ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — You’re next Joe Flacco.
You’re the next quarterback tossed into the grinder. The grinder of history, of decades worth of success, of a loyal, passionate following and a football decision-maker who happens to be a Hall of Fame quarterback.
Don’t think so? Consider Peyton Manning threw 55 and 39 touchdown passes in the two seasons Adam Gase was the Broncos’ offensive coordinator and there were multiple occasions Gase’s emotions would boil over defending what Manning was doing at quarterback for teams that went 13-3 and 12-4.
Since Manning retired after the 2015 season, the Broncos have churned through Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler, Paxton Lynch and Case Keenum at quarterback. Whether it has been an ill-fitting offense, shaky offensive line play or quarterbacks not being able to consistently do the job they were asked to do, job security and touchdown drives have been far too difficult to come by.
After four attempts to have a younger, less experienced quarterback learn on the job only to see them struggle, Elway has gone to the other end of the spectrum with Flacco. Flacco is entering his 12th season and has started 172 regular-season and playoff games combined.
“The most important thing is to get everybody to buy in and believe that you’re the guy,” Flacco said.
When Elway signed a 36-year-old Manning in 2012, he said, “I like to sign Hall of Famers with chips on their shoulders,” and Elway has made a variation of that thought part of the team’s plans in free agency since.
“I do like guys with chips on their shoulders,” said Elway, who believes Flacco has one of those chips as well after the Ravens benched him during last season to play rookie Lamar Jackson. “Guys who’ve been through it, had success, want to be successful with the Denver Broncos. I want those guys with those chips.”
Beyond the struggles on offense, which have been a big part of 9-7, 5-11 and 6-10 finishes over the past three seasons, the team’s decision-makers, including Elway, found themselves with an odd struggle.
They didn’t have “The Guy” at quarterback to avoid a preseason competition in either 2016 or 2017, when Siemian won the job. So, while the Broncos, and Elway, consistently wanted a quarterback to step forward, be vocal and take charge, the quarterbacks simply didn’t know who the starter was, so it was difficult for any of them to act like starter.
And last season, Keenum had never been the unquestioned starter in the NFL before the Broncos had made him one. And while he consistently showed toughness and grit, at times he appeared uncomfortable with the weight of the job, while dealing with a rash of injuries to his offensive line and receivers.
So, enter Flacco with a career full of tight games, seven road playoff wins and more than a decade’s worth of work as a starter. And on Friday, Flacco said things in a way the Broncos have longed to hear.
“My first priority … I’m going to show everybody in this organization, and more importantly the players on my team, that I can play, that I can play quarterback,” Flacco said. “That I can lead this team with the talents and skills that I have.”
Now the words won’t matter much if by Thanksgiving the Broncos again appear disjointed on offense and can’t stress defenses to enough parts of the field or win enough games, but the Broncos do believe Flacco fits the part of the job description for their franchise that most quarterbacks don’t understand until they play for the team.
Jake Plummer, who signed with the Broncos in 2003 after six years with the Arizona Cardinals, understood.
“You get here and you realize, it isn’t just some other team,” Plummer said. “They’ve won, Elway’s Elway, the fans have been crazy for the team from one generation to the next, they fill all the seats and every year [owner] Pat [Bowlen] expected you to win the Super Bowl. … Not every place is like that, and if you’re not ready for that as a quarterback, it’s going to be a hard job that spits you out.”
Flacco says he knows, that he understands and that a decade’s worth of white-knuckle games in the AFC North have prepared him for what awaits. It has to, for the Broncos’ sake, especially given there are a few fans who have just now seen the team have back-to-back seasons of double-digit losses for the first time in their lives.
“I think we played, I played in a lot of tight games in Baltimore,” Flacco said. “We relied on our defense a lot, it’s just always been kind of the culture around there and what people see us as, but we played a lot of hard-fought games because of that. I think when that happens you’re not going to have games that look pretty, but you’re going to be tested a lot, you’re going to be put through the ringer a lot.
“… And when it comes to playoff games, that’s what they are, they’re all ugly and they’re tough. You’re throwing out of a little pocket, you’re not back there unmolested for 10 seconds … I think that’s a lot, what a lot of my career was in Baltimore, a lot of tight games that we won by close margins. When you get used to playing those conditions … you just prepare yourself for being in the moment.”
A moment that has him with a new team, a new coach and an entirely new set of expectations.