DENVER • By conventional NFL standards, the championship door has shut on the Broncos.
Fortunately for fans, this team under John Elway hasn’t fit any norms.
“The door is always open,” receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. “Why would it not be open?”
Well, here’s why.
Most of the top runs for teams in league history have come with continuity at quarterback and coach.
Lombardi-Starr. Noll-Bradshaw. Walsh-Montana. Belichick-Brady. It’s always been a package deal. The exception has been the rare elite coach who succeeded with various quarterbacks — Joe Gibbs and Bill Parcells come to mind. Or the quarterbacks who could make it work with various coaches — Troy Aikman and the Indianapolis version of Peyton Manning are examples.
This continuity hasn’t insulated teams from the occasional Super Bowl hangover. Nothing has. Heavy are the fingers that wear those heavy rings. But the packaging of quarterback and coach has sure come in handy for a Year 3 bounce-back. Of the 17 teams that missed the playoffs after appearing in a Super Bowl between 1990 and 2015, 82 percent that kept their quarterback and coach intact returned to the postseason in that third year. Half of the teams that retained the quarterback but not the coach were again in the tournament, and 33 percent who lost the quarterback but kept the coach returned.
In the Broncos’ category — teams that lost both coach and quarterback — only the Oakland Raiders stand as an example. Not only did Oakland fail to bounce back without coach Bill Callahan and quarterback Rich Gannon, but they spiraled into a 13-year playoff drought.
So, judging by those standards, the door has shut on the Broncos and anything they achieve at this point wouldn’t be a continuation of their past run but the opening of a new chapter. But that’s kind of how it’s been for a while. The way Elway has approached his job hasn’t been to prop open a window of opportunity so much as seek another to climb through.
Remember, Elway’s first playoff run as an executive came on the strength of spectacular special teams during the Tim Tebow Year. Matt Prater made 3 of 4 kicks from 50-plus yards as the team won five games decided by three or fewer points.
Even Jesus, as played by Jason Sudeikis in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch aimed at Tebow, said: “Matt Prater, I pray to you, brother.”
Special teams may have been good enough for a playoff run, but adding Manning and building one of the all-time great offenses was worth a Super Bowl berth two years later.
It was only after switching directions again and adding Aqib Talib and DeMarcus Ware that the Broncos leapt the next hurdle and won a title by capturing Super Bowl 50.
So, if the league hopes to shut the door on the Broncos it will find itself playing Whack-A-Mole because it hasn’t come through the same spot twice.
Maybe the credit needs to go beyond Elway and through ownership, as the franchise has enjoyed more Super Bowl appearances (seven) than losing seasons (five) under Pat Bowlen’s watch.
“We feel like as long we’ve got our defense intact, we feel like we can win every game,” cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. “With the quarterbacks, Trev(or Siemian) and Paxton (Lynch), we can win with these guys.”
The Broncos know a thing or two about opening the door when opportunity knocks. For that reason, don’t close out any possibilities.
“We’ve still got a tight defense,” Sanders said. “We’ve still got players that want to win a championship. That’s the mindset around here. That’s not going to change, ever, as long as I’m here. The window is always going to be open.”