John Elway, a wildly successful car dealership and Arena Football team owner in his second phase of adult life, was casually standing in a corner of a hotel lobby in downtown Indianapolis in February, 2011.
The most famous man in Colorado, in town for the NFL draft combine, was diagramming his game plan for success in his second stint with the Denver Broncos. Twenty-eight years after the Broncos traded for the quarterback’s rookie rights, they made another call to Elway. They needed him to save the franchise again.
The Broncos were a mess. They had just ended an almost two-season fiasco under coach Josh McDaniel, which featured the alienation of young quarterback Jay Cutler, a SpyGate-like scandal and the second-worst record in the NFL in 2010. The Broncos were one of the most decorated and proud franchises in the league, and owner Pat Bowlen felt he could only turn one way to save his team.
In the 1980s, John Elway engineered “The Drive.” Now, Bowlen was asking him to take over his football team again, this time from the front office. Elway was being asked to do so without any NFL experience beyond his brilliant 16-year Pro Football Hall of Fame career that ended with the team’s first two Super Bowl championships.
Looking as calm as he did during any of the 35 fourth-quarter comebacks he engineered, Elway knew he was entering unchartered territory. He did, however, have a game plan for starting his journey as the general manager of the Denver Broncos, who were picking No 2 overall in the upcoming draft.
Elway said he was going to rely on two ideals from his football life as he began his time as a GM.
One, he was going to try to build a defense. He said that, as a quarterback, he felt he had a scouting eye for the players who made his life the most difficult.
“I think I’m going to be able to scout the pass-rushers and the defensive backs well,” Elway said during his first combine in Indianapolis. “Those were the guys I studied while I was playing. So I know what to look for.”
The other principle Elway relied on when he dived into the NFL front-office waters was what his father taught him. Jack Elway, who died in 2001, coached his son at Stanford and then went on to be a respected scout for the Broncos. Elway said he studied players with his father just in case he wanted to follow in his footsteps when his playing career ended. He also said he absorbed every piece of advice of that part of the game his father gave him.
Armed with his personal affinity for top defensive talent and a road map provided by his father, Elway said he was confident he could make the difficult transition from player to a leader of the organization.
Fast forward five years and the verdict is in on John Elway, the NFL general manager. He’s a major success and he actually may be building a second Hall of Fame career.
After taking over a broken franchise, Elway has led the Broncos to AFC West titles in all five of his seasons in charge. He took the Broncos to two Super Bowls, including last season’s victory in Super Bowl 50. The Broncos have three Lombardi Trophies in their display case. Elway was the quarterback of the first two and the architect of the last one.
Elway, 56, is considered an elite general manager. As was the case when he wore No. 7 in the Rocky Mountains, Elway’s team is considered one of the most stable, productive franchises in the league. Leading Denver out of Josh McDaniels mess may be one of Elway’s greatest comebacks.
However, the Broncos didn’t expect anything different.
“Everyone is proud of what John has accomplished in this role,” Denver president Joe Ellis said. “But no one is surprised that he has done this. The book on John is that he was a winner. … He learned so much from his father. He is a competitor like no other. He is considered one of the greatest players to play the most important position in the NFL. He dabbled in running a football team in the Arena league. He was a great businessman in car dealerships, restaurants and other businesses. He has a natural business acumen. He graduated from Stanford, one of the most prestigious schools in the country. … It’s the whole package with John.”
Ellis said he realized what Elway – who was just honored by being named to the prestigious competition committee, which is a collection of the most respected coaches and GMs in the NFL – could bring to the franchise when he spoke to him shortly before he was hired.
“On the behalf of Pat, I asked John if he might want to join the team as a consultant rather than jump all in,” Ellis said. “I asked that because we’ve seen that some former players realize they don’t want to do the job or that it was too hard. I think that was offensive to John. He made it clear he was all in, and he’s been all in since the day he took the role.”
Elway’s first major move as the leader of the Broncos was the decision on how to use the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft. With Carolina set to take quarterback Cam Newton, Elway had his choice of many outstanding defensive prospects. Staying true to his philosophy, Elway decided the player he wanted to build his team around was a pass-rusher.
The player who sacked Elway more than any other was late Kansas City star outside linebacker Derrick Thomas. Texas A&M’s Von Miller reminded Elway of Thomas, so he was the easy choice. Miller has become the centerpiece of a dominant defense in Denver, and he was the Super Bowl MVP in the Broncos’ victory last season.
Other key defensive pieces Elway added include star cornerback Chris Harris (an undrafted free agent), cornerback Aqib Talib, safety TJ Ward (in free agency) and pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware. He also drafted defensive ends Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson and linebacker Danny Trevathan. They all contributed in making the 2015 Denver defense the best in the league and one of the best in recent memory.
“These Broncos are remembered for their defense,” said Shannon Sharpe, Elway’s Hall of Fame tight end during their playing days. “That’s all John. That’s John knowing what it takes to be a great defensive player. It’s so impressive what he did with that defense.”
Despite all of Miller’s success and the building of the defense, the jewel of Manning’s tenure in Denver, of course, was the signing of quarterback Peyton Manning. It was the allure of Elway that drew Peyton Manning, considered one of the best free-agent signings of all-time, to Denver.
Manning was reportedly choosing between Tennessee, San Francisco and Denver. The Titans had Manning’s college days in nearby Knoxville as a draw. The 49ers had the best roster of the three finalists. But Denver had Elway.
Superstar quarterbacks like being around their own.
“John just has the Midas touch,” longtime NFL scout Gary Horton said. “From Peyton to the defense to almost every move he’s made, it seems to be the right call.”
Sharpe said he thought as a player his quarterback would have a post-playing future in the league. “But I didn’t think he’d be coach because I didn’t think he could stand up all those hours on those bad knees.”
Sharpe said being a general manager is perfect for Elway’s temperament and because of his ability to listen to others around him and make educated decisions. Many in Denver were impressed by Elway when he began the job. He didn’t run through the team’s facility reminding people he was John Elway. “He knows what he doesn’t know,’’ said one Denver colleague.
“He was made for this,” Sharpe said. “John is just good at football, whatever the role is.”