Just six months after his finest hour in Santa Clara, Denver Broncos general manager John Elway enters the 2016 campaign under scrutiny after a tumultuous offseason. Yet, as Gridiron editor Matthew Sherry learned in Santa Clara on that fateful night in Levi’s Stadium, the Hall of Fame quarterback turned personnel guru rarely gets it wrong.

On April 28 2011, the Carolina Panthers’ Marty Hurney sat in the seat all general managers crave: at the top of the board in a draft that might well go down as the best in NFL history. Overseeing a team with more holes than Swiss cheese meant his options were plentiful; he could trade down, select one of the three quarterbacks expected to go in the top 10 or nab an outstanding pass-rusher. Hurney chose the middle option, snapping up Auburn’s Cam Newton first overall and shaping his franchise’s future for years to come.

The Denver Broncos were on the clock.

Even in a Hall-of-Fame playing career, John Elway had never faced a choice like this. A Denver Bronco lifer, he’d rode off into the sunset a decade earlier, his fingers weighed down by two Super Bowl rings collected on the back of a sound defense and outstanding running-back Terrell Davis. In the intervening years, Elway made a mint selling cars and opening restaurants before returning to his favourite pastime: football. The general-manager position allowed him to follow in the footsteps of his father Jack, a long-time personnel executive in Denver.

The weight of history was against Elway. Michael Jordan. Larry Bird. Wayne Gretzky. All superstar athletes who tried and failed to cut their teeth in coaching or executive roles. None of those names are Elway, though. He’s been winning from the moment he was born. A multi-sport star in his youth, Elway could have played professional baseball for the New York Yankees, a tool he used to avoid joining the Baltimore Ravens when they called his name first overall in the 1983 NFL Draft. That leverage prompted his signing in Denver and set about an association that is still going strong two decades later.

After deliberating, Elway handed in his card. ‘Miller, Von. Texas A&M’. The first decision, like many of the others that have followed it in the last five years, was a masterstroke.


“Oh wow, we’re playing The Sheriff!” Cam summed it up beautifully.

The storylines were plentiful for the Super Bowl’s big birthday. Headlines wrote themselves. Superman v The Sheriff. Current MVP v Five-Time MVP; Old Dog v New Tricks. The traditionalists were in the white corner, supporting archetypal quarterback Peyton Manning and his traditional style, while the hippies sat in the blue, backing Superman Cam and his freewheeling cocktail of stunning arm strength and dazzling athletic ability.

Forget it being the first meeting of first overall picks in a Super Bowl, more significant was the 13-year age gap, the largest in the Big Dance’s 50-year history. This wasn’t Prime Peyton lining up against Cam. In fact, the former was a shadow of yesteryear, a version of himself that was among the worst quarterbacks to ever appear in this storied game. But it was going to be his last appearance (everybody knew it) and there are few players more deserving of a happy ending.

Peyton Manning, Cam Newton

As Lady Gaga sung of the star-spangled banner and fighter jets passed overhead, everybody had one hope. That the stadium built by the jean could provide a magic bean. That Peyton would summon one last ounce of greatness to end on top at Levi’s Stadium. The occasion, Super Bowl 50, demanded it.

But as Manning laboured through the contest, it quickly became apparent such aspirations wouldn’t be coming to fruition. That this was a young phenom on the cusp of greatness against an undisputed great on the brink of retirement could be seen in every throw. Where Cam’s passes resembled homing missiles, fizzing through the air, Peyton’s were like homing pigeons, fluttering in the cloudless sky. Manning was undisputedly poor, completing just 13 of 23 passes for 141 yards and no touchdowns, while also tossing one pick and fumbling twice – one of which was recovered by Carolina.

More apparent, however, was that this was not a meeting of Manning V Newton, but instead of Newton V Miller. The battle of the 2011 draft; Number One V Number Two. “Von has just gotten better and better,” Elway told reporters from the victorious locker room. “He has been unbelievable in these playoffs. He likes to get after Cam, that’s for sure.”


“I’ve been out of the game since 1990 and Denver’s defensive performance against New England in the AFC Championship Game is the most excited I have been watching a game since. I still have goosebumps thinking about it.” Ed ‘Too Tall’ Jones knows a thing or two about defense. A three-time All-Pro and owner of one Super Bowl ring, he was a first overall pick who starred in two stints with the Dallas Cowboys under the tutelage of legendary coach Tom Landry. As Jones spoke, Gridiron could see the goosebumps and hear the conviction; in the eyes of this former player, there would only be one victor in Santa Clara.

The groundwork for Denver’s Super Bowl 50 triumph was done in their draft room many years ago. With the selections of Miller, Derek Wolfe, Malik Jackson, Danny Trevathan, and the remarkable pick-up of Chris Harris as an undrafted free-agent. All four were snaffled in the first two years of Elway’s tenure, building blocks that would eventually become the formidable wall that finally stopped Cam Newton in his tracks. “We have got to keep hitting on our drafts. Everybody focuses on the free-agents, but those picks have been the key,” added Elway.

Denver’s journey to the Lombardi had its watershed moment, too. It was in the tunnel of MetLife Stadium two years ago, with Elway stood motionless for 15 minutes watching green and blue ticker tape litter the pitch, that this chess master began the process of moving his pieces. The Broncos had entered Super Bowl XLVIII as understandable favourites, an offensive juggernaut led by an inspired Manning. The quarterback returned from four neck surgeries a year earlier and was suddenly better than ever, throwing for NFL records in yards (5,477) and touchdown passes (55).

Yet where everybody else saw awesomeness, the Seattle Seahawks spotted weakness. Pete Carroll’s squad uncovered a soft underbelly and feasted upon Denver with the glee that komodo dragons dismantle a carcass. A queasy Elway responded… quickly and emphatically. Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward and DeMarcus Ware were brought in to bring veteran edge and toughness to the defense. It worked, but Manning declined down the stretch of 2014 and Denver’s AFC rival New England Patriots wound up with another title. A divisional round appearance would have been enough to satisfy most general managers; not Elway. A man for whom the adage ‘winning is a habit’ is not so much a saying but a way of life wasn’t satisfied.

Head coach John Fox, despite a 46-18 record, was shown the door in favour of Elway’s former backup with the Broncos, Gary Kubiak. “We are very good friends obviously,” said Kubiak the morning after the night before. “I talked to John a great deal when he was out of football when he was doing some other things. I knew through our conversations that he wanted back in. For him to have the opportunity to come back in with the organisation that he played for for so many years – John is so competitive in everything he does. He is a very bright man.

Von Miller

“John is a great people person too. He knows how to put people in place and let them go do their job and support them. It has just been one year for me working with him from that perspective, but just to watch him do his job and put this football team together. When he called me back last February or whenever it was, everything he told me about his football team and what he thought we had to do the following year has held true. He has a great feel for what is going on and what he wants to get done. I am very proud of him.”

Elway’s close confidante illustrated similarly impressive decision-making when luring outstanding defensive coordinator Wade Phillips from the NFL wilderness and, with key additions like safety Darian Stewart, a dizzyingly impressive unit was ready to be unleashed. “It’s been great to be able to put the team together and then sit back and let Gary and his staff do their thing,” added Elway.

While the work of Phillips has been impressive, he has been the conductor of one fine orchestra. Denver’s defense is phenomenal on every level. From Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe on the line, to Ware, Miller, Trevathan and Brandon Marshall at linebacker, to Harris, Talib, Ward and Stewart in the secondary. The impressiveness from a team-building standpoint is their respective journeys: Miller, Sylvester Williams and Bradley Roby were first-round picks; Wolfe, Jackson and Trevathan were early- or mid-round gems; Harris and Marshall didn’t even here their names called, with the latter released by Jacksonville. “We cherish the bottom of the draft,” adds Elway. “We cannot afford to miss a draft, because we want to be good for a long time here, and teams that are good for a long time do not miss drafts.”

Together, this collection of players formed a squad so great that the only question now is where they rank in the vaults of NFL history. Denver were not the best team in the NFL this year, but they had the best unit – and that was enough. Not content with hitting Tom Brady a remarkable 20 times in the AFC Championship Game, they sacked the unstoppable Newton on six occasions, hurried him an awful lot more and restricted a Carolina offense that hung 49 points on Arizona a fortnight earlier to 10.

“The have been some great defenses, but our guys are definitely in the conversation,” claims Elway. “I am obviously going to pick them.” His sentiments were echoed by the bulk of those in the locker room. “They were the number-one scoring team in the NFL and we came out and proved we’re the number-one defense,” enthused Wolfe. “If you ask me, and if you ask anybody on this defense, we’re the best to ever do it.”


When the story of Manning’s NFL ending was discussed, few would have scripted him needing an all-time great defense to snatch a second ring. This is a man who has spent his 18 years as a professional redefining the game; a man who pushed the envelope, operating as de facto offensive coordinator when marshalling Indianapolis’ shotgun, no-huddle attack to a slew of regular-season NFL records. His throwing for more passing touchdowns (539) and yards (71,940) than anybody else in the game’s history is no coincidence. Even in an era of Tom Brady establishing himself as perhaps the greatest quarterback in NFL history, Manning’s had the greater impact on the game itself.

When Peyton entered the league, Denver were celebrating a first Lombardi Trophy on the back of Terrell Davis’ heroics, Barry Sanders was the MVP and the leading passer, Dan Marino, boasted just 3,780 yards. Off the field, another ‘back, Emmitt Smith, was racking up more ad deals than touchdowns. In 2015, meanwhile, Manning was the face of everything from Papa John’s to Nationwide Insurance and eight signal-callers, including the Miami Dolphins’ Ryan Tannehill, breached the 4,000-yard mark.

Manning’s career undoubtedly deserved a second title; he had his brain farts in the playoffs, even in the glory years, but there were some poorly-constructed teams around him too. Teams of style over substance. Teams whose defense would crumble in big spots. Teams that were the opposite of the Denver squad constructed by Elway, who were 11-3 in games decided by less than seven points. “It feels different to winning as a player,” admits Elway. “I enjoyed playing better than being a GM but, when you can’t play no more you have to find something else. And I definitely enjoy putting pieces of the puzzle together.”

The nature of this crazy beast dictates that 2015 will now be synonymous with Manning, remembered as his glorious last ride into the sunset. Understandable, too, given Silicon Valley’s finest minds managed to craft a finale fit for the many adverts he appears in, Manning bowing out by completing a two-point conversion to Bennie Fowler. Yet their being led by 2.5-sack MVP Miller was perhaps an even more suitable tale, for – while history will remember this as Peyton’s season regardless of the numbers – it shouldn’t forget the architect. Seventeen years after the Broncos carried their ageing, Hall of Fame quarterback Elway to a second title, Denver’s favourite son returned the favour for Manning.

This is an edited version of an article that appeared in Issue XXI of Gridiron Magazine. To subscribe to the magazine, and enter the draw to win a trip to the AFC or NFC Championship Game, click here.

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