Elway, 53, was hired as vice president of football operations by Broncos owner Pat Bowlen in 2011 to restore a franchise that was coming off a 4-12 season. Denver had won only one playoff game since Elway retired after winning a second straight Super Bowl following the 1998 season.
The Broncos have a 28-7 record the past two years and are one win away from making Elway the first former Super Bowl Most Valuable Player to build a championship team. While fellow Hall of Fame players such as Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky failed in their front office forays, Elway’s success goes beyond the acquisition of four-time NFL MVP Peyton Manning.
“John’s strength is as a talent evaluator,” said former Broncos running back Terrell Davis, who was Elway’s teammate for his two Super Bowl wins and is now an analyst for NFL Network. “His dad was a coach and he’s been around football for a long time. That’s the difference between some people who might understand the business aspect of being an executive, but not understand how to evaluate talent and how to put the pieces together. John is doing a good job of that.”
Manning is the centerpiece of Elway’s rebuilding in Denver, as he set NFL records for passing yards and touchdowns this season, his second with the Broncos.
Yet Elway also understood success is determined beyond the stars on the team, a common failing of other “great players” who sought to transition to the front office, said former New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi, who selected Elway in Baltimore with the top pick in the 1983 draft. Accorsi said Elway reached out to him for advice on running an NFL team before taking the job in Denver.
“You have to understand all levels of talent and that’s hard for a lot of great athletes because they’re in a different world than we are,” Accorsi, 72, said in a telephone interview. “If you just try to build a team of superstars, you’re going to end up with three or four players.”
Jordan has one playoff appearance in more than 10 years as an National Basketball Association executive and owner after winning six titles as a player. Gretzky, a four-time Stanley Cup champion and the National Hockey League’s all-time leading scorer, had a 143-161-24 record leading the Phoenix Coyotes.
Accorsi said the Hall of Fame players he can think of who have had more success than Elway in front office roles are Ozzie Newsome, who won a Super Bowl as the Baltimore Ravens’ general manager, and Jerry West, a two-time NBA executive of the year who won six NBA championships as general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers.
“He was like a sponge -- anything you told him he absorbed,” Accorsi said of his talks with Elway, whose father was a head coach at San Jose State and Stanford University as well as a scout for the Broncos from 1993 through 1999. “The biggest thing that struck me was his work ethic. He was going to roll his sleeves up and jump into it. It wasn’t any figurehead job. He had a feel for the business and he’s smart.”
Elway brought in John Fox as coach, drafted players such as tight end Julius Thomas and linebackers Von Miller and Danny Trevathan, claimed kick returner Trindon Holliday off waivers, and signed players such as nose tackle Terrance Knighton, offensive linemen Manny Ramirez and Louis Vasquez, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and receiver Wes Welker.
The addition of Manning was also a risk, Davis said. Manning at the time was days short of his 36th birthday and coming off multiple neck surgeries that forced him to miss the 2011 season. The Broncos already had a popular quarterback in former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow, who was then 24 and had led the team to its first playoff win in six years.
“The only person he would be able to swap Tim Tebow out for was Peyton Manning, but he hadn’t played the year before,” Davis, 41, said in an interview. “The risk wasn’t Peyton Manning, it was the possibility of a broken-down Peyton Manning. He could have been a lemon. John obviously listened to the doctors and a bit of it was on faith.”
Elway, a nine-time Pro Bowl selection who appeared in five Super Bowls, said his playing experience hasn’t helped in his front office role.
“The common denominator is competitiveness and wanting to win,” Elway said.
That drive has spurred Elway, a former co-owner of the Arena Football League’s defunct Colorado Crush, to the same kind of front office success that he had owning car dealerships and restaurants, Accorsi said.
“I saw one line where he said, ‘I was successful in the car business and the restaurant business, but they don’t have a scoreboard,’” Accorsi said. “Once you’re a competitor like he was, you don’t get it out of his blood.”
Elway said winning a Super Bowl ring as an executive would be just as important as winning one as a player.
In his final season, at the age of 38, Elway became the oldest starting quarterback to win a Super Bowl, a record he still holds. He now has a chance to make more history as the first Super Bowl MVP to run a championship team. Davis said that fuels his former backfield mate’s competitive fire.
“I remember people talking about John early, that he doesn’t know what he’s doing,” Davis said. “Now he’s got a chance to get the last laugh.”
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