PHILADELPHIA -- Try as they may, the Denver Broncos still can't seem to escape the sins of their recent past.
The team that's won just six times in its last 26 games came out as one of the early losers in the first weekend of free agency, handcuffed by a cash crisis brought about by an onslaught of bad decisions made during the disastrous Josh McDaniels era and an inability to deal away its best trade chip, quarterback Kyle Orton. That failure to find a taker for the capable yet uninspiring veteran has created the first major crisis for John Elway in his new role as a front office executive, one the legendary former field general is quickly finding to be infinitely more challenging than orchestrating a two-minute drill with the game on the line.
As not as if Denver truly wants to part with Orton, who's thrown for nearly 7.500 yards and a combined 41 touchdown passes in two seasons since coming over from Chicago in the controversial Jay Cutler trade that exposed McDaniels' shortcomings as both a communicator and talent evaluator. But with a roster chock full of glaring needs and precious little money to spend, getting his nearly $9 million salary off the books was a virtual necessity in order for the Broncos to move forward in what's shaping up to be a monstrous rebuilding project.
Elway surely can't be held accountable for the Broncos' current salary cap mess -- that damage had been done by the countless blunders made by the short-lived McDaniels regime. What the Hall of Famer may be guilty of, however, is miscalculating the demand for a quarterback who's perceived as good enough to get by with, but not necessarily one to build a franchise around.
Denver found Orton's market to be disappointingly lukewarm when it placed the six-year pro on the trading block immediately after the NFL lifted its summer- long freeze on player movement last week. Arizona showed mild interest, though it was no certainly no secret of its preference for the more expensive (and less credentialed, mind you) Kevin Kolb. Tennessee and Minnesota, both seeking battle-tested bridges to rookie first-round picks, targeted Matt Hasselbeck and a discounted Donovan McNabb right out of the chute. And Seattle and Washington chose to go the cheap route for now, presumably with an eye on landing one of the prized members of a bonanza quarterback crop in the 2012 draft.
That left Miami as the lone entrant in a one-horse race, but a reluctance to meet the Broncos' asking price as well as Orton's own wishes on a contract extension eventually caused those talks to stall. And while a potential deal between the teams isn't dead, it's now less likely after the Dolphins switched gears and signed Carolina retread Matt Moore to back up the erratic Chad Henne.
As a result of Miami's holdup, the Broncos were unable to make any major moves in free agency (and no, a past-his-prime Willis McGahee doesn't qualify as an impact acquisition). Denver couldn't get in on the bidding for defensive tackles Cullen Jenkins and Brandon Mebane, either of whom would have helped shore up a barren position, and had to settle on the declining McGahee as a sidekick to running back Knowshon Moreno after losing out on the younger and more explosive DeAngelo Williams.
Orton himself didn't particularly aid in the process, seeming content to play out the year on his current salary before taking his chances as a free agent, where it's possible he could be one of the more desirable quarterbacks of the 2012 class.
In the meantime, he'll spend an undetermined amount of time in a sort of football purgatory, with the Broncos doubtful to cut Orton after paying out a $1.5 million roster bonus last week and just as unlikely to find a trade partner unless a team suffers a prominent quarterback injury in the preseason.
While that layout may please veteran-favouring new head coach John Fox, who stands a better chance of winning this season with Orton at the controls as opposed to the still-developing Tim Tebow, it's not exactly the ideal scenario for the Broncos in the long term. With a team still several bodies short of realistically competing for a playoff spot, it's in Denver best interest to discover exactly what it has in Tebow, not to mention a golden opportunity to capitalize on the considerable marketability the affable former Heisman Trophy recipient possesses.
You've got to feel for Fox just a bit, by the way. The ex-Carolina head man goes from a team that refused to shell out a dime last season to one that right now can't properly fill its needs due to a lack of funds. Then to add further insult, he had to watch the Panthers spend money during the signing period like the Real Housewives on a weekend binge down Rodeo Drive.
Perhaps no contract sent more shockwaves through NFL circles than the five- year, $43 million pact the Panthers gave to DeAngelo Williams, and the repercussions from that deal were immediately felt in Tennessee and San Francisco. Titans running back Chris Johnson and 49ers leading rusher Frank Gore both staged holdouts in response to the move, joining a list of AWOL stars that also included Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson, Jacksonville tight end Marcedes Lewis and Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora.
As it turned out, the majority of the protests were nothing more than symbolic gestures. Gore and Lewis both showed up at their teams' camp on Monday, while Umenyiora reported to the Giants' facility on Sunday after sitting out just one day, though an ESPN report has stated the club has given the unhappy pass rusher and his agent permission to seek a trade.
Those quick backtracks are clear proof that the new collective bargaining agreement has already had a profound effect on the subject of holding out. Under the terms of the new rules, teams can now fine players as much as $30,000 for each day they miss during training camp.
Jackson's departure doesn't figure to last all that long as well. The flashy wideout, who's due to make only $565,000 in the final year of his rookie contract, needs to report by August 9 in order to accrue a full season that would make him eligible for free agency in 2012. He'll still be likely showing up with an added chip on his shoulder, however, after just witnessing the active Eagles shell out a combined $113 million to bring in free agents Nnamdi Asomugha, Cullen Jenkins and Jason Babin to upgrade a new-look defence.
The one holdout that seems to have some real legs is that of Johnson. The dynamic speedster has two years remaining on a reworked deal he signed last summer, just months after establishing an NFL single-season record for yards from scrimmage, but is slated to earn just $800,000 this season. He's angling to become the league's highest paid running back, and the mammoth contract Williams just signed only further compounds the already-tense situation between he and the Titans.
For what it's worth, Houston's Arian Foster will be playing on a $525,000 exclusive rights tender this season after leading the NFL in rushing in 2010.
A few other thoughts about what was truly one wild first weekend to finally kick off the new league year:
- Philadelphia's offseason splurge, highlighted by the out-of-nowhere nabbing of Asomugha -- the biggest catch of this year's free-agent pool -- has already dialed up the pressure on new defensive coordinator Juan Castillo. The Eagles will be coming in with Super Bowl aspirations, and if a unit that also added talented corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in the Kevin Kolb trade doesn't perform to expectations, the former offensive line coach will be taking some serious heat, especially since he wasn't a particularly popular hire to begin with.
- Now that Peyton Manning's contract situation is finally settled, the Colts can concentrate on retooling their roster in hopes of another playoff run. And Bill Polian may have indeed his work cut out for him this year, because if Houston can make big improvements on a defence that just made two strong signings in unheralded cornerback Johnathan Joseph and safety Danieal Manning, the Texans may be able to give Indianapolis a serious run in the AFC South.
- Though they didn't make a splash in free agency, it's hard not to like what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are doing. General manager Mark Dominik is sticking to his long-term vision, using the team's available cap space to lock up young cornerstones such as guard Davin Joseph and linebacker Quincy Black instead of spending on quick-fix veterans. If the Bucs can add some depth at cornerback (Kelvin Hayden comes to mind as a good fit), there's no reason to believe they can't challenge Atlanta and New Orleans once again in the NFC South.
- St. Louis and Arizona look to be the early front-runners in a wide-open NFC West. The Rams gave reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Sam Bradford a potential No. 1 receiver by signing ex-Jaguar Mike Sims-Walker and brought in a few solid pieces on defence, most notably former Eagles safety Quintin Mikell. The jury may still be out on Kolb in Arizona, but the young quarterback will have some pretty good weapons to throw to in Larry Fitzgerald, tight end Todd Heap and possibly Braylon Edwards.
-- The most under-the-radar free-agent signing? How about Bruce Gradkowski in Cincinnati? The gritty ex-Raider may not be an elite quarterback, but he's a tough competitor and a strong leader that the often character-deficient Bengals could use, plus he's got a good grasp of offensive coordinator Jay Gruden's system from their days together in Tampa. Should be a good mentor for Andy Dalton, and helps ensure the team doesn't have to start the rookie from day one.
- A quick note for fantasy players: don't be seduced by Chad Ochocinco's arrival in New England. Sure, catching passes from Tom Brady is a far more appealing proposition than the Gradkowski/Dalton combo, but Ocho will still probably see less targets than both Wes Welker and Deion Branch in the Patriots' diverse offence. And don't forget the Pats have two quality tight ends as well.
- Tiki Barber, you may want to brush up that resume. It's hard to believe any team wouldn't jump at the chance to acquire a 36-year-old running back with a me-first reputation who hasn't played a down in the last three seasons.