Bronco woes trace back to fractured leadership

Column by Michael Alcorn
Posted 1/16/19

Somebody should write a case study in organizational leadership based on the Denver Broncos. Or, to be more precise, a case study in the failures of fractured leadership. Let me start by saying that …

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Bronco woes trace back to fractured leadership

Posted

Somebody should write a case study in organizational leadership based on the Denver Broncos. Or, to be more precise, a case study in the failures of fractured leadership.

Let me start by saying that I have been a Broncomaniac since I was seven years old. My Dad had season tickets from, like, 1962. I can still name the starting eleven on the Orange Crush Defense. I remember where I was when John Elway pulled off “The Drive.” I am not a Bronco hater.

But I am a student of leadership, and I think it’s remarkable to consider everything that’s been going on with the Broncos the last few years.

First of all, I agree with the decision to fire Vance Joseph. Again, not because I’m a hater — in fact, I owe VJ a debt of gratitude, since he and some of his buddies are responsible for me getting to spend New Year’s Eves 1989 and 1990 in South Beach, Florida. For free. But a team cannot continue to make the same mistakes over and over, cannot have three games that they simply fail to show up for, and cannot have two games where the loss is directly attributable to coaching decisions without there being consequences. He wasn’t ready for the job.

But there’s also this: John Elway wanted to fire Vance Joseph last year, and replace him with Mike Shanahan. But Joe Ellis, the President of the club and de facto owner, nixed the idea. We’ll come back to this.

It’s also probably not coincidence that the Broncos four-game losing streak to end the season happened shortly after Bill Bowlen, Pat Bowlen’s brother, filed a suit to stop the process that the Joe Ellis-led “Trust” was following to manage the Broncos.

I trace much of the Broncos failures of late to one event: the drafting of Paxton Lynch to be the “franchise quarterback.” Because they had Paxton Lynch, the Broncos never bothered to evaluate a promising nobody named Kyle Sloter, they halved the reps that Trevor Siemian got in practice before his second season as starter, and they did not draft a quarterback in the QB-rich 2018 draft. Who is responsible for that pick? John Elway, who, in spite of a shaky record of picking offensive talent, was left in absolute control of that draft.

I am mindful of the fact that the Broncos won a Super Bowl recently, just three years ago. Pat Bowlen stepped aside and left the leadership situation of the Broncos in limbo in the summer of 2014. But organizations have the capacity to ride momentum, just like players do. By the time Bowlen stepped aside, Peyton Manning was in charge of the culture, the organization had already decided to build up the defense, and a re-shaping was already taking place. It came to fruition 18 months later.

But the cracks were already starting to form, and a few years’ worth of the stresses of the NFL brought them to a head.

Does Elway draft Paxton if Pay Bowlen is still in place? Maybe, but he does it with a lot more input from other people, and with a lot more accountability for that decision. Does Elway get to put Mike Shanahan in place like he wanted to last summer if Pat Bowlen is still around? Would VJ have been held accountable at that time? Again, maybe—but it wouldn’t have been his decision alone. The buck would have stopped on someone else’s desk.

And, ultimately, what a fractured leadership situation creates is a crisis of accountability, and that tends to have a carryover effect into such things as on-field performance. When nobody is in charge, nobody is in charge.

So now they have a new head coach, after a bit of a strange process. Will his presence be enough to settle some of the odd organizational dynamics at play?

Maybe. But I have my doubts.

“Michael Alcorn is a teacher and writer who lives in Arvada with his wife and three children. His new novel, “Charon’s Blade,” is available at Amazon.com, on Kindle, or through MichaelJAlcorn.com.” His opinions are not necessarily those of Colorado Community Media.

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