ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When John Elway said "everything in my power," he meant everything.
Everything as in Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen’s checkbook and incessant desire to win. Everything as in Elway’s legacy as a Hall of Fame player. Everything as in a presumptive Hall of Famer currently at quarterback, and everything as in one of the most favorable salary-cap positions among the 2013 playoff teams.
Yes, the Broncos, still bruised in many ways from a 35-point Super Bowl loss last month, have rampaged through the opening hours of free agency with some specific goals in mind. They wanted to get nasty, wanted to have the elusive Plan "B" for when their next-level offense doesn’t have the kind of day it’s used to.
And the result has been a 24-hour defensive binge that now includes defensive end DeMarcus Ware (three years, $30 million, $20 million guaranteed); cornerback Aqib Talib (six years, $57 million, $26 million guaranteed); and safety T.J. Ward (four years, $23 million, $14 million guaranteed).
"That’s why me, Talib and Ware were brought in, three physical players. ... It’s going to help this defense, it’s going to help this team," Ward said in his first appearance at the Broncos' complex.
But Elway made Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning a promise as he recruited him in the days that followed his release from the Indianapolis Colts in 2012. When Manning arrived at the Broncos’ complex for a visit, he was still stunned the Colts had actually released him, still reeling with all of the uncertainty in front of him.
"I wasn’t sure what the future was going to look like. There wasn’t a map for me to follow," Manning had said.
But at that time, Elway’s pitch was a promise that Elway, as Bowlen’s chief football decision-maker, would "do everything in my power" to make sure Manning retired from the NFL as Elway did, with Super Bowl titles in those final seasons.
The Broncos made history on the way to last season’s 13-3 finish, set scoring records and raced into Super Bowl XLVIII using the fastest of fast lanes. Then the Seattle Seahawks pushed Denver down, and the Broncos simply never got up in one of the worst title-game losses of the Super Bowl era.
Manning didn’t play well, the receivers didn’t play well, the linemen didn’t block well and a defense that was the biggest question mark heading into the Super Bowl actually answered the bell until the game got out of hand.
But Elway has since talked of creating "the mindset" to win a championship, has talked of being more physical on both sides of the ball and has talked about if they saw the opportunity to sign any player the team believed could be better than the ones they had, the Broncos would do it.
They also had managed their salary cap well enough to have $28.7 million or so of cap space last Thursday morning. They then released cornerback Champ Bailey that day and guard Chris Kuper retired Monday. With those two events the Broncos gained roughly another $14 million in cap space, and with that cap space and the bulk of a roster good enough to have finished 13-3 in back-to-back seasons, the Broncos went to work.
Ware, who will turn 32 in July, is now in the fold, but the Broncos can still project a potential starting lineup with 15 players 28 years old or younger, and seven players 25 years or younger. The team isn’t really in as big an “all-in" mode as their monetary festivus would seem to indicate.
Certainly, Manning is still the centerpiece of all this -- so much so that when Talib was asked Wednesday why he chose Denver, he quickly pointed to the 37-year-old quarterback.
"We just kind of looked at the best package," Talib said. "I do have a family, I have kids, I have a wife that I got to take care of and it was Peyton Manning, you know? It was just the total package. Denver was the best place."
Elway has been a no-nonsense, grassroots executive right from the start. He grinds the video on draft prospects, he goes to the Senior Bowl, he has made the pro day rounds and he makes decisions based on the long term "because my job is to be two steps ahead."
But after three trips through the opening of free agency, he has to be considered one of the league’s best closers as well, and closers get the coffee and former Pro Bowl selections, it seems -- Manning, Louis Vasquez, Wes Welker, Terrance Knighton, Talib, Ward and now Ware.
So it seems the Broncos really didn’t just go all-in this year. They’ve just kind of had that mindset all along.