John Elway's Mile High torch pass: Inside the first Denver Broncos draft run by GM George Paton

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The drama was dense and the mood was tense in the large auditorium that served as the Denver Broncos’ socially distanced draft room Thursday night, as the franchise’s brightest football minds assessed their options and wrestled with the ramifications. With the clock ticking, somebody had to make a big, big decision.

Owners of the ninth overall pick, the Broncos — mired in uncertainty at the quarterback position since first-ballot Hall of Famer Peyton Manning’s retirement following the team’s Super Bowl 50 triumph five years ago — had pondered the possibility of selecting Ohio State’s Justin Fields, and that wasn’t even the trending topic. The day had turned surreal a few hours earlier when reports surfaced that reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers was fed up with the Green Bay Packers, and that Denver might be a viable trade destination.

Could Rodgers-to-the-Broncos happen? Maybe. Would it happen while the Broncos were on the clock, or anytime during the draft? Not a chance in hell.

It was time to live in the here and now. There was a flurry of activity as the team’s 10-minute window opened, with Fields still on the board and three teams phoning with trade-down offers. The situation called for a steady hand — and the owner of the most righteous right arm in the Rocky Mountains reclined in his upper-row seat, flashing an unruffled grin and taking it all in.

This would not be John Elway’s call to make, and the legendary quarterback and accomplished executive felt completely at peace with that unfamiliar state of affairs.

“I still got a little nervous in that room,” Elway said late Thursday night, after the Broncos had stayed put, passed on Fields and selected former Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II. “But it was nice to be where I was, and it felt right. After 60 years, for the first time in my life, I was glad I wasn’t the guy pulling the trigger.”

As one of the greatest gunslingers in football history, one who led the Broncos to five Super Bowls and closed out his stellar career by hoisting back-to-back Lombardis, Elway grew accustomed to being asked to summon Mile High Magic.

Then, in 2011, Elway was hired as the organization’s top football decision-maker — and, once again, Colorado’s greatest sports superstar shined brightly, turning around a team coming off a scandal-ridden, 4-12 campaign and building a talented roster that reached the Super Bowl twice in his first five seasons. The Broncos won 71 of their first 100 games with Elway in charge, believed to be the most ever by any team’s GM.

Since that Super Bowl 50 victory over the Carolina Panthers, however, things have gotten much rockier. Denver would become the first Super Bowl champion to miss the playoffs in each of the next five seasons, with the Broncos starting 10 different quarterbacks and employing three head coaches during that span.

Last December, toward the end of a challenging and emotionally draining season, the 60-year-old Elway decided the time had come to step down and hand the keys to the franchise he loves to someone new. With CEO Joe Ellis’ blessing, Elway kicked himself upstairs (his new title is president of football operations) and initiated a search for his successor.

Four months later, having watched the man he hired, George Paton, navigate free agency and the draft, Elway is convinced that — like George Costanza — he left on a high note, the team’s 5-11 finish in 2020 notwithstanding.

“What I will say is that I was thrilled to be able to leave the Broncos in great hands,” Elway said. “Because the Broncos have been my life, you know. They’ve been great to me. It was a perfect time for George (Paton, not Costanza) to step in, and I think we left him in a pretty good situation, cap-wise, as well as young talent. So for me to be able to leave them in a great spot — not necessarily win-wise, but with our personnel and giving us a chance to get back to what we’ve been and what our fans deserve — I feel great about doing that.”

The Broncos believe they got better over the past week, with a flurry of activity that included a trade with the Carolina Panthers for veteran quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who’ll compete with third-year incumbent Drew Lock for the starting job. (That could all change via a potential blockbuster deal for Rodgers, should the Packers adjust their organizational stance against trading the three-time MVP).

Paton is hopeful that he has built a roster that will not only set up the team for sustained success in the future, but which can also compete immediately in the challenging AFC West. That would be helpful to third-year coach Vic Fangio, whose 12-20 record puts him on perilous ground heading into the 2021 season. Fangio, a cutting-edge defensive mind who got his first head-coaching job at 60, is acutely aware of the urgency he confronts, but seems energized by Paton’s presence.

“I like his demeanor,” Fangio said of Paton. “Sometimes, it’s a gut feeling, and I had that from the start. And even though he wasn’t a GM before this, he was the right-hand man and had all the GM duties and was well-versed in the role. The only thing he hadn’t done was make the final choice.”

Well, there was one other thing Paton hadn’t done before coming to the Broncos: made the choice to jump to another team for a GM job. During a 14-season stint as the Minnesota Vikings’ top personnel executive under GM Rick Spielman, Paton was frequently mentioned as a candidate during other teams’ searches but habitually turned down interviews or, after interviewing, withdrew his name from contention. He also said no to actual offers, including the then-St. Louis Rams’ general manager job following the 2011 season, though head coach Jeff Fisher had final say over personnel decisions.

“I loved where I worked,” Paton explained Friday night, after concluding an eventful second and third round of the draft. “I worked with my best friend, Rick Spielman, and a lot of great people, with really supportive owners. It was a uniquely awesome place to live, for me and my family. It was a really hard place to leave.”

Mindful of Paton’s past hesitancy, Elway put on the hard sell during an initial phone call in early January, when he was in the opening stages of his search.

“Because he had been picky with his jobs, we knew we had to sell him on, you know, what the Broncos are about,” Elway recalled Friday afternoon as he stood near the lobby of the team’s training facility. “And fortunately, we were able to sell him enough to come here and take this job.”

Paton, 50, attended high school in Los Angeles, as Elway had a decade earlier, and has long regarded the No. 1 overall pick in the 1983 NFL Draft with deep reverence.

“When John Elway calls, you answer,” Paton said. “I was in my office in Minnesota, and he called and kind of sold me on the organization, all the resources it provides, how it’s all football and no distractions, and how special it’s been for him. He talked about coming there after growing up in Southern California and falling in love with the community.

“It meant a lot, especially to a kid from L.A., but he really didn’t need to tell me too much. It was John f—–‘ Elway!”

After an impressive Zoom interview, Paton emerged as Elway’s top target, and he flew to Denver for an in-person follow-up, which all but sealed the deal. That night, Ellis and Paton’s agent, Bryan Harlan, began contract negotiations as Elway, Fangio, chief communications officer Patrick Smyth and Paton went to dinner at — where else? — Elway’s, a popular Cherry Creek restaurant.

While sitting on a patio table, Paton kept getting up and excusing himself between bites of his New York strip steak to field calls from Harlan, ultimately learning that the terms were all but finalized.

“Are you done?” Elway asked as Paton returned to the table.

“Yeah, I think we have a deal,” he replied, and a celebratory round of drinks was ordered, with Paton choosing a decidedly non-ostentatious (and locally appropriate) Coors Light.

Their toast marked the official beginning of Elway’s second self-imposed “retirement” — the first one was steeped in emotion — and he has essentially been smiling ever since.

“The first time you retire, you get away and you’re always going, ‘What am I going to do next?’ and this and that,” Elway said. “But once we got George hired and I stepped away, I knew. There was no uncertainty in the fact that it was 100 percent the right decision.”

The 2020 season was a challenging one for everyone, and Elway grew particularly frustrated as the losses mounted and the logistical nightmares intensified. He boiled over on Saturday, Nov. 28, when the NFL’s chief administrator of football operations, Dawn Aponte, and other league officials told him on a conference call that the Broncos would have to host a game against the Saints the following day with practice squad receiver, Kendall Hinton, playing quarterback despite zero practice reps.

Two days earlier, backup quarterback Jeff Driskel had tested positive for COVID-19, and on Saturday, Lock, Brett Rypien and practice-squad QB Blake Bortles were all deemed to have been high-risk close contacts. Saints general manager Mickey Loomis had told Elway he didn’t mind delaying the game until Monday or Tuesday, which could have allowed some or all of the quarantining trio of quarterbacks to return. Elway believed that the league was applying a different standard to the Broncos than it had to other teams in similarly impacted instances and felt sickened that the product was being cheapened to the paying customer, but his arguments were rebuffed.

“I got a little mad about that,” Elway recalled. “Well, I hung up on the league office. I said, ‘Dawn, I’m sorry: I’ve had enough of this, and I’m hanging up.’ At least I did it respectfully.”

The Broncos predictably lost that game en route to a 1-5 finish to the 2020 season. As he watched Hinton’s gutty but doomed attempt to step in cold and play the most challenging position in sports, Elway, who earlier that month had been sidelined by his own bout with the COVID-19 virus, began plotting his exit strategy.

Once the search for his successor ended, Elway made a more abrupt shift than the Denver weather in winter (or, realistically, any time of year): The morning after that celebratory dinner with Paton in January, he cleaned out his office, shedding part of his immense inventory of game balls, trophies and other mementos while setting up a more modest workspace next door.

“I did not want his office, but by the time I went home and got back two days later, it was already empty,” said Paton, who walked on at UCLA, became a special teams ace and finally saw the field as a defensive back (while earning a scholarship) his senior year. “It’s still kind of empty. Let’s just say I don’t have any trophies of my own.”

What Paton does have is his predecessor as a confidant and sounding board, at least when Elway isn’t off golfing, spending time with his seven grandchildren or otherwise enjoying his post-GM existence.

“He’s a tremendous resource for me, being a first-time GM, to have him right next door,” Paton said. “It’s pretty sweet.”

There has been much to discuss, especially as it relates to the sport’s pivotal position. Elway, naturally, has some thoughts on quarterbacking, along with plenty of trial-and-error experiences to share from his post-Manning years as an executive. Selecting Paxton Lynch in the first round of the 2016 draft proved to be a mistake; Lock, a 2019 second-rounder, regressed last season after a promising rookie campaign and may or may not get another chance to prove himself in Denver.

Meanwhile, the Broncos play in a division with football’s most luminous young star, the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes, and another exceptionally promising young passer, the Los Angeles Chargers’ Justin Herbert.

“We know we’ve got our hands full in our division,” Elway said. “Quarterbacks — that’s all the talk is, right? So, the focus is always there, and you’ve got to be strong with it and hope you get the guy that can (thrive) … and you’ve got to develop them, too. And the public doesn’t want them to develop. They want ready-made guys coming out. And they all want Patrick Mahomes, which is very difficult. That’s a diamond in the rough.

“So, it’s always a work in progress until you find that guy.”

Paton explored potential solutions all offseason. He pursued a trade with the Detroit Lions for veteran Matthew Stafford (who was dealt instead to the Los Angeles Rams), reached out to free agent Andy Dalton (who ultimately signed with the Chicago Bears) and considered making a run at the Houston Texans’ Deshaun Watson and Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson, whose teams declined to engage.

With the draft approaching, Paton and Fangio had high opinions of Fields, Alabama’s Mac Jones and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, all of whom they felt might be available at No. 9. (Lance, however, was considered less ready to play as a rookie, which wasn’t ideal for a head coach who is clearly in win-now mode.) Paton had explored trade-up scenarios with the Lions (who picked seventh overall) and Panthers (who picked eighth), but as he and Fangio discussed the situation two nights before the draft, they were bothered by the uncertainty confronting them.

Paton had a strong degree of comfort with Bridgewater, who’d gone 17-11 as the Vikings’ starter before suffering a severe knee injury in August of 2016. The GM had engaged in trade discussions with his Panthers counterpart — Scott Fitterer, also a first-year GM — after Carolina acquired Sam Darnold from the New York Jets in early April, making Bridgewater expendable.

On Tuesday night, with Fangio in his office, Paton decided to force the issue, calling Fitterer in an effort to push toward a deal. With the Broncos insistent on Carolina absorbing $7 million of Bridgewater’s 2021 compensation, Paton upped Denver’s offer from a seventh-round pick to a sixth-rounder, and that got the job done.

Before finalizing the trade the following morning, Paton and Fangio had a face-to-face conversation with Lock — who was working out at the team’s training facility — and informed him of the move. According to both Paton and Fangio, Lock took the news well and embraced the impending competition, which will likely begin with Bridgewater as the presumptive starter.

Landing Bridgewater relieved pressure to draft a passer, making it highly unlikely that Denver would trade up from 9 — and, perhaps, increasing the appeal of trading down. As excited as Paton was about potentially picking up an impact player for Fangio’s defense, with Surtain II and fellow cornerback Jaycee Horn (who’d go eighth, to the Panthers) as the top targets, Paton also was enticed by the prospect of moving down and stockpiling additional picks in return.

In the days leading up to the draft, Paton had received preliminary overtures from the Eagles (picking 12th overall in Round 1), Vikings (14th overall), Bears (20th) and Saints (28th). As he sat in his office early Wednesday morning, Paton wondered if he might receive an exorbitant offer when the Broncos were on the clock that he’d be tempted to take, perhaps from a team desperate for a quarterback.

“Maybe we get a haul,” Paton said. “Maybe we can take advantage of a team that is, as Vic would say, ‘horny.’ I don’t know why he always uses that word, but it cracks me up.”

In the lead-up to Thursday night’s first round, Paton had another reason to find a trade-down arousing: If the Packers were, in fact, willing to discuss a potential trade for Rodgers — even if it were to be negotiated after the draft — his plan would have been to try to trade down with a team like the Saints and accumulate future assets (ideally, first- and second-round picks in 2022) that he could use as part of a package to send to Green Bay.

Once Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst, through a third party, made it clear before the draft began that he wouldn’t even talk about dealing Rodgers, Paton tabled that idea and focused on the first round. Though three teams called when Denver was on the clock, he rejected their trade-down offers and decided to select Surtain, believing the second-generation shutdown corner was too good to pass up.

Then things got interesting. Paton, who hurriedly called for a phone charger midway through the first round (he had several mobile devices and a landline at the ready), also coveted former University of Miami edge rusher Jaelan Phillips, who he had assumed would go in the top 15. When that didn’t happen, Paton began to consider trading back into the first round, initiating some preliminary conversations with teams that had picks in the mid-20s and early 30s. (One of those calls went to Gutekunst, the owner of the 29th selection, who was open to trading out of the first round. Mindful of the time constraints and the context, Paton chose not to bring up Rodgers in that conversation.) When the Dolphins picked Phillips with the 18th overall pick, the trade-up scenario was moot, and Paton set his sights on Friday’s second and third rounds.

With the Broncos holding the eighth pick of the second round, Paton eyeballed North Carolina’s Javonte Williams, a hard-running, tackle-breaking halfback he hoped to pair with incumbent Melvin Gordon. After getting some intel from an unnamed source that the Dolphins, who were four spots in front of Denver, were planning to select Williams, Paton hastily negotiated a trade with the Atlanta Falcons to jump one pick ahead of Miami. Another rookie GM, Atlanta’s Terry Fontenot, asked Paton for a fourth-round pick; Paton agreed but successfully pushed for Atlanta’s pick near the end of the sixth round in return, telling Fontenot, “Come on, Terry — this is a great deal.”

Shortly after swooping in and taking Williams 35th overall, Paton got a text from a person in the draft room of one of the Dolphins’ AFC East rivals congratulating him for thwarting Miami’s plans.

Paton employed a different strategy in the third round, trading back from 71st to 76th with the New York Giants (and picking up an extra fifth-round pick) and then, with two minutes left on the clock, sending the 76th pick to the Saints for a pair of late third-round selections (98th and 105th overall). Paton was taking a risk, but he was willing to live with it: There was a group of three players from which Paton had been ready to select at 71, and again at 76, and he hoped one of them would still be there when the Broncos finally picked at 98. Surprisingly, he was able to get two of the three: Wisconsin-Whitewater offensive lineman Quinn Meinerz (at 98) and Ohio State linebacker Baron Browning (at 105).

“The fact that both of those guys were still there was pretty amazing,” Paton said, then joked: “It shows you we’re bad scouts.”

Meinerz, a somewhat remarkable small-school success story who shot up draft boards after wowing scouts and coaches in Senior Bowl practices, got a ton of love on NFL Network’s broadcast — to the great amusement of everyone in the Broncos’ draft room. There were hoots and hollers as video aired of Meinerz lifting logs, pushing over trees and performing other feats of strength in the great outdoors, and when his “Let The Belly Breathe” mantra was revealed over footage of the beefy interior lineman sporting a flagrantly short jersey.

As Fangio entered the massive field house on the other side of the Broncos’ practice field for a post-draft press conference Friday night, he grumbled, “S—, we could’ve drafted O.J. Simpson, and all anybody wants to talk about is ‘The Belly.’ “

Fangio’s surliness, of course, is part of his charm. (“Trust me,” Paton said, laughing, “he’s nothing compared to Zim” — a reference to Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer, a notorious grump whom Paton nonetheless adores.) The Broncos’ pasta-loving head coach can be refreshingly unpretentious — on a few occasions this offseason he has made the six-mile trip home from the team’s facility on foot, alone, without being recognized — and relentlessly blunt, a combination Elway is better able to appreciate now that he’s no longer the equally embattled general manager.

“It’s like, sometimes you say hi to Vic and he grunts at you, and sometimes he stops and talks to you,” Elway said Friday as he prepared to re-enter the auditorium-turned-draft room. “You just know that’s Vic. He grunted at me today. I go, ‘OK, Vic doesn’t want to talk. No worries.’ “

And Elway? Well, no worries is an understatement. After carrying the hopes and dreams of a franchise and a fan base on his broad shoulders for so long — 16 stellar seasons as a player, and a highly driven decade as the man in the big chair — forgive him for unabashedly enjoying the unbearable lightness of being, even as he oversees his handpicked successor.

“John?” Fangio asked. “Are you kidding me? He might be the happiest person on the planet right now.”

If nothing else, Elway was perfectly content not to pull the trigger in the draft room — and relieved that it’s someone else’s turn to try to summon some Mile High Magic.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter.

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