ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It is something, if you don’t live on the Front Range of the Rockies, you just might not appreciate.
You might not appreciate how low faith and hope had dipped among one of sports’ most loyal, and underrated fan bases when the 2010 season drew to a close, a dismal 4-12 affair that included Spygate and Josh McDaniels' firing. The Denver Broncos, after all, have a sellout streak that stands at 359 games in all, regular season and playoff games, that dates back decades.
And yet when owner Pat Bowlen formally introduced John Elway as the team’s top football executive in January 2011, the unfamiliar specter of fan apathy had shown up on the Broncos’ doorstep. Elway then hired John Fox, who led a Tim Tebow-quarterbacked team to an 8-8 finish in 2011, a playoff spot on top of a weak division, even a shocking playoff win over the Pittsburgh Steelers a year after Elway’s hire.
But Elway was still looking for a big piece of the puzzle, the one player who could change everything, who could lift the franchise back into the championship discussion. And the Broncos signed Peyton Manning with the promise from one Hall of Famer, in Elway, to a future Hall of Famer in Manning, that Elway would “do everything I could to make sure Peyton finished his career the same way I finished mine.’’
Elway won back-to-back Super Bowls in his final two seasons with the Broncos.
And many of Manning’s peers in the league said they would have done exactly what Elway did if they had the chance.
As part of a ESPN.com’s NFL Nation Confidential survey of more than 320 players, the question was asked, “If you had to start a team with one player, whom would it be?’’ And Manning was the top vote-getter as the first pick to start a team, with 62 votes (19 percent), ahead of the player who replaced him for the Indianapolis Colts, Andrew Luck, who received 56 votes, and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who received 41 votes.
The signing has been everything Elway, Bowlen, Manning’s teammates and a re-energized fan base had hoped. The Broncos have finished 13-3 in back-to-back seasons and set a new single-season scoring record in 2013 with 606 points.
The team has three 30-touchdown seasons from its quarterbacks all time and Manning now has two of them. And with the power of all those touchdowns, all of those wins, Manning jerseys cover the landscape as if he has spent a decade here. And a popular topic of conversation, often used to fill the idle minutes in drive time locally, is whether or not the Broncos should put him in the team’s Ring of Fame when his career is over.
“He’s Peyton Manning, one of the greatest to ever play the game,’’ cornerback Champ Bailey said. “There’s never been a player like him be a free agent. Of course you go get him because look at what happens when you do get him. He changes everything the minute he walks in the door. That is what a real franchise player is.’’