With about four minutes remaining in the Broncos’ 24-10 win over the Panthers on Super Bowl Sunday, you could imagine 30 NFL general managers simultaneously reaching for their phones.
Whether by call, text, or e-mail, those GMs were likely reaching out to their director of pro personnel for a full write up on the pass-rushers that will be available this upcoming draft.
This, after Von Miller ruined an otherwise spectacular season for Cam Newton and the Panthers.
But it will be difficult for any team to copy what Denver did on the defensive side of the ball. Not just on Sunday, but throughout the season.
Consider this: The Broncos won Super Bowl 50 despite producing one of the worst offensive performances in Super Bowl history.
Peyton Manning, for all his accomplishments, wound up capturing his second championship after turning in the worst numbers of his career.
The Broncos weren’t just great defensively, they were transcendent. How they were built was an even bigger marvel.
Any GM can go on a shopping spree with the owner’s money. Former Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland shelled out big money for Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline, Brandon Gibson, Dannell Ellerbe and Phillip Wheeler in 2013. A year later they were all gone, including Ireland, who wasn’t the first and won’t be the last GM who makes the mistake of trying to buy wins in March.
The biggest problem with free agency in any sport is that teams often pay for past performances. That makes the return on investment poor and teams wind up digging themselves into holes that are difficult to escape.
But the key for Denver is that John Elway, either as the team’s general manager or the Executive Vice President of Football Operations, hit on his big free agent purchases. He also found talent not only in the first round, but deep into drafts as well.
No team scored more points this season than the Panthers, who Denver held to a single touchdown and a field goal on Sunday. Why? Because Wade Phillips made stopping the run the Broncos’ top priority.
Committing extra bodies to the run means leaving defensive backs on an island. Phillips could afford to take that gamble because Elway landed corner Aqib Talib in free agency, found a gem in undrafted defensive back Chris Harris Jr. in 2011, and didn’t shy away from taking former Ohio State standout Bradley Roby in the first round of the 2014 draft, despite being loaded at the position.
Talib, DeMarcus Ware, and TJ Ward were all signed in 2014 and all contributed in major ways to the Broncos’ championship this season. The same goes for linebacker Brandon Marshall, a former castoff from the Jaguars and a one-time Broncos practice squad member, who emerged as a versatile piece in Phillips’ defense.
Remember safety Darian Stewart? Neither the Rams nor the Ravens wanted him bad enough to retain him once his contracts expired in St. Louis and Baltimore. But Elway gave Stewart a two-year deal in March and he rewarded his GM by intercepting Tom Brady in the AFC title game and by forcing a fumble on Sunday.
In the draft, Miller and Sylvester Williams were first-round picks. Derek Wolfe was a second-round pick. Malik Jackson was a fifth-rounder and Danny Trevathan was a sixth-rounder. All five players played major roles for Denver this season.
The Seahawks, who went to back-to-back Super Bowls before falling to the Panthers this year, were constructed in a similar manner.
Earl Thomas and Bruce Irvin were first-rounders, but Bobby Wagner, Richard Sherman, and Kam Chancellor went in later rounds. In free agency, Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett weren’t a drain on the cap. Instead, they’ve been Seattle’s main pass rush source for the past three years.
Teams that want to duplicate the success that Denver and Seattle have had defensively certainly have the blue print: Hit on your first-round picks, find multiple starters in the middle rounds, then fill holes by signing free agents that not only won’t ruin your cap but will also produce. But good luck checking all of those boxes without making mistakes along the way.
Elway was nearly flawless with how he built the Broncos’ defense. As it turns out, he had to be, seeing how Manning fell apart a year earlier than expected. But Manning’s limitations only highlighted how special Denver’s defense was this season.
As Manning has noted, he doesn’t win his second Super Bowl without what the Broncos did defensively this season.
Based on how they were constructed and what they accomplished, that’s a gross understatement.