Two vehicles sat in an otherwise empty employee parking lot on a quiet Sunday in February at the Broncos’ suburban Denver headquarters. One of the cars belonged to the most recognized person in the state of Colorado.
It was fitting. John Elway became famous for his Sunday work for the Denver Broncos over the course of a 16-year Hall of Fame career. Now, 12 years after retiring as one of the best quarterbacks to play the game, Elway is embarking on another career, aimed at making the Broncos relevant and showing that legends can make the transition from the field to the front office.
Elway was hired as vice president of football operations by long-time friend and Broncos owner Pat Bowlen days after Denver ended a disastrous 2010 season in which it went 4-12. It was Denver’s lowest win total since it went 2-7 in a strike-shortened 1982 season the year before Elway came to town.
Many league observers thought the Elway hiring was a publicity stunt to help draw attention away from the disastrous two-year Josh McDaniels era that alienated much of the team’s deep-rooted fan base. Elway, however, has been working to get into this position for years, including a successful tenure as the leader of Denver’s championship Arena League team that he and Bowlen ran.
In the two months since Elway has been in charge, he has led the way on the hiring of respected new coach John Fox, led the team’s scouting contingent at both the Senior Bowl and NFL combine and spearheaded the key re-signing of star cornerback Champ Bailey. In between, Elway’s face has been pressed against a television screen, watching film of Denver’s roster as well as free agent and draft prospects.
“He is all in. This is not a public relations move,” Fox said. “He is burning the midnight oil, he is working hard and he is very willing to learn … He understands what a football player looks like. Standing in the huddle and doing the things that he did as a team leader, as a football player at the quarterback position -- I think he understands what a football player looks like. I have been very impressed. He has a great willingness to learn the things he does not know, but he knows football and I am confident.”
One of the primary reasons the McDaniels regime ended quickly was because the young coach often acted alone in key decisions, many of which ended up being mistakes. Elway has the final say on all decisions. He is quarterbacking a three-man group that includes Fox and general manager Brian Xanders. Elway is trying to do what many former superstars have tried and failed at -- recapturing the same magic in a business suit that he had while wearing a jersey. Elway said he’d like to pave the way for future stars in the front office by having success in this new endeavor.
“I would hope so,” a relaxed, still in-playing-shape Elway said at the combine last week. “I think it is a matter of being in the right place at the right time and also having the qualifications to be able to do it. I think that if I had not been -- obviously, [I was] a little bit inexperienced -- but if I had not been through the Arena Football League for six years, I am not sure that I would be standing here. Looking back through what I have been through in the month and a half that I have been back, what I learned in the Arena Football League has been invaluable. I am glad I did that and the experience I gained there has helped me tremendously so far.”
This job is in Elway’s blood. He is not the son of a Hall of Fame quarterback, but the son of a respected talent evaluator. Elway’s father Jack was a respected Broncos scout after he retired as the head coach at San Josť State and Stanford. In the time between Elway’s 1999 retirement and his father’s death in the spring of 2001, the two often talked about prospects and the art of scouting. Elway said he has felt his father’s influence this winter.
“It was good for me just to be able to see him watch different guys and get his opinion on different guys and see if I was seeing the same types of things that he was seeing,” Elway said. “There are guys that are still playing that back then -- he was a big Drew Brees fan back then -- those types of things that stick in my mind and different guys that he was talking about. And, I would ask him, ‘What did you see?’ And the thing was the competitiveness [of the player], and that is what I remember him saying about guys that are competitors -- especially about Drew. So, that is one thing that stuck in my mind.”
Elway realizes people expect him to be a great evaluator of quarterback talent. But he said he is actually more comfortable scouting defensive players, especially pass-rushers and defensive backs. Those were the players that Elway studied as a player and he knows what he is looking for in those positions. That’s a lucky break for the Broncos, who have the No. 2 overall pick in the April draft. Denver, which was last in the NFL in total defense and points allowed in 2010, is expected to draft mostly on the defensive side of the ball.
Elway said he will lean heavily on his staff, but his influence will be felt. Xanders said the arrangement is working well so far.
“We all communicate well,” Xanders said. “John knows what he doesn’t know.”
Elway’s last boss in Denver thinks the Stanford graduate, who was known for being one of the most clutch players in NFL history, is the right man to lead the Broncos in this desperate time.
“John is a football person, obviously his dad was a great football coach,” said Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan, who won Super Bowls with Elway in Elway's final two seasons as a player. “I had a chance to be with John a lot of years both as an assistant and a head football coach. Obviously he’s very passionate, very bright, very organized. I know he’s biting at the bit to prove to people that he can get the Broncos back to where they used to be and I know he can get the job done.”
Whether or not Elway is successful, it won’t be because of lack of effort. The first two months of Elway’s new foray have shown he’s willing to work at his new trade.
“It’s a lot of work,” Elway said. “But it’s fun and it’s going to be worth it.”