ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --Make no mistake: While fixing what ails the Broncos doesn't end with the quarterback position, it starts there.
"I think there is no doubt we've got to get better at that position," President of Football Operations/General Manager John Elway said. "For us to have a chance to get better, we've got to get better at that position."
Only the Browns finished the season with a lower team-wide passing-efficiency rating than the Broncos' figure of 73.0. Cleveland was also the only team with a worse season-long touchdown-to-interception differential than the Broncos' minus-3 (19 touchdowns, 22 interceptions).
"Obviously, that position didn't perform as well as we wanted it to. I thought it would perform better that it did," Elway said. "And it's not just on them; I think there's a lot of circumstances that went into that, that put them in tough situations. But we didn't perform as well as we'd like to, so that's obviously a position that we feel like we have to get better at going into next season."
Now the Broncos must figure out the potential solution, which could involve some combination of internal options, free agency or the draft, in which the Broncos have the No. 5 overall selection.
Starting quarterbacks from this season with expiring contracts who could be unrestricted free agents include Washington's Kirk Cousins, New Orleans' Drew Brees, Miami's Jay Cutler, Minnesota's Case Keenum and Sam Bradford, San Francisco's Jimmy Garoppolo and Josh McCown of the New York Jets. However, that field should look substantially different given that some of those names will likely be re-signed or given the franchise tag in the next two months.
The draft could present the Broncos with a handful of viable early-round choices depending on how the final collection of available quarterbacks looks when all potential early-entry candidates have declared by Jan. 15. For now, the field officially includes Wyoming's Josh Allen, Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph, the last two of which are expected to headline the passers at the Senior Bowl later this month.
"We expect to have an answer there, one way or the other, however that goes," Elway said. "I think that thought process makes me think that we'll have a better year, because the fact is we've got to figure out how to get that position playing better. That's what we don't know going into it. There's a lot of unknowns.
"Until we kind of figure out exactly what that is -- once we figure that out, then we can set up a plan of how we want to attack it."
Part of the plan is evaluating the progress of Paxton Lynch, who made his fourth career start against the Kansas City Chiefs last Sunday and used a series of short, controlled passes to find an early rhythm en route to a 21-of-31, 254-yard, two-touchdown, two-interception performance.
"That falls in the process too and we have to figure out where he is in the process as far as him developing as the quarterback," Elway said. "There's no question, we have to figure that out, too.
"The hardest thing is that we didn't get to see him play this year and he didn't get that experience that we were so hoping to get him -- especially when he got hurt in the Raiders game. That's one that's going to be high on the topics as far as discussion -- where we think he is and if he can be that guy going into the future."
But whoever starts at quarterback to open the season will be asked to guide an offense that is more focused on establishing the ground game. That's what Head Coach Vance Joseph wants. That's what it did early in the season, and that's where he wants it to return.
"Our first goal was to run the football. In the first month of the season, we ran the football, we threw it, we scored points and we moved the ball, but the turnovers were still there -- and I blame myself for not addressing that part of our offense," Joseph said. "But our philosophy hasn't changed offensively: It's running the football, controlling the game, keeping third downs manageable -- for whoever's playing quarterback, that's the formula of winning football. That hasn't changed."
The final six games of the regular season under Offensive Coordinator Bill Musgrave offered a glimpse of what Joseph wanted to see. Denver ran the ball more often; 44.5 percent of the plays in the six games with Musgrave were runs, compared with 36.6 percent in the previous six games.
"How we played offensively after we hired Billy was my vision of offense: To run the football and control the games and to play great defense and to minimize the errors by the quarterback, and I thought Billy did a great job of calling the game that way," Joseph said.
An emphasis on the run would help any quarterback. But if the Broncos go the rookie route, it would provide an extra benefit to keep the pressure off that young passer as he develops.
That option is on the table, and if it is Denver's choice, Elway's experience in 1983 could provide guidance. It was rough at times. But by Week 15, he led the Broncos back from a 19-0 deficit to a 21-19 win over the Baltimore Colts that clinched the Broncos' first playoff win in four years. A season later, the Broncos were back atop the AFC West with a 13-3 record.
"Obviously it's not ideal, but I would say this: I did it," Elway said. "It was tough. You drink through a fire hose. But then again, if you make it through that you have a chance to be tough enough to handle it in this league, too. You have to play it by ear.
"The personality, if it is a young guy -- what's his personality? Where do you think he is?"
Whether the Broncos' 2018 quarterback is a rookie or a veteran, finding out the personality is crucial -- especially if he is a rookie, whose locker-room presence at the NFL requires a projection.
"Obviously stepping into that role when you come out of college -- in college you're allowed to be a kid. You come to the NFL and the expectation levels rise, especially if you're a high pick. You're expected to be good or show signs of being a very good player early," Elway said.
Take a look at the top shots of the Broncos vs. Chiefs game to end the season, with a focus on orange. (Photos by Gabriel Christus unless noted)
"The other half is how are they going to handle the situation and how are they going to handle the [significance] of being a quarterback in the NFL. That is the biggest part and I say it all the time. Just trying to figure out how these guys can handle the tough times, because there's going to be tough times. When the world feels like it's caving in are they going to be able to battle through that and not lose their confidence?"
For many young prospects, the NFL experience represents the first taste of failure. So many have been the best player at every level at which they've played all the way up the ladder from Pop Warner to college, and then they arrive and find a horde of teammates and opponents whose natural abilities and instincts match their own. Sometimes, then, you lose. So how do you handle the defeats -- both on the scoreboard and in the one-on-one matchups?
The answer to that so often determines who succeeds and who fails at this level.
"What gets you here is your swagger and your confidence as quarterback. You have a chance to play in the NFL and that's what gets you here and you can't be afraid of it. Then all of a sudden if you get in the world and all of a sudden things aren't going well, the world starts caving in on you and you lose that swagger or you lose that confidence, it's very, very difficult to get it back," Elway said.
"You have to figure out how strong they are, what they believe in and how strong they are, what they are as a quarterback and to be able to battle through that. If they can do that, then they have a chance to have a great, long career.
"To me, I say it all the time: It's 50 percent the physical side of it and 50 percent mental side. The heart and finding out what they have inside, that's the difficult part. Not only at the quarterback position, it's about every position because it comes down to what's inside, what's in that heart, how bad they want it and how great they want to be. If they want to be great football players, they have a chance to be great."
The evaluation of the possible quarterbacks, down to the most minute detail, will be arduous. The success or failure of the 2018 Broncos -- and perhaps seasons beyond -- could depend on it.
"We have to formulate that plan, exactly what it's going to be," Elway said. "With that being said, the No. 1 goal is we know we have to get better at that position."