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Elway faces tough challenge with Broncos

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Recent posts by Eric Edholm

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Posted Jan. 05, 2011 @ 5:19 p.m. ET
By Eric Edholm

John Elway's first move as football czar in Denver might be his most important.

He has to find a head coach, and there's little time to dilly-dally around. The guy Elway reportedly wants is on fire.

Jim Harbaugh almost could name his price and his job, at least among vacant coaching positions, although perhaps a few teams with coaches are even growing a bit fond of him.

And why not? Harbaugh tutored a pro-ready quarterback, turned around a moribund Stanford program and comes with a pro background, having played and coached in the league, which somewhat separates himself from other college coaching candidates who have failed to make the jump to the NFL. Harbaugh also has a name that has been unexpectedly boosted by brother John — for years it was the other way around — who has taken the Ravens to the upper echelon of NFL teams.

"I did see Jim down there (at the Orange Bowl), I did mention I did not want to take a lot of his time," Elway said, speaking for more than an hour in his introductory press conference. "But I did mention to him that if he did want to make a jump to the NFL that the Denver Broncos would be very, very interested."

But Elway must be very, very careful here.

Let's say Harbaugh is his guy, and let's say the two Stanford guys make it happen in Denver. It would be seen as a huge success, but it would put two very strong personalities into one room. And though Harbaugh is the golden boy right now, Elway holds and always will hold way more street cred in Colorado.

But that doesn't mean he knows how to pick a great coach, build a football roster and deal with the kinds of decisions that Joe Ellis, Brian Xanders and Josh McDaniels failed at (let's be honest here) the past few seasons.

I love Elway. Loved him as a player, and what's crazy is that he might be an even better businessman, save for that whole Ponzi scheme thing from which he was victimized. He has an army of car dealerships and steakhouses, branded with his name, and he oversaw the Arena Football League team in town, also serving on the AFL's executive committee. He's a smart, driven, focused man.

"My greatest asset is my competitiveness," Elway said. "I would give everything I have to make the Broncos a championship team again."

But football is a tricky, fickle business. It's unforgiving. In introducing Elway as the Broncos' VP of football operations on Wednesday, owner Pat Bowlen said he expects his team to win "more Super Bowls," and that's plural, folks. Sure, Broncos fans never will turn completely on the man who delivered back-to-back Super Bowl titles, but just look at the Larry Bird factor in Indiana. Look at Magic with the Lakers. Dan Marino was smart to quit his Dolphins czar job soon after taking it; no doubt he would have failed, too. The list of star players coming back as front-office franchise saviors is quite short.

The best success story you can point to for this model is Ozzie Newsome; he's one of the best evaluators in the game, maybe in the past 20 years. There are a few archetypes for the czar position that have had success running teams. You've got the Bill Parcells type, the coach-turned-GM. There's the former GM retread group of people like Charlie Casserly, Mike Lombardi and Floyd Reese, all of whom have spent time in the media. Then you have the Tom Heckert and Nick Caserio model (or Scott Pioli when he was in New England), personnel gurus who have been hardened directors for a while but they lack total control.

Newsome, though, really is in a class of his own. And he worked as a coach and front-office guy first before taking over the Ravens. Elway does not have that experience. He might have the Midas Touch as a player, but picking players — and coaches — is a whole different animal.

I worry about this whole arrangement, even if it would be a great story if it worked. Elway would need a personnel guy to assist him, to work the phones and pound the pavement, because otherwise the Ravens and Patriots scouting departments are going to run circles around the Broncos.

"I don't know anything about this job, but I can't wait to learn," Elway said. "I know I can make money. But I want to compete at something. This (job) is a mountain I want to climb.

"It's a high mountain. And the reason why it's a high mountain is because it's hard to win in the NFL."

Elway clearly has been itching for years to get into a position like this and put his stamp on a team, and the decks have been cleared. Mike Shanahan and Ted Sundquist are gone. Brian Xanders is a cap guy with some personnel experience. Joe Ellis, who on Wednesday was promoted to president, comes from a business background, will run the day-to-day operations, leaving the football stuff to Elway.

But can he handle it? Scouts and GMs are at college games scouting every weekend in the fall. They go to dozens of pro days in the spring. They are constantly working the phones and digging under rocks, trying to find the next small-school wonder or to do their homework on the big-school star who detests hard work and has an ego problem. That's the kind of behind-the-scenes work that rarely gets mentioned but makes up the majority of a football honcho's job.

Elway mentioned Xanders several dozen times and seemed to defer to him a lot when it came to how the two will pick players together. Elway also mentioned calling former Colts and Giants GM Ernie Accorsi, the man who drafted him in Baltimore, for career advice. Smart move. There are few better than Ernie. But having the desire to be great is one thing; having the talent to do it is quite another. In playing football, Elway was an all-timer, but no one has a clue whether he can help run a team.

"I believe in great partnerships, no matter what business you are in," Elway said. "I am committed to do whatever it takes. However long it takes to be as good as I can to be in this job, I am going to do it."

Like we said, though, none of that will matter if Elway botches his coaching hire. Harbaugh clearly can coach in college, cracking the whip on 19- and 20-year-olds, but that authoritative style hasn't always worked in the NFL. Elway has to make sure Harbaugh is the right man for the job, someone who can handle being No. 2. Because in the past few months, Harbaugh has been placed on a pedestal. He has been wooed by several NFL teams despite the pattern of failure of college coaches at the pro level. He must be willing to check his ego somewhat if this arrangement happens.

"We are going to go out and get the guy who best fits the Denver Broncos," Elway said, more than once on Wednesday.

Physics alone says that a roller coaster's first hill must be the highest. So it's only fitting that it applies to Elway and his new job, having to hire a coach to take over the team, ideally for the next decade. It will not be a smooth ride at first. Things will go wrong because, well, he's never done this before and there's some concern over whether he has enough good people around him.

"This is what I have wanted to do for a long time," he said early in his press conference. "Why am I here? I love the Broncos."

No one doubts that. What people wonder is if he loves them too much. If he's taking the job because he wants to lead one more comeback, one more two-minute drill, one last hero's stand, like he did so many times on the field as a player.

There's also the immediacy factor. It took Elway 15 seasons to win his first Super Bowl as a player. Unfortunately, he doesn't have that kind of time as a decision maker. The Broncos fans, down and out, demand winning in the winnable AFC West yesterday. Even a figure such as Elway could be persona non grata if he can't accomplish that in his second tour of duty with the team.

Elway walked away from football 12 years ago with no regrets. He returns to the Broncos back where he started: on the bottom. Let's hope he doesn't stay there.

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