DENVER -- Fourteen months ago, amid skepticism over a hire that looked like somebody sticking a shiny hood ornament on a beat-up Fiat, Denver Broncos president Joe Ellis told me that his new executive vice president of football operations, John Elway, carried a "clear vision of where we need to go."
Back then, that vision was blurred by the disastrous autumn of 2010 that the once-proud franchise had endured.
This week, it couldn't have been clearer.
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In a Tuesday press conference, followed by a Wednesday night trade of Tim Tebow, Elway ushered in the next step in restoring what he built in the 1980s and '90s as a player. At the press conference, Elway was joined by coach John Fox, GM Brian Xanders and owner Pat Bowlen, all wearing a bright orange tie and the kind of grin that shouts, "Yeah, that's right, we pulled it off." And next to them, another famous quarterback: Peyton Manning.
Careful to credit all involved, Fox conceded, "No doubt, (Elway's presence) was huge," in landing Manning. And Fox expounded on why: "John's understanding of what it means to be a great quarterback, his involvement, the position he's in to help make Peyton's career here a success."
This is what, in a short amount of time, Elway has created in Denver. It's a franchise that's confident, cocksure, unafraid to aim high, capable of landing the biggest name in the game and trading the most polarizing. There are obvious reasons why Manning chose Denver. There's one less apparent, though, that had to run through the quarterback's head. The Broncos didn't come off as desperate, knowing they were going to win either way. That's something any player wants in on.
"For any team in the National Football League not to want to get involved with Peyton Manning would be crazy," Fox told me. "With what he's done, what he's accomplished, we're just thrilled to death he chose us."
The word "need" never came into play, even if internally there was that feeling. In Tennessee, there was intense anxiety to get Manning, thanks to a strong edict from owner Bud Adams to his football folks. In Arizona, there was a deadline, in the form of a due date for Kevin Kolb's option bonus. In Miami, well, there was everything short of the bearded lady on Manning's carnival ride back to his South Beach residence after the Colts press conference.
In Denver, there was an organization that was a) moving in lockstep, b) borderline cocky about its direction and c) creating the kind of football-centric environment that Manning relishes.
In fact, if there was ever a reason not to pursue Manning, it may have been, at least from the outside looking in, not to screw up a good thing. With rising young talents like Demaryius Thomas, Ryan Clady, J.D. Walton and Von Miller to build around, there was something to lose here. It's easy to reason that falling short in the Manning pursuit may have hurt a locker room that rallied around the infectiously energetic Tebow. That is, unless, falling short wasn't an option.
When I asked Elway whether or not the risk was a consideration, he was succinct.
"It wasn't," the Hall of Famer told me. "I don't ever go into making a decision by planning on failing. I'm a guy who looks on the positive side and thinks what this can do for us, rather than what would happen if it doesn't happen. It's always been my attitude. I'm not gonna look at the negative side. We'd deal with that, if that were to happen, but I never thought [not landing Manning] was going to happen."
Instead, Elway focused on the details -- something "figureheads" don't do -- during the process. Yes, he was all-in on Manning. But he also couldn't go to Bowlen and sign off on him unless he was comfortable with the quarterback's rehab. He'd given Bowlen his word on that.
So in Durham, N.C., last Friday, Elway observed as the Broncos' doctors and trainers poked and prodded the soon-to-be 36-year-old Manning. And rather than unwinding after a hectic day on Bowlen's private plane that night, Elway spent the two-and-a-half-hour ride back to Denver going over all the particulars with the team's traveling medical personnel.
As for the time Elway actually had with Manning, his research was thorough enough to free up Elway to connect with the ex-Colt in a way few others on the planet could.
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"(All this) was a shock for him," Elway said of the courtship process. "So when he came in for the visit, I took more of the friend tact and said, 'Take your time. You don't need to be in a hurry for anyone else but Peyton Manning. And you need to do the right thing for Peyton Manning.' That's why we tried to remain patient."
Now that it's over, Elway explains that Manning's presence adds a "confidence" to the organization.
But it sure seems like what was already in place was as big a part of this decision for this particular player as what might be ahead. A flexible offensive system run by Mike McCoy. A veteran-friendly head coach in Fox. A football executive who's been in his shoes. And everyone on the same page.
Amazing enough that it was just last January when Bowlen felt compelled to blow up his model and reset the culture. The change has taken so quickly that this offseason, the owner's edict has been different: He wants not a good 2012, but a great one. And it's born out in these blockbuster moves.
"I think (Bowlen) had been through a lot of good years of late," Elway said. "Last year was a good year. They'd struggled the two years before, but before that they'd had some good years. He wanted to get back to the great years. And that's the one thing that stuck in my mind, was what Pat said when Peyton came free, 'I want a great year.' My thought was, 'Well, there's one guy who can make us great and that's Peyton Manning.' "
For very obvious reasons -- and reflective of the grand-slam hire Elway has been for Denver -- they indeed got their man.