Often in sports it’s easy to point to one move and determine what caused the state of the franchise today.
Sometimes it’s as easy as one play, i.e. then-Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe getting knocked out in a game, paving the way for second-year quarterback Tom Brady to come into the game and taking over a franchise that would rule the NFL for 20 years.
In the case of the 2016-2021 Denver Broncos, many would look at the retirement of Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning after winning Super Bowl 50 with the team after the 2015 season.
While that appears to part of the issue since the Broncos have been on a never-ending quarterback carousel. That may be only part of the problem. In fact, in the bigger picture, perhaps the problem was how they handled the Super Bowl 50 MVP: linebacker Von Miller.
In the following offseason, Miller was set to become a free agent and got into a contract dispute with general manager John Elway that at times got very public and hostile. Before training camp, Miller signed a six-year, $114.1 million contract with an average per year salary of $19,016,667 and $70 million guaranteed.
In the years following the contract, Miller averaged 11.5 sacks/year from 2016-2019. He missed 2020 with an injury and was off to a slow start in 2021, with 4.5 through eight games (he was traded to the Los Angeles Rams after seven games for Denver).
While his numbers were above average for a pass-rusher in the NFL, and certainly worthy of a Hall of Fame nod, the Broncos have missed the playoffs each year, and only one winning season (2016 at 9-7).
But, Miller plays defense, and the points a defensive points are harder to come by than offense.
Elway was faced with a serious dilemma at the time of the contract, pay big money for a defensive player and shift the paradigm for team-building to focus on defense while the rest of the NFL is going toward offense. Or, he could not pay his Super Bowl MVP, lose the locker room and have egg on his face.
So he paid the linebacker.
Since then, the Broncos have focused on defense and have had a mediocre defense at best, with their best years being in 2019 (10th in points/game) and 2018 (13th in points/game).
Offensively, it’s been ugly. Their best offensive year was in 2016 when they averaged 22nd in the NFL. The rest are as follows, 27th, 24th, 28th, 28th and 23rd from 2017-21, respectively.
In fairness, the Broncos have whiffed on draft picks and brought in veteran quarterbacks that didn’t pan out. But when so much of your cap is tied to defense (not just Miller, but others such as Chris Harris, Jr., Derek Wolfe, etc.), it’s hard to bring offensive talent to the roster in the form of offensive linemen, running backs and maybe even a better quarterback.
The Broncos are trying to zig while everyone else is zagging. Playing good defense while trying to manage the game offensively is not how it works in today’s NFL. I don’t know what the rest of the season holds for this team, but if they do move on from defensive “guru” Vic Fangio, my hope is the bring in an offensive-minded head coach.
While Von Miller is by far my favorite modern Bronco in recent memory, I can’t bring myself to say paying top-dollar for a player who is not in charge of scoring points was the right move. But it was the position the front office was in, and their hands were tied.
John Lee is the editor of The Pampa News and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter: @jcl1987.
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