It's all important. Broncos executive vice president of football operations John Elway understands. He's been fielding questions on Manning-related topics for months.
"The bottom line is, everybody's going to see it when we finally get going," Elway told NFL.com before a practice round Wednesday at the American Century Championship celebrity golf tournament. "He looked great in OTAs and the minicamps. But until people understand that he can take a hit and watch him play the game, those questions are not going to go away. But everybody feels comfortable, especially Peyton, about where he is."
The media-savvy Elway gets the fervor. Once upon a time, he was the one sending fans into a tizzy -- something that, at times during this week's tournament, he showed he still can do.
However, Elway also sees the entire picture.
Several times during our interview, Elway steered the conversation away from Manning and toward a factor he considers just as important: balance. As in, the Broncos had better have it. It can't be all Manning. To win -- really win -- they need to be able to run the ball.
"You always want to have good balance," Elway said. "That's the key to winning a Super Bowl. You look at the teams who have won championships, you got to have balance. So, to be able to run the ball effectively and throw the ball effectively is what gives you the chance to win a world championship."
Of course, it's important to have a productive, dynamic quarterback. No team has been able to take home the Lombardi Trophy with a pedestrian passer under center since 2002, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did it behind Brad Johnson. Having Manning even close to his old self would put the Broncos into the mix in a way that Tim Tebow did not.
But again, that's not all it takes. If anyone knows, it's Elway. Need we take a trip down memory lane to prove it?
We'll start off at Super Bowl XXI, when the Broncos averaged 2.7 yards per rush in a loss to the New York Giants. Or Super Bowl XXII, when the Broncos let the Washington Redskins jump out to a 35-10 lead in the second quarter, eliminating any chance to get something going on the ground. And don't forget the ugly Super Bowl XXIV loss to the San Francisco 49ers, which included just 17 Denver rushing attempts.
The franchise didn't find the right formula until 1997, when Elway was a grizzled veteran. The Broncos surrounded their decorated quarterback with a running game, and all was well. The proof came in the back-to-back titles they won to help Elway go out on top.
In Super Bowl XXXII, Elway completed just 12 passes against the Green Bay Packers. But Terrell Davis ran for 157 yards and three scores, and the Broncos were crowned champions. In Super Bowl XXXIII, Davis rushed 25 times for 102 yards, and even Elway chipped in on the ground, adding a rushing touchdown to help knock off the Atlanta Falcons.
Elway was asked an obvious question: Were those the most balanced teams of his career?
"Yeah, no question," Elway said, nodding for emphasis and explaining that "if that's one thing that I ever learned, having been through three Super Bowls where we didn't run the football very well," it's that a good ground game is necessary. "Then, once we did get it and win Super Bowls, we had great balance and were able to run the ball as well as throw it and play good defense and special teams," he said. "To be able to get a football team that's capable of competing for world championships, you always got to get a little bit lucky, but you got to have all phases to win it all."
Amid all the talk of Manning, Elway celebrated some of the team's defensive pickups from this offseason, like cornerbacks Tracy Porter and Drayton Florence. He harped on the need to play solid special teams. And he talked about his running game.
There are question marks. Sure, the Broncos led the league in rushing last year. But that was with Tebow. He's gone to the New York Jets now, and defenses will no longer need to account for a mobile quarterback. Starting RB Willis McGahee (1,199 yards in 2011) is back, but he's 30 years old and hasn't always stayed healthy. Backup Knowshon Moreno, meanwhile, might be on the roster bubble.
Sounds like there will be a commitment to running the ball in Denver, but are there enough options? Time will tell. If the Broncos can put together a sufficient ground game, Manning will be in position to lead the team to its goal.
That's exactly what Elway communicated to his new quarterback this offseason.
"One guy doesn't win a world championship for you, even though he gives you a hell of a chance to be able to compete," Elway said. "As I told (Manning), my job is to get the best quality people around him, the best coaches to give us the opportunity to win a world championship. It's fun to be able to put that puzzle together, but there are so many different pieces to put in a team that has the ability to win a world championship."
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