Back when he was operating auto dealerships and hanging with Jon Bon Jovi in Arena League circles, John Elway always seemed misplaced. Why was he not in the NFL, running a franchise, trying to win more Super Bowls? Why, as he pushed 50, was he allowing himself to become known as the retired Hall of Famer who owned steakhouses and married a former Raiders cheerleader?
He was too competitive, too smart, too prominent a football man to be wasted on peripheral pursuits. All along, he should have been in charge of the Denver Broncos, a team that had won one playoff game in the dozen seasons since he stopped playing. Finally, early in 2011, Elway was named executive vice president of football operations. A year later, amid anguished protests throughout the Rocky Mountain region and all of America, he realized Tim Tebow was a flawed fad and not a long-term answer at quarterback, the position Elway had played at a higher level than all but a handful of men in football history. He called it “a very difficult decision,” but really, it was quite simple.
Peyton Manning was available, you see.
It only took a little bit swaying. Oh, Jim Harbaugh came to see Manning at his workouts at Duke University, and Pete Carroll, now famously, caught the Seahawks jet to Colorado and waited on the runway after Manning had called and inquired about possibilities. “I must not have done well on the phone,” Carroll says now, with a sheepish smile. Because once Elway had Manning in his sights, like the afternoon he stood at his own 2-yard line in the old Cleveland Stadium and launched The Drive by telling his teammates he had the Browns right where he wanted them, he wasn’t leaving the building without a victory.
“I will do everything in my power to make sure you finish your career the way I finished mine,” he told Manning, who knew Elway had won two Super Bowls at the very end.
Now, here they are in circumstantial tandem, trying to do more than quiet their respective detractors. If the Broncos win Sunday night, Elway and Manning actually will embarrass the naysayers, make them cry uncle. Manning, of course, is positioned to win his second Super Bowl, which, if coupled with his magnificent career numbers and unprecedented five league MVP awards, would garner him near-universal acclaim as the greatest of all quarterbacks. But Elway, too, can make history and slay those who once considered him a postseason straggler. Know anybody who has won a Super Bowl MVP award and then won a Super Bowl as a primary decision-making executive?
He would be the first.
And he knows it.
“It would be a huge feather,” Elway said, “but that is why I came back to work for the Broncos. I want to compete for world championships.”
Plural, not singular. “Everybody wants to talk about winning now,” he said. “I say, `No, it’s not now. It’s now on.’ ”
It was that attitude that sold Manning on Elway and Denver. Think about it: Had he signed with the 49ers or Seahawks, he’d likely be here with them today. In that sense, Elway has been even more important in the Broncos’ ascent to the Super Bowl, which is hard to believe given Manning’s mind-boggling season to date. In his three years in charge, Elway has recruited Manning and turned him loose, hired John Fox to coach and signed the likes of Wes Welker, Terrance Knighton, Manny Ramirez and Shaun Phillips while drafting, among others, Von Miller, Danny Trevathan and Julius Thomas. After what could have been a morale-crushing loss to Baltimore in last year’s playoffs, he brought in 18 new players.
Think he’s not competing as he did as a player?
“I think John Elway would still be playing football is he could physically,” Manning said.
Instead, he is shooting down the theory that superstar athletes inevitably fail as roster-building executives or head coaches. Michael Jordan went from ultimate champion to inescapable loser, and the list of similar flops is lengthy, but Elway is beginning to mirror Jerry West, the NBA icon who constructed two Lakers dynasties. That’s rarefied territory for the old quarterback who, saddled with inferior defenses, reached three Super Bowls early in his career and lost all three by a combined 136-40. The third one, a 55-10 drubbing by San Francisco, came after a Denver columnist suggested the Broncos would be better served staying home than suffering another demoralizing blowout. That columnist was me, and later, Elway revealed to Woody Paige of the Denver Post that his own mother worried for the same reasons.
Fortunately, Elway was helped by Terrell Davis and a better defense in his twilight years. If The Drive started the Elway legend, The Helicopter Play — when he extended his aging body and was twirled by a tackler in mid-air — confirmed him as a champion. Once frustrated by the can’t-win-the-big-ones criticism, he now revels in having beaten it down. “Whether it’s fair or not, that’s the way it is. That’s the way it’s always going to be,” Elway said. “Head coaches and quarterbacks are tied together in the fact that statistics are nice, but the great ones are those who have won world championships. And they don’t do it by themselves. They’re also on good football teams with good head coaches.”
Unlike Elway, who was 38 and limping helplessly at the end, Manning is at the peak of his game. He has no intention of retiring anytime soon, with a required April examination of his surgically repaired neck expected to reveal no instability. This week, he is chuckling at the idea that his legacy is in its final phases. Why would anyone, other than opponents, want Peyton Manning to retire? Never has a quarterback played better, period. “I’ve been being asked about my legacy since I was about 25 years old. I’m not sure you can have a legacy when you’re 25 years old. Even 37,” Manning said. “I’d have to be, like, 70 to have a legacy. I’m not even 100 percent sure what the word even means.
“I still enjoy playing football, and I feel a little better than I thought I would at this point coming off that surgery. I still enjoy the preparation part of it, the work part of it. Everybody enjoys the game, everybody’s excited to play in a Super Bowl, but I think when you still enjoy the preparation, the work part of it, I think you still ought to be doing that. I think as soon as I stop enjoying it, if I can’t do this, if I can’t help the team, that’s when I stop playing. I certainly want to continue to keep playing.”
Elway talks to Manning constantly and understands his end game. Retiring after this Super Bowl isn’t the end game. “I’d be very, very surprised if he walked away,” Elway said. “I think he wants to walk away with every record that was ever put in the record books as far as offensive football or quarterbacking. So I think he’s got a lot of football left in him.”
Just as Elway has a lot of executive work left in him. The seeds for this Super Bowl appearance were planted in the preseason — in Seattle, of all places — after the Broncos were thumped 40-10. Elway tore into the players at a team meeting with a memorable dressdown. “(It) was just one of those things where you think something needs to be said at that time,” he said. “We wanted this team to have a mindset that we want to be world champions. What I said was, `If you want to win a world championship, you don’t go anywhere and lose 40-10.’ To me, it seemed like some people thought it was OK, so I made sure to say it wasn’t OK. At least I didn’t think it was OK.”
They listened, as they listened 28 years earlier in Cleveland.
Let Bon Jovi live on a prayer. John Elway is living the dream, still.