John Elway’s growth into his role made Brian Xanders increasingly expendable in the Broncos’ power structure.
DENVER – It’s John Elway’s show now.
If it wasn’t clear in the 16 months since Elway answered the Broncos’ S.O.S. to become executive vice president and reverse a five-year descent to the foot of the AFC table, it’s perfectly obvious now that general manager Brian Xanders and the Broncos are no longer joined together.
The initial decision to retain Xanders in January 2011 was a surprise to begin with. Although he was hired by Mike Shanahan in April 2008 as the assistant general manager a month after six-season GM Ted Sundquist’s sacking, Xanders owed his title as general manager to Josh McDaniels, who picked him over the father-son personnel tandem of Jim and Jeff Goodman a month after becoming head coach.
The Broncos were wise not to completely clean house immediately, giving holdovers a fresh start. It’s not as though everyone brought in by McDaniels was tainted by association, and the last year-plus gave many former McDaniels appointees a chance to show what they could do.
Keeping Xanders for 16 months eased the transition through the most awkward year in recent NFL history — the lockout-tinged 2011, which compressed free-agency from a two-month slug into a two-week sprint — and through the end of one draft year and the completion of another. This is why the timing of the parting of ways shouldn’t be a surprise.
It was at this juncture in 2006 when Texans coach Gary Kubiak — Elway’s former backup quarterback and Denver’s former offensive coordinator — dismissed general manager Charley Casserly in favor of ex-Broncos scouting executive Rick Smith. Jettisoning the people responsible for your draft preparation in January or February is as foolish as it is short-sighted; it destroys 10 months of draft preparation. (Kubiak and the Texans were smart enough to realize this, and the result was a smart No. 1 overall pick of Mario Williams instead of Reggie Bush or Vince Young.)
Of course, blowing up months of work was exactly what McDaniels did when he fired the Goodmans in February 2009 to name Xanders general manager, and the disappointing results of that draft — particularly the disastrous second round of Darcel McBath, Alphonso Smith and Richard Quinn, none of whom remain with the Broncos — is a direct result of McDaniels’ itchy trigger finger.
Elway is too smart to make a move like that.
As Elway grew more comfortable in his new role, Xanders appeared increasingly redundant — a general manager without power, playing second fiddle to a personnel executive who was not also the head coach. This arrangement was an NFL rarity and wasn’t going to help Xanders’ chances of eventually landing a final-say role — especially since Elway appears poised for a long run as the Broncos’ boss. (After all, you don’t use a second-round pick on a developmental quarterback when your team has immediate Super Bowl aspirations unless you’re thinking several moves — and years — ahead.)
Elway, meanwhile, has shaken off the initial criticism of his inexperience at the NFL management level and proven to be a savvy executive. One example lies in his press conferences, where he has learned to smoothly share insight but also keep pundits guessing. His pre-draft press conference on April 23 left onlookers unsure as to which direction the Broncos would go with their first pick — to the point where the conventional wisdom that said “defensive tackle” was shaken to where mock drafts pegged running backs, cornerbacks and even wide receivers.
And where did the Broncos go? Defensive tackle. They picked a player almost no one projected, Derek Wolfe, but whose skill set as an interior pass rusher makes sense in filling a pressing team void of recent years.
Some of Xanders’ role will be filled by director of player personnel Matt Russell. Their backgrounds are instructive as to why Russell appears to be a better fit going forward. While Xanders’ career résumé includes a myriad of positions throughout football operations and even some time spent in an information technology-centric role, Russell is a pure scout, having handled that role in the NFL since 2000.
The Broncos have had executives who emphasized and valued the work of scouts; Sundquist, who spent 10 seasons as a scout and scouting director and worked with Elway’s father Jack, comes to mind immediately. But it has been nearly 20 years since they had anyone with final-say authority who prioritized the scouts’ input as Elway has; this owes to his lineage as the son of a long-time coach who was well-connected in NFL scouting circles and served seven seasons as the Broncos’ director of pro scouting.
These are the people you want influencing your personnel decisions — ones who think of the long term and have generally gleaned insight into prospects’ intangibles that go far beyond what a cursory interview and tape analysis reveal. In environments where the coaches have final say, the opinions of assistant coaches who had only studied prospects for two months would supersede those of the scouts, who had been compiling dossiers and research on prospects for years.
In the Elway-led Broncos, their opinions will be heard and valued. It’s old-school, but it has worked before, and the Broncos’ work the last 16 months shows they are banking on it working again.