ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As far as dates go, March 20, 2012, will always be a silver-letter day for the Denver Broncos.
As in, Lombardi Trophy silver.
Sunday was the fourth anniversary of the day Broncos owner Pat Bowlen posed for what he hoped would be a great-things-to-come photo with the team’s chief football decision maker, John Elway, and a free-agent quarterback named Peyton Manning.
At the time, Bowlen called it “a very historic meeting,’’ as well as “a great day for me personally, and for our organization, our city and our fans.’’ Four NFL seasons later, as Manning has officially closed the book on his Hall of Fame career, truer football words were never spoken.
The Broncos won 50 regular-season games in those four seasons, won four AFC West titles, appeared in two AFC Championship Games, made two Super Bowl trips and brought home the franchise’s third Lombardi Trophy with a win in Super Bowl 50 in early February.
Manning was simply the most accomplished player to ever reach free agency -- he already had a pile of wins, NFL records and a Super Bowl ring to go with four league MVP awards at the time he was released by the Indianapolis Colts, even before winning his fifth league MVP award with the Broncos in 2013. And his signing was simply of the balance-of-power variety.
But it also served to show how Elway was going to consistently try to live up to Bowlen’s mandate that “we always compete for Super Bowls.’’
When Elway took the job in 2011, he has always said he did it with the idea the team would always commit the resources -- financial, draft picks, facilities -- to chase Super Bowls, but overall that first year was a kick-the-tires year. The Broncos did select linebacker Von Miller with the second pick overall in that ’11 draft, but that was largely the season of Tim Tebow, an 8-8 finish and a complete football undressing in the playoff loss in New England that the Broncos believed showed how far away they were from sitting at the grown-ups table.
But then the Broncos, with Bowlen’s checkbook in hand, courted and signed Manning in a blockbuster move. That really officially opened the Elway all-in “from now on’’ business. Along the way the Broncos blew up the league’s record book on offense in 2013, lost a Super Bowl by 35 points to the Seattle Seahawks and answered with another spending binge that reeled in four free agents who have been named to the Pro Bowl with the team (DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward and Emmanuel Sanders).
Miller grew into the Super Bowl MVP, Manning played through a left foot injury in 2015 and it all became the greatest four-year run in the team’s history with this season's title run as the Broncos have a locker room filled with players who know nothing other than winning division titles.
All why, for the Broncos, March 20 will never again be just another date on the offseason calendar.