ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — Hall of Famer John Elway is embarking on another comeback.
The beloved quarterback who led the Broncos to five Super Bowl appearances and back-to-back championships before retiring in 1999 returned to the team’s Dove Valley headquarters Wednesday to begin restoring the franchise’s tarnished image and bringing back its winning ways.
Team owner Pat Bowlen said he expects his new chief football executive to lead the Broncos to more Super Bowls and joked this time, Elway can tell him: “This one’s for Pat!”
“I can’t think of a better job and a better guy to do that job than John Elway, and I look forward to great things in the future,” said Bowlen, who famously declared, “This one’s for John!” following the Broncos’ upset of the Green Bay Packers in the 1997 Super Bowl.
“I think John will return this team to a very high level of competitiveness,” Bowlen said. “I think we’ll win some more Super Bowls.”
Elway, who retired with an NFL-record 47 comeback drives, said he was ready for this enormous challenge.
“I do not know everything about this job, but I cannot wait to learn as much as I can about the job,” he said. “I am thrilled to be back with the Broncos, I am thrilled to be back in football. I get on the football field and it makes my heart pump.”
Elway’s first task is leading the search for a new coach to replace Josh McDaniels, whose 22-month misadventure left the Broncos embarrassed and in need of a major makeover.
“Why am I here? I love the Broncos,” Elway said. “I understand what the Broncos are all about. They are about the integrity, about the winning and about the things that you do and how you handle yourself.”
Elway has interviews set up with three coaching candidates so far and hopes to talk Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh into applying, too.
He will meet with Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey in Atlanta on Friday night, then fly back to Denver to interview New York Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell and Broncos interim head coach Eric Studesville on Sunday.
Studesville went 1-3 after being promoted from running backs coach upon McDaniels’ Dec. 6 ouster.
Elway, 50, said he feels like a rookie all over again but insisted he should get up to speed quickly based on his experience growing up as the son of a football coach, playing for 16 seasons in the NFL and running an arena league team for six seasons.
“I know what I don’t know,” Elway said, promising to surround himself with a good team in Denver like the one he led to Super Bowl titles following the 1997 and ’98 seasons.
He said he’s already sought the advice of former NFL executive Ernie Accorsi, who drafted him in Baltimore — and traded him to Denver — and was Cleveland’s GM when Elway engineered “The Drive” in the 1987 AFC championship game to beat the Browns.
“So, thank God there was no animosity and he took my call,” said Elway, who plans to keep an open line with Accorsi as he settles into his new gig.
Not many great players have made successful transitions to the front office — think Dan Marino and Matt Millen — but Elway said that didn’t give him pause.
“No. Because I’m not them,” Elway said. “And I know what I want to do and I want to compete and I want to be the best that I can in this. I don’t believe in ‘I can’t.”‘
Elway was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004. He also led the Arena Football League’s Colorado Crush to a championship in 2005 as its co-owner and chief executive officer.
Elway’s title is executive vice president of football operations in the reshaped front office, and chief operating officer Joe Ellis becomes team president. Brian Xanders goes from the general manager in name only to one who’s empowered in the new organizational chart.
Elway said he didn’t consider anyone else for the GM job, saying he trusts Xanders, who was basically relegated to consultant status under McDaniels.
“It turned into a one-man show there,” Elway said, noting he doesn’t hold the current state of the roster against Xanders. “Brian is a guy where I appreciate what he did: he respected the chain of command.”
One of the biggest questions facing the franchise is whether Tim Tebow, who supplanted starter Kyle Orton for the final three games, is the quarterback of the future.
“Tim Tebow is a darn good football player,” Elway said. “What we have to make him is a darn good quarterback, and that is what we have to figure out.”
Elway said he’ll leave it up to the next coach to decide if Tebow is the starting quarterback — adding, however: “I don’t believe that anyone is going to come over and say, ‘I don’t want Tim Tebow.’ If they do, then maybe they are not the right guy for the job.”
Elway also said he’d love to have star Champ Bailey back next year but wasn’t sure the team’s budget would allow that. Elway sounded like he believed he’d be looking for a replacement in the draft or free agency for right tackle Ryan Harris, who stabilized the offensive line and protected Tebow’s blind side but will be a free agent.
The Broncos are coming off the worst season in their 51-year history, a 4-12 debacle that exposed McDaniels’ many personnel blunders and was marked by the Spygate II videotaping scandal that cast them as cheaters.
Elway said he was hurt, as were many fans, by the video violation.
“That brand is about integrity and doing things the right way,” Elway said, motioning toward the Broncos’ logo. “So I don’t know for sure, but I think that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. … Pat never wants that to happen again. I think he trusts me being in this position and being involved on the football side to make sure that that never happens.”
Elway sees one of his primary tasks as reconnecting the Broncos with their disenchanted fan base.
Mike Shanahan was fired in January 2009 after a run of mediocrity and McDaniels was plucked from Bill Belichick’s staff in New England, but his reign was marred by personnel miscalculations that led to a one-dimensional offense and a dismal defense that ranked last in the league.
The Broncos have just six picks in April’s draft, although half of them are among the top 50 selections, including the No. 2 overall pick that they might use to select Clemson defensive end Da’Quan Bowers if they don’t try to trade down for a package of picks instead.
The Broncos have won just one playoff game since Elway retired in 1999 following his second straight Super Bowl title, and they haven’t reached the postseason in five years.
“This is a mountain that I am ready to climb,” Elway said.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)