ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- To find a franchise quarterback, to mine the biggest of football diamonds, is hard.
As in once-in-a-career difficult and only if you’re lucky. To find the keystone to build a franchise around is no small thing in the NFL, as the constant search for The Guy who can lead the way to where the victories and trophies are found always seems to be underway.
But in the end, it still may not be as hard as life as The Next Guy, or if the search isn’t successful, The Next Guys.
A search John Elway, the Broncos' top football executive and Hall of Fame quarterback, calls "one, in this day and age, you have to succeed at. You have to find the guy who can lead your football team. If you don’t, you’re going to have a hard time doing the things you want to do as an organization."
Elway was The Guy for the Broncos, his standing in the Rocky Mountain region still unrivaled, as the two Super Bowl trophies won in the last two years of his playing career sit in the lobby of the building he still works in. And after he finished his career on the field, Elway didn’t retire to some far-off golf course.
He remained in Denver operating his businesses, including a restaurant that bears his name and an Arena Football League team, and generally is never very far out of sight, or out of mind, of the quarterbacks who had to follow him or the fans who kept hoping to see it happen once again. A list that included Brian Griese, Jake Plummer and Jay Cutler before Elway the executive signed Peyton Manning in 2012.
"It was probably difficult at times," Elway said this week. "There are always expectations. When you have a quarterback play for a long time and there’s always hope. That’s what a quarterback does, he gives fans hope that they can win a world championship. To me that’s what most fans want -- they want to win a world championship. When you have a guy who's the quarterback who's giving them, year in, year out, hope to win football games, to be a good football team, then all of a sudden you go to the unknown, it can be hard for everybody."
It’s why Sunday’s game is the rarest of events. Not only did the Colts move from one franchise quarterback, in Manning, to a player they believe is another in Andrew Luck, the two will be on the same field. And they are not both 30-somethings as Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Steve Young were when they met as former teammates in the 1994 season as Montana’s Chiefs faced Young’s 49ers.
This is more Brett Favre facing Aaron Rodgers in 2009. For Sunday in Lucas Oil Stadium is past and future, hope and history, all mashed together in one place, something the level-headed Luck has accepted as part of his job.
"When you have a guy that was so successful for so long at a team you come in and you see 'OK, what are some things I can learn from him in talking to Reggie Wayne about preparation or some of the coaches that were here?'" Luck said. "But I never viewed it as having to replace Peyton. I viewed it as a great opportunity to play football and get paid to do it and get to play quarterback. How cool is that?"
Most personnel executives in the league would say Luck is a rarity in that regard and history is littered with quarterbacks who weren't as skilled as the Colts' 24-year-old both on the field and in the public eye.
For his part Plummer sits in the team's record book with the all-time best winning percentage for quarterbacks who started at least 25 games for Denver. Plummer, who was signed in free agency by former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan in 2003, went 39-15 (.722) in regular-season games for the team. But even he, with that success and three playoff trips, including a trip to the AFC Championship Game in the 2005 season, lived in Elway’s shadow.
"[Brian] Griese, before me, probably had it a lot tougher than I did in some ways. I think Brian took the brunt of it," Plummer said. "But I think you have to kind of accept it, you can’t change history, you can’t change who did what. I never thought I had to be John Elway or duplicate what he did. … Of course you think about it in the big picture, it’s John Elway, you want to give him the credit he deserves, the respect he deserves and at the same time you have to really focus on doing the best you can do, as you, for your team."
Ironically, Plummer said, it was Elway who gave him a key piece of advice along the way.
"He said just play hard, just play with all your heart, and people will see that," Plummer said. "That’s how I always tried to play."
But it plays out in every NFL outpost, the most vivid when a quarterback who earns the gold jacket that comes with enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame is compared with those who follow him.
And there is the case of Brock Osweiler, a second-round pick in the 2012 draft, whose boss is a Hall of Fame quarterback, who sits with another future Hall of Famer in Manning each day in the team's meeting rooms. Osweiler has said, "I just try to soak it all up. There is no better place for a quarterback to learn how to be a quarterback in this league."
But there will be more big shoes to fill in more places, those who follow Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Rodgers, and yes, Manning a second time.
"It's just because everybody seems to want comparison all the time," Plummer said. "Comparisons, in anything, are not what it's about, I don't think whether we’re talking about football or not. But let a kid be like he is, let a kid be what he becomes. It would probably be easier for everybody."