Legendary Quarterback John Elway Can’t Figure Out Quarterbacks

John Elway sees a Hall of Fame quarterback every time he looks in the mirror. So you can imagine the frustration of the Denver Broncos’ general manager that he hasn’t been able to spot a new franchise QB since Peyton Manning left town three years ago.

When the Broncos open the 2019 season, Joe Flacco is expected to be the fifth player to get a crack at the position since the 2015 campaign that culminated in a Super Bowl victory. Flacco’s signing came as a shock to Case Keenum, the team’s starting quarterback last year. But it should hardly have been a surprise given that, in Elway’s eight years in charge of the team’s roster, he has already cycled through seven different starting QBs.1 Flacco hardly seems a long-term answer entering his age-34 season — or an answer at all given that he’s 39th out of 42 qualifying starters in yards per pass attempt over the past three seasons, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group.

The Broncos are 29th out of the 32 teams in Total Quarterback Rating2 since the start of the 2016 season. And the teams behind them — the Jets, Cardinals and Browns — drafted quarterbacks in 2018 with top-10 picks.

Denver is throwing nowhere fast

NFL teams ranked by Total Quarterback Rating, 2016-2018

Rank Team Passer Rating Total QB Rating
32 Cleveland Browns 75.9 39.0
31 Arizona Cardinals 76.9 41.7
30 New York Jets 75.3 42.7
29 Denver Broncos 79.7 43.0
28 Miami Dolphins 88.2 43.9
27 Jacksonville Jaguars 80.9 47.3
26 Chicago Bears 85.5 47.5
25 New York Giants 86.1 48.0
24 St. Louis/L.A. Rams 89.6 49.0
23 San Francisco 49ers 83.1 49.3
22 Cincinnati Bengals 88.4 49.7
21 Carolina Panthers 82.7 50.0
20 Baltimore Ravens 82.7 50.2
19 Oakland Raiders 91.5 51.1
18 Buffalo Bills 76.9 51.2
17 Tennessee Titans 86.8 55.1
16 Washington Redskins 90.3 56.2
15 Houston Texans 85.6 57.7
14 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 90.6 60.2
13 Indianapolis Colts 91.7 60.5
12 Philadelphia Eagles 92.4 60.9
11 Seattle Seahawks 98.6 61.4
10 Detroit Lions 93.4 61.6
9 Minnesota Vikings 98.8 62.2
8 Green Bay Packers 93.0 62.3
7 San Diego/L.A. Chargers 95.5 62.5
6 Pittsburgh Steelers 94.6 65.4
5 Dallas Cowboys 95.3 67.6
4 Kansas City Chiefs 102.8 69.3
3 New Orleans Saints 105.9 69.7
2 Atlanta Falcons 105.9 71.7
1 New England Patriots 103.2 72.5

Source: Espn Stats & Information Group

It’s difficult to make the case that Flacco is any more likely to reverse the team’s fortunes at quarterback than Keenum was. So the Broncos’ search for a quarterback probably isn’t over. Elway admitted after the season that the team needed to find a long-term solution. But they’re not the only team in the NFL with that problem.

Washington, Miami and Jacksonville are reportedly looking for new quarterbacks, probably vying with Denver to add one via the draft. And the Giants are widely expected to draft a quarterback after general manager Dave Gettleman refused to commit to Eli Manning as the team’s 2019 starter.

Usually, endless quarterback searches correlate with losing. The best example since Elway joined the Broncos’ front office in 2011 is the Browns, who have won just 24.6 percent of their contests while seeing 10 quarterbacks start at least five games. But Denver has managed to win 62.6 percent of its games in that time — the highest winning percentage of any team with at least five different quarterbacks who started at least five games.

Most of Denver’s success in this time frame came with Manning under center. He delivered consistency and success (45-12 regular-season record) to a franchise that hasn’t seen the same quarterback start five seasons in a row since Elway did it himself. So a more impressive showing may belong to the Houston Texans, who somehow posted a 51.2 winning percentage despite starting eight different quarterbacks. The Texans finally seem to have found their long-term answer: Deshaun Watson, for whom they traded up from the 25th slot in the 2017 draft. The Broncos had a higher selection to trade that year (20th) but held it to select tackle Garett Bolles.

One of Elway’s problems is that even without Manning, the Broncos have not been bad enough to be in position to draft a top quarterback. This year, they’re slated to pick 10th — behind both the Giants and Jaguars. But with a 20-28 record over the past three seasons, they’re not overcoming bad QB play, either.

If Flacco does take over as signal-caller, this would be the second year in a row that the Broncos will have looked to another team for its starting QB. That’s an unconventional path to finding a signal caller given that last year, with Keenum, Denver was one of just four teams3 to have a passing leader by attempts who had ever played with another club.

Elway has tried drafting quarterbacks, too, selecting presumed Manning replacement Brock Osweiler in the second round of the 2012 draft, Trevor Siemian in the seventh round in 2015 and 26th-overall selection Paxton Lynch — Elway’s one first-round quarterback pick — a year later. Despite the opportunity to learn tips and tricks from Elway, who mastered the position at a Hall of Fame level, none of those players is currently on Denver’s roster.

Elway had a chance last year to spend a premium pick on a quarterback but passed on Josh Allen and Josh Rosen. That was after being beaten to the punch by the Jets for the quarterback he was rumored to prefer among all others in 2018, Sam Darnold.4

When he took the job, Elway expected that a consensus franchise quarterback would have to be acquired with a top-five-overall pick. He also believed that one could be developed with the right supporting cast, including the coaching staff. But he did not sound like someone who knew what to look for.

“You look for those traits that you see in each quarterback that you believe can translate into a franchise guy,” Elway told the Denver Post in 2011. “There’s the stuff you can see on film, but there’s so much more that you can’t see on film.”

Flacco has a reputation for being big-armed like Elway, who was famed for imprinting the “Elway Cross” into the chests of his receivers with the velocity of his perfect spirals. But that element to Flacco’s game has faded in recent years: Since 2016, he ranks 37th out of 41 quarterbacks in Raw QBR on passes 20-plus yards from the line of scrimmage.

Yet Elway seems content to bet on Flacco’s reversing the team’s fortunes at least in the short term. Does Elway see something in Flacco that few others can, given how widely the transaction has been panned? Or is it possible that one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history just can’t judge or develop quarterbacks?

Cognitive scientist Sian Beilock, the president of Barnard College, wrote in Psychology Today that there’s little chance that former athletes can remember what made them great. In fact, those athletes probably couldn’t have communicated it even when they were playing. “When your performance flows largely outside of your conscious awareness, your memories of what you’ve done are just not that good,” Beilock wrote. “This makes it hard to teach what you know to someone else. … As you get better and better at what you do, your ability to communicate your understanding or to help others learn that skill often gets worse and worse.”

The same presumably holds true for knowing what to look for in a player at the position you played. So it just may be that the worst person to pick the new Elway for the Broncos is Elway himself.

Neil Paine contributed research.