From Super Bowl 50 to now, how did the Broncos get here?
On Feb. 7, 2016, the Denver Broncos were on top of the world.
With general manager John Elway yelling from the podium, Lombardi Trophy in hand, “This one’s for Pat,” the Broncos were once again world champions.
A half decade later, Denver sits as the only team in NFL history to win a Super Bowl and miss the playoffs the next five seasons.
So, what happened?
Peyton Manning rode off into the sunset, retiring after getting his second ring, then the Broncos drafted a first-round quarterback who would become the biggest bust in franchise history.
In 2016, Elway convinced his head coach, Gary Kubiak, to return for another season to “run it back.” Kubiak had thought about walking away after leading Denver to a Super Bowl 50 victory, but with nearly the exact same defense from the previous year, he instead returned for another season.
Denver had a lot of interest in Carson Wentz as a quarterback prospect heading into the 2016 NFL Draft, but as the final pick of the first round, the Broncos couldn’t move up to second overall to draft him.
Instead, the Broncos moved up to No. 26 to select Paxton Lynch out of Memphis.
Lynch seemed like the perfect fit for the “Kubiak Offense,” but he proved pretty quickly that he wasn’t good enough to beat out a seventh-round pick in Trevor Siemian.
Siemian played well under Kubiak, and is still the only quarterback since Manning retired to have a winning record as the Broncos’ starter.
But despite Siemian’s success and returning nearly every defensive player from a top-tier unit the previous season, Denver should have entered the rebuild in 2016. It wasn’t the worst idea to think the Broncos could “run it back” that season, but it wasn’t the correct idea.
Elway should’ve known once his future Hall of Fame quarterback retired that it was time to rebuild.
Denver should’ve started Lynch from day one but instead allowed Siemian a chance to beat him out. The best way for a quarterback to develop is to get him reps on the field, but the Broncos didn’t do that.
By allowing Siemian to start, Denver hurt the development of Lynch.
In 2017, Kubiak walked away from the Broncos, leaving Denver in need of a new head coach. And despite having several highly touted candidates available, like Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay and Sean McDermott, Denver passed on all of them in favor of Vance Joseph.
Joseph previously had been the defensive coordinator for the Miami Dolphins for just one season, wherein they were one of the worst defenses in the NFL.
As the 2017 season approached, Joseph never really had control of the team. He lost the locker room and had issues behind the scenes with multiple defensive players.
Denver, which trotted out Siemian, Lynch and a returning Brock Osweiler, never gave Joseph a chance to have a solid starting quarterback. All three quarterbacks started that season at one point as the Broncos barreled toward a 5-11 record.
Entering 2018 there were talks about the Broncos firing Joseph after just one season. At the same time, The Gazette’s Woody Paige reported Elway had talked with former head coach Mike Shanahan about returning to his old position with the prospects of bringing in Kirk Cousins under center.
But Broncos president and CEO Joe Ellis reportedly vetoed the move and, instead, Denver kept Joseph on for a second season with free agent Case Keenum under center instead of Cousins.
With five quarterbacks projected to be drafted in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft — dubbed the “Hall of Fame Five” by “The Drive” co-host DMac — Denver could have drafted a gunslinger but didn’t. Instead, they were all in on Keenum, whom they’d given a two-year, $36 million deal, behind one of the worst offensive lines in football.
Denver did finish the draft with a class everyone seemed excited about. But after fifth-overall pick Bradley Chubb, the Broncos only hit on one other pick — second-round wide receiver Courtland Sutton.
Both Chubb and Sutton would go on to make future Pro Bowls, but Denver needed a lot more help.
The Broncos struggled once again in 2018, missing the playoffs with a 6-10 record and the 24th-ranked offense. Elway fired Joseph and traded away Keenum after underperforming.
Once again, for the fourth time under the Elway regime, Denver needed a new coach — this time longtime defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.
The idea was Fangio could be another version of Super Bowl 50 winning defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
To replace Keenum, Denver traded away a fourth-round pick for former Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco, who was coming off a hip injury and a decline in his overall game.
Instead of drafting a special, play-making linebacker to fit the Fangio defense, the Broncos traded out of the 10th spot in the 2019 NFL Draft to select tight end Noah Fant at No. 20 overall. (The Pittsburgh Steelers would draft linebacker Devin Bush with the pick.)
In Round 2, however, Elway picked up starting offensive guard Dalton Risner and quarterback of the future Drew Lock.
But again, much like the mess in 2016 with Siemian and Lynch, the Broncos opted to play the veteran (Flacco) over the rookie (Lock). Lock, however, did get to play the final five games of the 2019 season after an injury to Flacco, going 4-1.
Everything looked promising moving forward into 2020, until the drama started with the coaching staff.
Fangio wasn’t happy with offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello and would eventually fire the first-time play caller after just one season. Denver had a young quarterback, who looked great in a limited role, but decided to change the offense on him.
And while it would have made sense for the Broncos to hire an offensive coordinator who could run an offense made for Lock, they did not. Instead, Denver hired the recently dismissed New York Giants head coach Pat Shurmur.
Heading into the draft, Denver again needed help on the offensive line. But they decided to draft two wide receivers with their first two picks — Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler.
Lock struggled throughout the season, finishing nearly dead last in almost every statistical category for passers. And while the second-year pro battle injuries, that wasn’t the reason for his issues.
Multiple times Lock didn’t understand where the blitz was coming from and struggled telling the offensive line when to change protections.
But Denver’s offense wasn’t the only problem, as Fangio’s defense finished 25th in points allowed per game.
The Broncos lost All-Pro cornerback Chris Harris Jr. to free agency, and the player tasked to replace him, A.J. Bouye, suffered through injuries throughout the season, along with serving a six-game suspension for using performance enhancing drugs.
Not to mention, before the season even started Denver lost its best defensive player, Von Miller, to an ankle injury.
The Broncos would go 5-11.
Denver didn’t make any coaching changes during the 2021 offseason, but they did make a front office move, as Elway would step away from his general manager role to serve only as the president of football operations.
The Broncos would hire new general manager George Paton, who served as an assistant general manager for the Minnesota Vikings
In his first offseason at the Broncos helm, Paton added to the depth of Denver’s defensive backfield, extending Justin Simmons, re-signing Kareem Jackson and adding free agents Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby.
But one familiar question lingers: the quarterback position.
Paton made it clear the Broncos would bring in competition for Lock, with many speculating that the team would target a veteran like Andy Dalton or Ryan Fitzpatrick.
But Denver passed on those guys in favor of trading for veteran Teddy Bridgewater just before the draft.
Did that mean quarterback was off the board in the draft? Pretty much.
It seemed as if Denver had its eyes set on a quarterback who could’ve fallen to them at No. 9 overall, but Paton instead took the safest player in the draft: Pat Surtain II.
Denver didn’t go for need, but they went with adding depth.
The Broncos did offer a package for former No. 1-overall pick Matthew Stafford, but reports indicate the Detroit Lions wanted Lock in the deal as well and Denver refused.
Then, Deshaun Watson said he wanted out of Houston, and Denver was among his preferred destinations, according to Jackson, his former Texans teammate. However, Watson has been mired with multiple civil case alleging sexual misconduct, which will likely not be dealt with until after the 2021 season.
The biggest bombshell, however, happened Draft Day, when ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported that Aaron Rodgers wanted out of Green Bay.
“Schlereth & Evans” co-host Mark Schlereth reported on the air that he had a source saying Rodgers to Denver was “close to a done deal.”
Obviously, that deal hasn’t happened … yet. But after talking to sources, a trade for the reigning MVP is more realistic for the Broncos than many people believe.
Rodgers doesn’t plan on returning the Packers again, and with his fiancé living in Boulder, it makes too much sense for him to land in Denver.
The Broncos have had many opportunities to improve their franchise, but time after time they’ve gone in the wrong direction.
The Broncos have had many opportunities to improve their franchise, but time after time they have gone in the wrong direction. They could have had Mike Shanahan as their head coach, drafted a quarterback in 2018 or this offseason and selected a special middle linebacker or built on the offensive line.
But they didn’t.