Three times during his Hall of Fame playing career, John Elway slogged through the rubble of a Super Bowl landslide.
Forty-eight hours after Denver's devastating 43-8 defeat by Seattle in this year's Super Bowl, the Broncos' boss was asked how long it took him to get over those big blowouts.
"I'm not over them yet," Elway said. "I just add this one to it."
Elway understands Broncos fans are struggling to come to grips with just how the highest-scoring team in league history self-destructed and five-time MVP Peyton Manning managed but a single touchdown throw against the Seahawks.
"It was a great year," Elway said. "We came up short, but it wasn't due to lack of effort or lack of want-to. We didn't play very well two days ago. I know that's what everybody is disappointed about. We're disappointed about it, players are disappointed. But, it was a hell of a year. We went through a lot of different things, but I'm proud of the team."
A half hour later, with coach John Fox by his side and the season-ending news conference wrapping up, Elway asked to add one thing because he felt the need to remind everyone that this season wasn't an utter failure.
"Right now the focus is on what happened instead of how we got there and what we did this year, what we went through as a team. But I say that the farther you get away from this, the less you concentrate on just that one game, the more you recognize the whole season and really what we did as a football team and really as an organization," Elway said. "And I'll tell you what, I'm very proud of that."
Sure, changes need to be made, he said, but not the wholesale kind.
After the Broncos' crushing loss to Baltimore in last year's playoffs, Elway created what Manning called an "uncomfortable atmosphere" around Dove Valley, a reminder of the scar that loss left.
It served as the impetus for this 15-4 season that came up just short of a championship.
Now, Elway's promising to navigate this offseason with the notion that this Super Bowl loss will drive Denver to next year's title game in the Arizona desert, and this time, he hopes they'll be better prepared for the big stage.
"The goal has not changed and it will not change," Elway insisted. "We will use this as an experience that we went through, be disappointed that we didn't play better, but the bottom line is this organization and what (team owner) Pat Bowlen wants from this organization — that has not changed and it will not change.
"The bottom line is we're going to work as hard as we worked this year, if not harder, and continue to do that with the mindset that we want to be world champions and we're going to do everything we can to get there."
An hour earlier, players trudged through the locker room cleaning out their belongings and saying goodbye to one another, some for a couple of months, others for good.
"It's tough, talking about the game and where we go from here," said wide receiver Eric Decker, soon to be a free agent. "Obviously we're very disappointed about the results. You can't change anything, you just learn from it. It's just as tough today if not tougher than two days ago."
Like Elway, Decker wasn't sure he's ever going to really get over this loss.
"I don't know where or when that corner is," he said. "We were in this similar situation last year, Baltimore, we felt like we had the pieces for a championship season. It sticks with you and motivates you, it never goes away. You learn to fuel your fire from it, to deal with it and to move on with it."
Decker and Knowshon Moreno and Zane Beadles said they prefer to stay in Denver, but they know the Broncos can't keep all their guys together.
Either way, none of them wanted to ponder their own future just like they didn't want to look back on the Super Bowl and try to figure out where it went wrong.
"It's too fresh to get a good idea," Beadles said. "As the offseason goes on here there will be plenty of time to reflect back and figure those things out. If I am here we've got to come back stronger than ever."
Fox told his players to walk out of the building with their heads held high.
"I know there is disappointment," Fox said. "It will take a while to go away for all of us, but at the end of the day, it was a successful season: 15-4 is not real shabby."
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