ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Whenever John Elway talks about a deal, a contract, a player or most anything that crosses his desk for the Denver Broncos, two words almost always sum up his feelings about doing, or not doing, any of it.
Most every time Elway will end an answer that he wants to do what “makes sense.”
For the second time in his tenure as the Broncos’ top football executive, Elway has now decided it makes sense to try to solve a quarterback dilemma by securing a former Super Bowl MVP with some health questions in tow.
In 2012 Elway signed Peyton Manning, whose playing future was decidedly uncertain at the time after four neck surgeries. The rest is forever part of Broncos lore with four consecutive division titles in Manning’s four seasons, two Super Bowl trips and a Super Bowl 50 win in Manning’s final game.
And now, after three years of wandering the quarterback wilderness, three playoff misses and back-to-back seasons of double-digit losses, Elway has a trade in place for Joe Flacco. The Broncos are expected, when all is officially said and done, to send a mid-round pick to the Ravens (expected to be one of their two fourth-round picks) for the Super Bowl XLVII MVP.
But now comes four weeks worth of public dissection and no real public comment from Elway, coach Vic Fangio or anyone else in the organization. The trade cannot become official until March 13th so, by league rules, the Broncos cannot publicly talk about the move until then.
And there are plenty of questions still to answer.
Start with what happens to Case Keenum? A year ago Elway signed Keenum to a two-year, $36 million deal and said Keenum had a better year in 2018 than Kirk Cousins, who the Broncos had also looked at in free agency. Keenum might not have played as the Broncos’ had hoped, but he also played behind an offensive line that saw three players that started games end up on injured reserve, saw Demaryius Thomas traded in November and Emmanuel Sanders suffer a season-ending torn Achilles in December.
Keenum, who has consistently talked of his hope of being the Broncos’ starter long-term, carries a salary cap charge of $21 million if he’s on the roster for the coming season and actually would have a bigger cap charge than Flacco’s $18.5 million.
Team sources said Elway spoke with Keenum Wednesday morning about what has transpired this week, just after the Broncos and Ravens narrowed the terms on a Flacco trade. And in the coming weeks and months the Broncos could try to trade Keenum, release him or, yes, keep him.
This is a team that has used four different starting quarterbacks over the last two seasons, has missed the playoffs for the last three seasons and still has no prospect at the position on the roster that it drafted. And Flacco has had both back and hip troubles in recent seasons, so keeping Keenum is not off the table just yet.
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The Broncos must pay Keenum $7 million of his $18 million base salary whether he’s on the roster or not. Also, the salary cap savings if Keenum is released ($11 million) and the “dead money” hit — salary cap charge for a player no longer on the roster — of $10 million are roughly the same.
The Broncos also have the No. 10 pick of the draft, with picks in the upper third of the round in the second and third rounds as well. So, quarterback should, and will, get a long look from the team in the build-up to April.
In short, Flacco’s arrival, just like Keenum’s a year ago, is not a long-term solution for the Broncos. Flacco turned 34 last month, lost his starting job after an injury this past season and despite Elway’s continued resistance to saying he is rebuilding, the Broncos eventually have to have a plan that goes beyond the upcoming season at their most important position.
“We always talk about rebuilding, but if I say we’re ‘rebuilding,’ that sounds like an excuse,” Elway said last month. “That’s why I don’t like to use that word because it sounds like an excuse. Our standards are still the same. We’re still going to come in, we’re going to go into this offseason and do the best we can this offseason to try to get better football players and try to get to where next year we can go into training camp and we’re ready to compete for a playoff spot … To me, a rebuild sounds like an excuse and I’m not going to make any excuses.”
Elway is always in what he calls win “from now on” mode, Flacco’s arrival will be just more proof of that. And while it might be the fix the Broncos want in 2019, quarterback still remains their biggest question mark beyond that.