Donald Miralle/SI/The MMQB
Donald Miralle/SI/The MMQB

Building a Better Bronco

Three years ago, John Elway's hiring brought questions of Denver's intent. Would the former face of the franchise just be a figurehead? Three straight playoff appearances and a Super Bowl berth later, the answer is clear: Nope

By
Joan Niesen
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Ernie Accorsi wanted encouragement. It was January 1988, and the Cleveland Browns general manager was preparing his team to face the Denver Broncos in the AFC championship game for the second straight season. Just a year had passed since “The Drive,” when John Elway led his Broncos 98 yards for a game-tying touchdown in the final minute of regulation, and the Browns ached for revenge.

Before the game, longtime sportswriter Art Spander, who had covered Elway since the quarterback’s high school days, struck up a conversation with Accorsi. The subject naturally turned to Elway, and Spander offered his wisdom on the player he’d followed for more than a decade.  “There’s no sense in being nervous, Ernie,” he told Accorsi. “You can’t beat him.” 

The Browns lost that day—and again the next year—to Elway and company, a fact that stung just a bit sharper for Accorsi. As Baltimore’s GM, he was the man who’d drafted Elway in 1983 despite the quarterback’s assurances he would never play for the Colts. Elway kept his word, forced a trade to Denver, and he and Accorsi parted ways after meeting just once, with a brief handshake at the East-West Shrine Game. 

In 2009, 20 years after that final Denver-Cleveland AFC championship matchup, two men met at the Yale Club in midtown Manhattan. One was Accorsi, the other Broncos president Joe Ellis, who was seeking counsel after firing Mike Shanahan. Ellis valued the advice he got that day, so much so that two years later he suggested his new vice president of football operations call Accorsi for similar counsel.

That vice president was, of course, Elway, who laughed at the suggestion. Ellis didn’t know the history, and Elway wondered if Accorsi would even take his call. 

Ellis reached out to gauge Accorsi’s interest in mentoring the man he calls the “greatest prospect I’d ever seen,” and who later ruined his draft in Baltimore and ended his Cleveland team’s postseason run three times. Accorsi had to laugh. He’d be happy to talk to Elway, he said. On that first phone call, the two hit it off. They discussed everything from the minutiae of the job to the big picture, building teams and winning championships.

“We were speaking the same language,” Accorsi says. “I am not in any way surprised by his success. Not a bit.”

* * *

Shortly before that first conversation with Accorsi, on Jan. 5, 2011, Elway stood behind a podium at Dove Valley, the Broncos’ facility in Englewood, Colo. Press conference flirted with pep rally as Ellis introduced the team’s newest hire. Elway’s words came quickly, so fast that a sentence was an exercise in slowing and repeating, unjumbling the jumbled. For Elway to smile so wide and speak concurrently was a feat of verbal gymnastics. Denver’s golden boy had swooped in to the rescue, boisterous, greener than green, talking, talking, talking.

Elway arrived at his hiring press conference in 2011 with guns blazing, answering all questions that came his way. (Ed Andrieski/AP)
Elway arrived at his hiring press conference in 2011 with guns blazing and gums flapping, answering all questions that came his way. (Ed Andrieski/AP)

When the Broncos announced the hire after a 4-12 season in 2010, their decision was met with mixed reactions. Was Denver hoping to resuscitate fan support after a disastrous season by using Elway as a figurehead? What qualifications had the quarterback garnered since retiring in 1999 after his second Super Bowl win? Looking back three and a half years later, the worries seem outlandish, the questions frivolous, but they existed, and Elway has answered them, one by one.

In that introductory press conference, the words that rang truest were perhaps the simplest Elway uttered all day: “I know what I don’t know.” He didn’t know the NFL of 2011, and he didn’t know what it would be like to make decisions of the magnitude he was about to make. What he did know was football, and how to build, albeit on a smaller scale. 

From 2003 to 2009, Elway had been a co-owner of the Arena Football League’s Colorado Crush. He had also served as the team’s chief executive officer, building it from its inception and making its personnel decisions. His role with the Crush resembled that of an old-school NFL general manager, Accorsi says, in that “when you run an Arena League team, you don’t have a staff like General Eisenhower in England.”

“I … got my hands in everything, whether it be on the business side, sponsorship side, as well as the player side,” Elway says. “I learned probably more about the business side of sports than I did on the football side. … I hired everybody in the organization, putting together a coaching staff as well the business staff.”

That experience caught Ellis’s eye as he sought to jolt the Broncos back to relevance in 2011, and it remains the foundation of Elway’s approach five years after the AFL folded. Even as the Broncos played up Elway’s career and ties to Denver in the days after they hired him, they knew he would deliver, for reasons beyond his status in the Mile High City. 

“He’s very competitive,” says Mike Dailey, who coached the Crush under Elway. “It’s a little bit like an aura for him. I think part of it is that everyone knows of him. [Players and coaches] could probably go into relationships with [him] knowing, Hey, here’s a guy who’s been successful at the highest level. But he has that aura about him. He wants to win. He wants to be the best.”

I think John Elway would still be playing football if he could physically,” Peyton Manning says.

The first season after Elway took over the Broncos went 8-8 and won the AFC West, capping the season with a playoff win. It was more success than most expected, and by then Elway’s talking had moved behind the scenes, from press conference to plotting. In public, he paced. Watching the first step in his team’s turnaround was no easy task, especially on Sundays. There was twitching, and there was head-shaking. There were attempts to suppress emotions that sometimes failed. “I think John Elway would still be playing football if he could physically,” Peyton Manning says, and those early games were a testament to that truth. Every play, every mistake, every success—each made Elway want to suit up, except that he was a decade retired. He was in charge but never quite in control.

Denver's direction changed course when Peyton Manning told Pat Bowlen and John Elway he was signing with the Broncos. (Joe Amon/Getty Images)
Denver’s direction changed course when Peyton Manning told Pat Bowlen and John Elway he was signing with the Broncos. (Joe Amon/Getty Images)

Three years later, in 2014, with three seasons, three playoff berths and a Super Bowl loss behind him, Elway presides. He stands on the practice field during the Broncos’ organized team activities, dressed as if he’s just rolled in from his tee time—because sometimes he has. He’s learned to watch games without his blood pressure spiking. He reclines in his office chair, surrounded by framed copies of Sports Illustrated bearing his much-younger image and photos of him with his family and Broncos owner Pat Bowlen. His is the comfort of a man who knows his job inside and out, who’s drafted four classes and paraded through free agency as many times.

Now, it seems like there is nothing Elway doesn’t know. These are his Broncos, and he is their king. He knows every step to take, every detail of what he’s done—except, of course, the one detail that got him to where he is today, at the top of the football world. 

Elway got the call on March 19, 2012. On the line was Manning, informing him that he would sign with the Broncos, catapulting the team back into Super Bowl contention, with the chance of another golden era. Elway wined and dined Manning earlier that winter, presenting him with a city whose passion for football looms larger than the Rocky Mountains. He hammered home his belief that quarterbacks can win late in their careers, and then he waited. When the call came, Elway was thrilled, surprised, honored. 

And he never asked why.

“I’m not sure he would answer it if I did,” Elway says after a long sigh. “Having played here and lived here for so long, to be able to present the Broncos the way that we presented them, to say, Hey, this is it, I thought we had a lot to offer.”

Elway doesn’t need to know why Manning chose his team. Never has, never will. His was the faith of a quarterback who’s thrown the perfect pass. It will land true. And if it doesn’t? Well, it wasn’t for lack of precision.

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40 comments
Mech
Mech

Old Horseface was never my favorite player. he had an arm like a cannon no doubt but he also had an ego like a rock star. He fancied himself the best of the best and never saw his own effect on the people around him. I think its laughable to see him move "all in" this year because a real achievable goal is maybe scoring "twice" instead of once against the NFC Champs whether it's Seattle or the 49'ers.

MikeTritz
MikeTritz

Very cool article.Detailed and accurate

Mike26
Mike26

Elway seems to be a pretty good character guy all the way around, yet so many of the players he's drafted/signed have serious character issues - issues that have impacted the team.  If you couple that with the team executives that he's brought in (this whole article is about HIM being in charge of EVERYTHING) that have sobriety/driving issues, I'm wondering why everyone continues to gloss these "dark" parts over.  This article is a perfect example - it's one paragraph where things are mentioned and that's it.


Look, either journalists need to write the WHOLE story or else label their news article as an opinion column.  When so little is said about the "bad" things that have happened under Elway's watch (just like all organizations have some bad things going on), especially when they are more towards the top of the league with that number of said issues, it takes away some of the credibility of the article overall.  I'm not against strong, positive writing, but from a journalistic viewpoint you need to present both sides.

romahane1
romahane1

Joan Niesen, are you on crack? There have been a few misses, but all three drafts have been very solid. Most players have contributed to a contender . . . and most are still on the roster. Seriously, how is Elway poor at drafting? Maybe you are poor at research? Oh, that makes more sense. 

Anyhow, Chad Jensen has a great rebuttal at Predominately Orange. You should check it out. 

http://predominantlyorange.com/2014/07/16/john-elway-average-draft/

FredFlintsone
FredFlintsone

Took over a 4-12 team driven into the ground by McDaniels  and Shanahan winning 3 straight division crowns, reaching the 2nd round of playoffs in his first season, playing for the AFC title in his 2nd yr and for the super bowl the next. Pretty good hire by Bowlen

CalypsoJimmy
CalypsoJimmy

Interesting article. It's a matter of which metric one chooses. If winning a superbowl as a GM is the metric, then Mr. E's team got smoked last yr.... and his Super-Bowl-as-GM total is 0,  If it's a matter of being top-shelf-competitive every year, then he is a total winner. Since he is a Hall Of Fame Player, he knows how small is the window of opportunity for winning SuperBowls. Injuries, bad or good team karma, luck, etc.   So many things out of the GM's control. I have rooted against John Elway in every game that he has been involved in (mostly because I always root against the favorite and for the underdog. ) except for the last SuperBowl. ... but I have loved rooting against him.. he's a noble and ultimate competitor, and an honest to god football player.   

evileyefleagle
evileyefleagle

Bowlen rescued Elway from the financial scrapheap, and Manning rescued him from another 8 - 8 season.

Phroggo
Phroggo

Had Manning gone to the Niners he'd very likely be going after his fourth ring this year, instead of being stuck on the one he got at Indy.

seamillguesthouse
seamillguesthouse

Looks like the Broncos are over loaded with talent.They kind of remind me of the Vikings Bret Favre final year.

usameos6
usameos6

@romahane1  By this logic - Josh McDaniels also was outstanding at the draft since 10 of the players that were on the Broncos Super Bowl team were either drafted or signed by him in his 2 years with the Broncos.  


The writer's statement that Elways drafting "which has been if not underwhelming, then at best average." - was even echoed by you when you said that his drafts are 'solid' - not amazing - not spectacular - solid.  Some hits, some misses, one bonafide star so far (that has had significant off the field issues and is a positive drug test away from another suspension) and some solid contributors in his drafts.  Has he drafted as poorly as the Raiders have?  No - has he drafted as well as the Seahawks have?  No - Denver is somewhere in the middle of the pack at this point and most of the Broncos fans I know here in Denver feel the same way (except the ones seriously drinking the orange and blue koolaid).


I did notice that the fanboy article you linked to above made no mention of Ronnie Hillman .....

FredFlintsone
FredFlintsone

@CalypsoJimmy As a Bronco fan had you told me following a 4-12 season that we would win our division 3 straight yrs , reach 2 AFC title games and 1 Super Bowl  I might have wondered what you were on.

liquidmuse3
liquidmuse3

@evileyefleagle How so? Tebow was 9-7 with no offseason as a starter, ever (meaning, he didn't even know what he was doing yet). Yeah, Manning's better, but he is a bonafied playoff loser, & you have no successor to a near 40 year old player.

rckymtn4
rckymtn4

@Phroggo Manning would have taken about $20 million out of your salary cap. Who were you going to cut or trade to make the salary fit?

evileyefleagle
evileyefleagle

@Phroggo 

That's a very likely scenario.  The Niners were one perfect Manning pass away from defeating the Ravens for the NFL Championship in February of last year and one perfect Manning pass away from defeating the Seahawks for the NFC Championship this past January.

Phroggo
Phroggo

The Vikings won six games and lost ten in Bret Favre's final season.

JubJub
JubJub

@TechGeek_253 Your point is what?  There were 31 other GMs whose teams didn't win the Super Bowl last year.  Do they all suck?  Should they all be fired?  

Good that your'a tech geek because you sure as hell don't know anything about anything else. 

MattCote
MattCote

@FredFlintsone @CalypsoJimmy  The Broncos did not reach 2 AFC title games, just one, last year. The year before they were knocked off in the Divisional round, as they were the year before that. Only one AFC championship game played in under Elway.

evileyefleagle
evileyefleagle

@rckymtn4 

If I was Phroggo I'd trade Alex Smith and his 10 mil salary.  Get rid of Randy Moss and his 2.5 mil salary.  Rework Dashon Goldson and a few others.  Then I'd take part of Manning's 58 mil guaranty and make it a signing bonus to be amortized over the life of the contract.  That is, in fact, what the Broncos decided to do after last season. 

HossStyle
HossStyle

@evileyefleagle @Phroggo "If"?  "If" the Broncos Safety, Moore, had tipped a pass they would have defeated the eventual Super Bowl champs and gone on to win it themselves.


Except, you're projecting an "if" onto another team entirely, disregarding plays that Kaep made that Peyton couldn't of, along with about another hundred changes that would have happened with Peyton as the helm of the Niners.


See how silly "ifs" are?  My scenario and yours are both silly.  Yours even more so, since mine involves one pass of an actual event, while yours involves a zillion variables.

HossStyle
HossStyle

@JubJub @TechGeek_253 His point is that either he's A) a Seattle fan, which means he should be talking about how bad they beat the Broncos or B) he's a fan of another team (or no team at all), in which case he uses Seattle's performance towards his argument because his team didn't do anything last year that could help him.


Either way, just posting the score is a strawman argument, meant to shift focus away from his ludicrous point.

evileyefleagle
evileyefleagle

@JubJub 

Did TechGeek say someone should be fired?

It's obvious that TechGeek knows the score.  And, just as obvious, is the fact that you have some trouble distinguishing contractions from possessives in the English language.  

rckymtn4
rckymtn4

@evileyefleagle @rckymtn4  That probably would have worked two years ago but he is a $20 million dollar cap hit every year. I don't know that the 49ers were millions under the cap last year.

evileyefleagle
evileyefleagle

@HossStyle

Can you read Hoss?  There are no "ifs" in Phroggo's statement.

We know you can't write.  When you said "Peyton couldn't of", were you trying to say couldn't have?

I agree.  Your scenario is silly, but it's not silly to surmise that Manning might be going for his fourth ring this year had he gone to the Niners instead.  

evileyefleagle
evileyefleagle

@JubJub

Who was talking about guarantees?  What phroggo described is a very likely scenario.

evileyefleagle
evileyefleagle

@HossStyle

His point, in emphasizing how bad the Broncos got clobbered, could very well be that they came from a weak division, as well as a weak conference and were not the second best team in the league last season.   

Phroggo
Phroggo

Let's help JubJub out, evileye, and give him the other scores by which the Broncos got shellacked in the Super Bowl: 27-10; 39-20; 42-10 & 55-10. The point here, JubJub, because we know you will miss it, is that no team has been walloped in the Super Bowl more often than the Broncos.

JubJub
JubJub

@evileyefleagle @JubJub No, it's obvious that I sometimes have typos, just like everyone else.  

And here's an example of my ability to distinguish: YOU'RE legally retarded because YOUR IQ is below 70.  

Is that possessive enough for you, anus?

evileyefleagle
evileyefleagle

Yes, that probably would have worked two years ago, rocky, and that's when Manning was a free agent.

anon76
anon76

@evileyefleagle

The outcome of a single game hardly does that.  Here's a fact:  The playoff teams from the two conferences played 8 games against each other.  The AFC playoff teams went 7-1 in those games, including a combined 0-2 by the NFCCG participant Seahawks and 49ers.

The Broncos played a terrible SB, for which they should be held accountable, and the Seahawks played their best game of the season in the biggest game, for which they should be lauded.  But there's no objective way to look at last season and think that the Broncos were not one of the top teams in the league, especially when you look at the 19 games they played including playoffs.

HossStyle
HossStyle

@Phroggo And this is a shot to us Bronco fans?  That we get to Super Bowl a lot, lost bad in some of them, and won some of them as well?  This is your ammo in the argument?



DamionMosher
DamionMosher

That's only because the Bills and Vikes haven't made it back yet!

Phroggo
Phroggo

I see you've taken some English lessons, JubJub, since you tried to contract "you are a" and came up with "your'a". That's not a typo, that's just you showing your ignorance.

evileyefleagle
evileyefleagle

@HossStyle

Phroggo's point might very well be that they should think about rearranging the playoff structure so lousy teams don't make it to the final.  

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