Fewer than two years have passed since the Denver Broncos won their most recent championship, a tour de force orchestrated by team legend turned general manager John Elway. Perhaps no sports figure has engendered as much goodwill with a city as Elway, who has played a role in seven trips to the Super Bowl and three Lombardi Trophies.
But how far does goodwill go when the winning stops?
After Sunday's 51-23 loss to the Eagles, Denver is in dire straits, and the team's performance since that Super Bowl title has dipped considerably. The offseason following their championship proved to be a brutal one. Saddled with over $8 million in dead money from Elway's spendthrift approach during the Peyton Manning era, the team saw nearly a third of its Super Bowl starters leave as unrestricted free agents or cap casualties, including budding star Malik Jackson, All-Pro guard Evan Mathis and veteran linebacker Danny Trevathan.
But Manning's departure left the biggest hole in the Broncos' roster. While the decorated quarterback looked like a shell of himself during his final season, Manning's retirement left Elway with two options: pay through the nose to re-sign Brock Osweiler or scour the trade market, free agency and the draft for Manning's successor.
Elway made a three-year, $16 million offer to Osweiler, who instead signed with the Houston Texans. With his first choice off the table, Elway traded for the Philadelphia Eagles' Mark Sanchez, a veteran signal-caller but one with limited upside. The general manager also targeted Memphis' Paxton Lynch in the draft, trading back into the first round to acquire him.
In the end, all the quarterbacks Elway pursued proved to be mistakes. Osweiler flamed out epically in Houston, with the Texans sending away a second-round pick just to unload his contract. Sanchez didn't even make it that far, receiving his release from the Broncos before the regular season. Lynch entered the league raw and hasn't shown much progress since, starting only two games, both as an injury replacement.
Instead, seventh-round afterthought Trevor Siemian has started the vast majority of games in Denver since Manning left. Siemian won the job in 2016 and '17 essentially by default, as his competition largely imploded when called upon. Though he has played competently at times and has vastly outperformed expectations for a late draft selection, he remains a replacement-level passer unable to carry an offense. Siemian's play bottomed out last week against the Kansas City Chiefs, with the Broncos benching him for the since-reacquired Osweiler.
The team refused to commit to anyone as their starter for Week 10's matchup with the defending champion New England Patriots. However, one thing appears clear: Their long-term answer does not currently reside on the roster.
Few teams can compete for a title without a franchise quarterback, and the Broncos have even less margin for error given the tremendous commitment they have made in just a handful of players (eight players take up half of the team's 2017 salary cap). Had Elway hit on a quarterback, the Broncos could overcome their other holes -- offensive line, tight end, and safety chief among them -- and lack of depth. Because the front office mismanaged its hunt for Manning's replacement, the team's record stands at 3-5, worst in the AFC West.
Elway still has time to fix the Broncos. Next offseason could offer tantalizing signal-callers options in free agency -- Drew Brees and Kirk Cousins both have expiring deals -- with more possibly arriving through the draft. Perhaps the roster fills out organically as young players in whom Elway invested develop. The rest of the division could also decline in the coming seasons, opening another window for Denver to thrive.
However, for the Broncos to succeed in any scenario, Elway needs to find an answer at quarterback. If he botches his second attempt to locate Manning's successor, he may not receive a third. In a bottom-line business like the NFL, not even the all-time greats survive forever, and the fans that once cheered Elway's name could soon blame him for the team's demise.