John Elway creating second legacy

John Elway has quickly established himself in Denver as one of the game's top executives. AP Photo/Ric Tapia

JERSEY CITY, N.J. – John Elway is not a faux figurehead. He is not a man with an unused office. He is not an absentee executive vice president of football operations for the Denver Broncos.

No. Elway is all-in. He is in charge. The Broncos are his team.

For weeks, Peyton Manning's legacy has been dissected and discussed, as if Manning has not done enough over the course of a 16-year career in which he has won a Super Bowl and four NFL MVP awards. This season he set every significant passing record, and he is in line to increase his record MVP total to five.

It is a topic that drives Elway nuts, probably because there were nagging questions about Elway's legacy that he quieted only after he won two Super Bowls to close his career.

With a win over Seattle on Sunday, Manning can silence the ludicrous talk about his legacy. It will be set. But the more intriguing question is what a Super Bowl victory as the Broncos' lead executive would mean for Elway's legacy. What if Elway wins another Lombardi Trophy in just his third year leading Denver owner Pat Bowlen's team? What then?

Elway could go down as one of the most brilliant minds in the game. He would become the only man to win a Super Bowl MVP trophy as a player and a Super Bowl as a top team executive. Ozzie Newsome was a Hall of Famer as a player and has presided over the Baltimore Ravens' two Super Bowl-winning teams, but he never played in the game itself.

Elway picked Newsome's brain after taking the Broncos job. Elway also did not misplace his ego but did what was in the best interest of his franchise, even if it impacted his own legacy as a player. Instead of worrying about his past, Elway looked to the Broncos' present and future.

Elway hired John Fox, reshuffled the front office, brought in people he trusted and let them do their jobs, and was unafraid to make tough decisions. Elway built the majority of this Broncos team through a concerted effort to draft defensive players and fill holes with relatively inexpensive, yet experienced, free agents.

Elway set the culture and the tone, and, of course, Elway signed Manning. Elway was the big draw for Manning, the main attraction.

And look at the Broncos now.

"I'm thrilled I can try to make Peyton the best of all time," Elway told me on Wednesday morning. "Maybe for my legacy that's not the best thing, but that's what I want to do.

"My career is my career and this is my next career, and I want to make this next career as good as my first career. The way that's going to happen is if we make Peyton Manning be the best he can possibly be."

When I suggested that winning a Super Bowl as an executive with Manning as the quarterback would only enhance his legacy, instead of detract from it, Elway said: "I would hope so, yeah. That's the way I look at it. ... I am not worried about my legacy, because I plan on being good at this, too."

And boy has he been.

The signature move Elway made was signing Manning. He did it by avoiding the temptation to deliver the hard sell. Elway looked at it from Manning's perspective. When Manning arrived in Denver on March 9, 2012, he was still in shock at being cut by the Colts. He was still sad.

Elway explained to Manning all the positives Denver had to offer as an organization, but he also offered Manning advice: Before Manning committed to his future, he needed to reconcile his past. He had to let Indianapolis go.

That would take time, and Elway, to his credit, backed away. He didn't call or text Manning. He didn't breathe down his neck. He gave Manning the space he needed, knowing that if you push a person like Manning against his will, you will lose him forever.

"I wanted to make sure we never got to the point where he said, 'I'm not going there,' before he said, 'I am going there,'" Elway said.

Manning said he appreciated that Elway told him the Broncos would operate "at your time." At the same time, Manning said he would not have minded if Elway had been "calling me to check in."

"That's not really John's nature to kind of stalk someone, if you will," Manning said. "John goes at his pace."

And therein lies another intricacy of what makes Elway so strong. He is the alpha dog in Denver. He is Mr. Bronco. In maybe only one other franchise – New England – could someone supersede Manning and make him No. 2 in the organization.

That's the force of Elway.

He showed the power of his voice in August after the Broncos lost a preseason game to Seattle 40-10. Still frustrated after losing to Baltimore at home in the playoffs the previous January after going 13-3 in the regular season, Elway addressed the team for the first time Manning could remember and, as Manning said, "laid it on us."

"As I looked at my board sitting in my office, there's no way that this team should ever be getting beat 40-10," Elway said. "So it's not the talent. It's the mentality they're taking. So therefore, the mentality is if you accept getting beat 40-10, I don't care if it's preseason or not, then we're not going to be where we want to be. You cannot accept games like this. If it is OK, then we won't be world champions. If this is not OK, then we've got a chance."

Manning said players and coaches got the message.

And here they are on the verge of the franchise's first Super Bowl since Elway was under center.

Elway acknowledged that he would be nervous the night before the game, but not as nervous as he would have been even a year ago.

"When I can't control things, I don't get nearly as nervous, because I find it fruitless," Elway said. "My stomach churns, but when I can't do anything about it, I just have to sit there and hope."

The thing is, Elway has done everything but take the field. He has built a successful team. He has made the hard calls. He has gotten the Broncos to the point that, from now on, they can draft the best player on the board instead of having to draft for need.

And Elway has done it all by being present. A faux figurehead would have been exposed. Elway is on the verge of being celebrated as one of the greatest football men of all time.