ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The craggy lines in his face cut a little deeper. That trademark hitch in his step is a bit more pronounced. These days, when John Elway scans the field looking to make the perfect move for the Broncos, he is viewing not from under center but from a second-floor office that overlooks the practice field. At 52, the man who engineered The Drive and so many other great comebacks during a Hall of Fame career is producing yet another one — maybe the most important he’s been part of. He is resurrecting Pat Bowlen’s franchise, turning it from an out-of-touch, losing laughingstock back into a fan-friendly Super Bowl contender.
Whether the Broncos make it to New Orleans or not this season, Elway has already accomplished the first mission simply by coming back to run Denver’s front office.
“The first order of business, in my mind, was to connect back to our fans,” he told The Associated Press in an interview from his office, a jar of jelly beans on the desk, a magnetic Broncos depth chart hanging on the wall. On Saturday, the Broncos play Baltimore in the AFC divisional round. They are on an 11-game winning streak and favored to go to the Super Bowl for the first time since Elway hoisted the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the 1998 season.
“Somehow, we lost that connection,” Elway said. “At least, it had never been like that since I’d been here. The disconnect was there, you could feel it. The fans didn’t feel like they were part of the organization.”
Though it was Denver’s magical 1977 “Orange Crush” Super Bowl team that sparked Broncomania, it was Elway’s arrival six seasons later that turned the relationship between team and fans into a much more personal affair. As the best player coming out of college, Elway was headed to the Baltimore Colts, who held the first pick in the draft. He balked, and the impression was he would end up only where he wanted to go.
The Broncos came up with the goods for a trade and Elway said ‘yes’ to Denver. Over the next 16 years — including 47 game-saving drives, three Super Bowl losses, countless other heartbreaks and close calls and, then, finally, two titles — No. 7 and the city of Denver became interconnected. Elway chose Denver. Denver loved him back. As the era of free agency began and the game became more of a business, Elway was a Bronco all the way, one of those increasingly rare instances of a player who spent his entire career with one team. And after he rode off into the sunset following the second title, things weren’t quite the same for the team or the player.
“I wanted to see how it would be when I got away from it for a while,” Elway said.
He bought car dealerships, got into the restaurant business. He enjoyed success with both, but had trouble staying away from his first love, the game he learned under the guiding hand of his father, Jack, a longtime college head coach before becoming a scout for the Broncos in the 1990s.
“I’m used to having a scoreboard,” Elway said, “and there’s a scoreboard in football every week.”
He bought a stake in Denver’s Arena League team, which gave him some much-needed practice in how to be involved in football without being on the field.
“That was really hard for me the first two or three years, not being able to get my hands on the ball,” he said.
But there was no more helpless feeling than being a Broncos alum with no way to help. From afar, Elway watched as his old team went on a slow, steady decline — at the low point, a disgrace with a 4-12 record.
Every quarterback that came through the facility dealt with the same theme: He was playing John Elway’s old position. But there would never be another Elway. All the quarterbacks, one way or another, proved that mantra correct.
It reached a critical point when the Broncos hired Josh McDaniels as head coach and McDaniels identified himself as the only NFL personnel man who felt Tim Tebow was worth a first-round draft pick.
The 2010 season in Denver was marred by losing and the McDaniels videotaping scandal. But the biggest question hovering over this franchise was why McDaniels drafted Tebow if he didn’t want to play him? McDaniels never really answered that one.
And while the Broncos never saw their string of consecutive sellouts, dating to 1970, jeopardized, the number of empty seats at the stadium, the lustiness of the boos from the fans who did attend, and the discontent that grew on the radio shows and internet sites were impossible to ignore.
“Certainly, there was the idea out there that they not only had to restore themselves competitively, but their image needed massive repair work,” said Sandy Clough, a longtime veteran of Denver sports talk radio.
In stepped Elway, who quickly established a direct line with fans through the team website and a Twitter account.
He also was quick to point out two facts:
—He was smart enough to know what he didn’t know
—The only acceptable goal for the Broncos was winning the Super Bowl.
The second part used to go unsaid in Denver but had gotten lost somewhere amid the turmoil.
Shortly after his hiring, on Jan. 5, 2011, a series of dominoes started falling.
Elway hired coach John Fox, who had already shown his penchant for turnarounds in Carolina.
After a 1-4 start in 2011, Fox put Tebow in the lineup and, with a mix of guts, comebacks and luck, Tebow guided the Broncos to the playoffs, albeit with an 8-8 record.
Elway acknowledged how remarkable Tebow’s performances were, but steadfastly refused to anoint him as the quarterback of the future.
A surgically repaired Peyton Manning became available and Elway put the Broncos in the mix to sign him. Then he moved Denver to the front by finding an instant connection with the veteran quarterback.
After signing Manning, Elway made the corresponding decision to part with Tebow — a tough decision, but medicine Tebow fans could swallow more easily knowing who it was coming from.
“The revisionist history is that, ‘Oh, anybody could’ve done that,’” Clough said. “I don’t agree that anybody could’ve done that. I think only he could’ve pulled that off the way he did it. He’s the only guy who could’ve withstood the kind of criticism and wrath ... for deigning to be at all critical of Tebow.”
Elway’s deft handling of the Manning-Tebow maneuver has, all by itself, made him a top candidate for executive of the year in the NFL. It has also overshadowed other moves that have played big parts in Denver’s quick return to competitiveness. His first move was keeping veteran cornerback Champ Bailey, then a free agent. He also drafted Von Miller, who has 29 ½ sacks over his first two years.
This season, Elway signed veterans Keith Brooking, Dan Koppen, Trindon Holliday, Brandon Stokley, Jim Leonhard — all important cogs in a 13-3 team.
“He’d been a part of a lot of championship teams, a lot of Super Bowl teams and winners, so he understands what a football player looks like,” Fox said.
Elway also understands what a city looks like when it loves its football team — and what it looks like when it doesn’t.
These days, the love is back, courtesy of No. 7, of course.
“The goal here, with Pat Bowlen, has always been that he wants a Super Bowl champion,” Elway said. “What everyone needed to remember is that that’s still the goal.”