Football Guy Elway in it for the long haul

February, 12, 2014
Feb 12
2:00
PM ET
John ElwayBrad Penner/USA TODAY SportsJohn Elway has delivered impressive results in his short time as Denver's top football executive.
John Elway has been, and still is, a lot of things to those in and around the Denver Broncos, to those who live and breathe with the team's fortunes.

Hall of Fame quarterback.

Your basic football legend, one with a been-there, done-that swagger taken straight out of central casting.

Face of a franchise.

Heart of a franchise.

Businessman.

Restaurateur.

Celebrity.

Take your pick, even as you drive around in your car, purchased at one of Elway’s dealerships, to eat in one of his restaurants before you take one of the afternoon tours of the stadium where his name is in the team’s Ring of Fame.

But now add another. The one Elway, if he would admit to such things, wears with pride to go with a new contract extension that runs through 2017.

Football Guy.

When Broncos owner Pat Bowlen fumed over what his team had become in 2010 -- cheaters, to many in the outside world, that were set to finish 4-12, with an already fired head coach, a Spygate scandal in tow, and a growing number of empty seats in the home stadium -- he looked to Elway to save the day and the ones that followed.

Bowlen looked to the guy he had seen do all things amazing, to the guy he had seen make the most of any situation the Broncos had been in, regardless of down and distance, the odds, or even the weight of history and expectations.

Bowlen has called Elway "a great treasure." In fact, Bowlen did it as he introduced Elway as the Broncos’ top football executive on Jan. 5, 2011. Still, some wondered if this all had a ceremonial feel to it.

That if a franchise's marquee player, a Hall of Fame passer no less, with a potential lifetime of celebrity golf and lucrative corporate speaking engagements already guaranteed and waiting, could really be interested in coming back to roll up his sleeves and run the football side of a team.

Because no matter how much wood paneling they put up in the offices, that's not really an executive job, not at its core anyway. It has an executive title and executive salary, but it is a get-down-to-it vocation for grinders.

This is a job for those who are actually interested in finding players, maintaining stability, building a roster, sorting through problems, keeping a franchise out of salary-cap trouble, making the correct decisions about who to keep and who to not keep, standing for something and sifting through the hours of digital video it takes to do that.

This is what those in the game call a Football Guy.

As a scout who works for a team whose top decision-makers didn't make the trip to last month's Senior Bowl said, "My guys aren't here, and I look up in the stands and I see [expletive] John Elway the week before his team is in the Super Bowl. All you need to know."

Sure, all of the Senior Bowl practices, every one-on-one or team drill, are available on video for all to see later in the comfortable confines of a nicely appointed office. It's why some choose not to make the trip to Mobile, Ala., each January for the best all-star game for NFL hopefuls each year.

And sure, Elway could get all that on video, too. But leaders lead, they set expectations and make sure everyone is doing things properly to meet them. For real leaders, that includes themselves.

They also empower people to know what they do is important to the organization, to the goal as a whole. And nothing, repeat nothing, is more disheartening to a football team's scouting staff, the guys who grind it out on the road throughout the year, than a general manager or head coach who doesn't show all that much interest in what they're doing until it's time to make the picks in the draft.

A team's top football decision-maker can say whatever about the importance of player evaluation, but when the staff sees you taking an interest, being a part of the evaluation process before the video rolls, it means something.

Ozzie Newsome, Elway's Hall of Fame peer in the personnel business and the one who calls the football shots for the Baltimore Ravens, takes that approach. Newsome is visible at the Senior Bowl, the East-West Game, the scouting combine. He shows his staff what they're doing is important by how he conducts himself. He leads, he does the work and his team consistently finds players and wins.

It's no accident Newsome was one of the people Elway contacted after accepting Bowlen's offer three years ago.

Even as the Broncos have won an AFC West title in each of Elway's three years since his return, even with a Super Bowl appearance 10 days ago, there are those who have wondered, including some who have known Elway for some time, if the constant all-or-nothing drumbeat of criticism that comes in the social media era for those who don't raise the trophy would make Elway decide the effort wasn't worth it, decide the returns didn't equal the investment.

But behind all of the rest is a Football Guy. One who answered a disheartening Super Bowl loss with a signature on a contract extension that promises he'll keep trying for four more years.

Maybe if folks had listened a little more closely three Januarys ago, to the usual here's-what-we're-going-to-do declarations that opening news conferences bring, the hints that Elway would be the guy for the long haul were there.

"When I retired from football, I was 38 years old. And I was not done doing what I needed to do in this life. And I believe that I am a guy that likes challenges. I am a guy that likes to compete. I am a guy -- and I have had several people say, 'How many times are you going to climb up another mountain?' And I said, 'Probably [until] I get too tired.' But I am not too tired to climb another mountain. Obviously, this is a mountain here that we need to climb, and I look forward to the challenge. That is the way that I am built. I do not look at myself as an icon. Maybe people from the outside look at it that way, but I look out from my eyes. The way I look out of my eyes and what I want to do with my life is that I love the challenges that Mr. Bowlen has given me here. So, I am truly excited about it. Talk about legacy -- the thing that I would want to do is look back and say, 'You know what? You had a chance to go do something as big as this and as the position that was given to you.' To be able to walk away from that, I would have never been able to forgive myself. That is not what I am about."

So, it seems, Elway called this play a while back.

Jeff Legwold

ESPN Denver Broncos reporter

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