ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The anxiety was high. The Broncos were in the process of trying to make a move that would alter their team, their culture, their ability to compete at the top of the National Football League. Days were ticking away, and Peyton Manning was dangling.
There was misinformation and confusion and nervous energy. There were questions inside the organization and out.
Not, though, from John Elway.
“Just the coolness and the calm, collected nature that he had through that, I think it showed real leadership and real stability,” said Broncos president Joe Ellis. “The rest of us were on pins and needles. Obviously, when you have the opportunity to get a player of that magnitude, it’s exciting. You want it to happen as soon as it can.
“But John kept his cool, kept everybody calm and level throughout the process.”
This would be a signature move, a move that ended the Tim Tebow era in Denver and began the Manning era. It harkened back to Elway’s days on the football field, his gunslinger reputation, his fortitude in big moments.
And though others in the organization caution that he’s not that way in the front office, that he’s more calculated than anything, Elway isn’t entirely sure he agrees.
Brought in as the Broncos’ executive vice president of football operations in January 2011, the former Denver quarterback sees that in himself in some ways, in some situations, in places where others might take the safer path.
“I think that you have to take some chances to be great at whatever you do,” Elway said. “I think you always have to take some chances, at times maybe stick your neck out there.
“But you also have to stick with what you believe in and believe that that’s the right direction. If you look at people that have been great at whatever occupation that they’re in, I think they’re all risk takers to a certain extent.”
Learning by doing
The point is to win. That’s the point for any executive, of any team. But Elway knows better than most what it means to win a Super Bowl in this city.
He is not the first legendary player to take on a front-office role. There are mixed results, from the success of Ozzie Newsome with the Ravens to the failure of Michael Jordan with the Wizards, from Isiah Thomas to Larry Bird.
“The overall broad depth of knowledge and skill set was fully developed and it was a natural progression for him,” Ellis said. “He was willing to work. He was willing to put in the hours and put in the time and put himself on the line with big decisions, and not be scared to do that and not worry about the effect it might have on his life.
“It’s a full-time job, and it comes with pressure and expectations. And he’s not in any way, shape, or form afraid of it.”
Perhaps because he’s done it before, though certainly on a lower level. He spent eight years as the owner and CEO of the Colorado Crush, an Arena Football League franchise that won a championship on his watch. He has business experience and a business degree from Stanford, though there was wariness from outside the organization about his credentials, at least when he was hired.
He continues to learn, to pay attention to those in the organization with more experience. From all accounts, Elway does not rely on his bold-faced name, his Hall of Fame stature.
“He’s a real good listener; he’s one of the group,” Ellis said. “He’s not trying to overshadow anyone or be overbearing because of his presence and his personality and who he is. He’s a team player inside this building and, from that, I think comes a willingness to learn and listen.”
He knows, in effect, what he doesn’t know.
“I’ve been in football my whole life; my dad was a coach,” Elway said. “So obviously I have my own views on different things. But there’s so much more to it, especially in this position, to be able to watch and see how other people operate.”
There already have been signature moves. Not only did Elway convince Manning to take up residence with the Broncos, but he re-signed Champ Bailey to a contract with a bit of hometown discount, an outcome that was far from a foregone conclusion.
Elway’s presence mattered in that signing, as it has in so many of the football moves over the last two years.
“With his track record, anything he touches seems like it succeeds,” Bailey said. “It was no question that I wanted to be here when he took over because I know what type of winner he is.”
Bailey wanted to be part of that. Manning wanted to be part of that.
And so the Broncos have gotten what they dreamed of from Elway. They got an executive who inspires his players, who makes players want to play for him and for his team.
He brings, as Ellis said, “leadership at the very top. I think that that was something we were just missing in terms of our football team. We were missing that at the time that we brought him on.”
When Elway rejoined the Broncos, the team was coming off a 4-12 season, the one in which now-Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was fired after 12 games. Since then, the Broncos have witnessed the rise of Tebow, an overtime playoff win over the Steelers, and the acquisition of Manning.
They also witness an executive with the ability to make a calculated decision about what was best for his franchise, about what was most likely to get his franchise to another Super Bowl. To Elway, that wasn’t Tebow. It was Manning.
“[Elway] might lack some of the experience as far as some of the rules and the financials and all those things, but I think the most important asset is he knows what a championship player looks like and what kind of players we want to bring into this organization and the direction we want it to go,” coach John Fox said.
The Broncos have seen Elway take charge, take risks, take over. It’s what they saw from him as a player. As Fox said, “He’s not afraid to make tough decisions. He’s not afraid to do the things it takes to win a championship. If that’s your definition of a gunslinger, I’d say yes.”
Ellis said, “At the end of the day, he goes with what he believes is a decision that will be in the best interests of our football team. And that’s all it came down to for him. He stuck to his guns, and here we are.”