He could have stayed on the sideline. Instead, John Elway wanted back in the game.
The king of the comeback is directing his latest rally from the Denver Broncos executive offices. Just two years ago, the franchise was dissolving into irrelevance or, maybe even worse, a side show. But now, the Hall of Fame quarterback is turning the Broncos into winners again.
The centerpiece of the turnaround, of course, was the signing of Peyton Manning.
A decision that seemed, to some, like a risk when Elway made it is looking better with each game. And while ol' No. 7 refuses to look too far ahead, he does concede that, yes, things are going well — and that he knows he put his reputation on the line when signing a 36-year-old quarterback with a surgically repaired neck.
"By no means was it a slam dunk," Elway said in an interview with The Associated Press. "But we knew after we did our homework and looked at the situation, it was the best thing for us. We were willing to take that risk. There's always risk to it, but we liked our chances."
The Broncos carry a four-game winning streak into Sunday's game against San Diego. They are 6-3 and a win away from taking a three-game lead in the AFC West. Manning is on pace for a 4,800-yard, 37-touchdown season, though it's the strength of the supporting cast Elway helped put in place that made the quarterback-turned-executive feel good about going after a future Hall of Fame quarterback on the back end of his career.
One of Elway's most memorable quotes from the day the Broncos made it official with Manning was that he didn't have a "Plan B" if Manning got hurt or didn't return to his former effectiveness. The issue, the only issue, as Elway sees things, is to win Super Bowls, and the possibility of Manning at 100 percent could get the Broncos there quickest.
It's a focus that got drowned out in Denver over successive years of turmoil starting with the end of the Mike Shanahan era, continuing with the hiring of Josh McDaniels and concluding with Tim Tebow's tumultuous stint as Broncos quarterback.
"I think true Bronco fans understand what our goal is," said Elway, who spoke to AP while promoting the Dove Men+Care "Journey to Comfort" campaign. "They've had a taste of what a Super Bowl is, back in '97 and '98. I think with where we are right now, the fan base is extremely excited because of what they see with Peyton. There were always high expectations when Mike was here. Those couple of years when it hit the bottom, it makes it that much more exciting now."
When Elway retired after the 1999 Super Bowl, nobody would have held it against him had he left football forever.
But he didn't leave his passion for the game behind.
Yet as much as signing Manning — along with the corresponding move of jettisoning Tebow — the real risk the 52-year-old took was involving himself with the Broncos again at all.
After all, he was the man who could do no wrong in Denver, the man who simply couldn't be replaced — not by Brian Griese, Jake Plummer, Jay Cutler, Tebow. The man who became the face of the city, suffered the Super Bowl heartbreaks, then won the titles, all the while directing dozens of dramatic, game-winning drives (40, to be precise, a record Manning now holds with 48) was putting his reputation back out on the line.
Elway had car dealerships and other business enterprises, even the Arena Football League team.
"But ultimately, this is what I wanted to do again," he said. "I like the competitive side of it. The fact that you're graded, week in and week out. And that there's a big carrot at the end of the road if you do things right. That's the Super Bowl. The fact that I could do it in Denver made it even more special."
So far, almost every high-profile move he has made since he arrived and assumed the title of executive vice president of football operations in January 2011 has improved the team.
— Choosing Von Miller with the second pick in the 2011 draft wasn't a huge risk, though with 10 sacks this season, Miller is, at the very least, living up to his billing.
— Willis McGahee, Brandon Stokley, Trindon Holliday — all have been brought in by Elway, who has also made significant progress in cleaning up Denver's bloated salary cap.
— Hiring John Fox, a coach with a 73-71 career record, was not considered a slam-dunk choice. Elway concedes he didn't know Fox that well.
"But you looked at this building when I got here and everyone was so demoralized," Elway said. "One thing that stuck with me was John's positive attitude. He was outgoing, friendly, positive. To me, that was the No. 1 characteristic. He was someone who could get this organization rehabilitated, get everyone excited about playing football again."
By setting aside conventional wisdom, Fox and offensive coordinator Mike McCoy retooled their offense in 2011 and built a team that made the playoffs with Tebow at quarterback.
Now, with Manning, the coaching staff has re-created itself again. They are building around Manning, who has paid back the favor by becoming the NFL's top-rated quarterback through nine games.
"Everyone wants to look at the strength of his arm, but one thing they sometimes overlook is that he's tremendously accurate," Elway said. "He throws a very catchable ball. The accuracy part is not given enough credit."
Much has been made of the intrinsic quarterback-to-quarterback connection between Elway, the last quarterback to bring a Super Bowl to the Broncos, and Manning, who was brought to Denver to be the next one.
Elway says there were never any questions about Manning's work ethic and, at least from the Broncos perspective, the health issue was resolved.
"But there was, no question, a down side. It wasn't unanimous" around the league, Elway said. "I guess because I was the one sitting in the chair who had to openly make that decision, it was going to fall in my lap. I knew that. And I knew there were a lot of people out there who said 'No way,' who have probably changed their mind by now."
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