It was midday on the Saturday of the NFL combine in February. The cavernous media room was bustling with activity when a trendy, middle-aged man walked briskly through.
Wearing designer jeans, a leather jacket and looking like he just walked out of a Beverly Hills hair salon, John Elway smiled winningly, shaking hands and offering quick quips as he breezed through.
In the often stodgy world of the NFL, Elway was working the combine his own way. NFL front-office leaders are usually not the leather-jacket-and-$100-dollar-haircut types. Neither are they Super Bowl winning, Hall of Fame quarterbacks.
“John is a very confident, calm, poised executive,” Denver president Joe Ellis said. “There’s no question, he is a qualified leader who is the right man for this franchise.”
Back-to-back Super Bowl wins capped Elway's 16-year playing career with the Broncos. Now 15 months into his newest role, he is showing he has the chance to be successful in his second life in Denver. Since he became the team's primary decision maker in January 2011, the Broncos have begun the process of becoming a front-line franchise -- as they were for much of Elway’s tenure as a player.
He took over a team that had gone 4-12 in 2010 and had lost 22 of its past 28 games. Elway spearheaded an effort that turned the Broncos into a surprise AFC West champion that upset Pittsburgh in the first round of the AFC playoffs -- the Broncos' first postseason win in six years.
Elway made the right choice in hiring John Fox and made the right call last April when the Broncos drafted linebacker Von Miller with the No. 2 pick. Miller notched 11.5 sacks and 64 tackles in his first campaign and was named the NFL Defensive of Rookie of the Year. The quarterback known for late-game brilliance engineered his greatest scoring drive as an executive last month when he won the Peyton Manning sweepstakes.
When his kindred spirit picked up the phone on the morning of March 19 and told Elway that he had chosen the Broncos, Elway finally got the superstar quarterback he wanted. That let him end the Tim Tebow experiment. Tebow never fit what Elway wanted in his quarterback. Manning did.
Elway received much credit, inside and outside the organization, for outlasting Tennessee and San Francisco. Manning said at his introductory news conference in Denver that Elway played a major role in his decision to sign with the Broncos.
“Certainly, I have had a relationship with John and it goes back a long way, but I’ve seen John now in a different role,” Manning said. “I’ve always seen him as a quarterback, never had to play against him, but that’s always the role I saw him as. Now I’ve seen him as a leader of a franchise and I really like what he had to say. Everyone knows what kind of competitor he is as a player, and I can tell he is just as competitive in this new role. That got me excited, I know he’s going to do everything he can do to help this franchise win.”
Although the decision to move away from wildly popular Tebow could have been controversial, the decision to pursue Manning was considered a no-brainier around the league. Trading Tebow after a playoff win was a bold move by a decision maker bent on making a call he believed was in the best interest of his team -- the court of public opinion be damned.
Elway talked about the thrill he felt when he signed Manning in a video interview with ESPN’s Adam Schefter. Elway likened it to the joy of winning a Super Bowl as a player. Those comments jibe with what some friends have said about Elway in the past year. They said this new role has filled a void in his life and given him a chance to compete, something he dearly missed. When he was hired in Denver last year, Elway joked that he had played enough golf in his retired life.
At the combine, Elway said his role as an executive has reignited his competitive juices.
“To go to Mile High on Sunday and to get butterflies, that’s why I came back,” Elway said.
After his retirement as a player, Elway, 51, was involved in several businesses and ran the Denver franchise of the Arena League with Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, whom he remained close to after his playing days ended. Elway often talked about joining the Broncos in a front-office role, but he wasn’t around the team much. However, near the end of the disastrous 23-month Josh McDaniels era, the Broncos believed the time was right to hand the franchise's keys to their greatest and most beloved player.
The combination of Elway’s experience as a Hall of Fame player, his Stanford education, his Arena League and business success -- and the fact that his late father, Jack, was a well respected Denver personnel man -- all made him an attractive leader. Still, everyone heard the whispers that Elway could be another in a long line of playing-field legends turned coaching or personnel failures.
“I think people underestimated how hungry John was and his love for the Broncos,” Ellis said. “He’s been waiting to do this. He brings a deep skill set, including a willingness to roll up his sleeves and work hard. … He has a terrific, deep base of football knowledge and he commands strong business skills. He is perfect for the big picture of our organization.”
Elway has been praised by people inside the organization for not having any ego and for his willingness to learn on the job. “He knows what he doesn’t know,” one team employee said. Agents around the league have been impressed with Elway’s professionalism and knowledge of players and contract situations. They have found him easy to deal with.
His first move may have been his most important. Elway and Fox have meshed beautifully, insiders say, and they have similar personalities and approaches.
“There’s no question, we needed a culture change, and together, John and John Fox have created it,” Ellis said. “We are very confident and happy about where we are with John as our leader.”