By: Cameron Barlow
The life was being sucked out of Sports Authority Field at Mile High on January 11, 2015, as each Peyton Manning deep pass fluttered through the air falling incomplete on a chilly afternoon. In the AFC Divisional playoff game the Denver Broncos struck first, taking an early touchdown lead, but the Indianapolis Colts punched back, tying the game in the beginning of the second quarter. The next 45 minutes featured a lifeless group in orange and blue seemingly going through the motions when it counted the most. On paper it seemed easy, the Broncos, a roster with eleven pro-bowlers, would roll the Colts en route to an AFC Championship matchup with the New England Patriots. What happened on the field was a completely different story. The Denver Broncos, a touchdown favorite and back in the playoffs as the AFC’s second seed, were promptly dismissed from the playoffs by the underdog Indianapolis Colts. A year removed from a Super Bowl appearance, the Broncos found themselves one and done for the second time in three seasons. Combined with the blowout Super Bowl loss to the Seattle Seahawks and stunning double overtime defeat to the Baltimore Ravens, it meant three consecutive playoff losses for the offensive juggernaut Broncos who were beaten by more physically dominant teams. For John Elway, the Broncos’ legendary quarterback turned general manager, it was how the team loss that left him baffled. “Two years in a row, it didn’t feel like we went out kicking and screaming,” said Elway, who’s change in mentality and subsequent personnel moves through the NFL Draft, free agency, and coaching changes, transformed his team into a Super Bowl champion one year later.
The origin of the Broncos third Lombardi Trophy really began in 2011, when owner Pat Bowlen and the organization turned to their greatest player to take the reins in the front office as General Manager and Executive Vice President of Football Operations. The Broncos were in a unique position as an organization after a 4-12 season and disastrous experiment with a young, first time head coach in Josh McDaniels. A season with the most losses in franchise history gave the Broncos their highest NFL draft selection since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, picking at the number 2 spot. The 2011 NFL Draft was John Elway’s first major player personnel move while in power. It was essential for Elway to draft a “face of the franchise” type of player. Elway turned to his experience at quarterback and looked for the type of player he would not want to play against. Elway drafted Von Miller, a generational talent and eventual Super Bowl 50 MVP, with the second overall pick in the draft.
The immediate success of Von Miller began a string of defense-first draft picks for John Elway. Building through the draft is a useful way to get premier young players and build depth with little cost on the salary cap. From 2012-2015 Elway used the Broncos first selection in the draft on defensive players who would become essential cogs in the Super Bowl 50 winning defense. As late 1st or early 2nd round draft picks, defensive linemen Derek Wolfe, Sylvester Williams, Cornerback Bradley Roby, and Linebacker Shane Ray all made serious contributions as starters or backups for the number 1 defense in 2015. Elway was also able to build depth through late round draft picks. Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan were taken in back to back rounds in the 2012 NFL Draft with the 137th selection and the 188th selection, respectively.
Elway’s draft picks on the offensive side of the ball contributed as well. 2014 draft selections Michael Schofield and Matt Paradis started 13 and 16 regular season games, respectively, and all three in the playoffs. Max Garcia, a rookie nicknamed “The Future” by his veteran teammates, spelled veteran all-pro guards Evan Mathis and Louis Vasquez throughout the season as they dealt with various injuries. Ronnie Hillman, a 2012 third round draft pick, was the team’s leading rusher this season. Elway’s most important offensive draft selection proved to be his first. Brock Osweiler, a second round selection in the 2012 draft, stepped in at quarterback when Manning went down with an injury. Osweiler went 5-2 as a starter including comeback wins over the Patriots and Bengals, leading the Broncos to home-field advantage in the playoffs.
Elway’s prowess in finding valuable free agents is a defining attribute during his tenure. In his first offseason, Elway showed a keen eye for undervalued talent signing undrafted free agent and eventual all-pro, Chris Harris Jr. Elway struck gold in 2012, signing quarterback Peyton Manning, who was recently released from the Colts, to a $96 million dollar contract. Manning’s ability to elevate the play of his teammates and inspire them with his play, preparation and work ethic, was a big reason Elway wanted Manning to join the Broncos. After Manning was released by the Colts following four neck surgeries, Elway convinced Manning to come to Denver, and invested his resources in giving him the best shot at winning another Lombardi. Elway was in a similar place as Manning, having won two Super Bowl in his late 30s, and knew what it took to get through the grind of a long season at that age, experience invaluable to Manning as he entered that stage in his career. In 2013, Elway followed suit, signing all-pro wide receiver Wes Welker and the aforementioned Louis Vasquez, as well as undrafted free agent C.J. Anderson. The Broncos 2013 offense became one of the most prolific in NFL history, scoring 606 points, and NFL record, before getting dismantled in Super Bowl XLVIII by the dominant Seattle Seahawks 43-8.
Elway’s free agent pickups the next two offseason represented a change in mentality and a desire to make his team tougher on both sides of the football. Letting various members of the record setting 2013 Broncos offense go over the next two offseasons, including Eric Decker, Welker and Julius Thomas, Elway signed pro-bowler Emmanuel Sanders and the aforementioned Evan Mathis to bring toughness and attitude to the offense. Elway cashed in on free agency and convinced pro-bowlers DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, and T.J. Ward to come star on the Broncos re-vamped defense. On the day Talib signed with Denver, he and Ware, who was coming to Denver for a visit with the front office, happened to be on the same flight to the Mile High City. Ware commented on Talib’s presence on the flight saying “When I look back there in that back seat and I see Talib, I’m like, you know what? They’re trying to get the job done.” That job was to win the Super Bowl, built on a strong defense, a tough minded offense and the ability to win close games when it mattered most. Elway’s free agent signings helped accomplish that as the Broncos, in Super Bowl 50, had the most free agent starters for any Super Bowl team in the past decade. Reaching the goal of winning the Super Bowl, however, required a bold coaching change at the end of the 2014 playoffs.
John Elway’s next move showed the same aggressiveness and desire to win a Super Bowl that he had while wearing number seven as a player. Only a few days after the playoff defeat to the Colts, Elway and then-coach John Fox “mutually parted ways,” and the Broncos began a search for the new coach to take them over the hump. This was a risky move, as John Fox complied a 46-18 regular season record, good for the winningest head coach in franchise history by winning percentage for coaches who were with the team for four or more years. Former Grantland writer Bill Barnwell noted that Fox might have been the most winning coach by percentage to get fired after such a successful stretch in league history. That wasn’t enough for Elway, as he turned to friend, former teammate, and former offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak to guide them to a championship. For Elway, Kubiak was family, a roommate for nine years and a coach for four, who shared the same kicking and screaming mentality needed to take this all-star collection of players to Super Bowl winning glory. Kubiak, and all three coordinators Rick Dennison, Wade Phillips, and Joe DeCamillis, as well as multiple other coaching assistants, either played for or worked for the Broncos at one point in their careers, before returning to do so in 2015. Elway’s coaching change was the final piece of the Super Bowl puzzle, leaving the team in the hands of men he trusted, and who understood the culture and standards of the Broncos organization, with the ability to lead the team through any tough situation.
The 2015 season was the coming together of John Elway’s work in the five years as general manager, not only in the players and coaches assembled on the field, but their mentality whenever they stepped on it. Down 14 points on the road to a division rival? No problem, the defense will make a play to win it in the last seconds. The undefeated, reigning champs come to town? It’s ok, the running game will close the deal in the 4th quarter and overtime. Instead of fading into the playoffs, this team got stronger, continuing to fight and make clutch plays to win ball games. When the biggest games arise, teams need their best players to shine. In the Broncos’ two biggest games, Elway’s two most important hand-picked players made the big plays needed to win in it all. Peyton Manning, all 39 years and hurt foot in all, ran the most important 12 yards of his career late in the AFC Championship for a crucial first down, similar to his boss making the same decision 18 years prior. In Super Bowl 50, the defense, led by Von Miller, took over and brought home a 3rd Lombardi Trophy to the Mile High city. The 2015 Broncos scratched and clawed, fought and fought back, and kicked and screamed all the way to a Super Bowl win in Santa Clara, and it was number 7 at the head of it once again.
This time, he traded a jersey and shoulder pads for a suit and tie.