- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Staff Writer
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In his time as the Denver Broncos' chief football decision-maker, John Elway has exercised age restraint in free agency. He's willing to get aggressive in the annual auction, but he's also looking for younger players -- in their 20s -- on their first trek into free agency.
"I like getting Hall of Fame players with chips on their shoulders," Elway said. "That's a different set of circumstances, I think."
Manning was coming off a missed season in 2011 after his fourth neck surgery and certainly carried a large question mark regarding the rest of his career. But after a 26-6 mark in his 32 regular-season starts for the Broncos, it might go down as the greatest free-agency play in franchise history.
Elway hopes the Ware signing will work out in similar fashion. The seven-time Pro Bowl selection signed for three years and $30 million, $20 million of which is guaranteed. And in a free-agency binge that still largely insulated the team from salary-cap risk beyond the first year of the deals, Ware's contract, like Manning's, is the one that carries some risk.
But when Elway looked across the desk at Ware during his March visit, he saw a player in the league's 100-sack club, and as he put it: "I thought he had plenty of football, good football, left in him and a guy who was ready to go after that world championship the way we want to go after a world championship."
After the Broncos' lopsided loss in the Super Bowl, Elway was searching for ways to bring a game-day attitude -- not misplaced swagger, but real, bring-it-down-to-down edge -- to the defense. He wanted a unit with confidence that would show pride in its work.
Elway believes he will get all of it and more in Ware, a proven, lead-by-example, been-there-done-that player. Ware simply goes about the business of being great without feeling the need to remind people he's doing it.
"He's like that guy who's seen it all, done it all, and he's calm, you know?” Broncos linebacker Von Miller said. "But he's fiery inside, he works every day to be better, he's got huge pride. Huge pride."
Ware's pride may be part of the reason he shrugs off the conventional wisdom, that he's what NFL personnel men often call 30-somethings a "declining player," or that he's injury prone.
"I've heard that," said Ware, who was voted one of the team's five captains on Monday. "I've heard a lot of people say that. I would say I've been healthy for a long time, I've missed three games my whole career. I hurt my hamstring and I blew my labrum out one year, hurt my elbow. But I missed three games ever. Right now, I feel like I'm healthy as I've ever been.”
The Broncos are betting on Ware's past and what they see in his future. The lure of a Super Bowl ring is a powerful one. Ware said, deep down, he didn't think the Dallas Cowboys would release him -- "didn't think they would do it, until about a week before they did" -- when he wouldn't redo his deal.
"I would say, I'm not that different from anybody else in that you want to feel wanted; I think everybody is like that," Ware said. "I was surprised, very surprised when [the Cowboys] told me. It took me like three months to really get over it, sort of take that ethical hat off and put that business hat on and say it is a business and you have to pick up and move, because that stuff happens. So at the end of the day, it's how you handle that change. It can make you or break you. I won't let it break me."
With the Broncos and Manning, Ware has found just the spot he was looking for to dial it in again.
"As a person you want to always quiet the critics, but you're not going to quiet all of them; some won't admit you proved them wrong, anyway.” Ware said. "But I know they say, ‘you're not as elastic, you're older.' I say come watch me play, come watch me practice, come watch what we do. That's just how I look at it.”
Ware hasn't played in a playoff game since the 2009 season -- which can seem like early geologic time in the NFL. Once the Cowboys sent him to the open market, getting back to the postseason became his focus. The Broncos put on the hard sell and ponied up the cash, and Ware already has the look of a captain who's been in the team's complex far longer than five months or so.
When CEO Joe Ellis elected to inform three players before the announcement that Broncos owner Pat Bowlen would be stepping away from day-to-day operations because of Alzherimer's disease, Ellis told Manning, special teams captain David Bruton and Ware, who hadn't even worn a Broncos' game-day uniform to that point.
"When you come in, it's your résumé," Ware said. "But people have to find out what kind of person you are, what you mean to the team and what you bring to the team. My approach is to be a building block to the defense."
The Broncos see the power of Ware's knowledge of the pass rush. They see the speed-to-power transition scouts will forever mark in their notebooks. They see a mentor for Miller. Ware, who has dropped his playing weight 10 pounds to 255, is working with the team's young players in between drills and carrying himself like a veteran in the building.
"He's very good with his hands," said Broncos left tackle Ryan Clady, a three-time Pro Bowl selection. "He's taught me a few things over the past few months about working hands. That's one thing he's definitely an expert on."
"He just knows," Miller said. "He's seen it, done it. He's got all those little things that make you do big things."
If the Broncos are right, if Elway has won another push-the-chips-in bet in free agency, the league's most high-powered offense will have an equal partner on defense. The proof will come on the field, starting with the Broncos' season opener Sunday night against Indianapolis.
"You come here, you feel like they have people who know what it takes, who've been there and know what it takes to get back," Ware said. "Right from John Elway down, they want to win, not just this year, not just next year -- every year. The clock is always ticking here. I think I can help, they think I can help. That's enough for me."