By Rich Kurtzman
John Elway rides again!
The old gunslinger may have hung up his spurs 13 seasons ago—beaten and broken physically before riding off into the sunset—but he’s taken the reins of the Broncos once again.
In December 2010, the Broncos were in the midst of their worst season in nearly 50 years. Josh McDaniels was fired from the head coaching spot he wasn’t qualified for and Eric Studesville was put in charge on an interim basis. Denver was down in the dumps, eventually finishing a dastardly 4-12. It may be no coincidence that this is the time Elway met with Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen and expressed interest in getting involved with the team. On January 5, 2011, Elway was named the Vice President of Football Operations, knowing everything was on the line.
Where the Broncos sat two years ago, it was a mile high climb back to the top of the mountain—the team was in shambles. He would have to hire a new head coach and defensive coordinator, then try to piece together a football team through the draft and free agency. In short, Elway’s reputation — not only as a god-like figure in Denver, but as a football man in the NFL world — was on the line in a job he admitted he had little understanding of.
But he met the challenges head on, insisting the franchise wasn’t rebuilding, but putting together a competitor immediately.
Elway hired John Fox as the new head coach and allowed Fox to bring some of his familiar assistants to town, then hired Dennis Allen as the new defensive coordinator. That draft class may go down as one of the Broncos’ best; Von Miller, Rahim Moore and Orlando Franklin have been starters and impact players ever since. And in free agency he re-signed Matt Prater and Wesley Woodyard and found Willis McGahee, Chris Harris and Tony Carter. The Broncos doubled their win total from the year before, improving to 8-8, winning the AFC West and even beating the Steelers in the first round of the playoffs with some Mile High Magic.
Then, even with all the national spotlights shining on Denver and quarterback Tim Tebow — Fox was wily enough to throw him into the starting lineup after the team’s dreadful 1-4 start — Elway made the most difficult decision of all, cutting ties with Tebow. The “Tebowites” resented Elway and the Broncos, they thought Tim Terrific deserved another chance to lead the team.
The Duke had other ideas; championship aspirations.
When Allen left to be the Oakland Raiders new head coach, Elway found Jack Del Rio, who has given Denver their best defense in quite a long time. Through free agency and the draft he continued to build the depth that’s proven so valuable as the grueling season has worn on. The Broncos re-signed punter Britton Colquitt, kicker Matt Prater, Joe Mays, Manny Ramirez, Matt Willis, Wesley Woodyard and Lance Ball while they brought in newcomers Mike Adams, Keith Brooking, Joel Dreessen, Dan Koppen, Trindon Holliday, Jim Leonard, Tracy Porter, Brandon Stokley, Jacob Tamme and of course, Peyton Manning. Plus, first and third round draft picks Derek Wolfe and Ronnie Hillman have made an impact as well.
Of all the names Elway’s brought into Denver, Peyton Manning’s stands out. The more the NFL game evolves in favor of the offense, the more important having a truly elite quarterback is — Denver has theirs in Manning. But each and every one of the names listed above have left fingerprints on the amazing run the Broncos are currently on.
Two years after going 4-12, the Denver Broncos may finish this season 13-3 — it’s incredible. This is arguably the best Broncos team to ever take the field — they’ve run off 10 straight victories and in domineering fashion, possess Hall of Famers in Manning and Champ Bailey while Von Miller is playing for Defensive Player of the Year and all three phases of the team perform at a high level. They’re playing so well, a Super Bowl is within reach thanks to the likely home-field advantage and first round bye coming to the team to start the playoffs.
It’s all thanks to John Elway.
You can lead a horse to the Super Bowl, but you can’t make him win.
With all the moves, puzzle-piecing and building, Elway’s done all he can. He’s brought in an elite quarterback and surrounded him with talent, bolstered the defense and special teams, giving them leadership. These Broncos are primed to win a franchise’s third championship this year, now it’s up to those players to go and seize the day and the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Still, as this piece is being written on Christmas day, I can’t help but wonder how happy and proud the Elway household is tonight; for mounting another comeback of monumental proportions by rescuing his team from football futility and delivering them to the brink of another Bowl.
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Rich Kurtzman is a Denver native, Colorado State University alumnus, sports nerd, athletics enthusiast, and competition junkie. Currently writing for a multitude of websites while working on books, one on the history of the Denver Broncos and Mile High Stadium. Find more of Rich’s Denver Broncos pieces on Examiner.com.