NEWARK, N.J. — The Denver Broncos wouldn’t be in the Super Bowl without Peyton Manning.
Manning wouldn’t be in Denver without John Elway.
That the Broncos are making their first appearance in the big game since Elway was their quarterback is no coincidence. He’s leading them again.
As Denver’s executive vice president of football operations, Elway sets the tone for the organization, makes the critical personnel decisions and is one heck of a recruiter. Manning had any number of options after Indianapolis let him go in March 2012. He picked the Elway-run Broncos.
“John was pretty much the tipping point to him coming here,” said Terrell Davis, Elway’s former backfield mate. “He’s a Hall of Fame guy who understands, who’s traveled the same path, been to five Super Bowls, has told you everything you wanted to hear (and is) not going to interfere in what you want to do.
“All he’s going to be is an asset to you. Provide you with all the weapons you can have. Give you every tool possible to make you successful. That would sell me.”
Elway downplayed his role in luring Manning, saying: “I just tried to show him what the Denver Broncos are all about.” But Elway conceded their unique relationship “definitely helped.”
“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,” Elway said. “I have never really talked to him about exactly why he chose Denver, but I have a feeling that that was part of the decision.”
Manning considers Elway an invaluable resource. Manning enjoys talking shop with fellow quarterbacks, including his father. His discussions with Elway included one about knowing when it’s time to retire.
Elway told Manning he retired because he was physically spent, providing the current Broncos quarterback, 37, with some clarity about his future.
“He doesn’t come to our quarterback meetings, and he is not on the phones with me during the game,” Manning said before the AFC Championship Game. “I think he wants to make that clear, that it is his job to hire good people to communicate with me on those ends.
“At the same time, I think you would be crazy not to ask a quarterback with his experience questions. … I have asked John a number of questions, and he’s provided me with any type of knowledge or tidbit from experiences that he’s had. He’s been very helpful that way.”
Manning isn’t the only recipient of Elway’s advice. Nor is Manning the only key player Elway has acquired since returning to the Denver organization in January 2011.
Elway has addressed the team “many times,” according to Broncos coach John Fox. Elway’s message before they left for the Super Bowl came from experience: Take advantage of this opportunity because you never know when you’ll get another one.
“What I took from him was this doesn’t come around every year,” said linebacker Danny Trevathan, one of the late-round gems Elway helped discover. “You have to make the most of it while you are here.”
Elway didn’t win his first championship until his fourth try. He won another the next year — and was Super Bowl MVP — before walking away from the game.
Elway’s time away from football didn’t last long. About three years after he retired in May 1999, Elway became co-owner and CEO of the Colorado Crush of the Arena Football League. He ran the Crush’s day-to-day operations until 2009, winning an ArenaBowl title along the way.
After that lengthy apprenticeship, Elway spent the 2010 season as a consultant for the Broncos. The next January, team owner Pat Bowlen handed Elway the keys to the franchise. Eight days later, the Broncos hired Fox.
Denver went 8-8 in the first season of the Elway-Fox partnership, making the playoffs and winning a wild-card game with Tim Tebow as the primary quarterback.
Despite Tebow’s popularity, Elway recognized what signing Manning could do for the organization. In came Manning, who has led the Broncos to back-to-back 13-3 seasons. Out went Tebow, traded to the New York Jets for draft picks.
It wasn’t the only shrewd move Elway made. Under his direction, the Broncos have drafted seven players who have become defensive regulars. (That total includes injured starters Von Miller, Rahim Moore and Derek Wolfe.)
They scored big in free agency as well. Denver’s starting lineup in the AFC Championship Game included eight free agents who joined the team after Elway became vice president.
One of them, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, said Elway’s recruiting pitch was blunt: “He told me the good, the bad and the ugly.”
Elway told Rodgers-Cromartie what he needed to work on to improve and how Denver’s coaching staff could help him shore up his deficiencies. Rodgers-Cromartie respected Elway’s opinion. He is John Elway, after all.
“I really thought about it a lot,” Rodgers-Cromartie said. “If this guy says he can help me, he can help me. You look at him and what he did for the game, he definitely understands football. He’s seen cornerbacks all his life.”
Those who know Elway aren’t the least bit surprised he’s excelling as an executive. After succeeding as a player, owner of car dealerships and restaurateur, he has found another outlet to stoke his unquenchable competitive fire.
“Whatever he touches, he has a way of making it work,” Davis said. “The fire burns. He’s a great golfer. He was a great baseball player when he played. He was a great football player. He loves to compete. As you get older, you find other venues, other vehicles to be competitive in.
“I’m sure he had his lumps and bumps along the way. But more times than not, he won.”