A behind-the-scenes look at how John Elway and the Broncos built a star-studded free-agent class


MARCH 15, 2020 — Ready to make moves

On the eve of the NFL’s legal-tampering period, the Broncos were prepared to make waves — and there was reason for optimism.

From a league level, the new collective bargaining agreement was ratified Sunday morning after the NFLPA voted to approve the 10-year deal. With labor peace guaranteed, free agency would proceed as scheduled.

Then, of course, there was a sense of excitement around the team.

Enthusiasm carried over from the season’s finish, and Elway wanted to take an aggressive approach to upgrade the football team. With Lock at the quarterback position, the team’s leadership felt there was a high likelihood they had found their franchise quarterback. And without having to worry about filling that spot, the Broncos could devote their resources to other areas of the football team.

Cornerback, guard and the defensive line were identified as the primary areas of need — and they’d already knocked out the cornerback position through the Bouye trade.

In the front office’s eyes, it was the perfect storm.

Suddenly, though, the Broncos’ free agency plans hit an unexpected speed bump.

On the evening of Sunday, March 15, Broncos President and CEO Joe Ellis emailed the entire organization to mandate a two-week closure of UCHealth Training Center and Empower Field at Mile High. The decision was made after consultation with the team’s medical staff, led by Director of Sports Medicine Steve Antonopulos and Head Athletic Trainer Vince Garcia, as well as discussions with the organization’s leadership team.

The COVID-19 situation was becoming increasingly serious. The proactive and precautionary mandatory closure was necessary to help ensure the safety of the team’s employees and the community at large.

Nearly all employees were given Monday to collect needed items from their workplaces before they would have to work from home. Coach Fangio, who was in the office working on Sunday, fired off a text message to his assistant coaches early in the evening explaining that assistant coaches would have to work from him for at least the next two weeks.

There were a few exceptions. Rehabbing players could continue to access the facility, and those with critical operational roles also remained.

Elway, Fangio, Russell, Durso, Vice President of Football Administration Rich Hurtado, Director of Team Administration Mark Thewes and PR chief Patrick Smyth were on hand to administer football matters.

They were the “Elway 7,” as one member of the group jokingly referred to the bare-bones staff of seven individuals.

Senior Vice President of Operations Chip Conway was there to help with facility access. IT and video needs were handled by Senior Vice President of Information Technology Russ Trainor and Video Director Steve Boxer, respectively.

Elway’s crew felt confident and ready to go. Its work — much of it done by Durso and the pro scouts of ahead of time in coordination with Elway and Russell — was finished. It was time to execute the plan.

MARCH 16, 2020 — Let the (legal) tampering begin

The morning offered hints of a normal routine.

Outside linebacker Bradley Chubb and a couple of other players entered UCHealth Training Center to rehab from their injuries.

It didn’t take long, though, for the building to empty out. The coaching wing was empty, as was much of the rest of the building. Normally home to more than 100 full-time employees, UCHealth Training Center was nearly vacant. The cafeteria — normally bustling — was quiet and dark.

Instead, the action was concentrated around a hallway on the second floor of the facility. Along the corridor, Elway’s, Thewes’ and Hurtado’s offices sit in succession. Russell’s and Durso’s are just around the corner, and Fangio’s is located down the hall. Each had disinfectant wipes waiting on their desk, and they worked to maintain six feet of physical separation at all times.

The rest of the building may have been silent, but there was excitement and urgency in this part of UCHealth Training Center. The communication was quick and direct, with Durso, Russell and Fangio making countless trips in and out of Elway’s office.

Elway made dozens of trips out of his office to the right, checking in with Russell and Durso on their latest intel. He frequently dashed straight out of his office and made the long walk down the hall to ask Fangio’s opinion on a position of need.

As 10 a.m. struck and the negotiation period began, each focused on their various roles.

Graham Glasgow, a fifth-year guard/center who did not allow a sack last season and has missed one game in the previous two seasons, was the first target.

They felt comfortable having secured Bouye, but Glasgow would represent another major step. With Glasgow, the Broncos were aggressive out of the gate, and Hurtado worked to make the numbers click. The Broncos allocate a certain amount of money to each free agent they want to target — and Hurtado takes care of the discussions with the agents.

As Elway’s crew broke for lunch from Snarf’s — picked up by Russell in a to-go order from the local sandwich shop — they came to terms with their new normal.

Supporting local restaurants for lunch – they’d eat Qdoba on Thursday and Famous Dave’s BBQ on Friday – replaced meals cooked on-site. They sat at separate tables. They watched the news. They discussed the latest developments in a changing world with the serious and evolving coronavirus.

Then, some good news. By Monday afternoon, Glasgow’s representation and the Broncos had agreed to terms on a four-year contract.

In Elway’s office, where the group would gather from time to time to wait, they were jubilant. And relieved. They had landed another piece, and they could continue to move forward with their Plan A for free agency.

During a week when bad news can change a team’s entire plan, the Broncos didn’t get much.