Why haven’t the Broncos re-signed John Elway yet? It’s complicated.

Michel CooperLast Update : Thursday 13 July 2017 - 10:17 PM
Why haven’t the Broncos re-signed John Elway yet? It’s complicated.

Thirty-four years ago when John Elway was prepared to sign his first NFL contract, he didn’t have any idea which town he would call home.

He just knew it wouldn’t be Baltimore.

Now, nearly two decades after hanging up his cleats and seven years into his tenure as a Broncos executive, Elway is in the middle of another contract discussion. And this time, he’s said he’s quite certain of where he’ll be.

“I look forward to being here with the Broncos for a long time,” he said in May, adding that he doesn’t have “any doubt” a new contract will be signed before the season begins.

Given Elway’s stature with the franchise and the state of Colorado, and given his unmatched track record while in the front office, the question is not so much about whether a deal will get done, but how and when.

“I thought it would be done because normally you don’t have a very good executive potentially being a lame duck,” former sports agent Joel Corry said. “The season doesn’t start until September, so there’s still time, but usually you get those things ironed out before this time, before the draft.”

Broncos president and CEO Joe Ellis said in January that the team had conversations with Elway’s representatives in October and that talks would continue. “I’m optimistic we’ll get something done,” Ellis said then.

In fact the team had initiated contract talks as early as midway through last season with the hope of getting a deal done well before Elway entered the final stretch of his current contract.

As talks drag on — and the sides have maintained dialogue recently — the general assumption is there’s discord or tension, but a team source said that’s not the case. Elway, as he’s shown with nearly every major player deal that has gone to the deadline, operates on his own time. Perhaps his own negotiations are no different.

But if there’s one given it’s this: The Hall of Famer will be paid handsomely in a manner that reflects his value to the team on and off the field.

“It’s just the other issues that make it more complicated,” Corry said.

“A unique position”

John Elway is the Broncos and has been since 1983, really, and as he enters Year 35 with the franchise, his value continues to soar. No executive, it could be argued, means more to a franchise than Elway means to the Broncos.

“Which puts Elway in a unique position because when you think Denver Broncos, he’s synonymous with the team,” Corry said. “He’s got more leverage than any GM has had in quite a long time, because what were the Broncos like before he got there? It’s kind of hard to argue with the on-field success.”

Since Elway took over football operations in 2011, the Broncos rank second in total wins (73), have five playoff berths, five division titles, two Super Bowl appearances and, of course, that Super Bowl 50 victory. He built the most prolific offense in NFL history in 2013, and then constructed the top defense in 2015 that sits among the league’s finest units in history.

To pad his résumé is his proven talent evaluation. In his six years as an executive, Elway is the only general manager to have found Pro Bowlers in the draft, in street free agency, in unrestricted free agency and in college free agency.

In the NBA, he would be the $201 million free agent, unquestionably warranting the “Super Max” deal.

If only NFL executive deals were that simple.

When Seahawks general manager John Schneider re-upped last year, his annual salary was reported to “approach” the $3.75 million Baltimore’s Ozzie Newsome receives as the supposedly highest-paid GM.

“(Elway) may be a unique situation because of the ownership challenges,” Corry said. “One of the holdups might be him angling for some sort of ownership or a piece of the team.”

Shortly before Pat Bowlen announced he would step down from his day-to-day duties as owner in 2014, Elway signed a three-year extension and added general manager to his title of vice president of football operations, giving him complete autonomy over the football side and the roster construction.

Bowlen is still the owner of the team, but the Broncos have been placed in a family trust operated by three trustees: Ellis, team counsel Rich Slivka and Denver attorney Mary Kelly. The trust is intended to serve as the vehicle to hand controlling ownership to his seven children. Each child will have equal stake as beneficiaries of the trust, but the trustees are tasked with appointing the ownership representative among the seven kids.

Ellis has said emphatically that Bowlen’s succession plan remains the only plan and that re-signing Elway remains a priority.

“I’d like John to stick around,” Ellis reiterated at the NFL owners meetings in March. “I think I’m in the majority.”

But consider the trustees also have the authority to sell the team in full and in part. Ellis, as president and CEO, has the power to extend Elway’s contract. And Ellis and the other two trustees have the authority to push to give him a piece of the team — should that even be something they and Elway are considering.

It’s unclear whether Elway is asking for a piece. But as with any ownership transaction, league approval and compliance with policies would be required, raising plenty of legal questions with the Bowlens as well as NFL questions about precedent.

The ripple effect could be tremendous, which is why it does not appear to be a realistic scenario.

Setting the record straight

Shortly before Super Bowl 50, ESPN reported that Elway turned down minority stake in the Broncos when Bowlen offered it to him nearly 20 years ago, spurning what would be now worth about $480 million, based on Forbes’ latest team valuations. But the offer was never exercised by Bowlen amid a court battle with former owner Edgar Kaiser.

In speaking to The Denver Post last August, Elway made it clear that turning down any stake in the team was not by choice.

“It wasn’t because I didn’t want it to,” he said. “It’s just that there were some circumstances there that I can’t go into that caused it not to work out, which I was obviously very disappointed with.”

If Elway wanted a piece then, perhaps he still does. But in 2014, when Bowlen stepped down from his day-to-day duties with the team, Elway was asked just that.

“Pat Bowlen still owns the Broncos,” he said then. “We have total respect for that. They’ve hired me to run the football operations and I’m thrilled to do that. I work for Pat still — as well as the Bowlen family — and I’m going to continue to do that.”

Perhaps something different is being considered, such as a unique compensation structure. He, as arguably the most coveted GM in the NFL, is the only one with the leverage to get it.

Elway’s situation is complicated. The Broncos’ situation is complicated. But both insist on only one possible outcome that could still be met before the Broncos return to the field July 27.

“This will always be my home,” Elway said. “(I’m) not going anywhere. As a kid, I moved around quite a bit. But, Colorado and Denver will always be my home.”

John Elway Joe Ellis

Joe Amon, The Denver Post

Elway stands with Broncos president and CEO Joe Ellis at Super Bowl 50. Ellis said in January and again in March that he was optimistic of re-signing Elway before the season begins. Source: denverpost

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Michel Cooper