ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- John Elway has arrived at a critical juncture as top football executive for the Denver Broncos.
When Elway took the job in 2011, he had somebody else's mess to clean up. The Broncos were coming off a 4-12 finish, head coach Josh McDaniels' firing and a spygate scandal. There was general pessimism regarding the direction of the franchise.
Enter Elway, who hired John Fox, a been-around-the-block coach with a defensive background; signed future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning in 2012; and filled his draft classes with enough productive picks to win five consecutive AFC West titles. The Broncos reached two Super Bowls and won the franchise's third Lombardi trophy.
Now flip the calendar to 2019. Elway again has hired an experienced coach with a defensive background, 60-year-old Vic Fangio. He's traded for a former Super Bowl MVP in quarterback Joe Flacco. But the Broncos are in a historical funk -- with back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since the early 1970s and the first back-to-back seasons with double-digit losses since the 1960s -- and it all happened with Elway in charge.
Elway was asked earlier this offseason what a successful turnaround would look like in the short term.
"Win. That's our job, right?" Elway said. "You can look at all of the different things that happened last year and you can look at the numbers of wins we've had the last two and say, 'All right, we want to win one more or two more that [were close losses].' But the bottom line is we want to get this thing turned around, get it back on track, get out there, play disciplined football and play like we're capable of playing."
The decision to hire Fangio in the wake of coach Vance Joseph's firing shows Elway believes, as he did when he hired Fox in 2011, the Broncos need a steadying influence. While Fangio has never been a head coach at any level, he has more than three decades' worth of NFL experience, including more than 20 years as a defensive coordinator. Fangio is lauded for his ability to adjust what he does to succeed over multiple decades as well as pushing players to achieve their best.
And as they did in 2011, when they owned the No. 2 pick, the Broncos hold a premium draft pick -- they are slated to select 10th in April -- and are searching for long-term answers at quarterback. They played the 2011 season with a combination of Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow before they signed Manning.
This time around, they again opened an offseason with questions at quarterback with Case Keenum under contract for only the upcoming season. The Broncos then agreed to a framework of a trade with the Baltimore Ravens that will bring the 34-year-old Flacco to Denver, a move that helps the Broncos in 2019, but still leaves the long-term future at quarterback largely undecided given the Broncos do not have a quarterback they drafted on their roster.
"It's hard to find those guys," Elway said earlier this offseason. "That's why you look at it and do the best you can. I looked at it with the decision to go with Case last year. He had a great year with Minnesota. There's a combination of everything when it comes down to that quarterback position. It comes down to giving also the best opportunity to be successful. We just have to continue to try to hunt and find the right combination on the offensive side."
Step back and look at all that has happened in the past four seasons, and there are three major events that derailed the Broncos:
Manning's retirement following an injury-marred 2015 season that ended with a Super Bowl 50 win.
Gary Kubiak's health issues cut short what Elway had planned to be a long and fruitful career as Broncos coach. Kubiak was 21-11 with a title win in two seasons before he stepped away after the 2016 season.
The 2016 and 2017 drafts caused a massive gap in the depth chart that the Broncos haven't been able to fill. The Broncos largely went for athletic potential over proven résumés in those two drafts and have not been rewarded for their efforts.
They traded up to select quarterback Paxton Lynch in the first round in 2016 and he didn't pan out. A three-year effort to construct a scenario in which Lynch could win the starting job ended with Lynch going 0-for-3 in three training camps and being released last summer when he wasn't going to even be the No. 2 quarterback.
Four of the eight picks from the 2017 class are no longer with the team. Just one -- left tackle Garett Bolles -- is a starter. Bolles is among the most penalized linemen in the league and has been inconsistent in his first two seasons.
Earlier this year, Elway said: "As I said, I'm responsible too. We've got to take a look at ourselves, see what we're doing on the personnel side and try to get better there. We've got to look at it all."
Last year's draft class was a return to the team's model earlier in Elway's tenure. The Broncos emphasized taking potential team captains and proven, multiyear starters and had one of the league's best rookie classes.
All told, Elway, Fangio and the franchise are left trying to get back to the Broncos' legacy of success. Just like when Elway sat down at his desk for the first time nine seasons ago.