SAN FRANCISCO -- John Elway learns quickly.
As a quarterback, he had the Denver Broncos in the playoffs by his second season and in the Super Bowl by his fourth. It took him only three years to get to the Super Bowl with the Broncos as the vice president of football operations. Elway attacks problems as a football executive the same way he would defenses as a QB. Study, think aggressively, fire.
In Super Bowl XLVIII, the Seattle Seahawks, who had assembled arguably the third or fourth best defense in NFL history, embarrassed the Broncos with a 43-8 victory. They limited Peyton Manning to one scoring drive after a season in which Manning had thrown 55 touchdown passes. They forced six turnovers. The game was over quickly, mostly because Denver couldn't do anything on offense.
After shaking off the frustration of the loss, Elway went to work. He copied some of the things that made the Seahawks' defense so good. He signed DeMarcus Ware to enhance the pass rush. He signed a big cornerback in Aqib Talib, a Richard Sherman-like presence. To add toughness to the secondary, he signed safety T.J. Ward. That was his Kam Chancellor.
The cost was $109.75 million in contracts, but the result was three Pro Bowl defenders and a return to the Super Bowl in two years. Yes, the Broncos have talent elsewhere on defense, but that unit has clearly been Elway's focus. And not only are the Broncos returning to the Super Bowl with a defense that could match that Seahawks unit for toughness, speed and tenacity, it's a group that put up numbers that rank among the best defenses in the history of the league.
"We gave up 43 points the last time we were in the Super Bowl, so we figured if we can not give up that many points, we'll be in better shape,'' Elway said. "We've been drafting defensively the last five years and we had the opportunity in free agency to pick up some guys with DeMarcus Ware and T.J. Ward and Aqib [Talib] and Darian Stewart and we've been able to add in special places. And then, Wade [Phillips] and his staff have done a tremendous job of coaching these guys. It turned out to be a great, great defense."
The Broncos were No. 1 in fewest yards allowed, fewest rushing yards, fewest passing yards and fourth in fewest points. The Broncos led the league in sacks. Basically, Elway flipped the script in terms of formula. Denver went from a top offensive team to a top defensive team.
"Well, I think that we had the No. 1 offense [two years ago], had a tremendous year," Elway said. "We broke all of those records that year, but we had the opportunity that offseason to get better on the defensive side. I think it's all come together. It's allowed us, offensively, to try and run the ball a little bit more and take some pressure off the quarterback."
Since running the Broncos, Elway has shown a remarkable eye for defensive talent. He drafted Von Miller. He has loaded the defensive line with Malik Jackson, Sylvester Williams and Derek Wolfe. He signed cornerback Chris Harris as an undrafted free agent.
Elway came with the money and the pitch and all of a sudden defense wasn't a problem for the Broncos.
"I think with Talib and T.J., everybody coming here, we had the offense, but Elway said to us, 'We need to solidify our defense. We need to have a better defense,'" Ware said. "We were the No. 1 defense this year and it's always been said that defense wins championships. You can see that Carolina also has a great defense and they are where they are right now. Now back to that point of playing a good game. We've been here -- not me, years before me -- they've been here. So, they know what it feels like to lose [this] game."
The plan was to improve the pass rush and make the defense tougher. When he talked to the free agents, Elway didn't tip his hand, but he knew what he wanted.
"John didn't say too much about the last Super Bowl," Talib said. "He just said he just wanted guys to come in and make the defense tougher. He wanted to come in and put more playmakers on the defensive side of the ball. He wanted more depth on defense."
Immediately, Ware, Talib and Ward formed a bond. They were playmakers and they were leaders. Talib admired Ware's quickness and ability to get to the quarterback quickly. Ware appreciated Talib's coverage skills because it made the quarterback more vulnerable to the sack. Both players loved Ward's hitting ability.
"T.J. plays with his hair on fire every game," Talib said. "If you watched the tape and you watch just him, I swear he runs 10 more miles than anybody on the field. He just runs in circles from sideline to sideline to the ball every play. He's our energy out there. He's our Tasmanian devil out there, hitting everything out there."
"When you have rushers like me and LB Von [Miller], you have quarterbacks that get the ball out so fast," Ware said. "It sort of messes up the timing. I'm talking about how it sort of goes hand in hand when you have good corners, when you have good pass-rushers, one guy's buying more time for the other the guy, or creating pressure that creates those big plays, or they're giving us enough time to get to the quarterback, even if it's a blocking situation when they have a seven-man block up scheme. They bring that tenacity to the back, the grit.
"When you have corners that will talk a little bit of trash, but they back it up also, so that brings a little more edge to all of the other guys in our defense. When you see those big hits from T.J., from Darian Stewart, from Talib, those are little motivating things that let us know we need to get our stuff together, let's everybody do that."
The Super Bowl blowout wasn't a fun experience, but the Seahawks gave Elway some ideas, and he has put together a defense worthy of a title.