There is no getting around the fact that John Elway is the NFL’s top closer. He’s engineered 3 consecutive division titles for the Denver Broncos, including an AFC crown. But he doesn’t get the credit for it that he deserves from the NFL world at large.
The Manning Effect.
People assume that because he lassoed the biggest free agent in the history of the NFL, namely Peyton Manning, he’s essentially running on cruise control. As if all he has to do is roster 52 other warm bodies and the Broncos will go 13-3.
That sentiment couldn’t be further from the truth. When Elway was hired by Pat Bowlen to be the Vice President of Football Operations, and de facto General Manager, the Broncos as a team, and the fans, were hurting.
Mike Shanahan’s last couple of years as head coach and GM had left the Broncos devoid of talent. Sure, Shanny had the QB (Jay Cutler), a blossoming young WR (Brandon Marshall), a franchise left tackle (Ryan Clady), and a shutdown corner (Champ Bailey), but beyond them, the roster was very shallow.
When Shanny was fired and Josh McDaniels was hired, we, the fan base, were excited that the guy who engineered the New England Patriots’ record setting 2007 season, was going to take the reigns of our beloved Broncos.
Then, McDaniels began to systematically dismantle the roster in a way that left Broncos Country reeling and wondering if McD was a Belichick mole, planted to neutralize a Patriots’ conference rival. Cutler was traded, as was Marshall eventually, and after 2 consecutive ineffectual drafts, and 2 dismal seasons, McDaniels was fired.
I guess McDaniels’ drafts weren’t all bad. We did get one great season out of Knowshon Moreno. Zane Beadles, although overrated, was a reliable cog on the offensive line for 4 years. Eric Decker produced like a boss for 2 years. And we’ll always have Demaryius Thomas. Otherwise, McDaniels’ drafts were an epic fail. Darcel McBath? Richard Quinn? Alphonso Smith? Ugh.
Enter John Elway.
The Duke of Denver had his work cut out for him. The Broncos hadn’t been to the playoffs in 5 years when he took over. There were still a few really good pieces in place, as far as proven talent goes, like Bailey, Clady and Elvis Dumervil, but the roster was as devoid of talent across the board as it had ever been in the history of the franchise.
One thing that Elway had going for him was the #2 overall pick in the 2011 draft. The fate of the franchise hinged on him making the right decision. At the time, everyone knew that Carolina was going to take Cam Newton 1st overall. But that left several viable choices for Elway at #2. Patrick Peterson, Marcel Dareus, A.J. Green, Julio Jones, and Aldon Smith were all his for the taking.
Elway pulled the trigger on Von Miller. Teamed up with Dumervil, Miller proceeded to take the NFL by storm and not only won the Defensive Rookie of the Year honor, but also 2nd team All-Pro and a Pro Bowl nod.
Oct 27, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller (58) during the first half against the Washington Redskins at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
Can you imagine the whirlwind 2011 season without Von Miller? Tebow Mania was in full swing. Timmy was getting all of the love and credit from the national mediots for the Broncos’ 6-game winning streak, which culminated with a division crown and the Mile High Miracle in the Wild Card round.
As exciting as that season was, deep down, we all knew that without the Broncos’ defense playing lights out and keeping the team within one score, going into the 4th quarter, Tebow would never have had the chance to come from behind and win. Von Miller was instrumental in that process.
The fact that the Broncos even won 8 games that year was a miracle and a testament to Elway’s abilities as a GM. 3 of his rookies, Miller, Orlando Franklin, Rahim Moore and Quinton Carter, all played major roles in the Broncos winning the division.
Through free agency, Elway found some diamonds in the rough who also impacted the team in a big way. Willis McGahee rushed for 1,199 yards and earned a trip to the Pro Bowl. Daniel Fells and Dante Rosario also held down the fort at tight end, while the Broncos developed their young rookies, Julius Thomas and Virgil Green.
Although Tebow Mania was in full effect, following the 2011 season, John Elway clearly didn’t think that Tebow was the Broncos’ future franchise QB. He never outright said it, but if you listened to his interviews and read between the lines, it couldn’t have been more obvious. Tebow’s deficiencies as a QB came out in the wash in the shellacking the Broncos suffered at the hands of the Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs that year.
When the Indianapolis Colts made the fateful decision to release Peyton Manning, nobody in the national media, and I mean nobody, thought that Broncos stood a chance at landing him, at least initially. Everyone was still basking in the afterglow of the Mile High Miracle and Tebow Mania. Most people thought he’d sign with the Jets, or the Titans. Even the 49ers got in on the Manning action.
Feb 2, 2014; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) scrambles against the Seattle Seahawks during the second quarter in Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
But Elway closed the deal. Elway orchestrated the full court press that eventually landed the biggest fish in the history of free agency. Under the prodigious play of Peyton Manning, the Broncos began to blossom and a young team began to truly coalesce.
Manning is a player who raises all ships. He makes players perform above their natural abilities. Eric Decker, for example, became one of the most productive wide receivers in the NFL, playing with Manning. Watch what happens to poor Decker with the Jets. You’ll see. Knowshon Moreno experienced a record setting year in 2013. Watch what happens in Miami. However, as elevating as Manning’s style of play is, he cannot compensate for everything, especially on defense, as we saw in the Super Bowl. It takes more than an elite QB to win the big one.
Manning took two young players, Julius and Demaryius Thomas, and mined their raw talent in the rough. Now, they’re Pro Bowlers. Only a year before, the Broncos were a .500 team. Under Manning and essentially the same roster, the Broncos went 13-3 in 2012 and earned the #1 seed in the AFC. Although that season ended in heartbreaking fashion, it was a success.
Nobody truly knew if Peyton Manning could return to form. Nobody, not even Manning, knew that he could make it through an entire season. He did. And he torched every Broncos franchise passing record in the process.
In 2013, Manning and the Broncos torched almost every NFL offensive record. Another 13-3 season. Another year as the AFC’s top seed. A trip to the Super Bowl. And another heartbreaker.
Fortunately for the Broncos, John Elway is guiding the ship. Elway knows what it’s like to lose the Super Bowl, in epic fashion, and still find a way to climb back to the top of the mountain and return victorious. Elway quarterbacked 3 Broncos teams to the Super Bowl. Each time, the Broncos imploded in embarrassing proportions.
But the Duke of Denver kept the fire burning. And eventually, he led the Broncos to back-to-back Super Bowl victories. Elway knows how the bitterness of such defeat tastes. But he also knows how sweet victory is. So does Peyton Manning. Together, Elway and Manning will lead this team to the Promised Land. Of this, I have no doubt.
Elway celebrated a birthday this last weekend. Our own Sayre Bedinger paid tribute to the Duke on that day. Sayre posted a tweet by the Broncos’ Director of Media Relations, Patrick Smyth. It was very illuminating.
Again, John Elway doesn’t get the credit he deserves for the Broncos’ success. He took the 2nd worst team in the NFL and in 3 seasons led them to the Super Bowl. His drafts have been deep and impactful, with very few misses. Each year he’s managed to sign top free agents who dramatically improve the team. And for every Peyton Manning, Louis Vasquez, Wes Welker and DeMarcus Ware he’s signed, there are guys like McGahee, Mike Adams, Shaun Phillips, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie who he’s reclaimed out of the career refuse pile and re-shaped into valuable assets.
The beauty of it all is that he’s not done. He won’t rest until the Lombardi Trophy comes back to Denver. Neither will Peyton Manning. And if fortune favors the bold, then the Denver Broncos will soon win the jackpot.
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