When it's time to ask the best to do less

March, 17, 2014
Mar 17
10:00
AM ET
Peyton ManningAP Photo/Paul SancyaDenver may have a Hall of Fame quarterback in Peyton Manning, but until the Broncos can surround him with quality players and balance their roster, they might never win the big game.

There is a longtime former NFL general manager -- one who built playoff teams, mined quality draft picks and sifted through the available free agents each and every year -- who has simply called it “the trap."

And it is a trap league executives happily wait to jump into, because to be in position for it, you are already in the smallest, most exclusive of clubs. It’s the one where you finally, gratefully, have a franchise quarterback behind center.

You are on the short list of Super Bowl hopefuls because of it, and people say your championship “window" mirrors the length of the quarterback’s career. So, what may have been a fairly balanced team full of potential and anticipation begins to tilt. It tilts to take care of the rare find at the game’s most important position, it tilts to surround the passer with receivers, blockers and running backs.

It tilts to throw more, to put more in the hands of the franchise quarterback, to rely on him more for any and all things.

When games are won, it all looks fine. Then the quarterback gets hurt, or the offense has a bad day at the wrong time, or everybody wakes up one day and the “team" is an aging franchise quarterback who doesn’t have enough around him to win the biggest games.

And at that point, the trap has sprung. Whether it’s 10, 11 or 12 wins a year, maybe even 13 or 14 a time or two, the regular-season baubles don't translate into many, or any, wins in the season’s final game.

I know plenty of personnel people around the league who say, repeatedly, to look at the quality of defensive personnel the New England Patriots had early in Tom Brady’s tenure when the team won three Super Bowls. Brady has been better, sometimes far better, than he was in those championship years, but the team has not.

The Denver Broncos watched what was perhaps the greatest season on offense in league history end in an embarrassing sleepwalk through Super Bowl XLVIII. It was a remember-when season that deserved its exclamation point. It will now wear the “regular season" asterisk on any list of memories because the Broncos didn’t have an answer for The Day the Offense Couldn’t Score.

The two AFC superpowers, Denver and New England, have now gone back and forth in free agency -- chasing many of the same players, answering each other’s signings -- all in a race to mine what they can for the remainder of their future Hall of Fame quarterbacks' careers.

The trouble is, many general managers suggest, that the franchise quarterback, the real-deal franchise quarterback -- not the coddled passer who thinks he’s one -- takes care and feeding. He likes to be at the center of things, deserves to be at the center of things.

They are also such rare finds, players teams often wait decades for, that it can be difficult not to simply shove all of the franchise’s fortunes on to their plate and hope for the best.

And while the desire for the uber passer is forever, it is worth noting there were just three teams balanced enough in personnel and/or approach to be ranked in the league’s top 10 in yards allowed per game on defense, points allowed per game on defense and points scored overall.

They were the Cincinnati Bengals, the New Orleans Saints and, yes, the Seattle Seahawks.

Those three teams were a combined 35-13, and the Seahawks are champions.

Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has taken plenty of post-playoff-loss roasting since season’s end, and there are questions about whether he’s the right guy behind center. And the Saints have wrestled with their own version of salary-cap woes with quarterback Drew Brees set to enter his 14th NFL year with three do-everything 5,000-yard passing seasons on his résumé since the Saints’ Super Bowl win to close out the 2009 season.

In the past month, the Saints have angered their all-everything tight end Jimmy Graham by slapping the franchise tag on him, cut Will Smith, Roman Harper, Jabari Greer and Lance Moore and traded Darren Sproles.

For their part, the Seahawks believe they have a franchise player at quarterback in Russell Wilson. Head coach Pete Carroll has said it, even as his well-rounded, defensively gifted team physically overpowered people on the way to the Lombardi Trophy. Their challenge now will be to watch Wilson grow in whatever team they put around him, even as they decide how much to ask him to do.

The franchise quarterback always wants the ball, but that doesn’t mean he should always get it. He should get it a lot -- most of the time, even -- but regardless of whether he likes it, not always.

That is why it is intriguing to watch a former franchise quarterback in John Elway attack free agency as an executive with his own almost 40-something future Hall of Famer behind center in Peyton Manning. The Broncos have already said they want to run the ball better next season and are already working through plans to make that happen.

And when Elway opened Pat Bowlen’s checkbook last week, the big numbers went defense, defense and defense to T.J. Ward, Aqib Talib and DeMarcus Ware.

Elway has repeatedly talked of the draft being the linchpin of a team, that a franchise's only real shot at long-term success is to bring in younger, cheaper players to replace those who leave because no team can keep, and pay, everybody it wants to.

But peel away the layers, and the Broncos-are-all-in conversations near and far are misplaced. In reality, it all has the look of an executive who understands he didn’t win it all as a player until the team he was with simply didn’t ask him to do everything.

Jeff Legwold

ESPN Denver Broncos reporter

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