NEWARK, N.J. — The Denver Broncos offered Peyton Manning something the Seahawks, or any other team pursuing him after the 2011 season, couldn’t: A chance to have a legend-to-legend talk with the boss, any time he liked.
There are few people on earth who can relate to Manning as a quarterbacking equal, and one of them happens to be John Elway, the Broncos’ executive vice president of football operations.
If you think that didn’t influence Manning’s decision to sign with Denver, well, you probably also thought the Cleveland Browns were going to hold that 20-13 lead in the AFC title game on Jan. 11, 1987.
“I think that relationship definitely helped,” Elway said earlier this week. “I would (have) liked to have somebody that had been in the position running an organization when I was playing quarterback, too, that had the same mindset.”
At 53, Elway still has an aura about him. As he scurried around the Prudential Center on Media Day doing a variety of interviews, and word of his presence spread, the media crowd seeking him out began to grow. So did the throng of fans in the arena who wanted to at least be in the periphery of one of the greatest in history.
One television personality who didn’t have to grovel for a piece of Elway’s time: Terrell Davis, the former Denver running back who was instrumental in helping Elway earn his first Super Bowl title, at age 36, in a win over Mike Holmgren’s Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXII in 1998.
That came after three humiliating Super Bowl defeats (in the span of four years) early in his career: 39-20 to the Giants, 42-10 to the Redskins, and 55-10 to the 49ers. Davis isn’t surprised that Elway became one of the very few former superstars to successfully run a team (the other one in the NFL that comes to mind is fellow Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome, who has won two Super Bowls with Baltimore).
The trait that transferred most tellingly from the huddle to the board room for Elway, Davis said, is “just the desire to win. I don’t know if that’s innate, if you’re born with it. Whatever it is, guys that love winning, there’s something about the way they go about their business. It oozes out of them. They hate losing. They’re not going to settle for anything.
“A guy as successful as John, who’s been paid a tremendous amount of money, went to three Super Bowls, got his butt kicked, and still kept fighting for that ultimate prize . . . man, that winning, that championship mentality, that’s what he took upstairs.”
Elway can commiserate with all the hubbub about what a second Super Bowl win would mean for Manning’s legacy. He was the only quarterback in history to win two in his final two seasons, walking away into the sunset after earning the MVP Award in Denver’s 34-19 triumph over the Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII. Just like that, the story line of Elway’s career changed from the guy who couldn’t win the big one, to the guy who outran his demons and left a winner.
For the record, Elway doesn’t think Manning needs a win on Sunday to cement his status as an all-time great. But Elway also realizes how deeply satisfying it would be for Manning to cap his remarkable comeback from neck surgery by defeating Seattle. And what it would mean for himself to have assembled the team that made it possible.
“It would be just as important,” Elway said of winning a title as an executive, compared to doing so as a player. “I think that to be a part of putting this whole thing together would be something that’s very important, and something I’d like to do.”
Hired after the 2010 season, Elway inherited a 4-12 team that was demoralized by the Josh McDaniel debacle. He made enough astute moves in the draft and free agency to lead the Broncos to the division title in 2011, and into the AFC title game in 2012.
What put the Broncos over the top was Elway’s decision to part ways with Tim Tebow after a playoff win, and turn the team over to Manning. It’s easy to laud the move now, but at the time, there were no guarantees that Manning would be healthy enough to even make it through preseason, let alone play at his former level.
“The risk wasn’t Peyton Manning himself; it was a broken-down Peyton Manning you could have brought here,” Davis said. “It could have been a lemon. If Peyton Manning comes here and he’s a lemon, where’s Denver now? But John obviously listened to the doctors. A bit of it was on faith. You’ve got to say, ‘We trust what’s happening here, we’ll take the risk of going with Peyton vs. Tim Tebow.’ “
The rest is history — as in historical offensive numbers for the Broncos and Manning. They have the luxury of a GM whom offensive coordinator Adam Gase can run ideas by, and whom coach John Fox (Elway’s first hire) can call upon to fire up the team.
Elway did so, emphatically, after the Broncos lost to the Seahawks, 40-10 — in the exhibition season. Manning called it a “butt-kicking” designed to remind the team that they couldn’t win championships with that kind of effort. He had the credentials to make them pay rapt attention, and now here they are in a Seahawks rematch.
“Everything that we do comes from the top down,” tight end Julius Thomas said. “He sets some winning expectations. We know that we have to prepare and go about our day a certain way, and that comes from John. He’s always in the building, I always say he’s up above the clouds.”
When it comes to all-time quarterbacks, Elway is definitely in the stratosphere, and Manning’s right there with them. On Sunday, both will try to enhance legacies that scarcely need bolstering.