NFL Nation: Pat Bowlen

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Another slate of London games, these for the 2015 season, were formally unveiled by the NFL Thursday, and America’s Team was not among them again.

Manning
At least, the Denver Broncos were America’s Team, according to a Harris Poll earlier this season that revealed they were "the favorite team" of adults who follow professional football.

The NFL announced the 2015 matchups at Wembley Stadium will feature the New York Jets against the Miami Dolphins Oct. 4, the Buffalo Bills against the Jacksonville Jaguars Oct. 25, and the Detroit Lions against the Kansas City Chiefs Nov. 1.

But the folks across the pond won’t see Peyton Manning and the Broncos unless another team is willing to surrender a potential home game featuring the draw of a Manning visit.

Why? Because the Broncos cannot be the "home" team for a London game. Their contract to play in Sports Authority Field at Mile High, which is municipally owned by the Metropolitan Football Stadium District, includes a provision that the team must play 10 home games a season there as part of the revenue streams to pay for the stadium.

Those 10 games are the Broncos' eight regular-season games and two preseason games. The stadium opened in 2001.

And with the Manning-led Broncos being such an enticing draw around the league, the league simply hasn’t received much support from any of the Broncos' future opponents to surrender a Manning visit in their home stadium. The Broncos played in London before Manning's arrival -- a 24-16 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Halloween in the 2010 season, also the "Spygate" trip. But that was a 49ers “home" game and the Broncos still played eight regular-season home games on the way to a 4-12 finish.

Longtime Broncos owner Pat Bowlen has taken the team overseas plenty through the years, including games in Sydney, Berlin, Mexico City, Tokyo and Barcelona, but those games were "extra" or fifth preseason games in each of those seasons.

Broncos camp report: Day 1

July, 24, 2014
Jul 24
9:30
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A daily review of the hot topics coming out of training camp:
  • When the Broncos selected wide receiver Cody Latimer in the second round of the draft in May, they did it knowing full well Latimer had suffered a fracture in his left foot in a pre-draft workout, much like Demaryius Thomas had before the Broncos made him a first-round pick in 2010. "I think they're like experts when it comes to that because it's worked out for them before," Latimer said. The Broncos dialed Latimer back for much of the offseason -- he did some limited team work in the team's three-day minicamp in June and the final set of organized team activities -- but looked just fine Thursday as he consistently flashed top-tier speed throughout the practice. He will get some premium snaps this season.
  • With Demaryius Thomas excused until Monday, Andre Caldwell took plenty of reps with the offensive starters. Caldwell, who signed a two-year deal to stay with the Broncos just before free agency opened in March, watched the team draft Latimer and sign Emmanuel Sanders. But quarterback Peyton Manning trusts Caldwell and showed even in Caldwell's limited playing time last season he was willing to throw to Caldwell in tight situations. And Thursday Manning made it clear people shouldn't be quick to dismiss Caldwell just yet in the wide receiver rotation, offering, "Caldwell will have a more significant role this season."
  • In the wake of the team's announcement that Pat Bowlen was stepping down as the team's owner this week, team president and CEO Joe Ellis met one-on-one with three players -- Manning, special teams captain David Bruton and defensive end DeMarcus Ware. Ware just signed in March, but this, as well as how Ware has conducted himself in offseason workouts, shows his standing in the locker room already. He spent time with almost every pass-rusher on the practice field Thursday, offering tips during drills, including to Derek Wolfe, Von Miller and Quanterus Smith. It will be absolutely stunning if Ware is not one of this team's five season-long captains.
  • The issue is a long way from being decided, but, as expected, Chris Clark is getting the first look with the starters at right tackle. The Broncos figure to do at least some mix-and-match at the position over the next couple of weeks with Clark and Winston Justice having received the bulk of the work in minicamp and OTAs. But if they stick to the plan to take a look at all of the possibilities, rookie Michael Schofield has shown enough in offseason work to get a look as well.
  • The Broncos lost 16 fumbles last season, the most in the league, and lost three more fumbles in the playoffs. So, safe to say ball security has been a front-burner issue for the Broncos all through the offseason with the appearance of a green ball that has been carried around by the likes of Manning and Thomas. But the fumble reminder is blue for training camp and Manning was toting it around Thursday. Things still need attention as the Broncos put the ball on the ground twice in team drills, both on strip plays by the defense.
  • Some odd and ends: With Chris Harris Jr. on the physically unable to perform list, Kayvon Webster got some work in the base defense in the two practices. ... Linebacker Von Miller, who isn't expected to be cleared for full contact until the Broncos' third preseason game, took part individual drills with the linebackers and some 7-on-7 drills. Asked about his knee he said "it feels good for today."

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Often folks look at John Elway and talk about steely resolve. They talk about competitive fire. They talk about the unblinking ability to turn pressure into football diamonds.

And Wednesday, Elway showed his heart -- showed it with tears welling in his eyes as he tried to talk about Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen's, and Bowlen's family's, decision to step down from the day-to-day work of running the team. Bowlen turned over control of the team to a family trust with team president/CEO Joe Ellis making decisions that were previously Bowlen’s to make and Elway running the team's football operations.

Both Elway and Ellis were emotional as they attempted to talk Wednesday about Bowlen's impact on them, the community and the NFL. Both have spent the better part of three decades working for Bowlen, as well as spending time around the Broncos owner and his family away from the team complex.

For some, it was the kind of emotion they hadn’t seen from Elway, in particular, since he retired from the NFL after the 1998 season. The tears welled in Elway’s eyes as he spoke Wednesday, as he took several pauses and a heavy sigh or two to try to gather himself.

“I’ve worked for him for 30 years ... it’s, uh, going to be very hard not to see him walk through that door every day," Elway said. “He’s given me so much. As a player to be able to play for him, and as I’ve said when I retired, I said as a player all you want is an opportunity to be the best and to be able to compete for world championships and ... that’s what Pat has given us."

Elway also said Bowlen’s tenure as a day-to-day presence in the building “will never be matched, he will never be replaced." In the end, Elway called it a “sad, sad day."

Later, after matters turned to football as Elway walked to return inside the Broncos’ complex, he said “it really just hit me when I sat down to talk about him" that he had not expected to feel so much emotion when he sat down in front of the cameras and digital recorders.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Every person who works inside the Denver Broncos' suburban complex knew this day was coming.

Pat Bowlen would ask the same questions in a meeting that he had just asked a few minutes before.

He stepped away from the tireless work he did on some of the NFL’s most powerful committees, including negotiating some of the groundbreaking television contracts that fuel teams' economic engines.

He started driving less, choosing to ride with the team’s now-retired security director, Dave Abrams, or Broncos general counsel Rick Slivka, or team president Joe Ellis as they routinely went to lunch at a restaurant that overlooks an executive airport.

He was in his office less, too. Former coach Mike Shanahan once said: "[Pat] was an owner you could always find, his office was right next to mine, so some coaches can’t find their owners, don’t talk to their owners. I saw Pat every day at work."

Then for the first time, Bowlen -- who once competed in the Ironman Triathlon -- didn’t go to the league meetings in March.

[+] EnlargePat Bowlen and John Elway
AP Photo/ Ed AndrieskiThe Broncos have enjoyed their greatest moments under the leadership of Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway and owner Pat Bowlen, left.
Through it all, those in and around the Broncos have always said Bowlen was "stepping away," choosing to let the people he has in place run the team in the way he hoped it would be operated.

On Tuesday, the Broncos formally announced Bowlen had surrendered control of the team as he battles Alzheimer’s disease. Ellis, who now will add the title and duties of chief executive officer to his duties as team president, will assume control of the team and represent the Broncos on all league matters.

A team statement said: "The Broncos are very saddened that Mr. Bowlen is no longer able to be part of the team’s daily operations due to his condition. We continue to offer our full support, compassion and respect to 'Mr. B,' who has faced Alzheimer’s disease with such dignity and strength."

Commissioner Roger Goodell said to the Denver Post: "This is a sad day for the NFL."

Bowlen publicly had said he suffered some short-term memory loss in recent years, even as far back as 2009, when he fired Shanahan. With tears in his eyes, Bowlen said: "This is as tough as it gets." He then hired Josh McDaniels, but fired him with four games remaining in the 2010 season, with the franchise reeling from on-field losses and its own Spygate scandal.

Early in 2011, Bowlen performed what might have been one of his last great acts as the franchise’s most successful owner. He convinced John Elway to return as the team’s chief football decision-maker.

The Broncos, it seems, always have been at their best with Elway and Bowlen together in some way. Bowlen raised the team’s first Super Bowl trophy, saying: "This one’s for John." There is little doubt if Elway could raise one as an executive, he would say: "This one’s for Pat."

Player and owner. Friend and friend. Boss and employee.

There are those around the league who believe the $35 million expansion of the team’s complex, including an indoor practice facility, was in part a spruce-up, a value-added item, if the team were to be sold. But Bowlen’s wife, Annabel, said in a statement Tuesday: "Long-term, I fully support Pat’s hope of keeping the Denver Broncos in the Bowlen family."

Ellis has been with the team for most of Bowlen’s ownership tenure in Denver. Ellis was the team’s marketing director from 1983 to 1985 -- Bowlen purchased the Broncos in 1984 -- and Ellis returned to the team in 1998 and has been with the Broncos since. Ellis was promoted to COO in 2008 and named team president in 2011.

Together, it now will be Ellis and Elway who will try to maintain what Bowlen always wanted for the Broncos: to be in the Super Bowl hunt.

Bowlen would always enthusiastically and without hesitation pick the Broncos to win the title game in the coming year in what used to be annual postseason sit-downs. Bowlen liked star power. He liked success. He liked the Broncos to be at the front of the line.

The Broncos will hold their first training camp practice Thursday, the 31st training camp since Bowlen became the team’s owner. As Bowlen battles Alzheimer’s, those he put in place -- Ellis and Elway -- to run his team when he no longer could, might have assembled his best team, at least on paper, with a future Hall of Famer at quarterback in Peyton Manning.

Whether this team closes the deal like Elway did in 1998 and 1999 remains to be seen. But you can see Bowlen knew what the future held, and knew what he wanted his franchise to be.
The Denver Broncos honored their history this week and tied up a few loose ends along the way.

The team selected three more people for its Ring of Fame, and did it with a needed nod to the past. Too often, whether it’s the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a team’s list of all-time greats or simply somebody’s all-everything team in cyberspace, too much attention is paid to the highlight generation, not enough to when the trail was carved in the first place.

So, it was good to see the Broncos add Gene Mingo, Rick Upchurch and Dan Reeves to its list of all-timers.

[+] EnlargeDan Reeves
AP Photo/Ron HeflinFormer coach Dan Reeves says late comebacks are his favorite memories from his Denver days.
For some, the Broncos’ history starts with Hall of Famer John Elway or even Mike Shanahan’s long tenure with the team that included Super Bowl wins in each of the final two seasons of Elway’s playing career. So, many of the “omissions" folks want to talk about in the Ring of Fame, or even the Hall of Fame, are often just a discussion of the post-90s Broncos.

So, to see Mingo honored, an original Bronco who played in the team's first five seasons, shows some respect for what came before the Broncos were the Broncos for many people.

Upchurch spent nine years with the Broncos, his last season was Elway’s rookie year in 1983, but was good enough to make the league’s all-decade team for the 70s as a kick returner. All-decade players are rare, all-decade players not in their team’s Ring of Fame are rarer still.

And Reeves’ selection shows time has perhaps healed some old wounds, at least enough to honor what was done in his tenure. Owner Pat Bowlen fired Reeves in 1992 after 12 seasons with the team and there are plenty of stories still swirling in the city about the level of friction that did or didn't exist between Reeves, Shanahan and Elway in those years.

Reeves is the first coach in the team's Ring of Fame. He won five division titles and made three Super Bowl appearances in a four-year span. As a player, assistant or head coach Reeves has participated in more Super Bowls -- nine -- than any other player or coach in league history.

"It’ll probably be a tremendous emotion, I know that," Reeves said of the Week 2 ceremony in the coming season. “So many great memories. My family basically grew up, my three children, they only had to move one time from the time they got into school and the time they went to college. That wouldn’t happen with many football coaches."

When asked about his most memorable games as Broncos head coach, Reeves was quick to invoke the team’s top football executive -- Elway.

"We talk so much about the Super Bowls and all, but you know we played probably one of the more exciting championship games in Cleveland," Reeves said. “Every year you get to see that because that was noted as “The Drive” and the next year was “The Fumble,” but those were two great championship games. Probably one of the championship games we lost up in Buffalo was one we very easily could have won, but that was a great year for us, too. It’s something where when you win that many games, there were so many phenomenal comebacks that we had. One that sticks out was when John was a rookie and we played Baltimore, the Colts you know, and it was such a big deal about John not going to play for the Colts and they came in there and had a big lead in the fourth quarter and we came from behind and I think that’s when we all realized that as long as we had John Elway, we could have a chance in the fourth quarter if we just even kept it close. When you look back at all the many comebacks that we had in the fourth quarter, it gave me a lot of grey hairs, but it was exciting."

When the names go up on the stadium façade in September, it will be a deserved honor for all three whose time had come. And those who don't remember their history are often doomed to not enjoying all of the good parts, too.

DENVER -- Standing behind a podium perched atop what will be playoff ice for the Colorado Avalanche in the coming days and surrounded by a crowd of Eagle Scouts and those hoping to be, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning offered his thoughts Wednesday on leadership, work ethic and community service.

He told a football story or two, including one about his first trip into a game-day huddle as the University of Tennessee quarterback. And within all those words was also a clear-eyed glimpse into Manning as a professional quarterback, into what the Broncos face in 2014.

When, in making a point about wrestling with, and ultimately overcoming, adversity, Manning told those assembled we must all "learn to thrive on discomfort."

Ah, discomfort. Maybe something on the order of a 35-point loss in Super Bowl XLVIII, perhaps, or a double-overtime loss in the divisional round a season before. Maybe two playoff trips with home-field advantage, two 13-3 finishes, a pile of team and league passing and scoring records, and no Super Bowl ring to show for them.

Yeah, that’s some professional football discomfort, all right.

The Broncos thrived in the discomfort left from the shocking playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens in January 2013. They went on to win the division again and, this time, played their way into Super Bowl XLVIII after a season during which Manning hit career marks in almost every offensive statistical category, including NFL records for touchdowns (55) and passing yards (5,477). The Broncos also became the first team in league history to top 600 points in a season.

That was before the Super Sunday cave-in, a football sinkhole in which the Broncos watched all their title hopes and dreams cascade into the abyss. Most troubling to those in and around the team was the fact after a bad snap on their first offensive play of the game, the Broncos didn’t respond, and one bad play became another and another until they were on the short list of most lopsided Super Bowl losses.

That they didn't rise up and put up a good scrap, make a game of it. The Seattle Seahawks simply looked more prepared, more talented, more motivated -- just more of everything.

Two Januarys ago, when the Broncos lost to the Ravens, John Elway, the team’s chief football decision-maker, said the Broncos should remember 2012 was a good season, but that those with the team couldn’t be "afraid to be honest with ourselves."

Manning even said last season Elway had tried to create "an uncomfortable atmosphere" as the team moved into the 2013 season to make sure all involved remembered the sting of the loss. An atmosphere that seemed to suit the Broncos last season as they piled up the wins and touchdowns.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
AP Photo/John MinchilloThe Broncos stayed busy this offseason, adding key players in free agency to help Peyton Manning and Denver push for another postseason run.
It wasn’t always easy for those in the locker room -- expectations can be heavy when your boss is a Hall of Fame quarterback whom friends describe as the most competitive person to walk the planet, and the starting quarterback isn't far behind, if at all, in that department -- but, as Broncos coach John Fox routinely says, "if it were easy, everybody would be doing it." Winning is hard, an item Elway and Manning always want on the front burner. The burden of expectations gets a little heavier if opportunities to win the season's final game are lost, squandered or both.

Wednesday, in what was his first significant public appearance in Denver since the Super Bowl loss, Manning was in statesman mode, trying to help raise funds for the Boy Scouts in Colorado. His appearance filled the seats on the arena floor of the Pepsi Center.

Before he addressed the gathering, he lauded the Broncos' additions made in free agency -- players like Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware and T.J. Ward -- and lamented the departures of Champ Bailey, Eric Decker and Knowshon Moreno as he tried to leave at least some of the Super Bowl aftermath in the rearview mirror.

"First off, we lost many players and some great friends," Manning said. "It’s been a real pleasure to play the last two years with Champ, Knowshon, Eric, [linebacker] Wesley Woodyard, Chris Kuper retiring … I’m probably leaving a name or two out. That's the worst part about football. When you form some friendships with these guys and really put a lot of hard work in -- the business side comes into play.

"You have to move forward," Manning later added. "You have to kind of re-establish your identity of the 2014 team. The 2013 team -- it was a good season in a lot of ways. There is no question it did not end the way we wanted it to, but we have to find a way to build off that and take a step further -- try to finish."

This is where the Broncos will begin their trek into 2014: as a team trying to finish what it started, in many ways, when Elway, Broncos owner Pat Bowlen and Fox enticed Manning to sign in Denver.

They are a talented team with a future Hall of Famer at quarterback. They were one of the most active and successful teams in filling needs in free agency. They have worked the draft well in the past three years and once again will carry the label as one of the Super Bowl favorites.

But they are also a team that let two rare title opportunities get away and are now trying to beat the odds to position themselves for another. They will have to deal, again, with the idea that many folks won’t much care what they do in the regular season if they aren’t the team catching the confetti next February.

They will be asked about the Super Bowl, about the window to win a championship closing and about what happened inside MetLife Stadium until they are sick of answering for it all. Truth be told, they might have been sick of it already, even as they dispersed into the offseason, and the wheel hasn't even really started to spin on all of that yet.

Manning himself might be asked to throw less so the offense can be more. To face the realities of age and four neck surgeries and use his remember-when mind to help diversify the team’s attack, not only to help give it a plan B but endorse it in what he calls at the line scrimmage if things don’t go right on another important football afternoon.

To, well, thrive in the discomfort.
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Denver’s potential as a Super Bowl city might not hinge on how the league’s title game went in the open-air MetLife Stadium last month, but rather in the snowstorm that hit the New York-New Jersey area the next day, stranding thousands of travelers who had come to see Super Bowl XLVIII.

At the league meeting this week NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the gathered franchise owners did not discuss the prospect of future Super Bowls in cold-weather cities with open-air stadiums. So, any read on whether or not the league believes Denver is viable as a potential bidder for a Super Bowl in 2018, 2019 or 2020 will have to wait.

The Seattle Seahawks defeated the Denver Broncos, 43-8, in Super Bowl XLVIII in the league’s first Super Bowl played in an open-air stadium in a cold-weather city. The temperature was 49 degrees at kickoff, but the following day a snowstorm affected hundreds of flights and forced scores of travelers to make alternate plans to try to get home.

[+] EnlargeMetLife stadium
Andrew Burton/Getty ImagesMetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., on Jan. 22, 11 days before it was the site of Superbowl XLVIII.
Goodell said Wednesday the owners did not consider the pros and cons of awarding another open-air Super Bowl in a cold-weather city, but did review how things went in the New York-New Jersey area in February.

“We discussed the New York Super Bowl really in the context of what we achieved," Goodell said. “The successes that occurred, things that we can do better ... but the overall reaction was very positive."

Broncos president Joe Ellis said he believes, after speaking informally to team owners and other high-ranking executives around the league, the decision has not been made as to whether the NFL will have a repeat performance in a northern city with an open-air stadium, but that there are some hurdles that would have to be cleared.

“And it comes down to how appealing it is the league, the public, the ownership and how the fans really feel about it," Ellis said. “That game could have been played in conditions that were far worse this time, like the next day.

"And I think everybody needs to ask the question 'do you want to put the most important game of the season on in conditions people saw in New York the day after the Super Bowl?' Is that fair to fans? To players? To coaches? To the league? To the teams? Here you are showcasing the No. 1 event in the world and you’re doing it in conditions that prevent you from doing it in the best way possible. I think that’s something that needs to be considered, needs to be discussed before they go forward."

Ellis said beyond the weather issues, the contingency plans that came with Super Bowl XLVIII, which included playing the game on either Saturday or Monday, were expensive and difficult to schedule. That list included items like scheduling security and emergency personnel as well as the potential use of public transportation on a weekday if the game had been moved to Monday.

“There were a lot of risks taken there, and a bunch of contingency planning had to be in place that actually may have been somewhat costly and somewhat cumbersome up front before you even had to execute them," Ellis said. “It will be interesting to see how they feel about going through those exercises again."

All of that said, Broncos owner Pat Bowlen’s desire to have a Super Bowl in Denver is well-known throughout the league, and if the league does open the bidding to cities like Denver with open-air stadium again, Bowlen would want to be in the mix. Cities like Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Seattle would likely want to make a bid as well.

“We could do it," Ellis said. “I know Denver could do it, and for all we know it would be 60 and sunny, or it could be different, but nevertheless there’s no question in my mind that if the league chooses to go forward and do another game with these considerations in mind, cold-weather site and outdoor stadium, that we could do it as well as any city in the country. It’s just a matter of whether or not that will be a consideration, something ownership wants to do again."
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen was not at the league meetings this week, but by all accounts he's happy with the people who represented his team at the annual spring gathering and the direction they have taken the team over the last three years.

The Broncos just completed their third season with John Elway as the chief decision-maker on the football side with Joe Ellis as team president. A painful, somewhat embarrassing Super Bowl blowout last month aside, the results have been three consecutive AFC West titles, a favorable enough salary cap situation that allowed them to aggressively work free agency, and fan interest back where Bowlen always wants it to be.

All things, as the Broncos decision-makers adjourned from the meetings this week, have made Bowlen a happy team owner.

"He feels, we feel, the franchise is headed in the right direction," Ellis said as the meetings drew to a close. "Certainly hiring John Elway established the foundation, beginning of a trust that needed to be re-established with our fans, that was No. 1. No. 2, bringing John Fox on helped shift the culture both outside the building and inside the building. Those two hires have kind of re-established trust and re-ignited interest in the team."

Ellis said Bowlen likes the disciplined approach Elway has taken in terms of which players have gottten the long-term contracts that carry heavy salary-cap risks. In the four high-profile deals the Broncos signed with free agents this month -- Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Emmanuel Sanders -- Ware's contract is the only one that carries a significant risk toward the salary cap beyond the 2014 season if Ware doesn’t play how the Broncos expect him to.

Ware is also the only one of the four who is more than 28 years old. The Broncos have taken similar approaches in the previous two forays into free agency when, beyond the deal for quarterback Peyton Manning in 2012, the longer -- three years or more -- bonus-heavy deals have largely gone to younger players.

"John has done a very good job of bringing in players to help us win and he’s done it with the short term in mind and the long term in mind," Ellis said. "He doesn’t waver from that, sticks to his plan with discipline. I know Pat feels this way and so do I, we have the right team in place in football to have short- and long-term success. We’ve established a program that should allow -- they’ll be blips in the road -- but should allow for sustained success."

Ellis added that both he and Bowlen believe the Broncos’ approach has to be draft first and supplement with free agency if the team is to succeed both with Manning behind center and in the post-Manning era.

"People say we’re all-in because of the players we signed, I don’t see that way and John is very open and very honest in how he goes about shaping the roster," Ellis said. "He doesn’t talk about this year, he talks about this year and beyond … . He and Mike Sullivan structure deals that make sure we’re talking about this year and beyond."

"The clubs that have success, that have good performance over time, are the ones that stick to a discipline when it comes to picking players and paying players," Ellis added. "And at times in the past we may have gotten off track by signing players who were fix-it-now type players with fix-it-now type contracts and not showing any regard for financial discipline. Listen we need to spend to the cap to be competitive, we believe that, but you can’t spend recklessly. Some say you’re doing this through free agency, but I don’t think John, and I don’t want to speak for John, but the draft is equally important, if not more, to the organization."
ORLANDO, Fla. -- When Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen formally announced he had promoted Joe Ellis to team president and hired John Elway as the team’s chief football decision-maker in early 2012, most with the team said it was a sign Bowlen intended to step out of the public eye.

And though Bowlen still works from his office at the team’s complex when he is in Denver, he has a far lower profile than he once did in three decades worth, and counting, of ownership. When the team's officials arrived in Florida on Sunday for the league meetings, Bowlen was not with them.

Bowlen has been a fixture at the annual meetings, especially in his time on the broadcast committee when some of the most lucrative televisions contracts in league history were negotiated, so his absence was noted as team executives from across the league gathered in Florida. Ellis will represent Bowlen at the meetings and in any votes, including the "owner plus one" sessions that included the team owner and one other high-ranking team official. Elway will attend most of the sessions as well.

Bowlen has been in Hawaii in recent weeks. Elway joked after the Broncos’ aggressive work in free agency, he may have some explaining to do when the owner returned to Denver.

"But the environment Pat Bowlen creates, his approach and belief that he wants to compete for the world championship every year, that’s a big reason people want to play for the Denver Broncos," Elway said. "We all have a very clear expectation here that he wants to win, to do it the right way."

Since Bowlen largely turned over the business side of the franchise to Ellis and the football side to Elway, the Broncos have gone 34-14 with three consecutive AFC West titles to go with this past February’s Super Bowl appearance, even as they kept their financial house in order against the salary cap.

Elway recently signed a contract extension that takes him through the 2017 season and Ellis said Elway had demonstrated "great vision and leadership" on the job. With a favorable salary cap position and enough cash flow to get the job done, the Broncos were one of the most aggressive teams in the hours after free agency opened.

The team signed defensive end DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib, safety T.J. Ward and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. The Broncos also signed defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio to an extension.

Coach John Fox has formally entered the last year of his contract with the start of the new league year and the Broncos have discussed an extension with Fox’s agent Bob LaMonte in recent weeks, including a face-to-face meeting at the league's scouting combine in February in Indianapolis. Elway has repeatedly said he expected to get a deal done.

Elway has said of Fox: "He's done a nice job, I think you look at three AFC West championships, there's a lot to that, but there's also a lot to the expectations of we've got to continue what we're doing."

Offensive coordinator Adam Gase, who drew interest from the Minnesota Vikings and Cleveland Browns for their head coaching positions, is also in the final year of his deal in the 2014 season.
When Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen and team president Joe Ellis reorganized the team's football operations in 2011, a process that began with John Elway's hiring, Elway used that first season to gauge how those around him went about their business.

Elway's first major front-office hire was former agent Mike Sullivan, who had a quarter-century's worth of experience negotiating contracts from the players' side and had run the football division of Octagon Worldwide, one of the major players in the sports agency game.

[+] EnlargeAqib Talib
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsThe Broncos were able to sign Aqib Talib, one of the top corners available in free agency, to a cap-friendly deal.
At the time, Elway said Sullivan would be "a great asset" to the team.

Turns out the Broncos have done some quality work managing the cap the past three years. The spending binge that reeled in safety T.J. Ward, Aqib Talib and DeMarcus Ware was the result of having enough of Bowlen's cash to pay the required upfront money, as well as a salary-cap position to allow them to do it.

And a little bump in the salary cap -- to $133 million per team -- didn't hurt.

But the Broncos have taken the same approach to the past three forays into free agency. They drive hard early to sign a few specific targets, then back off a bit. They also have effectively emphasized their playoff possibilities and having Peyton Manning at quarterback to get the kinds of deals they want.

Last year, Wes Welker and Terrance Knighton signed two-year deals. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie signed a two-year deal that voided to a one-year deal just days after the Super Bowl, and they signed Shaun Phillips, who finished with 10 sacks last season, to a one-year deal with no signing bonus. The year before that, the Broncos signed Justin Bannan, Keith Brooking, Brandon Stokley, Dan Koppen and Jim Leonhard, all either starters or major contributors, to one-year deals.

Even Wednesday, there were plenty of raised eyebrows around the league at how a team that played in the Super Bowl was in a position to be so active in free agency's opening hours.

It was especially true when word began to circulate of the six-year, $57 million deal given to Talib. But a closer look at Talib's deal shows it is far more cap-friendly for the team than many expected.

It could potentially include $26 million worth of guarantees, but much of that is an injury guarantee if Talib, who has never played 16 games in a season, has a career-ending injury.

The real guarantee is $12 million, all paid this season to Talib -- a total that includes up to $500,000 worth of bonuses based on how many games Talib is in uniform in 2014. So it's really closer to a three-year deal worth roughly $27 million. Much of the total is in the base salaries for the 2017, 2018 and 2019 seasons -- $11 million, $11 million and $8 million respectively -- which are not guaranteed.

In the end, Talib wanted to be in Denver, and the Broncos wanted him enough to stop waiting for a decision from Rodgers-Cromartie.

"They kind of just focused on me and showed how much that they wanted me here," Talib said. "That played the biggest part. I just wanted to go somewhere where I was wanted, where I felt wanted, where I felt like the guys wanted me. That's kind of how it went.”

The Broncos got Ward for less than the initial request from Ward's representatives, even when the Broncos initially weren't certain something would get done with the Pro Bowl safety.

And those two deals, structured as they are, allowed the Broncos to sign Ware to close out the initial wave.

"They're trying to get the job done," Ware said. " ... I think the thing is, we're trying to make a statement."
While calling the shots for the Denver Broncos, Mike Shanahan once said, “If we signed all the guys we're supposedly going to sign we'd have 100 guys and no money."

Well, history has rolled around to repeat itself once again.

The Broncos' decision-makers, poised on the edge of free agency, are once again seeing the team's name floated plenty on players they are indeed interested in, but are also not prepared to bid the highest on.

Or, as executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said just over a month ago, when discussing his take on contracts and pending free agents:

"It's a matter of how many people are out there and how many buyers. Are there six teams chasing him or five, or one team or teams? Plus it comes down to the thing that it's been my goal to really continue what [Broncos owner] Pat Bowlen created in the fact that people want to play here. So players will come here late in their career when they know they have a chance to win a world championship and they know the reputation of the Denver Broncos since Pat Bowlen has been here that it's a good place to play. That's why, to me, if you find a veteran guy and that's what matters to him, you're finding the right veteran guy. That's just as important as money. If money is the No. 1 thing, we're really not on the same page if it's all about money in my mind."

So, sure the Broncos have discussed the likes of pursuing safety T.J. Ward and defensive end Jared Allen. But to say the Broncos lead the way with either of those players, as some have said already, is simply not realistic.

At this point the Broncos are a negotiating tool for those two players as well as those who represent them. For either to end up in Denver it would likely require a willingness to trade dollars for playoff potential. And leaving dollars on the table is not often the business of those hired to negotiate contracts on commission.

The Broncos will be aggressive when free agency opens Tuesday; they will likely sign a player or two or even three in the opening days. That's been their profile with Elway on the job, and then they wait to add another veteran player or two in April or May.

Last year they signed Louis Vasquez, Wes Welker and Terrance Knighton early and then Shaun Phillips, who led the team in sacks last season with 10, on the draft weekend and Quentin Jammer in May.

So, the Broncos are poised to spend some of Bowlen's money this week -- it just won't always be on the players who were said to be "locks" to end up in Denver.
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.

There was a time, when John Elway wore a helmet at work instead of a tie, when the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks were division rivals.

From 1977 to 2001, the two teams did their football business together in the AFC West and now these former division rivals, who have gone their separate ways since -- through good times and bad -- now arrive to Super Bowl XLVIII as the matchup many wanted to see.

The Broncos' league-leading scoring offense -- which produced an NFL record 606 points with Peyton Manning at quarterback -- against Seattle's league-leading defense (14.4 points per game), a physical, brash group that led the league in scoring defense, total defense, pass defense and interceptions.

It is the first time the league's No. 1 offense and No. 1 defense have met in the Super Bowl since 1990, when the Buffalo Bills and New York Giants authored a classic, a 20-19 Giants win decided when Scott Norwood's kick drifted wide right.

ESPN.com Seahawks reporter Terry Blount and ESPN.com Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss Sunday's game:

Legwold: Terry, in your mind, what are some of the major decisions John Schneider and Pete Carroll have made to put the Seahawks in this position?

Blount: Jeff, first and foremost, the one decision that almost everyone will point to is selecting Russell Wilson with a third-round draft choice two years ago when so many experts felt Wilson was too short to be an effective starter in today's NFL. That led to another big decision when Carroll named Wilson the starter after the team had signed Matt Flynn to a big-money deal -- a brave move, to say the least. But pointing to one move doesn't begin to tell the story of a team that Schneider and Carroll completely revamped over the past four seasons. Only four players remain from the team they inherited in 2010. Schneider and Carroll's strengths are their trust in each other and their ability to make stars, or at least quality starters, out of players that other teams overlooked such as cornerback Richard Sherman (a fifth-round pick), slot receiver Doug Baldwin (undrafted) and guard J.R. Sweezy (a seventh-round pick). They also made one of the best trades in team history, acquiring Marshawn Lynch from Buffalo in 2010. It's an example of how Schneider and Carroll are willing to take chances on players who might have had off-the-field issues.

Let me ask you a similar question, Jeff. Elway gets huge props for convincing Manning that Denver was the place for him to end his career, but obviously, it took more than one move to get the Broncos to the Super Bowl. Aside from Manning, what has made Elway's tenure so successful?

Legwold: Elway's mission, for owner Pat Bowlen, when he took the job, wasn't just to make the team competitive as quickly as possible after the 4-12 finish in 2010, but to fix the cracks in the foundation. This meant addressing the personnel and salary-cap issues that needed to be dealt with if the team was going to succeed over the long term. Elway always says people talk to him about a "win-now philosophy," but he wants the team to win from now on.

Elway and the Broncos' front office cleaned up the cap a bit, and though Elway is a former quarterback, he thinks big picture. They've drafted plenty of defensive players -- 11 of 23 picks under Elway -- and they've made finding the guy they want more important than simply making big-ticket splashes in free agency, other than Manning of course. Signing players to one-year deals with little or no signing bonuses, such as Shaun Phillips (10 sacks), Paris Lenon and Quentin Jammer (two starters and a situational player in the defense), have made it go. Starting center Manny Ramirez was released by the Lions at one point. John Fox, hand-picked by Elway, and his staff also have gotten more from players who were holdovers such as Knowshon Moreno and Demaryius Thomas. Toss in some big-time draft hits -- Von Miller and Julius Thomas -- and you have back-to-back 13-3 finishes.

For their part, the Seahawks have played quality defense all season long. Terry, how do you think they will attack Manning?

Blount: They will line up and say, 'This is who were are and what we do. Beat us if you can.' I honestly don't think they'll change a thing. Whether it's a rookie calling the signals or one of the all-time greats such as Manning, the Seahawks don't believe anyone can outperform their defense. They are as talented a group as I've seen. Two things set them apart: incredible overall speed, especially at the linebacker spots, and a physical approach that borders on all-out violence and intimidation. Calling for crossing patterns over the middle against this bunch is asking for punishment. The one thing defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said they will do is change the wording and signals on their calls. And what they must do in this game is get a push up the middle on the defensive front and force Manning to move in the pocket. Defensive tackles Brandon Mebane, Tony McDaniel and Clinton McDonald have to outmuscle Denver interior linemen in this game.

Seattle's Legion of Boom secondary is an extraordinarily talented group that includes three players who were voted into the Pro Bowl. They play a lot of press coverage and almost dare a quarterback to try to beat them.

Jeff, does man-to-man coverage help or hurt Manning and his receivers?

Legwold: Man coverage almost never hurts Manning, unless those defensive backs consistently knock the Broncos' receivers off their routes, or Mother Nature brings a windy night. And not just a breeze, but something on the order of the 40-mph gusts the team faced on a frigid night at New England this season. But even then Manning was sharp and aggressive on a late drive to tie the game at 31-31. Where some defenses have had some success this season -- Indianapolis, New England and to a certain extent Jacksonville -- was when they essentially tossed aside the idea of adding pressure to try to get Manning, because he gets the ball out too quickly, and play as physically as possible against the Broncos' receivers to disrupt their routes and disrupt the offense's timing. That said, Manning still threw for 386 yards and three touchdowns against the Colts to go with 295 yards and two touchdowns against the Jaguars. And while the Patriots held him to a season-low 150 yards on Nov. 24, Manning still looked sharp late, throwing the ball in a game in which the Broncos rushed for 280 yards because New England often left six-man fronts after dropping so many players into coverage. In the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots, who used much the same philosophy as in November, Manning threw for 400 yards and two touchdowns. The mix for some kind of defensive success is usually to get the Broncos receivers out of sorts and find a way to pressure Manning in the middle of the field so he can't step into the throws.

Staying at quarterback, Terry, how do you think Wilson, certainly well-known for his poise and maturity, will handle his first Super Bowl behind center?

Blount: I realize it's a lot to ask of any second-year quarterback to enter this setting and not have it effect his performance, but Wilson is an extraordinary young man. I've said all season that he has the unusual quality of being at his best when things appear to be at their worst. He thrives on the big stage. I've never seen him rattled, and when he does make a mistake (such as fumbling on the first play in the NFC Championship Game), he acts like it never happened. And I've never seen any athlete who prepares with the time and detail that Wilson prepares. You can't fool him. People often compare him to Fran Tarkenton because of his scrambling ability, which is true. But in some ways, I see him more of a Bart Starr-type quarterback, a man who had the ultimate respect of his teammates, understood the skills of the men around him and made them better. Wilson said his goal every game is to be the calm in the storm and stay in the moment. Well, there's no moment like this one. It's cliché to say, but I think he truly believes he was born for this moment.

Jeff, there has been a lot of talk about how extreme weather conditions could benefit the Seahawks and hinder Manning's ability to throw the football the way he normally would. Do you think that's overblown?

Legwold: There may be no more overblown idea circulating around than Manning's ability to play in the cold. The cold-weather stats are always tossed around, but there are at least two of those games in some of the totals people are using when Manning played only one series because the Colts had their playoff position wrapped up. One of those was in Denver to close out the 2004 regular season (32 degrees at kickoff; Manning threw two passes in the game). The wind has been a far-bigger deal for Manning. Post-surgery, he has had to make some adjustments to his game because of some grip issues in his right hand. He wears a glove on his throwing hand in a variety of temperatures now. This season, he wore it in New England (22 degrees, wind chill of 6 degrees), against Tennessee (18 degrees), as well as in Houston (kickoff temperature was 58 degrees) and at Oakland in the regular-season finale, when the kickoff temperature was 70. And with the glove on his throwing hand in 10 games this season, including both of the Broncos' playoff wins, Manning has thrown 33 touchdown passes to go with five interceptions. He's had four 400-yard games and six games when he attempted at least 40 passes. People have scrutinized every wobble of every pass this season, but somehow he threw for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns. And wobbles or not, Manning has not been sacked and the Broncos have punted only once in this postseason.

In the Seahawks' defense, Terry, how big of an impact did signing Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett in free agency have on that group?

Blount: It's this simple: The Seahawks would not be playing in the Super Bowl without them. Seattle's big weakness last year was the lack of a consistent pass rush and a lack of depth on the defensive line. Not anymore. Along with those two, Seattle also signed veteran defensive tackle Tony McDaniel, a mountain of a guy who has been a disruptive force inside. Bennett may be the most underrated defensive linemen in the NFL. He has been everything the Seahawks hoped for as a hybrid down linemen who can play end or tackle effectively. He is a relentless, high-motor guy who never takes a play off. Avril is a gifted speed-rusher whose claim to fame is his uncanny ability to knock the ball out of a quarterback's hands and force a fumble, something he has done five times this season and 13 times over the past three years.

Jeff, everyone talks about the matchup between the Seahawks' No. 1 defense against the Broncos' No. 1 offense, but how do you think Denver's defense matches up against Seattle's offense and its power-running game with Lynch?

Legwold: Since Champ Bailey's full return from a left foot injury he originally suffered against the Seahawks in the preseason -- Bailey played in just five games in the regular season and was shut down for several weeks after a failed return in early December -- the team has played far better. It's surrendered 17 or fewer points in each of the past four games, including both playoff wins. And while Denver's numbers, as well as its play at times for that matter, haven't always been pretty, the Broncos do play better out of their base defense.

They will be in their base defense against the Seahawks if Seattle chooses to pound Lynch out of a two-tight-end or two-back set. They inserted a veteran, Lenon, into the middle linebacker spot down the stretch in the base to add some bulk. With Lenon, Nate Irving and Danny Trevathan at linebacker, they have speed to the ball if their defensive end can consistently set the edge. Against some of the power teams they have faced this season, including those with some read-option things in the offense such as Washington and Oakland, the Broncos showed a little more of a 3-4 look on early downs. It will be intriguing if the Seahawks -- seeing the Broncos have done far better in the heavier looks -- try to run against the nickel and dime packages and how the Broncos respond.

Terry, if the Seahawks win, what players beyond Wilson will have had the biggest roles to make it happen?

Blount: Probably the defensive linemen we mentioned earlier: Bennent, Avril and the defensive tackles getting pressure on Manning. If they do, the Legion of Boom will shine and come up with an interception or two that could change the outcome. No matter how well this rugged defense performs, it won't matter unless Wilson can throw effectively. Having receiver Percy Harvin on the field could help, but it really comes down to the same story all season. If Lynch has a punishing day running the ball, someone will be open for a big play in the passing game.

Jeff, if you had to pick one thing that Denver must do to win this game what would it be?

Legwold: Overall, they have to manage the moment. Teams don't win the Super Bowl as they go through all the build-up, but plenty have lost it when they got distracted by the bright lights and attention only to forget why they were in the Super Bowl city in the first place. As Phillips put it: "If guys want to party in New York, New York will still be there next week." But on the field, they have to keep Manning clean, give him some space to work in the pocket and with that their receivers have to play with an edge, fight for both their real estate and the ball.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It is something, if you don’t live on the Front Range of the Rockies, you just might not appreciate.

You might not appreciate how low faith and hope had dipped among one of sports’ most loyal, and underrated fan bases when the 2010 season drew to a close, a dismal 4-12 affair that included Spygate and Josh McDaniels' firing. The Denver Broncos, after all, have a sellout streak that stands at 359 games in all, regular season and playoff games, that dates back decades.

Manning
And yet when owner Pat Bowlen formally introduced John Elway as the team’s top football executive in January 2011, the unfamiliar specter of fan apathy had shown up on the Broncos’ doorstep. Elway then hired John Fox, who led a Tim Tebow-quarterbacked team to an 8-8 finish in 2011, a playoff spot on top of a weak division, even a shocking playoff win over the Pittsburgh Steelers a year after Elway’s hire.

But Elway was still looking for a big piece of the puzzle, the one player who could change everything, who could lift the franchise back into the championship discussion. And the Broncos signed Peyton Manning with the promise from one Hall of Famer, in Elway, to a future Hall of Famer in Manning, that Elway would “do everything I could to make sure Peyton finished his career the same way I finished mine.’’

Elway won back-to-back Super Bowls in his final two seasons with the Broncos.

And many of Manning’s peers in the league said they would have done exactly what Elway did if they had the chance.

As part of a ESPN.com’s NFL Nation Confidential survey of more than 320 players, the question was asked, “If you had to start a team with one player, whom would it be?’’ And Manning was the top vote-getter as the first pick to start a team, with 62 votes (19 percent), ahead of the player who replaced him for the Indianapolis Colts, Andrew Luck, who received 56 votes, and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who received 41 votes.

The signing has been everything Elway, Bowlen, Manning’s teammates and a re-energized fan base had hoped. The Broncos have finished 13-3 in back-to-back seasons and set a new single-season scoring record in 2013 with 606 points.

The team has three 30-touchdown seasons from its quarterbacks all time and Manning now has two of them. And with the power of all those touchdowns, all of those wins, Manning jerseys cover the landscape as if he has spent a decade here. And a popular topic of conversation, often used to fill the idle minutes in drive time locally, is whether or not the Broncos should put him in the team’s Ring of Fame when his career is over.

“He’s Peyton Manning, one of the greatest to ever play the game,’’ cornerback Champ Bailey said. “There’s never been a player like him be a free agent. Of course you go get him because look at what happens when you do get him. He changes everything the minute he walks in the door. That is what a real franchise player is.’’
Peyton ManningTroy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsPeyton Manning owns the single-season record for TD passes, surpassing Tom Brady with No. 51.
HOUSTON -- There are times when history demands a Sharpie.

A little mark, here and there, to make sure things don’t get lost in the shuffle. But along with the third consecutive AFC West title and a first-round postseason bye the Broncos brought with them on their chartered flight Sunday night, there were two pieces of football history.

Two footballs, bearing small notations from Broncos equipment manager Chris Valenti on the laces to label Peyton Manning’s 50th and 51st touchdown passes of the season, were along for the ride.

“And that’s unbelievable," said Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey, after Manning’s four-touchdown day led the Broncos to a 37-13 victory against the Houston Texans. “The guy is in his 16th year. For what this game takes out of you, for what it takes to get yourself ready to perform at the level he performs, to make it into your mid-to-late 30s and to play at the level he is right now, to do what he’s doing, it’s unbelievable. I know everybody sees the numbers and the numbers are records, almost every week a record, but the only people who really appreciate what he’s doing, how he’s doing it, at this stage of his career are probably the people that play. But everybody better enjoy it, because it might be a long time before anybody does anything like this after all he’s been through.’’

It has taken the Broncos almost a year to get from last season’s playoff disappointment to where they are right now. From a double-overtime shocker against the Ravens to what Texans interim head coach Wade Phillips called the “best season ever’’ for a quarterback.

In 15 games, Manning has broken the single-season record for touchdown passes and is 265 yards from tying the single-season record for passing yards, and the Broncos now are 18 points from setting a single-season scoring record.

The Broncos are 28 points from being the league's first 600-point team, and they have five players who have scored at least 10 touchdowns, two 1,000-yard receivers, a 1,000-yard rusher and one medical marvel at quarterback. Manning finished his work Sunday a long way -- something on the order of a football light year -- from a hospital bed with questions swirling in his mind about whether the NFL would still be a part of his life when his recovery had gone as far as it would go.

Asked whether even he would have believed, in those days and weeks immediately following the Sept. 11, 2011, surgery to remove a herniated disc from his spinal cord, that he would throw 51 touchdown passes in a season, Manning said: "No, probably not. I had no real expectations, because I couldn’t really get any doctor, or anyone, to give me some sort of gauge or timetable or strength recovery, and believe me, I asked every question you possibly could. A lot of them said maybe it would come back to this level, it may not, there was definitely some wait and see. ... But it would be hard to say you could have imagined this at that point.’’

It would be hard to imagine for most anyone not named Manning, Brees or Brady, at any point in any year. The record will show Manning finished 32-of-51 passing for 400 yards to go with four touchdowns against the Texans.

It will show it came in a game that was 16-13 earlier in the fourth quarter, a game that was Manning's 12th game of the season with at least 300 yards passing, his fourth game of the season with at least 400 yards passing and his eighth game of the season with at least four touchdown passes.

Or as Bailey put it: “Ridiculous, ridiculous, ridiculous. It just shows you what the guy is made of, what he’s about.’’

The tough part, however, whether the Broncos like it or not, accept it or not, is still coming. They signed Manning, after all, not only to topple some history, but to chase Super Bowl wins and put some additional hardware in the team’s lobby.

And as frustrating as it has been for those who get signed checks from Broncos owner Pat Bowlen to listen to folks continually say nothing else matters, that all-or-nothing mantra lives in the public domain, even as the Broncos have continued to do astounding things on offense that are worthy of appreciation.

There also are lingering questions about the Broncos' defense, questions about the special teams. Questions that grew bigger with a left knee injury to Broncos linebacker Von Miller that many with the team are not optimistic about, as well as a 51-yard return by the Texans, and yet another muffed punt from Denver return man Trindon Holliday.

There also is some slightly unfinished business when the Broncos play for home-field advantage in Oakland next Sunday, a win they will need to force everyone else in the AFC’s playoff field to come chase them around at 5,280 feet.

“Right now it’s about getting ourselves set up just right for the next season, and that’s the playoffs,’’ safety Mike Adams said. “We need to do everything we can to get everything in line for that. Concentrate on Oakland, enjoy this, enjoy what happened [Sunday], but get ready for Oakland. This team knows how to go about it; we’ll get our minds right for what’s to come.’’

But those are questions for another day. For now, for this moment, there are touchdowns and history.

There is the maybe-never-again feel that came with a quarterback’s 51st touchdown pass in a single season. A quarterback with spinal fusion hardware in his neck, a knee brace and an ankle brace.

A quarterback who didn’t know what the future would hold grabbing yet another piece of history.

"My dad [Ron, a retired Navy SEAL] told me a long time ago it's always important to dream dreams and pay the price to make them come true,'' coach John Fox said. "But this is the dream edge of that saying."

“And that’s, like I said, unbelievable,’’ Bailey said. “And he’ll be in there [Monday] getting ready to go for more. I always approach it like that, but when a guy like Peyton does that, that means everybody else has to do it, too. We all need to get ready to go for more.’’

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