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John Elway has a sneaky secret for success

(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

It’s long been said that the NFL is a “copycat league.” If one team finds success by going down a certain path, it won’t take long for other teams to follow, sometimes in droves.

On occasion, the copying comes and goes quickly. Remember when the Dolphins broke out the “wildcat” offense in a 2008 upset of the Patriots? Within weeks of Miami scoring five touchdowns on six plays out of the throwback formation, almost every team in the league was lining their quarterback up at wide receiver and snapping the ball directly to a running back on a few plays per game. More than a decade later, this offensive set is little more than a gimmick.

In other instances, however, the change is more permanent. Not long ago, conventional wisdom said that quarterbacks at or near six-feet tall couldn’t thrive at the NFL level. But then Michael Vick became the most-dangerous offensive weapon in football during stints with the Falcons and Eagles, Russell Wilson won a Super Bowl with the Seahawks, and Drew Brees became the league’s all-time leader in passing yardage. Now, Kyler Murray is the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. Somewhere, Doug Flutie is crying in his flakes.

Imitation isn’t just flattery in the NFL, it’s often a necessity. Teams that are slow to spot morningtrends can quickly see the game pass them by; evolving is how progressive franchises maintain a competitive advantage.

Some try to take a shortcut to transformation. This is why teams were lining up to interview anyone and everyone who had ever worked with Sean McVay; they were hoping the brilliance of the Rams wunderkind head coach would be passed along through osmosis.
Others opt for a more methodical approach. They spot the trends and then fundamentally transform how the
y go about building their roster to keep up with the times; instead of just making changes on the surface, they alter their core.

John Elway is the king of the second group. And he proved it again during the 2019 NFL Draft.

At Super Bowl XLVIII, the Broncos entered as heavy favorites over the Seahawks, thanks in large part to their record-setting offense. But much to the surprise of almost everyone, they were dominated from the opening kickoff, as Seattle steamrolled Denver.

While others tried to figure out how Peyton Manning and Company could get beat 43-8, Elway hadn’t left MetLife Stadium before he knew what needed to be done in order to avoid a repeat performance.

The Seahawks boasted a defense that was fast and physical, one that could outrun the offense from sideline to sideline, got in the face of receivers and harassed opposing quarterbacks without having to blitz. Elway immediately got to work copying Seattle’s approach; he had seen firsthand that there was kryptonite to a high-powered offense.

The Broncos signed Darian Stewart, Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward and DeMarcus Ware in free agency, a quartet gelled perfectly with a young core that included Chris Harris Jr., Malik Jackson, Von Miller and Danny Trevathan. Together, the group would go on to form one of the best defenses in recent NFL history.

Just two years after being embarrassed by the Seahawks, Elway used their blueprint to win Super Bowl 50.

Now, he’s doing the same thing again.

Late last season, the Broncos watched helplessly as San Francisco’s George Kittle torched them for seven catches, 210 yards and a touchdown… in the first half. This came on the heels of bearing witness to countless performances of equal dominance by Kansas City’s Travis Kelce.

Pro football is now being dominated by fast, athletic tight ends. Players who can stretch the field from that position are match-up nightmares for opposing defenses; Denver has seen it up close and personal.

So, Elway copied the formula. During the first-round of the draft, he grabbed Iowa’s Noah Fant with the 20th overall pick. Fant was picked for one reason – his ability to run. The Broncos believe they now have their version of Kelce and Kittle.

But that wasn’t the only copycat move Elway had up his sleeve this offseason. The second one panned out on day two of the draft.

Heading into the 2017 season, the Chiefs had a solid team. Their defense boasted playmakers and they had a steady signal caller guiding their offense. But that didn’t prevent Kansas City from trading up in the draft to pick a quarterback.

Behind veteran Alex Smith, the Chiefs went 10-6 and won the AFC West that season, but it was obvious to everyone that he wasn’t the team’s future. And after one year of apprenticeship, Patrick Mahomes was unleashed on the league, turning Kansas City into one of the NFL’s most-exciting teams en route to the NFL’s MVP award in 2018.

Elway hopes to follow a similar script in Denver.

The Broncos will head into the 2019 season with veteran Joe Flacco as their starter. Thanks to a defense littered with playmakers, he’ll probably enjoy some degree of success in Denver.

After trading up in the draft to pick Drew Lock, however, it’s just a matter of time before the Broncos turn the reins over to a player they hope will be the franchise’s quarterback of the future. And much like Mahomes, Lock won’t be inheriting a bottom-feeding team like most young quarterbacks when he becomes the starter, which greatly increases his chances for success.

These decisions are just the latest example of Elway’s best attribute – his willingness to change. The guy is a freaking chameleon. In a world full of sports executives who stubbornly stick with their “system,” even in the face of overwhelming evidence that it’s not working, Elway’s approach is refreshing.

If he goes down the wrong path, which he has certainly done plenty of times during the past eight years, he’s quick to alter his course. Often, that new route is down a smooth path someone else has already paved.

The first time Elway used another team’s success to develop a plan for transforming his philosophy, it led to a third Lombardi Trophy being added to the lobby at Dove Valley. If a fourth one arrives in the next few seasons, it’ll be because No. 7 once again saw what was successful elsewhere and changed his approach.

In a copycat league, the ability to quickly see where the game is going and adapt on the fly is critical. And it was proven again this weekend that few are better at it than John Elway.