Flacco trade puts more pres­sure on El­way

Deal will be made of­fi­cial March 13

USA TODAY International Edition - - SPORTS - Mike Jones Colum­nist

And so John El­way grabs an­other dart and again takes aim at the bull’seye that is the Bron­cos’ quar­ter­back po­si­tion.

Hav­ing reached an agree­ment to ac­quire Joe Flacco from the Ravens, ac­cord­ing to a per­son with knowl­edge of the deal who spoke to USA TO­DAY on con­di­tion of anonymity due to the fact the move had not been made official, the Hall of Fame quar­ter­back-turned­gen­eral man­ager is hop­ing that an­other ag­ing, for­mer Su­per Bowl MVP can re­store Den­ver to the ranks of con­tenders.

It’s the only trick that has worked dur­ing his eight-year stint as team pres­i­dent.

The three-year foray with Pey­ton Man­ning pro­duced the third Su­per Bowl ti­tle in fran­chise his­tory. But the quest to find a long-term re­place­ment for Man­ning re­mains on­go­ing. El­way missed on draft picks Brock Osweiler, Trevor Siemian and Pax­ton Lynch. And he has now ad­mit­ted fail­ure on Case Keenum, last year’s free agent sign­ing who went 6-10 and recorded 19 touch­down passes and 15 in­ter­cep­tions while direct­ing an offense that ranked in the bot­tom half of the league in most sta­tis­ti­cal cat­e­gories.

The deal will not be­come official un­til March 13, but in Flacco, Den­ver has se­cured a passer who’s more ac­com­plished than any Bron­cos quar­ter­back of the last three decades not named El­way or Man­ning.

Flacco most likely wel­comes this fresh start. But it’s hard to de­clare this a slam-dunk be­cause far too many ques­tions loom over Flacco, the Bron­cos and El­way him­self.

Since the Man­ning-led Su­per Bowl vic­tory in the 2015 sea­son, lit­tle of what El­way has done sug­gests that he has the vi­sion and de­ci­sion-mak­ing skills to guide the or­ga­ni­za­tion back to such heights.

His hand­picked re­place­ment for coach Gary Ku­biak, Vance Joseph, lasted just two sea­sons and be­came the fall guy for Den­ver’s plunge to a dou­ble-digit loss team.

But the ros­ter he as­sem­bled does in­deed pos­sess holes at key po­si­tions. To start, the offense fea­tures few play­mak­ers. A line that sur­ren­dered 34 sacks also needs up­grades.

How­ever, El­way has op­er­ated as if this team is one piece away from con­tention. He thought Keenum, who went 11-1 as a starter in Min­nesota in 2017, was the an­swer, but the veteran was not.

El­way has also started over at head coach, hir­ing long­time de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Vic Fan­gio away from Chicago.

But the ac­qui­si­tion of Flacco — who is set to earn $18.5 mil­lion in 2019, $20.25 mil­lion in 2020 and $24.25 mil­lion in 2021, though none of those salaries are guar­an­teed — sug­gests that El­way still be­lieves he have the ros­ter equipped to make a quick turn­around and deep play­off run.

Flacco, how­ever, hasn’t ex­actly de­liv­ered top-notch quar­ter­back play as of late. There are mul­ti­ple rea­sons La­mar Jack­son took over down the stretch of the sea­son and prompted Ravens’ brass to end the Flacco era.

Flacco ranked 10th in the league with 274 pass­ing yards per game, but he was 4-5 at the time of his last start, and his passer rat­ing (84.2) ranked 28th in the NFL. Jack­son isn’t yet as adept of a passer as the 34-year-old is, yet the Ravens stuck with him when mak­ing a play­off push and now will roll with him as the face of the fran­chise.

In­juries (in­clud­ing back and hip ail­ments) have lim­ited Flacco in re­cent years. So while he must prove he can stay healthy and that he still pos­sesses game-chang­ing abil­i­ties, the Bron­cos can’t make the mis­take of plug­ging him in and ex­pect­ing to mask their prob­lems.

They’ll have to make up­grades to en­sure they max­i­mize what­ever Flacco has left in the tank.

Fan­gio is a mas­ter­ful de­fen­sive strate­gist. But the offense sur­round­ing Flacco is largely un­proven. Wide re­ceiver Em­manuel San­ders and run­ning back Phillip Lind­say rep­re­sent bright spots. But Den­ver has a first-year offen­sive co­or­di­na­tor in Rich Scan­garello, who last served as quar­ter­backs coach in San Fran­cisco.

Scan­garello and El­way share core of­fen­sive philoso­phies, how­ever. Scan­garello worked un­der Kyle Shana­han in both San Fran­cisco and At­lanta. Shana­han, of course, learned NFL offen­sive de­sign from his fa­ther, Mike Shana­han, who di­rected El­way to two Su­per Bowl wins. Kyle Shana­han also worked with Ku­biak, who ran the same offense in Den­ver dur­ing Man­ning’s Su­per Bowl run.

Scan­garello is ex­pected to de­ploy a very sim­i­lar at­tack, and El­way knows first­hand how such an offense can po­si­tion an ag­ing quar­ter­back for suc­cess. In the­ory, it should benefit Flacco in many re­gards with a strong rush­ing game and plenty of play-ac­tion. Flacco is a pocket passer, so it will be in­ter­est­ing to see how he does with the el­e­ments of the offense that fre­quently roll the quar­ter­back out to pre­vent him from be­ing a sta­tion­ary tar­get for de­fenses. But at this stage in his ca­reer, Flacco should view any­thing that can be done to help limit the hits he takes as a pos­i­tive.

Now El­way must take ad­di­tional mea­sures to for­tify this ros­ter else­where. He needs this to work, be­cause if this ex­per­i­ment also fails, the next quar­ter­back leav­ing with a pink slip could be El­way him­self.

Joe Flacco quar­ter­backed the Ravens to vic­tory against the Bron­cos in Week 3 but next sea­son might be start­ing for Den­ver. Since throw­ing a ca­reer-high 27 TD passes in 2014, he’s reached 20 once. MITCH STRINGER/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

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