EL­WAY’S CON­TRACT STA­TUS? WELL, IT’S COM­PLI­CATED

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Nicki Jhab­vala

Thirty-four years ago, when John El­way was pre­pared to sign his first NFL con­tract, he didn’t have any idea which town he would call home.

He just knew it wouldn’t be Bal­ti­more.

Now, nearly two decades after hang­ing up his cleats and seven years into his ten­ure as a Bron­cos ex­ec­u­tive, El­way is in the mid­dle of an­other con­tract dis­cus­sion. And this time, he has said he is quite cer­tain of where he will be.

“I look for­ward to be­ing here with the Bron­cos for a long time,” he said in May, adding that he didn’t have “any doubt” a new con­tract would be signed be­fore the 2017 sea­son be­gan.

Given El­way’s stature with the fran­chise and with the state of Colorado, and given his un­matched track record while in the front of­fice, the ques­tion is not so much about whether a deal will get done, but how and when.

“I thought it would be done, be­cause nor­mally you don’t have a very good ex­ec­u­tive po­ten­tially be­ing a lame duck,” said former sports agent Joel Corry. “The sea­son doesn’t start un­til Septem­ber, so there’s still time, but usu­ally you get those things ironed out be­fore this time, be­fore the draft.”

Bron­cos pres­i­dent and CEO Joe El­lis said in Jan­uary that the team had con­ver­sa­tions with El­way’s rep­re­sen­ta­tives in Oc­to­ber and that talks would con­tinue. “I’m op­ti­mistic we’ll get some­thing done,” El­lis said then.

In fact, the Bron­cos had ini­ti­ated con­tract talks as early as mid­way through last sea­son with the hope of get­ting a deal done well be­fore El­way en­tered the fi­nal stretch of his cur­rent con­tract.

As talks drag on — and the sides have main­tained di­a­logue re­cently — the gen­eral as­sump­tion is there’s dis­cord or ten­sion, but a team source said that’s not the case. El­way, as he has shown with nearly ev­ery ma­jor player deal that has gone to the dead­line, op­er­ates on his own time. Per­haps his own ne­go­ti­a­tions are no dif­fer­ent.

But if there’s one given, it’s this:

The Hall of Famer will be paid hand­somely in a man­ner that re­flects his value to the team on and off the field.

“It’s just the other is­sues that make it more com­pli­cated,” Corry said.

“A unique po­si­tion”

John El­way is the Bron­cos and has been since 1983, re­ally, and his value con­tin­ues to soar. No other ex­ec­u­tive, it could be ar­gued, means more to a fran­chise than El­way does to the Bron­cos.

“Which puts El­way in a unique po­si­tion, be­cause when you think Den­ver Bron­cos, he’s syn­ony­mous with the team,” Corry said. “He’s got more lever­age than any GM has had in quite a long time, be­cause what were the Bron­cos like be­fore he got there? It’s kind of hard to ar­gue with the on-field suc­cess.”

Since El­way took over foot­ball op­er­a­tions in 2011, the Bron­cos rank sec­ond in the NFL in to­tal vic­to­ries (73) and have five play­off berths, five di­vi­sion ti­tles, two Su­per Bowl ap­pear­ances and, of course, that Su­per Bowl 50 vic­tory. He built the most pro­lific of­fense in NFL his­tory in 2013, and then con­structed the top de­fense in 2015, which sits among the league’s finest units in his­tory.

Pad­ding his ré­sumé is his proven tal­ent eval­u­a­tion. In his six years as an ex­ec­u­tive, El­way is the only gen­eral man­ager to have found Pro Bowlers in the draft, in street free agency, in un­re­stricted free agency and in col­lege free agency.

In the NBA, he would be the $201 mil­lion free agent, un­ques­tion­ably war­rant­ing the “Su­per Max” deal. If only NFL ex­ec­u­tive deals were that sim­ple.

When Seat­tle Sea­hawks gen­eral man­ager John Sch­nei­der re-upped last year, his an­nual salary was re­ported to “ap­proach” the $3.75 mil­lion that the Bal­ti­more Ravens’ Ozzie New­some re­ceives as the sup­pos­edly high­est-paid GM.

“(El­way) may be a unique sit­u­a­tion be­cause of the own­er­ship chal­lenges,” Corry said. “One of the holdups might be him angling for some sort of own­er­ship or a piece of the team.”

Shortly be­fore Pat Bowlen an­nounced he would step down from his day-to-day du­ties as Bron­cos owner in 2014, El­way signed a three-year ex­ten­sion and added gen­eral man­ager to his ti­tle of vice pres­i­dent of foot­ball op­er­a­tions, giv­ing him com­plete au­ton­omy over the foot­ball side and the ros­ter con­struc­tion.

Bowlen is still the owner of the team, but the Bron­cos have been placed in a fam­ily trust op­er­ated by three trustees: El­lis, team coun­sel Rich Slivka and Den­ver at­tor­ney Mary Kelly. The trust is in­tended to serve as the ve­hi­cle to hand con­trol­ling own­er­ship to Bowlen’s seven chil­dren. Each child will have equal stake as a ben­e­fi­ciary of the trust, but the trustees are tasked with ap- point­ing the own­er­ship rep­re­sen­ta­tive among the seven kids.

El­lis has said em­phat­i­cally that Bowlen’s suc­ces­sion plan re­mains the only plan and that re-sign­ing El­way re­mains a pri­or­ity.

“I’d like John to stick around,” El­lis re­it­er­ated at the NFL own­ers meet­ings in March. “I think I’m in the ma­jor­ity.”

But con­sider the trustees also have the author­ity to sell the team in full and in part. El­lis, as pres­i­dent and CEO, has the power to ex­tend El­way’s con­tract. And El­lis and the other two trustees have the author­ity to push to give him a piece of the team — should that even be some­thing they and El­way are con­sid­er­ing.

It’s un­clear whether El­way is ask­ing for a piece. But as with any own­er­ship trans­ac­tion, league ap­proval and com­pli­ance with poli­cies would be re­quired, rais­ing plenty of le­gal ques­tions with the Bowlens as well as NFL ques­tions about prece­dent.

The rip­ple ef­fect could be tremen­dous, which is why it does not ap­pear to be a re­al­is­tic sce­nario.

Set­ting the record straight

Shortly be­fore Su­per Bowl 50, ESPN re­ported that El­way turned down a mi­nor­ity stake in the Bron­cos when Bowlen of­fered it to him nearly 20 years ago, spurn­ing what would be now worth about $480 mil­lion, based on Forbes’ lat­est team val­u­a­tions. But the of­fer was never ex­er­cised by Bowlen amid a court bat­tle with pre­vi­ous owner Edgar Kaiser.

In speak­ing to The Den­ver Post last Au­gust, El­way made it clear that turn­ing down any stake in the team was not by choice.

“There were cir­cum­stances there that didn’t make it work out. Let’s put it that way,” he said. “It wasn’t be­cause I didn’t want it to. It’s just that there were some cir­cum­stances there that I can’t go into that caused it not to work out, which I was ob­vi­ously very dis­ap­pointed with.”

If El­way wanted a piece then, per­haps he still does. But in 2014, when Bowlen stepped down from his day-to-day du­ties with the team, El­way was asked just that.

“Pat Bowlen still owns the Bron­cos,” El­way said then. “We have to­tal re­spect for that. They’ve hired me to run the foot­ball op­er­a­tions, and I’m thrilled to do that. I work for Pat still — as well as the Bowlen fam­ily — and I’m go­ing to con­tinue to do that.”

Per­haps some­thing dif­fer­ent is be­ing con­sid­ered, such as a unique com­pen­sa­tion struc­ture. He, as ar­guably the most cov­eted GM in the NFL, is the only one with the lever­age to get it.

El­way’s sit­u­a­tion is com­pli­cated. The Bron­cos’ sit­u­a­tion is com­pli­cated. But both in­sist on only one pos­si­ble out­come that could still be met be­fore the Bron­cos re­turn to the field July 27 for train­ing camp.

“This will al­ways be my home,” El­way said. “(I’m) not go­ing any­where. As a kid, I moved around quite a bit. But Colorado and Den­ver will al­ways be my home.”

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