Elway Giving Thanks to Tebow

As Americans gather with family and friends to give thanks despite a gloomy economy and an embarrassing exercise in Super Committee Finger Pointing, we seek refuge in our love of sports. Time to forget about the occupations and failures of Wall Street to revel in performances of our favorite businesses…NFL teams. Occasionally we see flashes of the days when the game was played with heart by passionate players and organizations focused solely on winning as the bottom line. When the underdog Denver Broncos scrapped and clawed to rally in the final minute to defeat the heavily favored NY Jets, fans across the country cheered. But then, as if on cue, the actions of Denver Broncos executive vice president of football, John Elway, dragged the country back to the realization that the NFL is simply a business monopoly…and that formerly great players do not always make great front office executives or inspirational leaders.

If we were to interview recent business school graduates currently occupying Wall Street to ask what single factor defines success, the resounding answer would most certainly be…”results”. As a rookie executive in the NFL, perhaps Elway has not yet learned this elementary lesson. Since taking over responsibility for football operations in Denver, Elway seems fixated on finding a quarterback made in his own likeness instead of supporting and developing the player that continues to inspire the Broncos by engineering a winning record as a starter. If winning is indeed the “bottom line” for an NFL franchise, it seems logical that its top executive should be judged on how his actions are contributing to, or undermining, results. Unfortunately, Elway’s body of work over the past few weeks is increasingly seen as casting a pall over what should be a time of high morale and renewed team confidence.

Elway and other Denver executives have engaged in a highly publicized scouting tour to evaluate several top collegiate QBs. Denver fans and players were bombarded with articles and blog postings of Elway visiting a Stanford practice session only a few weeks after attending the Cardinal game versus Colorado only a few weeks before. While one could argue that he was simply taking advantage of a local game to see his alma mater play, Elway’s trip to Waco Texas seems to indicate otherwise. Only days after Denver quarterback Tim Tebow directed a gutty last minute victory versus the heavily favored NY Jets, Elway and Broncos GM Brian Xanders showed up at the Oklahoma/Baylor game featuring highly touted pro-style quarterbacks Landry Jones and Robert Griffin III. Although currently barred from speaking about collegiate players’ draft prospects by NFL rules, Elway did not hesitate to make his opinion known in December shortly before taking the top job with the Broncos, “I’ll tell you this: I think Andrew Luck is the best football player in the draft, without a doubt. If that were to happen, then you’re going have to have some very serious conversations of exactly which direction you want to go, whether it’s with Tim or take a guy like Andrew Luck. To me, barring injury, he’s going to be very successful in the NFL.”. Scouting is certainly an important aspect of building a successful franchise. But with his team in the playoff hunt for the first time in years, the rookie executive might be well served to carefully consider the unintended consequences of becoming a distraction to his players.

Apparently the desire to remain personally in spotlight overshadows Elway’s consideration of team morale. During Elway’s weekly radio show on Denver’s 102.3 FM on Monday, host Gary Miller asked the Broncos chief of football operations if he were ”any closer to feeling if you have your quarterback on this team?” Elway paused and answered, ”No.” As with any business, when an executive demonstrates poor judgment with the press, he or she is prompted by their handlers (or their boss) to backtrack as quickly as possible. Clearly Elway got the memo. Although the Broncos website curiously does not provide audio or text of his Monday interview, the team decided on Thanksgiving Day that it was important to post Wednesday’s broadcast of Elway’s radio show with the new messaging. Upon further review, Elway delivered a much different company line, “Am I hopeful that Tim Tebow is our guy? I am very hopeful that Tim Tebow is our guy,” Elway said on Wednesday. “Am I absolutely positive at this point in time? No, I’m not, but I want to believe that and that’s what I want to happen.” For many fans and likely some players, all of this doubletalk leads to several obvious questions. First, how many other NFL team executives have a weekly radio show and why does Elway need one…is it for the benefit of the team or the former star player? Second, would it be too difficult to script a radio show for Elway to say something that could be vaguely supportive of his current quarterback without the double helping of caveats? For anyone watching Elway’s unenthusiastic expression in the luxury suite after Tebow drove the Broncos 95 yards to take the lead against the highly favored NY Jets, a picture was worth a thousand platitudes.

In between flitting about to see college games and starring in his radio shows, Elway still found time this week to demonstrate questionable judgment by waiving former starting quarterback Kyle Orton. No doubt that Orton’s effectiveness in Denver was done. No doubt that Denver could save millions in salary by punting on Orton for another team to sign. Highly doubtful that the timing was in the best interest of the Denver franchise. It was no secret in the league that both of the teams expressing desperate need to sign Orton to fill in for injured starting quarterbacks, Chicago and Kansas City, are on Denver’s schedule in coming weeks. Savvy sports executives traditionally take great pains not to trade players to help Division rivals (like Kansas City) or to teams where a highly motivated player could exact revenge by beating his former team (like Chicago). On his radio show yesterday Elway stated, “Obviously we didn’t want to help anybody within our division,” Elway said. “It was a calculated risk that we took and we knew that it might be a possibility.” However, a good executive manages risk effectively. Rather than essentially ensure that Kansas City remains a viable threat in the Division race, an intelligent strategist might have held onto Orton for two additional weeks to significantly reduce these risks. For the difference in two weeks of Orton’s salary, the Broncos would have completed their game with Chicago and likely allowed Kansas City to fall from Division contention without a viable quarterback.

Perhaps Broncos owner Pat Bowlen needs to explain the business to his new executive. Perhaps he could explain that success isn’t about Elway’s image or legacy. Perhaps he might channel his inner Al Davis and tell Elway, “Just Win Baby”! Lastly, perhaps Mr. Bowlen might offer Elway a tip on leading and inspiring an organization from the back office. Because If the NFL is a business, and winning games is the ultimate measure of success, perhaps John Elway could begin helping his current quarterback win games or, at the very least, thank the young man who has put the Broncos into playoff contention.

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