super Bowl MVP can restore the Denver Broncos to the ranks of contenders.
It’s the only trick that has worked during his eight-year stint as team president. The three-year foray with Peyton Manning produced the third Super Bowl title in franchise history. But the quest to find a long-term replacement for Manning remains ongoing. Elway missed on draft picks Brock Osweiler, Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch. And he has now admitted failure on Case Keenum, last year's free agent signing who went 6-10 and recorded 19 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions while directing an offense that ranked in the bottom half of the league in most statistical categories.
The deal will not become official until March 13, but in Flacco, Denver has secured a passer who’s more accomplished than any Broncos quarterback of the last three decades not named Elway or Manning.
Flacco most likely welcomes this fresh start. But it’s hard to declare this a slam dunk because far too many questions loom over Flacco, the Broncos and Elway himself.
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Since the Manning-led Super Bowl victory in the 2015 season, little of what Elway has done suggests that he has the vision and decision-making skills to guide the organization back to such heights.
His hand-picked replacement for Gary Kubiak, Vance Joseph, lasted just two seasons and became the fall guy for Denver’s plunge to a double-digit loss team. But the roster he assembled does indeed possess holes at key positions. To start, the offense features few play-makers. A line that surrendered 34 sacks also needs upgrades.
However, Elway has operated as if this team is one piece away from contention. He thought Keenum, who went 11-1 as a starter in Minnesota in 2017, was the answer, but the veteran was not.
Elway has also started over at head coach, hiring long-time defensive coordinator Vic Fangio away from Chicago.
But the acquisition of Flacco – who is set to earn $18.5 million in 2019, $20.25 million in 2020 and $24.25 in 2021, though none of those salaries are guaranteed – suggests that Elway still believes he have the roster equipped to make a quick turnaround and deep playoff run.
Flacco, however, hasn’t exactly delivered top-notch quarterback play as of late. There are multiple reasons why Lamar Jackson took over down the stretch of the season and prompted Ravens brass to end the Flacco era.
Flacco ranked 10th in the league with 274 passing yards per game, but he was 4-5 at the time of his last start, and his passer rating (84.2) ranked 28th in the NFL. Jackson isn’t yet as adept of a passer as the 34-year-old is, yet the Ravens stuck with him when making a playoff push and now will roll with him as the face of the franchise.
Injuries (including back and hip ailments) have limited Flacco in recent years. So, while he must prove he can stay healthy and that he still possesses game-changing abilities, the Broncos can’t make the mistake of plugging him in and expecting to mask their problems. They’ll have to make upgrades to ensure they maximize whatever Flacco has left in the tank.
Fangio is a masterful defensive strategist. But the offense surrounding Flacco is largely unproven. Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders and running back Phillip Lindsay represent bright spots. But Denver has a first-year offensive coordinator in Rich Scangarello, who last served as quarterbacks coach in San Francisco.
Scangarello and Elway share core offensive philosophies, however. Scangarello worked under Kyle Shanahan in both San Francisco and Atlanta. Shanahan, of course, learned NFL offensive design from his father, Mike Shanahan, who directed Elway to two Super Bowl wins. Kyle Shanahan also worked with Kubiak, who ran the same offense in Denver during Manning’s Super Bowl run.
Scangarello is expected to deploy a very similar attack, and Elway knows first-hand how such an offense can position an aging quarterback for success. In theory, it should benefit Flacco in many regards with a strong rushing game and plenty of play-action. Flacco is a pocket passer, so it will be interesting to see how he does with the elements of the offense that frequently roll the quarterback out to prevent him from being a stationary target for defenses. But at this stage in his career, Flacco should view anything that can be done to help limit the hits he takes as a positive.
Now Elway must take additional measures to fortify this roster elsewhere. He needs this to work, because if this experiment also fails, the next quarterback leaving with a pink slip could be Elway himself.
Follow Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.
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