John Elway was one of the NFL’s greatest quarterbacks, a Hall of Fame passer with five Super Bowl appearances and two championship runs to end his career with the Broncos.
But as terrific as his skills were as a legendary quarterback whose epic comeback drives are part of NFL lore, his personnel skills make him one of the league’s premier architects of a championship-caliber roster.
As much as Super Bowl 50 is about what could be Peyton Manning’s final chance to leave the game as Elway did — with a Vince Lombardi Trophy in hand — it also is about the spectacular job Elway has done in constructing a team capable of winning it all.
As general manager and vice president of football operations for the Broncos, Elway has made moves in recent years that have set the stage for the team’s second Super Bowl appearance in the last three seasons. His impact is as tangible and meaningful as any of his achievements during his 16-year career as the Broncos’ quarterback.
Start with Manning himself. When he was shopping for a new team after being released by the Colts in 2012, the Broncos were completely under the radar as a potential suitor. But through Elway’s stealth recruiting, which included some persuasive conversations with Manning that only a former quarterback with Elway’s background could pull off, Manning became convinced that Denver would be his best landing spot.
This after the Broncos seemed stuck with Tim Tebow, who had led a dramatic playoff run the previous year. About the only person in Denver who seemed unconvinced about Tebow’s place on the team was Elway himself. Who can forget the sight of Elway’s dour expression when Tebow led the Broncos to a stunning overtime playoff win against the Steelers with an 80-yard touchdown pass in the extra session? Elway was happy with the win, but he knew he couldn’t get to a Super Bowl with Tebow, who was traded to the Jets soon after Elway landed Manning.
But it was more than just getting the right quarterback that set Elway apart as a shrewd GM. He also made smart moves with his head coach — hiring John Fox in 2011 to provide a measure of discipline and stability, then believing the time was right to part ways with Fox after the 2014 season because of philosophical differences.
Elway brought in former Broncos teammate and roommate Gary Kubiak, a one-time backup quarterback who had a solid if unspectacular run as the Texans’ head coach. But Kubiak proved to be a resourceful and effective leader in his second go-round as a head coach.
“The bottom line is I know Gary and he knows what it takes and he has done a tremendous job this year with the team,” Elway said. “When he came in here, he had won a lot of football games, and to be able to come in and get us back to the Super Bowl has been tremendous. There is not a better guy for the job.”
Kubiak had the unenviable task of dealing with Manning’s worst statistical season, which was compounded by a foot injury that forced him out of the lineup. He showed a patient hand with backup Brock Osweiler but also knew when it was time to go back to Manning in the regular-season finale against the Chargers.
What helped the Broncos weather that storm was a championship-caliber defense pulled together by Elway. He used a combination of terrific draft choices such as Von Miller, Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson, signed college free agent Chris Harris Jr. (who has turned into one of the NFL’s top cornerbacks) and made judicious moves in free agency to increase the talent pool. Among the key signings: DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward and Brandon Marshall.
That defense was at the heart of the Broncos’ 20-18 win over the Patriots for the AFC title, a game that wasn’t decided until Denver prevented Tom Brady from completing a two-point conversion in the final seconds. The Broncos put on a pass- rushing clinic against the Patriots, sacking Brady four times and getting hits on him 20 times, the most Brady had absorbed all season.
“It’s kind of how the year has gone,” Elway said. “I think our defense has made so many great plays throughout the whole year and really saved us. They did it again against a great team and a great quarterback in Tom Brady.”
The Broncos are in familiar territory for Elway. He lost his first three Super Bowls before winning the final two and then leaving the game after the 1998 season. He knows the job is not complete, that getting here is not the goal.
“I think the big thing is we have to win it,” he said. “We’ve given ourselves an opportunity, so hopefully we’ve saved our best for last.”