As the great number 18 approaches the end of his career, can the Broncos find the stamina, the determination, the grit, and the (dare we say it) drive it’ll take to give their legendary signal caller what could be his final shot at the Big Game? We’re about to find out.
—Illustration by Roberto Parada
Yeah, He’s Pretty Good…
The record books say Peyton Manning may be the Greatest Of All Time, but even the Sheriff could stand to fix a few things this season. We break down number 18’s statistics—both the highs and lows.
...And he’s getting better.
Manning should easily break Brett Favre’s career passing touchdown record this season
Chad Pennington’s league-leading career pass completion percentage could potentially fall to Manning this season
It’s conceivable Manning could scoot by Dan Marino’s career game-winning drives record in 2014.
He’s Got Next
What can we conclude about the Broncos QB of the future? Almost nothing.
Given the constant attention focused on celebrated quarterback Peyton Manning since he arrived in Denver, casual fans might wonder if the team even has a backup quarterback. But there he is, all six feet and eight inches of him, waiting, watching, and (hopefully) learning the toughest trade in sports.
Brock Osweiler’s call to action might not come for one or two more years—or it could come one or two snaps from now. Such is the reality for the NFL’s sideline-residing signal-callers. Only in this case, whether Osweiler’s ascension to the throne is deliberately executed or a 911-level emergency, he’ll be asked to fill the shoes—and the arm, and the brain—of a living legend.
No pressure, dude.
Here’s what we know: Osweiler’s one of the tallest QBs to ever play in the pros. The Broncos drafted him in 2012, somewhat surprisingly, in the second round, ahead of current starting QBs such as Philadelphia’s Nick Foles and Seattle’s Russell Wilson. (Doh!) Pre-draft scouting reports praised Osweiler’s arm strength, quick release, and athleticism but also questioned his decision-making and tendency to slip into a “gunslinger” mentality.
He set records for yardage and completion percentage during his lone year as a full-time starter at Arizona State University—a decent-enough program that also produced onetime Bronco Jake “The Snake” Plummer—though Osweiler’s win-loss record that season was just 6-7. Still, John Elway saw enough promise—and maybe even a little of himself—in the kid to risk a high pick on him at least two years before he’d likely be needed.
This is key, because the scouting reports also called Osweiler raw and in need of seasoning. (He’s thrown a mere 20 passes so far in the NFL, all in garbage time.) Much like Aaron Rodgers marinated for years on the Packers’ bench behind Brett Favre, the Broncos are hoping that the mere act of watching and practicing alongside Manning’s unparalleled preparation and work ethic will give Osweiler the necessary polish once his fateful day arrives. And given that the Broncos have made no effort to draft or trade for an alternative “QB of the future,” it seems clear the team is comfortable with this outsized signal-caller being the guy who’ll one day try to replace the Bunyanesque legend who’s taking the snaps now. —LH
Back In The Huddle
At six-foot-six and 315 pounds, left tackle Ryan Clady’s in charge of safeguarding Colorado’s most prized commodity. But don’t ask the Denver Broncos offensive lineman to talk up his role as head bouncer at Club Peyton, especially after a year in which he missed nearly all of Denver’s Super Bowl season with ligament and joint damage to his foot. These days, the 27-year-old six-year vet is focused on some pretty lofty goals: getting back on the field, re-establishing himself as his team’s second-best player, and being a part of Denver’s potential championship run this coming winter.
Peyton Manning said getting you back this year will be like adding another top-shelf free agent to the team. Do you feel like the new guy again?
I know all the vets, for the most part, but I’m definitely getting back into the rhythm of things. I was out for a majority of last season, so I wasn’t around the guys as much as usual, and that’s been different. It’s tough not to be around them. When I was on injured reserve, I was kind of just a guy—getting treatment, going home—and that was a tough situation to be in.
Because of your foot injury, you played in only two games this past season.
Yeah. The playoffs were the hardest: the AFC Championship game because I’d never played in that, and obviously I’d never played in the Super Bowl. Those were two games that were tough to watch from the sidelines.
What’s the scariest thing for a Broncos offensive lineman: the defensive player across from you or the thought of what Manning might say if one of you gives up a sack?
Probably the guy across from you. But I think, in 2012, you didn’t want to be the guy who gave up the sack that got Peyton hurt. The pressure, the expectations, have been here ever since Peyton arrived.
What’s the most interesting thing Manning has said to you?
I can’t think of anything.
He just yells “Omaha!” at you?
One word: The Denver Broncos are…
Why? The group of guys we have. The chemistry. How we’ve had adversity at times and we’ve thrived on it and gotten past it and continue to strive to get to the Super Bowl. Super Bowl favorites don’t always get to that game, they don’t always win it, but that’s something we want to do this season.
Outside of Manning, which player will have the biggest impact on the team this season?
Probably Demaryius [Thomas] or Von [Miller], when he’s healthy. They’re big playmakers, game-changers for us.
Have you pancake-blocked anyone yet?
Not quite. I haven’t gotten there yet.
Do you ever want to lay somebody out at the supermarket?
Nah. I wouldn’t do that. But I’m itching to get on the field.
Cast Of Characters
Think you know all about your favorite players? Think again.
Ronnie Hillman | RB
Spent his first year out of high school making $2.14 an hour as an Applebee’s waiter because his college entrance scores weren’t cleared in time for him to enroll.
Cody Latimer | WR
Played eight positions—including punter—for his high school team in Dayton, Ohio, which had fewer than 15 players on its roster.
Andre “Bubba” Caldwell | WR
Chubby baby + cruel brother = unfortunate nickname.
Britton Colquitt | P
Son, nephew, and brother of NFL punters. His son, Nash, started kicking footballs not too long after he could walk.
Montee Ball | RB
Big kid who didn’t want to play offensive lineman in youth football. Cut out excess sweets. Now bribes his offensive linemen with candy.
Brock Osweiler | QB
Was offered a basketball scholarship to Gonzaga University as a high school sophomore.
Manny Ramirez | G
Returns to Earth each offseason. Earth, Texas—population 1,100—that is.
Jacob Tamme | TE
Was editor of the Boyle County (Kentucky) High School newspaper, the Rebel Pride.
Julius Thomas | WR
Competed in eight different sports as a child. The first? Gymnastics.
Sylvester Williams | DT
In addition to working for the Denver Broncos, has held down jobs at Backyard Burgers, Taco Bell, Walmart, and the Modine Manufacturing Co., where he assembled radiators.
Most football pundits gave the Broncos a solid but unspectacular grade for the 2014 draft. With just seven picks, all low in their respective rounds, the team focused on adding depth at some of the least sexy positions. Among the highlights:
Bradley Roby CB, Ohio State
A terrific athlete with some off-field and maturity issues (a DUI conviction, work ethic questions), he may take time to develop but could become a worthwhile replacement for the departed Champ Bailey.
Cody Latimer WR, Indiana
He’s big, smart, and has good hands, much like Eric Decker, who (for reasons we simply cannot comprehend) signed with the Jets.
Michael Schofield OL, Michigan
Another “big ugly” (to borrow one of John Madden’s pet phrases) who will add depth to an offensive line that’s had to scramble to fill holes in the past few years.
Lamin Barrow LB, LSU
Barrow is a work in progress, but he has a great attitude and serious athletic upside (sub-4.6 speed; excellent body control; quick feet); he’ll hopefully bring some stability to the Broncos’ rotating linebacker corps.
The Guys That Bind
Peyton Manning is the undisputed team leader, but the soul of any club lies with the players who hold the squad together, rarely seek attention, and keep everyone else focused. A source inside the Broncos locker room tells us who these “glue guys” are and why.
Running Back Roulette
No matter who ends up on the roster, the Broncos will be betting on a very inexperienced platoon of rushers to help Peyton Manning down the field. But whom will the ball ultimately land with the most? We spin the wheel….
Position: New Broncos Superfan
Office location: Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver, Colorado
Hours: Eight Sundays per year; potential overtime days in January and February
Job description: Responsible for: entertaining 76,125 people with silly antics and a funny, homemade costume; rallying the crowd into one united 12th man during defensive stands; maintaining an upbeat mentality in the face of imminent defeat. Candidate should be inherently optimistic, wildly creative, dedicated, outspoken, impervious to subzero temps, fond of popcorn and beer, and completely immune to the emotion of embarrassment.
Qualifications: Familiarity with Broncos team history and the current season’s Broncos roster; intimate knowledge of National Football League rules; basic understanding of American football culture.
Compensation: Laughs, pats on the back, adulation of children, and, in rarer instances, alcohol-fueled boos, curse words, and jeers.
Important background information: The previous occupier of this position—Tim McKernan, aka the Barrel Man—retired in 2007 and was inducted into the Hall of Fans at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Application deadline: September 1, 2014
Where In The World Is Peyton Manning?
A fanciful look at number 18’s (very busy) offseason travel schedule.
Pebble Beach, California February 7
Officially: Manning plays a round at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, a charity tourney
But really: Tells friends he wanted to see what it was like to “only be kinda good at something.”
Kansas City, Missouri March 1
Officially: Manning sports a goatee at the Kansas City 101 Awards ceremony.
But really: In town to buy an ’86 Camaro. Used the pseudonym “Tad.”
Wichita, Kansas March 20
Officially: Manning visits Cessna Aircraft’s headquarters to launch the Citation CJ3+ business jet.
But really: Checking out getaway aircraft in case Super Bowl XLIX turns out like Super Bowl XLVIII.
Durham, North Carolina April 9
Officially: Manning spends early April working out at Duke University with a select group of Broncos teammates.
But really: Manning and Demaryius Thomas take turns dunking Wes Welker’s head in the toilet as payback for those Old Spice commercials.
Tuscaloosa, Alabama second week of April
Officially: Manning meets with University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban—along with Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase—a move that potentially runs afoul of NFL rules that prevent players from having individual meetings with coaches before teams begin offseason workouts.
But really: No, seriously, dude was totally cheating.
Stillwater, Oklahoma April 16
Officially: Manning gives a 30-minute motivational talk—plus a question-and-answer session—to Oklahoma State University students and gets $105,000 for his time.
But really: Needed to earn some extra cash in case this football thing doesn’t work out.
Indianapolis, Indiana April 26
Officially: Manning sings Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” at a gala for his eponymous children’s hospital.
But really: At an afterparty told attendees: “That one was for my homies.” Poured one out on the marble floor, told Brock Osweiler to mop it up.
New York City, New York May 5
Officially: Manning makes an appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman.
But really: Dissatisfied with the pizza options at Manhattan eateries, Manning checks out space for a 50-oven Papa John’s franchise location. Tells brother Eli there’s a job opening for assistant dayside manager.
Mobile, Alabama May 8
Officially: Manning visits Alabama as part of the Mobile Leadership Series event called “An Evening with Peyton Manning.”
But really: Spent two hours breaking down game film from Super Bowl loss against Seattle. Repeatedly pointed to screen, shook head, and said, “Not my fault.”
Omaha, Nebraska May 15
Officially: Manning speaks at the B’nai B’rith sports banquet, promises the crowd he’ll keep shouting “Omaha!” at the line.
But really: Met with Omaha Chamber of Commerce on plans to open Manningland, the world’s first theme park for delusional parents who think their child’s going to get an athletic scholarship.
Charlottesville, Virginia May 17
Officially: Manning addresses University of Virginia students during valediction.
But really: Visited a 12-year-old receiver in Richmond who runs a 4.3 40. Asks if his favorite colors are blue and orange, then tells him he’s running the slant route wrong.
We Will, We Will…Bore You To Death
We know there are butts in every seat for every home game, but there’s something missing in our stands: enthusiasm. There’s no Richter-scale frenzy like in Seattle; there’s no costuming like that of the Raider Nation; there’s not even an angry mob mentality like in Philly (not that we’d want that). All we have is that annoying IN-COM-PLETE chant, a purebred Arabian horse, and the now-passé mile-high salute. C’mon, folks, we can do better than that. Let’s work on a little fervor, shall we?
The Orange Curse
The Broncos are 0-4 in the Super Bowl when donning their Sunkist-colored jerseys. That’s nearing Bambino-level voodoo. We don’t want to be too superstitious about it, but it does seem like a new fashion statement might be in order. Yes, rumors abound about a Nike-led redesign of the franchise’s entire wardrobe for the 2015 season (although a rep from the company told us, “We don’t have plans for a Broncos redesign at this time”)—but we decided Peyton just can’t wait that long. Is it just us, or does this look have Super Bowl XLIX written all over it?
The Post-Rout Route
The track records of teams that got pounded in a Super Bowl aren’t very pretty.
The Broncos’ offseason mantra this year has been a number: 35. That was the margin of the 43-8 thumping the Seahawks handed them in February, and it’s been the team’s battle cry ever since. Gave up on a route? 35! Too gassed to go another down? C’mon, man, 35! Can’t lift another rep? Dude, 35.
But regardless of motivational slogans, how have NFL teams rebounded from such high-profile beatdowns? Here’s how some of the losers fared after the egg was laid:
SB XXXVII: Tampa Bay 48, Oakland 21: The Raiders haven’t finished above .500, let alone made the playoffs, since this 2003 debacle.
SB XXXV: Baltimore 34, New York Giants 7: The Giants muddled along for a few seasons after the whuppin’, bottomed out, drafted Eli Manning, and have won two rings since 2007.
SB XXIX: San Francisco 49, San Diego 26: The Chargers have often been good, if underachieving, since this 1995 romp, but they’ve yet to return to the Big Game.
SB XXVII: Dallas 52, Buffalo 17: After their 1993 humiliation, the Bills returned to the Super Bowl the next year (and got bulldozed again by the Cowboys). They were a frequent playoff team through the ’90s but haven’t made the postseason since the Clinton administration.
SB XXIV: San Francisco 55, Denver 10: Still the biggest margin of victory in Super Bowl history, this flogging capped the Broncos’ “run” of three embarrassments in four years. It took another eight years before the team finally won titles in 1998 and ’99.
Legends Of The Fall
Who’s next in the Broncos’ Ring of Fame?
When the franchise announced in May that three former Broncos—Gene Mingo, Rick Upchurch, and Dan Reeves—would enter its Ring of Fame in 2014, it was the first time since 2001 that more than one person received the honor. Here’s our list of whom we’d like to see join this prestigious group in the future*—and who shouldn’t.
Champ Bailey—The future NFL Hall of Famer is one of the most productive and popular Broncos in history.
Jason Elam—Kickers love it here, and Elam was one of the best, particularly from long distances.
John Lynch—One of the toughest DBs ever might actually make two teams’ all-time rosters.
Riley Odoms—He was a pass-catching tight end before it was cool, multiple Pro-Bowler, and major contributor to the Broncos’ first Super Bowl team.
Mike Shanahan—We acknowledge this begrudgingly because we can’t ignore his two Super Bowl wins. But we also can’t forget his shocking mediocrity when he was no longer leaning on John Elway.
On the Fence
Peyton Manning and John Fox—Win a ring and you’ll get in the Ring.
Ryan Clady, Von Miller, and Demaryius Thomas—Barring (too many more) injuries, these three should be on their way to becoming all-time Broncos greats.
Trevor Pryce and Al Wilson—These relative no-names were Pro Bowl regulars during the early aughts and deserve some love.
Thanks for Playing
Brian Griese—Deserves some kind of hazard-pay honorable mention for being the Guy Who Replaced Elway.
Josh McDaniels and Tim Tebow—To commemorate their spectacular arrivals and equally stunning flameouts, we suggest naming the post-touchdown fireworks for this mercurial duo.
Jay Cutler—No ring for this perpetually pouty and petulant QB, but we’ll gladly name one of the designated smoking areas after him. (If you don’t get this joke, Google “smokin’ Jay Cutler” and thank us later.)
Distractions—from every direction—mounted just as the team began 2014 OTAs.
May 10, 2014 T.J. Ward, a strong safety, was charged with misdemeanor assault after an incident at PT’s All Nude. Ward allegedly threw a mug at a bartender when she told him he couldn’t bring an outside drink into the club.
May 23, 2014 Broncos director of player personnel Matt Russell pleaded guilty to DUI, careless driving, and an open container violation. He received seven months of jail time (with the option of work release) and two years of probation.
May 31, 2014 Number seven had to bail his son, Jack Elway, out of jail after the 24-year-old was arrested for disturbing the peace and assault. The alleged victim, Jack’s girlfriend, was given an order of protection from the judge.
Running the Gauntlet
The Broncos’ 2014 schedule is pretty much wall-to-wall speed bumps. One byproduct of having a great season in the parity-obsessed NFL is that the league makes it tougher on you the following year. This is even more pronounced for the Broncos in 2014 because their first-place AFC schedule also features NFC opponents that hail from the West, the best division in football. In fact, the Broncos have the second toughest strength of schedule with just three games (two against the Raiders, one against the Bills) versus squads that have virtually no chance to make the playoffs, so a repeat of last season’s 13-3 record seems like a long shot. Here, some dates to
keep in mind.
- September 7: Peyton Manning hosts his longtime team, the Indianapolis Colts, in the Sunday night regular season opener.
- September 21: The revenge-minded Broncos travel to the league’s loudest stadium—CenturyLink Field in Seattle—which offers an advantage so decisive the NFL has been reluctant in recent years to give the ’Hawks any home night games. (This one’s at 2:25 p.m.)
- Oct. 19 & 23: The Broncos entertain the 49ers and the Chargers (on a short week) before hitting the road for a full month. In fact, they have only one homer between October 23 and December 7.
- Dec. 14, 22 & 28: Back-to-back roadies against San Diego and Cincinnati could determine playoff seeds before a hoped-for season-ending breather at home versus Oakland.
In just three seasons, Saint John has turned around the Mile High City’s signature sports franchise. But can he win the big one—again?
Less than three weeks after being named the Denver Broncos’ executive vice president of football operations in 2011, John Elway visited Mobile, Alabama, for the Senior Bowl. Billed as an all-star game for college seniors who hope to make it to the National Football League, the weeklong event is a performance for media and pro scouts—a tryout before the spring draft. At the most, a team executive might drop in for an afternoon, meet with his staff, then head home. Elway was an outlier at the event: After 16 seasons as a quarterback, the two-time Super Bowl champion—and three-time Super Bowl loser—had learned how the little things can tip a team toward victory. So the Hall of Famer set up camp inside a Residence Inn for the full week. He slept in a crappy bed, worked the waffle maker every morning at the breakfast buffet. How’re you doing? he’d ask. People outside the team noticed. John Elway wasn’t resting on his name.
That all seems so long ago, when Elway was the new guy in the front office and the most famous business in the Centennial State was mired in uncertainty. Now—three-and-a-half years, 34 regular-season wins, and another Super Bowl appearance later—Elway eases into a chair inside his office at team headquarters in Arapahoe County. He considers those first weeks as an NFL executive, how far his team has come in the past few seasons, how much work is still left to be done. The chaos of NFL life surrounds him: the constantly buzzing cell phone, the assistant in the other room, the staffers who come by simply to chat with a legend. “I was risking the legacy of what I’d done as a player by coming back, but the bottom line was I knew what it would take for me to be successful, and that’s spending the time and working my tail off,” Elway says. “To be great at anything takes a hell of a lot of work.”
Even for someone like old number seven, a man known for making the impossible possible, rebuilding this once-proud franchise seemed a colossal enterprise. Consider the malaise that preceded his arrival. In the previous six seasons, the Broncos were 49-47 and recorded just one playoff win. Former head coach Mike Shanahan’s mediocre teams gave way to the Josh McDaniels era, a time memorable primarily for its 22 months of incompetence. McDaniels ran off quarterback Jay Cutler and wasted a first-round pick on Tim Tebow. His staff was caught spying on another team’s practices. But then: Elway. His title didn’t say it—there are many bureaucratic layers to any franchise—but this was his team, his project. It was his mess to clean up.
Figuring out how to do that took time. Elway knew there’d been a long list of well-intentioned superstar athletes who’d fallen apart as executives. Michael Jordan has been uneven as owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets (formerly the Bobcats). One-time Oakland (and Los Angeles) Raider Matt Millen was a disaster in his seven-plus years with the Detroit Lions. Dan Marino, the former Miami Dolphins quarterback and Hall of Famer, lasted three weeks as an executive with his old club.
Elway got his first front-office lesson as co-owner of the Colorado Crush, where he built a champion in the Arena Football League. After the AFL suspended operations in 2009, Elway dreamed of a return to the NFL and began to imagine himself making the ultimate management run in the nation’s most popular professional
league. When he finally was offered a job with the Broncos, he didn’t hesitate. “I looked at this as a great challenge,” Elway says. “You always seem to be judged even greater in your next life, but you can never be great if you don’t risk something.”
At the time of his hire, skeptical observers could have been forgiven for wondering if Elway’s arrival was a public relations move, an attempt by team owner Pat Bowlen to satiate and distract fans embittered by the stagnation that defined the final years of Shanahan’s tenure and McDaniels’ failures. If that was the case, Elway didn’t let on. He wanted people to believe in the old magic, to be sure who was leading this change. He had the walls to his office entryway removed and the drywall replaced with glass. He went to the Broncos season ticket holders and talked up the team’s future. At team headquarters, he studied game film with the same passion he had as a player. He disappeared for hours into a room he’d come to call “the cave,” where he met with staff and plotted the team’s future.
“This is his second half,” says Tim Schmidt, Elway’s friend since the late ’80s and business partner in their chain of Elway’s steakhouses. “He’s the face of the Broncos, a face of the NFL. There are people in sports who stand out. Baseball has Babe Ruth, basketball has Michael Jordan. Then there’s John Elway. There’s something mystical about John, something people will remember all their lives.”
Perhaps no former football player elicits as much fervor among his fans, even though they—we—hardly know anything about him. We think we know who he is—the victories, the business successes, his public failings, his triumphs in his current role—but truly understanding Denver’s biggest celebrity is an elusive proposition. John Elway, to many of us, is still something of a mystery. He is number seven. He’s a restaurateur, a name on car dealerships. He is the blond-haired, blue-eyed kid from Stanford University who came to define an unforgettable era in Colorado.
Today, one can view his greatest works through the prism of setbacks and breakthroughs, of moments of exceptional personal pain and overwhelming joy. Ask those closest to him what defines their friend and there are moments of thoughtful silence. When they speak, there’s no locker-room humor, only reverence. They don’t merely talk about Elway as much as they exalt him. Teamwork. Cooperation. Maturity. He is both humble and hard, they say. He’s infinitely determined, perpetually motivated. Dish it out, and he can take it.
In truth, he suffered greatly after his father’s death in 2001. Jack Elway was his son’s compass, his mentor, his confidant. Fifteen months later, Elway’s twin sister, Jana, died from lung cancer. There was the very public divorce from his college sweetheart, Janet, in 2003. An Internet business he started with Jordan and hockey legend Wayne Gretzky fell apart. The AFL crumbled. A hedge-fund manager made off with millions of his dollars. Elway had a falling out with Shanahan, his once-close friend and former coach. “I don’t know if you ever hit rock bottom,” Elway said after his divorce. “Really, the pain doesn’t go away.” There were not-so-quiet whispers of alcohol abuse, of an existence nudged off course.
He denied the rumors, but it was impossible to deny this: Elway, once larger than life, now seemed the object of pity. Football had come so easy. First-round draft pick, one NFL MVP award and a Super Bowl MVP, five Super Bowls. All the other stuff? That was the hard part. “You either look at those things as, ‘Poor me,’ and you become a victim, or you use those things to be able to say, ‘OK, it’s going to make me tougher and it’s going to make me better and I’m going to battle through this,’ ” Elway told me. “If I can handle these situations, I’ll be able to handle anything else the rest of my life. I think I came out the other end with a better perspective and a tougher mentality. I realized that I have to take the good with the bad.”
It took time to repair the holes in his life. He met Paige Green, a former Raiders cheerleader, in 2005. The two married in 2009. As he got older, his physical prowess waned, but he gained the ability to manage his oversized life, to control what was controllable. “There was this maturity and comfort in life,” Schmidt says. “He’s learned leadership, listening to others. If you learn how to lead, you can run anything. That’s one of the things I think he’s proudest of these last few years.” In his new role with the Broncos, Elway allowed that he didn’t understand everything. There were still some things he needed to learn. He needed to open himself to the possibility that a then-50-year-old man couldn’t pull off a miracle alone simply because he’d done it before. In other words—for a while, at least—John Elway had to stop thinking he was John Elway.
There are no scoreboards in life, but the ones on Sundays have been registering Elway’s victories as an executive for three seasons now. It’s almost impossible to remember those dozen years without him, now that he’s shaped the franchise in so many ways, most notably his successful pursuit of Peyton Manning—who may turn out to be the most impactful free agent in football history.
Even with the wisdom that comes from age and the maturity that comes from surviving hardship, that old Elway spirit sneaks out every once in a while—the do-everything man, the on-field commander—though only a few people really ever see it these days.
An example: October 15, 2012, in San Diego. Manning, in just his sixth game with the Broncos, led the team from a 24-point halftime deficit to beat the Chargers, 35-24. It was, in a word, Elway-esque. While fans saw the team’s second-half heroics, what they didn’t see was Elway just before halftime, sitting in a suite upstairs—upset, uncomfortable. “I could see the angst; he was helpless,” says Terrell Davis, the legendary Broncos running back turned NFL Network analyst, who shared the suite that evening. “I asked John, ‘Is this the toughest part about this job?’ He said, ‘Yeah. You have to sit down.’ He could no longer affect the game the way he used to.”
“You can’t ever replace playing in the NFL, and you can’t ever replace playing quarterback,” Elway says. “As a competitor, you never lose the will. You never lose the idea that you can still be good and play. The older you get, the smarter you get. If I had this brain when I was 25, I’d have been really good.”
It’s easy to imagine Elway watching the Super Bowl loss unfold this year and feeling helpless all over again. What happened during that game was beyond his control. But those moments in the aftermath of Denver’s 43-8 dismantling by the Seattle Seahawks were also quintessential Elway. Yes, he was disappointed. He knew some things needed to change, but he still believed in this team. “You’ve got to try to draw the positive stuff out of it,” Elway says. “The key thing is it was a hell of a year. A lot of times you get thrown back in and the fans get mad because we didn’t play well, but the bottom line is, when you look back at the year we had, it was a tremendous year. It’s OK to be proud of last year. A Super Bowl win is the greatest win, but it’s also the greatest loss. The fall from the loss is traumatic because you put so much effort into it and get so close. But having done that, it makes the wins that much better. I always say this: Joe Montana doesn’t appreciate his four Super Bowl wins nearly as much as I appreciate my two because he never lost one.”
Says Davis: “Part of what makes John who he is is that he knows what to say and when to say it. He never alienates his players. But he also has a way of letting you know, ‘Step your game up.’ Elway’s the one you want to make proud; you want his approval.”
More than a week after the game this past February, Elway was at his house in Palm Springs with his wife and Schmidt. One night, Elway and his buddy sat in the backyard and talked about the loss, about the team’s future. The sun set. Darkness enveloped the desert landscape. “Halfway through the conversation, it was about moving on and getting better,” Schmidt remembers. “Superstars talk about yesterday’s failure, but not for very long. John wanted to move on.”
He did. Weeks later, there was another burst of hope for Broncos fans, courtesy of Elway. Emmanuel Sanders. Aqib Talib. DeMarcus Ware. T.J. Ward. Elway added three Pro Bowlers to his team, turned over a defense that had given up five Super Bowl touchdowns, and bolstered Manning’s arsenal with a new receiver. At the end of the offseason, on paper at least, another championship run—another Super Bowl appearance, maybe even a third Vince Lombardi Trophy for the franchise—seemed within reach.
Of course, neither last year’s Super Bowl run nor this year’s great expectations would be possible without Manning, whom Elway signed in 2012. Elway was subtle and confident in his wooing of the star. No pressure. Just talk. Honesty. “Make the decision that’s right for you,” he told Manning.
“It was a calculated risk, and it was worth taking,” Elway says. “I just believed in what Peyton told me, the fact that he still wanted to play, that he had a lot of football left in him. That told me the type of guy that he was.”
He keeps the signed portion of Manning’s contract in a frame atop his office bookcase, in the far corner of a room that overlooks the team’s practice field. Take a quick look around and you might miss it. Elway stands from his chair, grabs the frame, then sets it atop his desk. “This is the only autograph I wanted from Peyton,” he laughs. “That’s the most important autograph I’ve ever gotten.”
Elway thinks about how far he’s come since those years after his on-field career ended—about how Pat Bowlen took a chance on his former quarterback, about how Elway did the same with a quarterback from Indianapolis. Risk. Failure. Victory. Redemption. These things are intertwined in his life’s story, and they’re intertwined into his team. It’s been no secret Bowlen’s struggled with his health these past few years, that his once-public presence has been reduced almost to nonexistence. Because of that, Elway’s driven, at least in part, by an iconic moment 16 years ago. There’s Bowlen with the team’s first Super Bowl championship trophy, booming into a microphone: This one’s for John.
Elway imagines a similar moment. Trophy in one hand, his boss—his friend—at his side. This one’s for Pat. “Those are the four words I want to say,” Elway says. “The desire to win starts with Pat Bowlen, and it transcends this whole organization.”
But we know it’s Elway who put the shine on this franchise, who inspired confidence in millions of fans simply because of that name, who brought in Manning, who reworked a team that fell just short last season. “I love doing this job, but I’m doing it because I want to win a world championship, not because I need any more money,” he says. “We’re here, number one, to win Super Bowls.” —Robert Sanchez