John El­way an un­der­dog? That’s a role he may have a hard time em­brac­ing

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - MARK KISZLA

The No. 1 rule is the same, whether the game is foot­ball, cars or steaks. What­ever John El­way wants, he gets. And El­way is in the busi­ness of win­ning.

But as El­way goes to train­ing camp for the 23rd time with the Bron­cos, it is any­thing ex­cept busi­ness as usual. His start­ing quar­ter­back is a mys­tery. His new head coach is un­proven. And his con­tract sit­u­a­tion is un­set­tled.

In Den­ver, the men­tal­ity is al­ways Su­per Bowl or bust.

Maybe it’s time for an at­ti­tude ad­just­ment. Pey­ton Man­ning is long gone. So is Gary Ku­biak. The Bron­cos are some­thing they haven’t been since 2011, be­fore Te­bow­ma­nia be­came a thing.

Un­der­dogs.

Den­ver is a 20-1 long­shot to win the Su­per Bowl.

Al­though the Bron­cos took home the Vince Lom­bardi Tro­phy less than 18 months ago, they have slipped back to the pack in a league tilted to­ward par­ity. In the AFC West, the tough­est divi­sion in pro foot­ball, even if many things go right for Den­ver, 10-6 would be a solid record.

And if it all goes wrong? Don’t ask; 6-10 is not out of the ques­tion. The Bron­cos could fin­ish first in the divi­sion. Or last.

There are al­ways 100 story lines in ev­ery NFL train­ing camp, but only one re­ally mat­ters around here this year: Will Trevor Siemian or Pax­ton Lynch win the job as the Bron­cos’ start­ing quar­ter­back?

Ev­ery­body in Den­ver, in­clud­ing wide re­ceiver Em­manuel San­ders, is impatient. Who’s the start­ing quar­ter­back? Hey, we all wanted to know yes­ter­day.

And, for me, the an­swer is ob­vi­ous. El­way drafted Lynch in the first round. Top draft picks don’t rot on the bench. El­way gets what he wants, re­mem­ber? Ku­biak gave the start­ing nod to Siemian a year ago, hop­ing he was good enough to sneak Den­ver into the play­offs, where maybe the de­fense would get hot and the Bron­cos could get on a roll.

Well, how did that plan work out? In an NFL city where the ex­pec­ta­tion is Su­per Bowl or bust, it’s hard for ev­ery­body to ac­cept Von Miller

and the Bron­cos may have to en­dure a sea­son of tran­si­tion ded­i­cated to find­ing out whether Lynch can play, with all the in­her­ent grow­ing pains of a young quar­ter­back’s learn­ing curve.

As the 250th over­all se­lec­tion in the 2015 draft, Siemian is an un­qual­i­fied suc­cess story. But Den­ver needs to find out if Lynch can be spe­cial. Sorry, but Bron­cos Coun­try has no time for an av­er­age quar­ter­back. (Am I right, Kyle Or­ton?)

If the start­ing quar­ter­back re­mains an open ques­tion at Hal­loween, af­ter the Bron­cos re­turn from a Monday night game at Kansas City, the de­bate will no longer be be­tween Siemian and Lynch, but whether Kirk Cousins would look good wear­ing orange in 2018.

Dur­ing 16 sea­sons as the start­ing quar­ter­back and six more as ar­chi­tect of the ros­ter, El­way has not en­dured a los­ing sea­son with the Bron­cos since 1994, when the team fin­ished 7-9 and got blown out 48-16 at Mile High Sta­dium by the hated Raiders. The date of that shock­ing de­feat, which dropped Den­ver’s record to 0-3, was Sept. 18. El­way not only got benched, re­placed dur­ing the blowout by Hugh Millen, it’s the last time I can re­call El­way get­ting booed in Den­ver.

Six sea­sons ago, when El­way stepped in as the team’s gen­eral man­ager, the Bron­cos were a mess and he was wel­comed as a re­turn­ing hero. This year’s sched­ule is set up for a quick start and a slow fade, the same as in 2016. This could be El­way’s most im­por­tant train­ing camp in more than two decades, be­cause if Den­ver misses the play­offs again, un­happy Bron­co­ma­ni­acs may give him an ear­ful for the first time since 1994.

Way back in Jan­uary, shortly af­ter the Bron­cos fin­ished 9-7 and Ku­biak quit as coach, El­way told the peeps what they wanted to hear. He sug­gested the fran­chise would not set­tle for even one los­ing sea­son, much less ac­cept a re­build­ing project. “The goal and the plan has not changed. That’s how peo­ple win cham­pi­onships,” said El­way, in­sist­ing there was noth­ing pre­vent­ing Den­ver from a quick re­turn to the NFL’S elite level. Su­per Bowl or bust? Maybe the at­ti­tude ad­just­ment should be­gin at the top.

For the first time in a long time, El­way is an un­der­dog.

Mark Kiszla: mk­is­zla@den­ver­post.com or @markkis­zla

Joe Amon, Den­ver Post file

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