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Biggest downside to Flacco trade would be if Broncos step back from drafting (ASAP) and nurturing a long-term answer at QB

February 13, 2019


Terry Frei 


A 2013 meeting of veteran QBs: Ravens’ Joe Flacco and Broncos Peyton Manning chat after Denver’s 19-13 win in Denver. Manning did NOT say: “Hey, Joe, you’d look good in orange.” (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

John Elway indeed shook some trees.

And Joe Flacco fell out.

Acquiring the 34-year-old quarterback from the Ravens — officially on March 13, when the league calendar turns to 2019 — won’t buy the Broncos time. It really doesn’t buy them anything. Flacco clearly has been on the decline since getting a huge contract that temporarily made him the highest paid player in league history following the Ravens’ Super Bowl victory in early 2013. But the Broncos are taking him on, believing he’s a major upgrade from Case Keenum.

Here’s the biggest problem with the trade: It can be counterproductive if Elway and new Broncos coach Vic Fangio are using Flacco as part of a Fantasyland scenario, causing them to buy into the ridiculous narrative that the Broncos are only a player here and a player there away from becoming a playoff team again — or more.

Since ESPN’s Adam Schefter broke the news of the trade Wednesday and an early version of this column was posted online, I’ve tried to talk myself into the contrarian, against-the-grain view that this would be a great story — and that’s what I root for, great stories — if Flacco could be Peyton Manning, Part II here. Or even Craig Morton, Part II. (Morton was 34 when the Broncos traded for him before the Kismet ’77 season.) And, more important, I tried to talk myself into the view that there’s a significant chance of that happening.

In the wake of the widespread virulent criticism of the trade, Elway could gloat if Flacco validates his faith. At Indianapolis, Manning’s injury situation was so complicating, his future so uncertain that Elway isn’t given enough credit there, either, for recruiting Manning to Denver and reaping the benefits.

Yet as hard as I’ve tried to sell myself on that as a possibility … it isn’t.

The question is whether in a new environment, Flacco can flash back effectively enough to be a productive Broncos starter until this franchise finally gets around to not just drafting a young quarterback, but having him become a star — whether that’s the first time he walks on the field, or grows and is nurtured into the role. Most important, this shouldn’t diminish the degree of the Broncos’ passion to draft — ASAP, even this year — and groom that young quarterback.

One thing we know: Elway and Fangio decided that Keenum was … well, Case Keenum.

At his introductory news conference in Denver on Jan. 9, Fangio, said that as the Chicago Bears’ defensive coordinator, he had seen Keenum as a productive NFL quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings in 2017. And Fangio essentially added that he hoped to be able to witness it happening again in 2019, this time with the Broncos.

That won’t happen.

After this, it’s difficult to imagine the Broncos keeping Keenum around for the second year of his two-year, $36-million deal. If cut, Keenum will be owed $7 million in guaranteed money and “cost” $10 million in dead money against the cap. That’s wince-inducing in the sense that he will have collected $25 million from the Broncos and played only one season. But even in the salary-cap world of the NFL, that’s not paralyzing.

Flacco, meanwhile, has $63 million remaining on his latest deal, over three seasons, but none of it is guaranteed.

What’s especially curious about that is that within a few days of Fangio telling the Colorado Springs Gazette’s Woody Paige that he disdained the “Band-Aid” approach the Bears took before his arrival, this comes off as exactly that.

Fangio was with the Ravens during Flacco’s first two seasons, as a special assistant to the head coach/defensive assistant in 2008 and as linebackers coach in 2009. He saw Flacco up close. When Flacco was 23 and 24. And when the Ravens had a terrific defense, even three years before they won the Super Bowl after the 2012 season — with Flacco at quarterback. He’s not the same quarterback any longer. Far from it.

Look, $36 million over two years for Keenum was a moderate deal, and it’s clear Keenum was being counted on more as a bridge quarterback than a long-range solution. Some of the yammering about all of this doesn’t give Elway enough credit on that point.

Elway smiled through the photo op pictures with Keenum after the signing. He said all the right things. Sure, if lightning struck and Keenum proved to be one of the top late-bloomer stories in the history of the league, the former University of Houston quarterback could have been around for more than two seasons under an enhanced deal. But Elway was hoping for two good years from Keenum. He got one (so-so) year.

Keenum had to play behind an offensive line that was horrible most of the season. Ultimately, he was  more uninspiring and inadequate than awful, yet even that validated the Vikings’ at-arm’s-length judgment of him, when they refused to embrace him during and after that Kismet 2017 in Minnesota, then signed Kirk Cousins.

But it’s still one more example of Elway being his own worst enemy as GM, being hamstrung by his misjudgments about the most important position in the game — and the position he played so well.

The drafting of Paxton Lynch at No, 26 overall in 2016, and then his air-headed incompetence, haven’t just led to ripple-effect problems. That ripple effect has been a Tsunami, not only because of quarterback issues, but because of other problems not sufficiently addressed because of desperation to get a difference-maker — and a difference-maker in the positive sense — taking the snaps.

So now it’s Flacco, the sort of big quarterback Elway has been fixated on as an executive. Yes, like Brock Osweiler and Paxton Lynch, both far more impressive as “types” than players. Osweiler especially played the role well and looked the part, too.

If you go back far enough, Flacco has a good track record, and those who won’t grant him that are indulging in revisionist history. He had a nice run, and even an NFL championship, as the Ravens’ starter. His slide had started long before an injury and then Lamar Jackson supplanted him last season, and coach John Harbaugh didn’t appear for a millisecond to consider sending Flacco out to replace a struggling Jackson in the playoff loss to the Chargers. He was making a long-range point, too, and it contributed to him keeping his job.

With Flacco at quarterback, the Ravens went 9-4 in the postseason from 2008 through the 2012 seasons, or in his first five seasons in the league.

They were 1-2 in the playoffs to  from 2013-18. The one win came at Pittsburgh after the 2014 season — when Gary Kubiak was the offensive coordinator and the Ravens beat the Steelers 30-17 on the road. They lost to the Patriots the next week and haven’t been in a playoff game since.

Can anyone picture Flacco as a 38-year-old NFL starting quarterback? I can’t. Yes, he had an impressive streak of 122 consecutive starts with the Ravens before suffering a knee injury late in the 2015 season.  Yet he doesn’t play the position meekly. He’s not a scrambler, but he is tough and willing to accept punishment in prolonging the play and taking a step here and a step there. At 34, he’ll get hurt. Again. And if this offensive line doesn’t get better, it could happen sooner than later.

The best-case scenario is it makes the Broncos less awful during the rebuild … and during the wait to draft, nurture and win with a franchise quarterback.