ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The last month was promising. The Broncos failed to deliver the season they wanted, but they produced the ending they needed.
The Broncos went 4-1 over their final five games. They finished second in the AFC West, and for the first time since Peyton Manning retired they know who their quarterback will be next season. Drew Lock is the future. He provided an Five-Hour Energy boost to the franchise, his performance and enthusiasm blending well with young cornerstone players Phillip Lindsay, Courtland Sutton, Bradley Chubb and Dalton Risner, and inspiring veterans like Chris Harris Jr., who admitted, "we've finally got our guy."
The flourish at the finish, the kid under center and first-year coach Vic Fangio exceeding expectations has left hope no longer a stranger at UCHealth Training Center.
"I think with the youth that we have on this team, the young guys that we have, with Drew coming in and playing like he played," general manager John Elway said in his end of season press conference with Fangio, "it feels like we bounced off the bottom and we’re heading up.”
Smiling and re-energerized -- in juxtaposition to the last two years on this day -- Elway addressed a number of topics about the team's future. He will pick up linebacker Von Miller's contract option, wants to work out a longterm deal with safety Justin Simmons, but could franchise tag him, has plans for a new contract for running back Phillip Lindsay, who has outplayed his undrafted status, and is pleased with Fangio's performance, saying, "Vic has been everything I thought he would be and a heck of a lot more." Continuity was part of Monday's theme with Fangio saying he plans to keep his coordinators -- Ed Donatell, Rich Scangarello and Tom McMahon.
Most important to Elway, beyond the sudden stability at the game's most important position, is the cultural shift. The losing attitude that has for too long permeated this franchise has finally dissolved.
"The whole thing with losing is getting that locker room turned around, getting them to where they feel like they have a chance to be successful and it's not like, 'Here we go again,'" Elways said. "I feel like we finally got rid of that and the locker room finally feels we have a chance to be successful."
CEO Joe Ellis spoke in more neutral terms. While seeing progress, he explained that hope is not a good strategy: "You have to be realistic, you have to be pragmatic because there is a lot of work to do to get to the next stage." Ellis also admitted that the 37,000-plus no-shows cannot be ignored as the team moves forward. “I am concerned. People start speaking with their feet and it gets my attention. As it should. When people don’t show up it means the ticket had no value. That’s concerning. ... When I talked with fans they want one thing: win."
Elway sees that in the future, believing the Broncos should contend for the playoffs next season. Several wrinkles must be ironed out before accomplishing that goal. Increasing the talent remains paramount, with tough decisions looming. Elway indicated that the staff would take a monthlong break before beginning player evaluation. This change comes from Fangio's lead, believing removing the coaches from the season can lead to more objective analysis.
Some of the topics Elway addressed:
On rookie quarterback Drew Lock:
Lock tied Elway for the franchise record with wins by a rookie. Lock will talk with Peyton Manning and Elway about how to maximize his offseason, but believes he has shown he can be The Guy. Said Elway, "Well, I mean, I don’t see any options right now ... I think it’s unrealistic to say that we’re going in a different direction." Asked if the Broncos regretted not starting him sooner, Elway brought up Lock's thumb injury and added, "The way things fell, they fell the right way and it worked out the way it was supposed to work out.”
On contracts for in-house free agents:
The Broncos offered cornerback Chris Harris Jr. a contract extension before the trading deadline. Harris' former agent -- he recently switched -- told him it was a three-year, $36 million deal, though he was unsure of the guaranteed money, which was likely only for one year. Elway is interested in keeping Harris, Derek Wolfe and Shelby Harris, but said there are no guarantees. "We’re going to go back and evaluate (Chris). We’ll do that with all our players. We have to see how everyone fits in the pie.” Of the three, Wolfe is the most likely to return as of now. But it is a fluid situation. As for Justin Simmons, Elway told him he wants him here. The Broncos would like to get a longterm deal done, but it might make sense for both sides for Simmons to play under the franchise tag next season. Every player the Broncos have tagged has eventually received a longterm deal.
On Von Miller's future:
Elway said he will pick up Miller's contract option, which brings him back at $17.5 million. He was pleased with how Miller finished and didn't mind the frustration he expressed after the last Chiefs game. "Von still has a lot of football in him... and he can still play better than he played," Elway said. "Sure (his candor) shows he's a competitor. The Chiefs are the team we are going to have to beat. I don't have any problems with players getting frustrated. He wasn't wrong in a lot of ways. But things have changed."
On a possible new deal for Phillip Lindsay:
Lindsay told Denver7 he's hopeful a new deal can be worked out. He's outperformed his status as an undrafted free agent. "It would be great for me and my family, but if it doesn't happen, it's not going to change how I go about getting better to help this team." Elway is interested in a new deal. Some projections would give Lindsay a guarantee of a roughly $4.5-$5 million for one year, though there are several potential options. "There were 32 dumb-dumbs that didn’t draft him and I was one of them. He has heart the size of his whole body."
On Ju'Wuan James' left knee issues
The Broncos received 63 snaps from right tackle Ja'Wuan James this season. He said he tore the MCL and meniscus in his left knee, and didn't trust it. I asked Elway if he was on the same page with James moving forward. "He's gotta feel good about it. It's up to him. How he feels. We hope he can come back and be the player we think he can be. We have to trust the player (regarding whether he needs surgery). I am not going to question that."
The most interesting thing from Ellis regarding the ownership dispute."If they (the beneficiaries) all are not going to agree to Brittany (Bowlen) running the team it seems to me that we’re just headed for more battles. At that point, I know Pat would have preferred that the team be sold.” ... Brittany is working for the team now and has "distinguished herself" as the leading candidate to take over though that it is clouded by multiple lawsuits. ... Ellis acknowledged what I reported Sunday. The Broncos are a strong candidate to play the Falcons in London as the visiting team. "I have pestered and begged them (in league office). I put in a personal request to (Falcons owner) Arthur Blank (Falcons owner). I would think it would be good for franchise. It can boost your brand. I am begging for it." The game would likely be in Tottenham.