ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In his time as the Denver Broncos' chief football decision-maker, John Elway has routinely offered what he believed the first step was to get from the 4-12 team he joined in January of 2011 and the one that will play in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday.
As a player, Elway spent over two decades in locker rooms, either at Stanford or with the Broncos, and he didn't like the one he saw a floor below when he moved into his office three seasons ago.
"I think, No. 1, we had to clean up the locker room," Elway said. "We had to get the locker room right … and get the right mentality in that locker room because that is really life bread of what the organization is all about. How that locker room fits is the most important thing. If that doesn't fit -- what we're all doing really is not that important because you can't make it work."
The foundation principle, Elway says, is to "stack those drafts, get the guys, right from the start, we want as Denver Broncos, to build our mentality, our culture, from within." During a sitdown with several folks Thursday Elway added, "I've always said if we can find somebody better than we have, we have to find them. And if they're out there then we'll sign them."
And that is the story, in particular, of the Broncos' record-setting offense. Start with Peyton Manning, not just a signing in free agency, but the signing of the free-agency era. By anyone.
He has been every bit the raise-all-boats guy, a future Hall of Famer who changed everything the minute he walked through the door at the Broncos' suburban complex.
Add in Wes Welker and right guard Louis Vasquez, who signed as free agents last March. They have been everything the Broncos had hoped they would be. Vasquez (6-foot-5, 335 pounds) signaled a transition in personnel philosophy up front; he's 60 pounds heavier than some of the Broncos' linemen were a decade ago. He helped lock down the middle of the Broncos' offensive line.
But the rest of the Broncos' 606-point touchdown factory is largely a homegrown affair. And that's likely the only way it could happen.
"I enjoyed coaching this group," said Broncos head coach John Fox. "They come to work, they're accountable and they care about each other … and you can get some things done like that."
A team couldn't buy five players in free agency who were good enough to finish with at least 10 touchdowns each. A team couldn't buy five players to have at least 60 receptions, no matter who the quarterback is. And the Broncos didn't.
Demaryius Thomas (2010), Eric Decker (2010), Julius Thomas (2011) and Knowshon Moreno (2009) are all Broncos draft picks. Ryan Clady, the Broncos' Pro Bowl left tackle on injured reserve, was Mike Shanahan's last first-rounder in 2008. Orlando Franklin (2011) and Zane Beadles (2010) are Broncos' draft picks as is Montee Ball (2013).
Center Manny Ramirez was signed to a futures contract in 2011 -- the NFL's version of an NBA 10-day deal -- and signed an extension this season after becoming a starter. And Chris Clark, who has filled in for Clady, was claimed off waivers by the Broncos in 2010.
"People say it's about win now, it's about now on," Elway said. " … Then you get a guy like Peyton Manning. Now it's about trying to find all the pieces together and obviously I said now on, but we're not just trying to find young guys. We're going to find guys that fit, young and old guys, that fit together."
Whatever becomes of this season, whether the Broncos move on to the Super Bowl or not, they will face some decisions in the coming weeks about some of those home-grown players. Decker, Beadles and Moreno are all pending free agents this year with Demaryius Thomas set to be up after the 2014 season. But those are all topics for other days.
In the end the Broncos didn't get what they wanted on the field until they shored up the team off of it.