AFC West: John Elway

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- As he accepted good wishes from some of the NFL’s biggest names Sunday night, Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. took a moment to reflect on the season that was now officially over.

Yes, his first Pro Bowl appearance was a nice parting gift to end of the season, but it was not the game Harris or his seven Broncos teammates in the league's all-star game wanted to be playing in University of Phoenix Stadium, not with Super Bowl XLIX to be played on the same field this Sunday.

“Just to leave the year with a win somehow, it feels pretty good,’’ Harris said following his work in Team Irvin’s 32-28 win over Team Carter. “But we know what we wanted all year, we didn’t get there, so it won’t be everything we wanted. But it still was a big year for me.’’

Harris returned to the Broncos’ starting lineup in the regular-season opener just seven months after ACL surgery. He earned his first Pro Bowl spot, and changed from a player overshadowed by others with bigger reputations to one who is now considered one of the best at what he does.

The Broncos rewarded Harris with a five-year, $42.5 million contract extension in the season’s stretch run as GM John Elway offered that Harris "is everything we want in a Denver Bronco.'' And while the Pro Bowl is an oft-criticized affair for its less-than-average tempo when the game is played, the players who go often speak of the week’s practices being of particular interest.

“It definitely makes me more hungry to get back and try to get in again,’’ Harris. “I wasn’t drafted, a lot of these guys have gotten to meet me, see how I play, see how I practice. Like I said it’s been one of my favorite things is just getting with these guys, sharing ideas. All of the corners, pretty much everybody in the secondary, it was great to meet them. Playing by Joe Haden, Brent Grimes, Vontae (Davis) -- we just hung out all week. It’s been fun. And Joe Haden, getting to know him, that’s one person that I’ll stay in touch with for sure.’’

Like he did much of the season, Harris played all over the defensive formation, covering all manner of receivers either in the slot or on the outside Sunday night.

The Dallas Cowboys' coaching staff, which directed Team Irvin, moved Harris all over the formation, left and right, inside and outside -- “I mean, has anybody else done that? It was fun.’’

In the end Harris said he will now take a little time off, his first since the offseason following the 2012 season. Last year, coming off his surgery, Harris remained in Denver for the entire offseason, rehabbing his knee.

“I’m going to take a month, maybe a little longer off,’’ Harris said. “Last year, it was my knee, I didn’t want to miss a minute, not a day, because I didn’t want anything to keep me from getting back out there. I’ll be back in a little bit, ready to go, get to work. Because we still want to get in that last game and win it.’’
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- He has already accepted his new job, but freshly minted Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Rick Dennison hasn’t actually started his new job.

But within minutes of the final play of Sunday’s Pro Bowl -- Dennison called the plays for Team Carter in his final official duty as part of the Baltimore Ravens coaching staff -- he said he was more than ready to begin the second tenure of his coaching career on the Broncos staff.

Dennison was a Broncos assistant coach beginning with Mike Shanahan’s first season as Broncos head coach in 1995 through the end of Josh McDaniels' first season as head coach in 2009. Within days of Gary Kubiak being hired as head coach last week, Dennison was named his offensive coordinator.

But Dennison had to finish out his duties as Ravens wide receivers coach, a stint that ended in the Pro Bowl when Baltimore's staff replaced Denver's staff after the Broncos and John Fox parted ways Jan. 12, the day after Denver's playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

[+] EnlargeRick Dennison
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsRick Dennison returns to Denver, where his history with the Broncos as a coach and a player stretches nearly 20 years.
“This past year in Baltimore was awesome," Dennison said. “John [Harbaugh] does a great job, Ozzie [Newsome] was great, everybody in the building was great."

Dennison's history with Kubiak is extensive. He was on a Broncos coaching staff with Kubiak for 11 seasons and on Kubiak’s coaching staff in Houston for four seasons. Dennison was on the Ravens staff with Kubiak this season. He was Kubiak’s teammate -- and Broncos executive vice president and general manager John Elway's -- for eight seasons.

So when Kubiak offered Dennison a chance to return to the Broncos, he quickly agreed, with Harbaugh’s blessing.

“It was a chance. It was time to go back," Dennison said. “I’m a Colorado guy. I’ve spent all my summers there even after I left [the Broncos after the 2009 season]. It’s easy to go back to that building, easy to go back to that team and be a part of it."

Kubiak has said he expects to have plenty of the play-calling duties on game day, but Dennison is a valued strategist with a varied background that includes coaching special teams and the offensive line. When the Broncos were at their best running the ball in Shanahan’s tenure, both Shanahan and Kubiak said plenty of that success could be traced back to Dennison’s work.

Dennison said after Sunday’s Pro Bowl he was ready to get to work in his new duties with the Broncos. This past week in Arizona, he had an up-close look at some of the players he will now see in practice each day in the coming season.

Offensive tackle Ryan Clady was on the Team Carter squad the Ravens' staff was coaching, while wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders and running back C.J. Anderson played for Team Irvin. Sanders finished the game with 70 yards receiving and two touchdowns as the Broncos had eight players in the game overall, including five on the two teams' defenses.

“I haven’t looked too much at the roster," Dennison said. “But I was part of drafting Ryan and I spoke to C.J. a little bit as well. Emmanuel showed some of the things he can do. … I know there’s a lot there."

The Broncos led the league in scoring with a NFL single-season record 606 points in 2013 and were second in the league, behind Green Bay, in scoring this season. Quarterback Peyton Manning, however, has not formally announced whether he intends to return for the 2015 season.

“I’ve spent a lot of my career in that building, been there for a lot of years," Dennison said. “I’m excited to see some familiar faces and excited to get started."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In all the words that have been written or spoken about friendship, the simplicity of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “the best we can find in our travels is an honest friend," might be the bottom line.

And in the NFL, people hire their friends all of the time, familiarity being a powerful lure for folks trying to make high-risk decisions into low-risk ones. But those who hire a friend must also be prepared to fire a friend.

Which brings us to John Elway and Gary Kubiak. Elway is the Denver Broncos' executive vice president of football operations/general manager who hired Kubiak as the 15th head coach in the franchise’s history. The two really didn't need an interview to get the lowdown on each other.

[+] EnlargeJohn Elway and Gary Kubiak
The Denver Post/AP ImagesJohn Elway and Gary Kubiak have known each other for over 30 years.
They have been friends for more than three decades, since both were rookie quarterbacks for the Broncos in 1983. They’re former roommates and Kubiak was Elway’s offensive coordinator for four seasons. Elway, many who know him believe, has wanted Kubiak to be the coach since Pat Bowlen and Joe Ellis hired Elway in 2011 to resurrect the Broncos.

If it goes well, it is the kind of homecoming, put-the-band-back-together story Bowlen always endorsed when he ran the day-to-day operations of the team. If it doesn’t work out, well …

“We don't talk about risk," Kubiak said this week. “We understand the business. We understand it's a battle every day and it's stressful. But we have great respect for each other. We know it's going to be tough. But it's going to be fun being tough with somebody with that you know he had so much confidence in, so much trust in, as a football mind. And what John's done here in a brief period of time with this organization has been tremendous for me."

Since the Broncos and John Fox "parted ways" the day after the Broncos’ playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts, Elway has said he and Fox disagreed on how the team would take the next step, from playoff contender to title winner. And while Fox did not address that thought in his news conference in Chicago on Monday, there are those who believe he wanted a little more say on personnel matters, or at least be kept in the loop. Fox also balked at potential coaching staff changes.

Of all the things Elway said following Fox’s departure, the phrase "like-minded," might have been one of the most important. In short, there may be no more like-minded person for Elway when it comes to football than Kubiak.

“Gary’s done it, he’s seen it. He understands, he’s been there; he’s won a world championship with Mike [Shanahan]," said Elway, when asked why Kubiak is the right coach to take the Broncos to the next level. "And so he’s seen it. He’s been with the Baltimore Ravens, who have won several world championships. He’s seen how they do it. ... We talked about comments that this is a place that it’s win a championship or nothing. That’s how it’s always been. Nothing’s changing there. That’s what Pat Bowlen wants. And that’s why it’s great that Gary’s experience here being a Denver Bronco, he understands that."

And there you have it. Kubiak understands that Elway’s goal and the Bowlen family’s goal is to win a Super Bowl. Sure, that’s everybody’s stated goal in the NFL, but to state the goal is one thing, to part ways with a coach who won four consecutive division titles to go with 46 regular-season games in four years is another.

Still, like a lot of things you ask Kubiak about, he is unfazed by that thought. And when you’ve spent as much time with Elway as Kubiak has, he knows it’s just a given with his boss.

“John's the most competitive human being I've ever been around, whether you're playing cards or ping pong, it doesn't matter," Kubiak said. “And that's not going to change. I think I'm very competitive, too. That's probably why we're still standing in this league because if you're not, you're not going to hang out for very long. I think this will be 31 or 32 years for me in the National Football League and I'm sure it's the same, well, it would be the same for John. So, just to get together and battle together every day is something that is very special and something I look forward to."

The jury is out, until games get played and seasons go by, as to whether it works the way Elway and Kubiak want it to -- long-time friends help win Super Bowl trophy for Bowlen -- but Kubiak, more than anyone else the Broncos could have hired, knows exactly what he has signed up for.

As he said: “I want to be part of expectations."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Over 17 games, five months and more than a few bumps, injuries and dilemmas along the way, the Denver Broncos discovered some things about themselves and why they didn't earn a return trip to the Super Bowl.

Today is the fourth installment of a week-long look at those lessons, both good and bad, as the Broncos began with such high hopes in September only to be so cruelly disappointed in January.

And while the team's executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has said he likes the roster, there figures to be more change than usual this offseason.

[+] EnlargeGary Kubiak
John Leyba/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesNew coach Gary Kubiak could be the first of many changes for the Broncos this offseason.
The Broncos are still pretty young overall with 24 players on the season-ending roster who were 25 or younger and 38 players who were 27 or younger. But on the contract side, the Broncos -- with a new coaching staff in place -- will have plenty of decisions to make.

The team has 17 players who are scheduled to be either restricted or unrestricted free agents. And part of the list reads like a who's who of the starting lineup: wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, tight end Julius Thomas, guard Orlando Franklin, tight end Virgil Green, linebacker Nate Irving, center Will Montgomery, defensive tackle Terrance Knighton and safety Rahim Moore.

That's not even the entire list, but those are eight players who started games this past season for the team and it doesn't even include tight end Jacob Tamme, who is slated to an unrestricted free agent as well and played 24.5 percent of the offensive snaps this season.

Toss in a new head coach in Gary Kubiak, the potential for new playbooks on both sides of the ball with two new coordinators, and uncertainty surrounding Peyton Manning, and there is potential for plenty of change.

Still, Elway said: "I like this roster. … We've got a good base of guys for the most part … so I feel great about our football team."

Because of last season's spending binge in free agency -- the Broncos signed four players selected to this year's Pro Bowl in Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Emmanuel Sanders -- and a watchful eye that the Broncos already have on their tightening salary cap situation in 2016, expect them to stay in-house this time around.

Most of their attention and any money spent will be on their own players. If no long-term deal can be worked out with Demaryius Thomas, it is expected the Broncos would use the franchise player tag on him for a one-year deal that would be guaranteed for the average of the top-10 salaries at the position.

Last year the franchise player tag for a wide receiver meant a one-year deal for $12.312 million. That number is expected to rise a bit this time around.

"You hope they can keep things together," Knighton said. "This is a good group … you want it to be together. I believe the grass isn't always greener and I want to stay. But John Elway is building a team and they're going to make decisions they believe are right, the decision on me included."

The offensive line, with two free agents among the starters, figures to get a long look as well. The line struggled to consistently keep pass-rushers off Manning and the running backs faced first contact at or behind the line of scrimmage on about a third of the team's rushing attempts this season.

Elway said this week that Kubiak would have at least some say on personnel matters as the team formulates its offseason plan in the coming weeks.

"We're going to go through all those meetings, we're going to have all those meetings, and I guarantee, Gary and I are going to come out of the room with the right decision for the Denver Broncos," Elway said. "Gary's going to have a great influence on this team and how we shape this team. So yeah, Gary's going to have a huge influence on that. We'll get through it. We haven't had time, it's been a whirlwind. But we'll get into the meetings and look at the things, what he's looking at as far as offensive linemen, defensively, and we'll get into all those meetings with the coaches. So that'll be coming up."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Yes, John Elway was going to always keep Peyton Manning apprised of the Denver Broncos' search for a new head coach.

Yes, Elway is going to give Manning plenty of room to make a decision about whether the quarterback does, or doesn’t, play in 2015.

[+] EnlargeJohn Elway
AP Photo/Jack DempseyJohn Elway has to make decisions on 17 Broncos scheduled to become free agents this offseason.
And yes, the Manning decision is certainly the team’s biggest question at the moment, at least in the public domain. But Elway made it clear Manning is not the only player the team is thinking about right now.

“I’m not talking to Peyton about what his plans are because I don’t think he’s ready to talk about it,’’ Elway said Tuesday as the Broncos formally introduced Gary Kubiak as the team’s new head coach. “ … I will say this: I talked to Peyton Saturday and said we were going down to talk to Gary on Sunday and it’s been a whirlwind since then. I also want to emphasize there’s 52 other guys we’ve got to worry about here. And I think we build this thing as a team. … Sure, we do want Peyton’s input, I do want to understand Peyton’s side of it, what he wants to do, but really there is 52 other guys on this roster, 10 guys on the practice squad and now guys we’ve signed to future contracts. And those guys are really, really important, too. This organization is important.’’

Following the Broncos’ Jan. 11 loss to the Indianapolis Colts in an AFC divisional round game, Manning said he could not say if he planned to return for the 2015 season. It was a departure from his statement Christmas Eve that he did plan on coming back next year “if the Broncos will have me.’’

Manning and the Broncos do face at least one deadline in the decision. Manning’s $19 million salary for the 2015 season is guaranteed if he is on the roster on the last day of the league year, which is March 9. Free agency opens and the new league year begins March 10.

Beyond Manning’s decision, the Broncos also have 17 players scheduled to be free agents -- unrestricted and restricted combined.

“So my job, as I say, sure I want to try to help and do everything I can to help Peyton with his decision. But it’s also very important that we take care of those other guys that are under contract with us that are on this football team because they’re just as important,’’ Elway said.

Kubiak said he, too, would be looking to put a hard sell on Manning, but to let the 14-time Pro Bowl selection make his decision.

“Yes, we have talked. We talked a couple of days ago at length,’’ Kubiak said. “We talked a little bit [Monday] night via text and those type of things. We talked about a lot of stuff. But the bottom line is we’ve basically come to the conclusion that -- I know he’s got some things going on, family things right now, and obviously I’ve got a lot going on here the next couple of days -- we’re going to get together and sit down. The thing I want to do, I want to be the best support system I can be for Peyton.’’
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It was a strange few days for Gary Kubiak.

One moment he had just finished his first season as the Baltimore Ravens' offensive coordinator, offering it was “flattering and humbling" to be considered as a head coach after the end of the Ravens’ season -- a divisional-round loss to the New England Patriots -- and Kubiak said he had “decided to stay with the Ravens."

That was before the Denver Broncos job was open, which came the following day, and Kubiak said it brought a change of heart.

“I had a couple opportunities come up real, real quick," Kubiak said Tuesday just after he was introduced as the new Broncos head coach. “Rhonda [Kubiak’s wife] and I talked about it, you now, what I went through the year before, I thought I was in a good place, I liked what I was doing, I knew I was learning a great deal. And I just kind of said to myself, ‘hey Rhonda I’m going to make this decision, we’re going to stay (with the Ravens). We’re going to go take a vacation, take a break. Obviously there’s been no vacation."

Kubiak played for the Broncos for nine seasons as the backup quarterback to his current boss -- the team's executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway -- and was an assistant coach for the team for 11 more years, including the team’s back-to-back Super Bowl winners to close out the 1997 and 1998 seasons.

Kubiak said when the Broncos job opened after the team "parted ways" with John Fox after Denver's 24-13 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, and the Broncos had expressed interest, that he met with Ravens head coach John Harbaugh and other team officials, including general manager Ozzie Newsome.

“Just a game-changer," Kubiak said. “This place is special to me, I started my career here and hopefully this ia chance -- I think I have a lot left in me -- to hopefully end my career here ... Just a totally different scenario for me and I know the Ravens understood that."

And it’s why nine days after saying he planned to stay with the Ravens as offensive coordinator, Kubiak was officially named the 15th head coach in Broncos’ franchise history.

“Tremendous motivation for me to come here and work for [the Bowlen] family, be a dream come true for them to hold that trophy again," Kubiak said. “[I] hope to get a chance to visit with Pat [Bowlen] here shortly."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos will formally introduce Gary Kubiak as the team’s new coach on Tuesday.

In many ways, it will be an easy move to explain to the team’s faithful. Kubiak is a former Broncos player and assistant coach. He has three Super Bowl rings -- one from when he was an assistant coach with the San Francisco 49ers and two from his time as an assistant with the Broncos.

Kubiak is a good man, honorable in how he conducts himself. He took out a full-page ad in the Houston Chronicle to thank “the players, coaches and staff for their tireless work and commitment’’ and to thank the fans AFTER he had been fired by the Texans in December 2013.

[+] EnlargeBaltimore's Gary Kubiak
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesGary Kubiak's career record as a head coach is 61-64.
His former players swear by him -- a list that includes the likes of Rod Smith and Terrell Davis, and apparently one John Elway. Former tight end Joel Dreessen has said publicly he would “take a bullet’’ for Kubiak, and Jake Plummer said he wept when Kubiak left the Broncos after the 2005 season.

It’s all there with Kubiak: faith, family and football.

But the Broncos themselves have framed the discussion differently from the moment they parted ways with John Fox. He won 46 regular-season games and four division titles in four seasons in Denver, but it wasn't enough. The Broncos want to win the Super Bowl.

Elway essentially shook hands with a good guy in Fox, telling him two playoff exits as the AFC’s top seed -- a Super Bowl blowout last February to go with the double overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens to close out the 2012 season -- to go with their exit as the AFC's No. 2 seed with the Jan. 11 loss to the Indianapolis Colts would not do.

When Elway announced Fox’s departure, he said: “He’s a very, very good man. He’s got a tremendous heart -- even the new one they fixed is still tremendous -- a guy that I will always have a personal relationship with. When we did get up and he left the room, we gave each other a hug and wished each other the best of luck. That relationship will always remain that way.’’

So clearly it isn't about being a good man, it is about playing football at the highest level. The level that wins championships.

Kubiak has led an NFL team before. His record in eight seasons with the Houston Texans was 61-64. They made the playoffs twice in 2011 and '12, winning a game before losing the next in both cases.

The Texans struggled on defense in Kubiak’s tenure, until he hired Wade Phillips as the defensive coordinator. Things also got away from Kubiak at quarterback in his final season. Matt Schaub seemed to to lose confidence after a flurry of interceptions returned for touchdowns, and the losing appeared to take an enormous toll on Kubiak as he tried to make it right.

These are different situations, teams in different places to be sure. When Kubiak took the Texans' job before the 2006 season, they were a two-win team with an atrocious roster.

But his tenure showed how important his defensive staff was to his success. Phillips’ hire snapped the defense in order. Rick Dennison’s hire as offensive coordinator a few years into Kubiak’s tenure also bred success as the team's running game and offensive line play improved. Dennison will be on Kubiak’s staff with the Broncos, but how he fills out the rest of that staff will determine a lot about how things go in the seasons to come.

It is always a question of personnel, coaching or both. The Broncos believe Kubiak is the coach who can take a team Elway thinks has top-quality personnel and keep it playing into February.

Still, if the loss to the Colts showed anything, it’s that assignment discipline matters, schemes matter and players digesting information and playing in the moment matter. The Patriots and the Seahawks, two teams that defeated the Broncos this past season, showed where the get-it-done bar in the league sits right now.

Kubiak’s Texans never played beyond the divisional round and now he has been tasked with taking the Broncos to a championship. He will use what he learned in Houston, where he was expected to win.

But in Denver, he will be expected to win a lot more.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos have opened their search for a new head coach in earnest. And the elephant in the room is that John Fox is no longer the team’s head coach after four consecutive division titles, 46 regular-season wins, and one Super Bowl trip.

So if that’s not what executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway wants, what kind of coach would fit the bill? Well, it will be one who better know the job description.

A guy who understands the key words

[+] EnlargeJohn Elway
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsJohn Elway demands a high level of success from his head coaches, something the new Broncos coach must be able to handle.
Since Fox and the Broncos “parted ways," there has been some surprise by the move from Elway. Perhaps folks just weren’t paying attention.

On the day Elway was first introduced in his current job -- Jan. 5, 2011 -- he said this;

“When you go back to the culture of the Denver Broncos -- and the culture is winning, and the culture is competing for World Championships -- we have been there before and we know we can do it."

He said this at Tuesday's announcement of Fox's departure: “I look for a guy that’s very smart, that’s competitive, that is aching to win world championships like I am."

Moral of the story? If you don’t want to live the Super-Bowl-or-bust life, don’t accept the job.

A guy who can work with Elway. A guy Elway wants to work with.

Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh is really the only guy who lives a life similar to Denver's coach, as his general manager is Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome.

Elway casts a big shadow in this city; he’s a Super Bowl winning quarterback who's led the Broncos to countless comeback wins. He’s seen his Super Bowl dreams shattered more than once, lived life in the fishbowl, and has felt what it took to finally hoist the trophy.

As a result he’s going to have some ideas on the topic. The buzz around the Broncos’ complex is that Elway and Fox were drifting apart on personnel matters a bit, and there were some who believed Fox didn’t think his voice was being heard enough on those matters.

That’s often the tone of the discussion after a football divorce, but either way Elway and new head coach have to get on the same page -- that “like-minded’’ area Elway talked about Tuesday.

A guy who knows expectations await

The Broncos have 10 players in the Pro Bowl. There’s plenty to work with on a roster that has won 38 regular-season games over the last three seasons. Elway and Fox shook hands and parted ways not because of how things went between September and December, but because Elway and team CEO Joe Ellis did not like what the playoff exits looked like.

“I think if there is one thing that you would like to have and you want to feel, at least in the last game, you want to feel like you go out kicking and screaming," Elway said. “When you’re right there and I think two years in a row it didn’t feel like we went out kicking and screaming because of the fact the way we played the last game."

A guy who can embrace some change

The Broncos have 17 free agents. The list includes two of the team’s Pro Bowl selections in wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas.

But it also includes starters such as defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, safety Rahim Moore, wide receiver Wes Welker, guard Orlando Franklin, tight end Jacob Tamme, tight end Virgil Green, and linebacker Nate Irving.

Add in the will-he or won’t-he decision quarterback Peyton Manning will make, and the Broncos will have to show plenty of flexibility as they usher in a new coaching staff to go with plenty of new faces on the roster.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Whoever the Denver Broncos hire as head coach, he could get a good look at some of the team's high-profile members in the Pro Bowl.

Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders became the Broncos’ 10th Pro Bowl selection Thursday, when he was added to game to replace Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones. Sanders, who was part of the team's offseason free-agent haul, finished the season with career-bests in catches (101), receiving yards (1,404) and touchdowns (nine).

Sanders’ catch total and yardage total were both fifth in the league. Sanders, who had not had a 100-yard receiving game in his four years with the Pittsburgh Steelers, had seven for the Broncos this season. Sanders has repeatedly called his signing in Denver as a career move "to wide receiver heaven."

Sanders now joins quarterback Peyton Manning, left tackle Ryan Clady, cornerback Chris Harris Jr., linebacker Von Miller, cornerback Aqib Talib, wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, tight end Julius Thomas, safety T.J. Ward and defensive end DeMarcus Ware as Pro Bowlers.

Sanders, Talib, Ware and Ward were all free-agent signings this past offseason, and only Ware is older than 28.

It is why when executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway described the Broncos' head coaching opening as being so attractive earlier this week.

“I feel real good about our roster," Elway said. “I think contrary to what everybody thinks we’ve got a good roster here. We’ve got a relatively young roster ... So I feel great about our football team."

Of the Broncos’ Pro Bowl selections, most will be back with the team next season. Manning has yet to formally announce if he will be back -- Elway told him to take “five-six weeks" to make the decision -- while Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents.

Elway has said he’d like to work on new deals for both players, but the Broncos figure to use a franchise player tag on Demaryius Thomas if a multi-year deal can’t be worked out.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As several teams line up to interview Adam Gase for their offensive coordinator jobs, the Denver Broncos moved quickly to talk with him about their head coaching job.

[+] EnlargeAdam Gase
AP Photo/Eric BakkeAdam Gase will talk with John Elway on Thursday about the head-coaching job with the Broncos.
Gase, who met briefly with Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway on Wednesday, was set to interview for the job Thursday afternoon and into the evening, if necessary.

Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin will interview with the Broncos on Friday. They have formally requested permission to talk with Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. As of Thursday afternoon, the Broncos were still waiting to hear back from Kubiak, who announced this past weekend -- before the Denver job was open -- that he intended to stay with the Ravens.

For Gase, the Broncos interview comes as several teams had begun to express interest in him as an offensive coordinator.

Three of the four teams Gase interviewed with during the Broncos’ playoff bye week -- the 49ers, Buffalo Bills and Chicago Bears -- have either hired head coaches or are closing in on a candidate. The Bears are nearing a deal with Fox, while the Bills hired Rex Ryan. Gase also interviewed for the Falcons’ head coaching job, which has yet to be filled.

Those in and around the Broncos say Gase has drawn interest in recent days from a wide-range of teams to be their new offensive coordinator, including two (49ers and Falcons) who interviewed him for their head coaching jobs. The St. Louis Rams and Jacksonville Jaguars have also expressed interest.

In the two seasons Gase has called plays for the Broncos, they have averaged 34 points per game, including an NFL single-season record of 606 points in 2013. The Broncos also topped 40 points 10 times in the past two seasons combined and topped 50 three times, including in back-to-back games early in the 2013 season.

What about the inevitable question about how Gase would fare without Peyton Manning as his quarterback? Well, Manning has said Gase would raise the level of any offense. His 55 touchdown passes in 2013 were an NFL record and six more than he had thrown in any other season. Manning has also reached out to other teams, including the Cleveland Browns last season, to vouch for Gase.

"I don't think you need me to sit up here and campaign for him," Manning said. "Last year I talked to a couple teams on the behalf of him that reached out to me. That may happen again, so I'm certainly glad to share my thoughts ... He deserves it, I think teams that he talks to will be impressed.''

Gase is also respected in football circles. He's had stints with Nick Saban at Michigan State and LSU and former Rams coach Mike Martz in the NFL. He was also instrumental in the deconstruction of the Broncos' offense in 2011 to build a read-option look for then-starting quarterback Tim Tebow.

If the Broncos went with Austin as their head coach, he would be far more apt to try to keep Gase on his staff. Kubiak would be more involved in the offense, and many with the team believe he would want to bring Rick Dennison, the Ravens wide receivers coach and Kubiak’s former offensive coordinator with the Houston Texans, with him to Denver if Kubiak were hired.

And as far as the other teams hoping to get a shot at Gase? The Rams have an unsettled quarterback situation and will likely ask Sam Bradford to restructure his contract. He is coming back from ACL surgery. Meanwhile, the Jaguars offer Blake Bortles, who threw 11 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions this past season as a rookie starter for a 3-13 team.

And for the 49ers and Falcons, Gase is known to have thoroughly outlined to those teams’ decision makers how he would help elevate the play of Colin Kaepernick or Matt Ryan.

But first, he gets his shot to talk with the Broncos.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- A rather extreme makeover for a 12-win team continued Wednesday when Denver Broncos players and officials were informed defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio had accepted an offer to be the Oakland Raiders coach.

Del Rio
John Fox and the Broncos "parted ways" on Monday, and Del Rio informed team officials Wednesday afternoon he was moving on, as well, after three seasons. Del Rio, who signed a contract extension before this past season, is the second consecutive Broncos defensive coordinator to take the Raiders' job, following Dennis Allen, who left the Broncos following the 2011 season.

Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase could also poised to leave his position. He has interviewed with four teams, including two sit-downs with the San Francisco 49ers -- who promoted defensive line coach Jim Tomsula to head coach. Gase then met with Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway briefly Wednesday morning. Elway said Tuesday both Gase and Del Rio were "candidates" for the Broncos' coaching vacancy but would not say whether he would interview both.

Broncos players have been solidly behind Del Rio. Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said in the days leading up to Sunday's 23-14 divisional-round loss to the Indianapolis Colts: "he's a genius ... he knows what's coming so we know what's coming."

Knighton, who is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, figures to be on the Raiders' radar now. When Knighton arrived in Denver in 2013, Del Rio said his addition was one of the team's most important offseason moves that year.

Some of the Broncos took to Twitter to show their support, as well:

For the third time in the past three seasons, the Broncos will see one of their coordinators take a head coaching job elsewhere in their division. There was Allen in 2012, and former offensive coordinator Mike McCoy was hired as the San Diego Chargers coach following in 2013.

Del Rio had his first interview with the Raiders on Jan. 4, and multiple sources confirmed Monday that the second interview with Raiders officials, including owner Mark Davis, took place Tuesday. Del Rio then accepted the job and the four-year contract that goes with it Wednesday.

By league rules, since the Broncos' season ended with the loss to the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, Del Rio and Gase could reconnect with the teams that interviewed them during the playoff bye week if those organizations were still interested.

On his initial interview with the Raiders, Del Rio said days before the Colts game that "I think it went well."

Del Rio, a native of a Hayward, California, has family members who have been Raiders season-ticket holders. It was a job he desired, and it didn't escape notice that Davis sought out Del Rio on the field during warm-ups before the Broncos and Raiders played in the regular-season finale Dec. 28.

The Broncos finished No. 3 in total defense this season and led the league in forcing three-and-outs. In 2012, Del Rio's first season in Denver, the Broncos were No. 2 in overall defense, No. 4 in scoring defense and tied for the league lead in sacks.

Denver has won four consecutive AFC West titles, and Del Rio was on Fox's staff for three of those. Before he was hired by Fox -- after a meeting at the Senior Bowl -- Del Rio had been the Jacksonville Jaguars' head coach for nine years.

Del Rio has made no secret that he hoped for a second chance at being a head coach. He had a 68-71 regular-season record with the Jaguars and made the postseason in 2005 and 2007, winning one playoff game. He was fired 11 games into the 2011 season after the Jaguars started 3-8.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- A decision over whether Peyton Manning will, or won't, play quarterback in the 2015 would affect most people who punch the clock day-to-day in the Broncos' suburban Denver complex.

But probably nobody would be more affected than the guy whose locker is next to Manning's -- backup quarterback Brock Osweiler. Since Manning was signed before the 2012 season, Osweiler has been his backup.

A second-round pick in the draft that same year, Osweiler spends more time with Manning than virtually anyone else in the building and Osweiler doesn't know what Manning has planned.

"I have no idea," Osweiler said. "None. I fully expect when Peyton is ready to address it he will. I've been fortunate to be in my situation and will continue to work as hard as I can."

Osweiler has learned at Manning's side, his coaches say he's progressed in an offense that was not built for him, but for a future Hall of Famer who may have the best football recall of any player who has ever lined up behind center.

He's even run the starting offense in practice from time to time. He just hasn't played very much in the last three seasons.

His grand total is 30 pass attempts -- just 10 of those this season -- to go with one touchdown, a 1-yard scoring pass to tight end Virgil Green in this year's regular-season finale against the Oakland Raiders. Overall he has, at times, shown a top-shelf arm to go with quality mobility, but he has lacked a pocket awareness at times when he has played, often holding the ball a little too long.

But the Broncos feel some of that may be his desire to try to make something happen in the small sample size worth of snaps he has gotten to this point, that it's hard to play with patience when you have waited so long to play. Still, Osweiler said after he takes some down time, he won't adjust his offseason preparation according to whatever Manning decides to do.

"Ever since I've been here I've always taken the approach if you're prepared you don't have to get prepared. I've always prepared every single week, training camp, every single spring, like I was going to be the guy playing. I just went about my business and if my number got called I was ready."

Tuesday Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway addressed his confidence in the Broncos' current depth chart at quarterback with Osweiler and Zac Dysert, who was a seventh-round draft pick in 2013.

"We're excited about both of those guys, Zac and Brock," Elway said. "They worked their tail off and have done a heck of a job, so they've made progress, especially Brock has made that progress that you would hope he would make. What's difficult is he hasn't gotten a lot of playing time. When that time comes, you know we'll see where he is and the training that he's gotten up to this point is second to none. (Offensive coordinator) Adam (Gase) and (quarterbacks coach) Greg Knapp have done a great job training Bock and Zac, so we'll see where that is when we get there."

Elway said he told Manning Monday, when the two met in Elway's office, to take "five-six weeks" to make his decision about next season. Elway also added he believed Manning would be back and that he and the Broncos wanted Manning back.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When the Denver Broncos hire a new head coach in the coming weeks, he might or might not know if Peyton Manning plans on returning for the 2015 season.

On Tuesday, John Elway said he’s OK with that.

"There’s no question candidates are going to want to know where Peyton is," the Broncos' executive vice president of football operations and general manager said. "At that point in time, I’m going to say the same thing I’m telling you all right now: We don’t know exactly what he’s going to do. We just have to wait and see, you know, and go from there."

[+] EnlargeJohn Elway
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsBroncos GM John Elway said that Peyton Manning is "still playing as well as he's ever played."
Elway outlined what he felt the timeline would be for Manning to decide whether he would return to the Broncos for a fourth season, his 18th NFL season overall. It was clear, however, that Elway believes Manning will be back and Elway wants Manning back behind center for the Broncos.

Asked if he felt Manning would play for the team in 2015 as part of the Broncos’ next step, Elway simply responded, "I do."

Elway then added he met with Manning on Monday, just hours after the Broncos had lost 24-13 to the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC’s divisional round. In that sitdown, Elway said he told Manning to take his time with the decision -- as many as four to five weeks, which would put the Broncos on the doorstep of a new league year and the start of free agency March 10.

"We sat and talked about the game. I said, ‘The last thing we’re going to talk about at this point in time, having been through what you’re going through now, Peyton, we’re not going to talk about your future,’ because he needs to get away," Elway said. "I knew as a player, the last thing after that last game that you want to do is talk about your future. … I told him, ‘Let’s not even go into the future. Just know how much we want you back, but you need to take the time and get away from this.’ … But the bottom line is we want him back, and it’s going to come down to what Peyton wants to do."

Manning, who dealt with a right thigh injury over the last two-and-a-half regular-season games to go with Sunday’s loss, was 26-of-46 passing for 211 yards and one touchdown against the Colts. The Colts clogged the middle of the field, which essentially dared Manning to beat them deep up the sidelines with throws outside the numbers, and Manning struggled with his accuracy on those throws.

It was a strategy most of the Broncos’ past 10 opponents, from the Nov. 2 loss in New England to the Colts on Sunday, employed much of the time. In those 10 games Manning, threw 18 touchdown passes to go with 12 interceptions.

Also in those past 10 games, including Sunday, the Broncos were 1-4 in games Manning attempted at least 40 passes.

Asked Tuesday if, from a football perspective, he believed Manning still had at least one more season of top-end play left in him, Elway was clear there as well.

"I think he does. I think that we’ve seen what he did this year," Elway said. "Obviously, 10 games into the year, we had a little shift as far as what we did on offense, trying to create more balance. So therefore it was something new for him because he hadn’t had that balance before. So therefore, it was a bit of an adjustment for him, and I think he did a heck of a job adjusting. And so everyone’s trying to tie it to the numbers, but if you think about Peyton Manning and you think about the numbers that he’s put up for his whole career and the numbers he put up in the last six games -- I think we won four or five of them in that stretch -- they just weren’t quite the numbers, but Peyton was still making the right decisions and still playing as well as he’s ever played."

After a season of spotty play in the offensive line -- the Broncos made four lineup changes during the season, including taking an All-Pro selection at guard in Louis Vasquez and moving him to right tackle. The Broncos surrendered a league-low 17 sacks in the regular season, but every season Manning's team surrenders among the fewest sacks because of his ability to diagnose and get rid of the ball.

The Broncos allowed too much pressure up the middle, where Manning needs the most room to stride into the throw -- they surrendered two sacks on three-man rushes in one game early in the season -- and the position figures to get an overhaul in the offseason. Guard Orlando Franklin and center Will Montgomery are unrestricted free agents.

"Having been a quarterback, he knows I’m going to try to take care of him and that offensive line," Elway said. "I think, yeah, we always want to protect the quarterback. I think that change in scenery for those guys might help them also, and some of them, we’ll do what we can do this offseason and try to help them also."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- On Tuesday afternoon, a day after the Broncos and John Fox agreed to part ways, John Elway essentially outlined the rungs of the ladder he expects the Denver Broncos' new coach to climb with his right hand.

As the Broncos' executive vice president of football operations and general manager talked about what the team needed to accomplish, his hand went up the ladder.

Winning the division was the first spot Elway marked, in the air about shoulder level. The playoffs were in the next spot, a few inches higher. The Super Bowl? A couple more inches. But winning the Super Bowl? Elway took his hand and raised it to a level well above his head.

"I do believe there is a huge jump from just getting there and having the ability to win it," said Elway, explaining his gestures. "Can I put my finger on it? No. But I was around it, I saw it. So whether I know it, consciously or subconsciously, I know what it feels like and I know what it takes."

Elway likes a few things about the Broncos at the moment. He likes the team's roster and the prospect of Peyton Manning returning at quarterback.

[+] EnlargeJohn Elway
AP Photo/Paul SancyaAs far as the Super Bowl is concerned, John Elway believes "there is a huge jump from just getting there and having the ability to win it."
"The bottom line is we want him back," Elway said of Manning.

And now he wants "the best guy that's going to fit that seat in the head coach's office," to take the roster and push it to the next level. A level beyond AFC West titles that lead to playoff losses. He wants a coach to guide the Broncos back to the Super Bowl. But this time, he wants to win.

The qualities this coach will have?

"[We want someone who is] very smart, that is competitive, that is aching to win world championships like I am," Elway said.

He added that he'd like the successful candidate to have "championship experience." He was disappointed the team "didn't have more fire" during Sunday's loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

As Elway explained why the Broncos and Fox had decided to "part ways" and assured the gathered media Manning was welcome back, he also presented a job opening for a team that finished 12-4. That team, at the moment, has nine players who were selected to the Pro Bowl. That it's a good gig -- for a coach willing to deal with the pressure of Super Bowl or bust.

Elway said the team had not formally requested permission to speak to any assistant coaches around the league, but that process did begin later Tuesday.

Expect Gary Kubiak, despite his statement on the Baltimore Ravens' website that he intended to stay as offensive coordinator, to be in the mix. Kubiak made his statement before there was an opening in Denver, before his longtime friend, former teammate, a guy he calls "Woody," was looking for a head coach. Philosophically, Kubiak is the exact kind of coach Elway is looking for, especially when it comes to meshing a productive run game into what is, at its roots, a passing offense.

Rick Dennison, the Ravens quarterbacks coach, who is also familiar with that type of offense, will also probably get a look. Dennison, a former Broncos player and longtime assistant for Mike Shanahan, blew away team officials with his interview for head coach following Shanahan's firing after the 2008 season. He might have gotten the job had his ties to Shanahan not been so strong. The Broncos simply wanted to move on, and Josh McDaniels was hired.

Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is also on the list, but the Broncos would have to wait and see if the Seahawks defeat the Packers and go to the Super Bowl.

The Broncos asked permission late Tuesday to interview Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, sources told ESPN.

Elway said Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio would also be on the list. But, both might already be headed out of town. Gase met with San Francisco 49ers officials Tuesday and the team appeared poised to make him an offer. Del Rio also had a second interview with Oakland Raiders executives in the Bay Area Tuesday.

The Broncos are not expected to take a stroll down memory lane and interview Shanahan. The team's current CEO, Joe Ellis, was a part of the team's executive branch when Shanahan was fired in '08.

In all, Elway's news conference made the uniqueness of the Broncos organization clear. The team has had three losing seasons in the past 20 years. Its football operations are run by a Hall of Fame quarterback who knows both the pain of losing Super Bowls and the joy of winning Super Bowls.

Elway, as Fox found out, believes he knows what it takes to make the leap from Super Bowl loser to Super Bowl winner. Now Elway and the Broncos are looking for the head coach who can help him do it.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When John Elway sits in front of the assembled reporters holding their cameras, notepads and personal electronic devices Tuesday, he will explain what happened Monday.

The Broncos executive vice president of football operations and GM will explain, at least in part, how he and coach John Fox came to shake hands and move on after a Monday afternoon meeting.

One word that is almost certain to come up, perhaps several times, will be “mentality." Elway often talks about the “championship mentality" and its place in team building.

It’s obvious that Elway --after what has transpired in the last three postseasons and the money the team spent in free agency -- didn’t believe the Broncos were playing with that mentality in the games that required it the most.

[+] EnlargeBaltimore's Gary Kubiak
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesGary Kubiak, the offensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens, is a longtime friend of Broncos general manager John Elway and a former Broncos quarterback.
Many inside the Broncos’ complex believe if the team had advanced the Super Bowl and handled itself well in the title game, Fox would still be coaching the team. But two divisional round losses at home in the past three years and a 35-point Super Bowl blowout, tipped the scales toward the idea of an improper mentality.

Elway figures to describe the kind of coach he believes will bring the mentality needed to take the Broncos to the next level.

The names are already swirling from people who know Elway and prospective candidates. Gary Kubiak is a former teammate and Elway's longtime friend.

Kubiak, who said Sunday he intended to stay as Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator, would first have to reverse that stance. He would then have to be able to work with Elway, through what would likely be some tense discussions involving personnel and team building.

Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is one of the most coveted candidates in the league. There is a clear indication of his mentality when watching the Seahawks defense. Quinn is on the top of other list's -- the Jets in particular -- and his team has a good chance of playing in the Super Bowl. The Broncos will have to wait to speak to him until after the Seahawks season ends and risk a miss if he was their top guy and they didn’t get him.

Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles has interviewed with the Broncos before, a meeting that included current team CEO Joe Ellis, so the Broncos have already done some homework there.

Some have tossed former coach Mike Shanahan’s name into the what-happens-next pool, but that ship sailed long ago. Ellis was part of the decision, with owner Pat Bowlen, to fire Shanahan following the 2008 season. Perhaps Mike’s son, Kyle, gets a look.

Add in the plan for quarterback Peyton Manning, how he will address the team’s list of 17 free agents (restricted and unrestricted combined) and what happens to the current Broncos assistant coach and Elway figures to open the offseason Tuesday to lots of questions.

And in the end, all of the answers will go back to one thing: the mentality he wants and winning a championship.