John Elway has taken a lot of criticism in recent years. And to some extent, it’s been justifiable.
After all, the Broncos have been 27-37 since winning Super Bowl 50, missing the playoffs in all four years. They’ve also suffered through three-straight losing seasons for the first time since 1970-72, an era that predates a large percentage of the current fan base.
Some, if not a large portion, of the blame for this poor play has to go to the man who is building the roster. That’s fair.
But yesterday, as Elway celebrated his 60th birthday, one thought kept recurring. The Mile High City has sure been lucky to have No. 7 be a part of the sports landscape for most of the past 37 years.
Since the day the Broncos traded for Elway in the spring of 1983, Denver has never been the same. Ever since, the city has been “big league,” being relevant to people on the coasts and in other major towns.
It started on the playing field, of course, where Elway was a Hall of Fame quarterback during his 16 years in a Broncos uniform. During that time, he turned the franchise into a perennial winner.
At the time No. 7 arrived, the team had been to the postseason a grand total of three times and won the AFC West twice in 23 years. In those playoff appearances, they had only won two games, both at the end of the 1977 season when they earned a trip to Super Bowl XII.
In Elway’s 16 years, the Broncos went to the playoffs 10 times, won the AFC West on seven occasions, played in six AFC Championship Games, appeared in five Super Bowls and won two Lombardi Trophies. To say he transformed the franchise is as grand of an understatement as anyone could possibly make.
But it wasn’t just in the win-loss column that Elway made a difference. He was also a bona fide star, a celebrity outside of his home city. Never in the history of the franchise, or any other that called Denver home, had any athlete become a national figure, let alone someone that was identifiable on the international stage. No. 7 was the first to reach that status.
He was known from coast to coast for his rocket right arm, highlight-reel plays, fourth-quarter comebacks and clutch performances. He was the first Denver-based athlete who couldn’t walk down the streets of Chicago, Los Angeles, New York or Tokyo without being mobbed by fans.
That might not sound important, but it played a key role in the Broncos franchise, as well as the city as a whole, graduating to the next level. It made Denver a place that NFL players wanted to play, something that had never been the case. It put the city regularly on national television, which served as free marketing for the chamber of commerce. All of that helped elevate the status of the city.
Without Elway, there’s a good chance the Rockies don’t exist. Without No. 7, there’s a strong possibility that the Avalanche never move to town. He helped establish Denver as a great sports city, which led to every league, both big and small, wanting to place teams here by the 1990s.
By 2011, however, that was starting to fade a bit. The Broncos were in the midst of a down period. The Avs were no longer a powerhouse in the NHL. Save for one great run in 2007, the Rockies were a perennial also-ran. And the Nuggets were reeling from their best player leaving town because the city wasn’t big enough for his brand.
That’s when Elway stepped in and saved the day again. When Pat Bowlen brought him back to become the team’s general manager after the 2010 season, he was stepping into a dire situation.
The Broncos were coming off of the disastrous Josh McDaniels era, which concluded with a 4-12 season; that was the most losses the franchise had ever suffered in a year. They also were coming off of their fifth-straight season of missing the playoffs, the longest drought since 1977.
In other words, the team was a mess. And in short order, Elway fixed it.
During his first few months on the job, he drafted Von Miller, who will go down as the greatest defensive player in the history of the franchise. He also hired John Fox, a coach who would help them right the ship.
During their first season together, Elway and Fox would preside over one of the most magical seasons in Broncos history. Yes, it was Tim Tebow who was pulling rabbits out of his hat on the field, but it was the general manager and the head coach who were willing to let him on the stage, abandoning their system in the middle of the season in favor of a college-based offense.
That 8-8 season, as well as the team’s upset of the Steelers in the playoffs, led to the next big moment in franchise history. They set the stage for Elway landing the greatest free agent of all-time, as that season provided evidence that Denver had a good foundation, which was what Peyton Manning was looking for when picking his new home.
With Manning, the Broncos would win four AFC West titles, advance to two Super Bowls, field the greatest offense in the history of the league and win the franchise’s third Lombardi Trophy. To get that title, however, Elway would once again have to prove his greatness.
After getting blown out by the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII, No. 7 transformed the roster in two years. By the time Super Bowl 50 rolled around, the Broncos had gone from a finesse, offense-based team to one of the most-dominant defenses in NFL history. That was because Elway was willing to pivot.
How many other executives would’ve done that after coming off of a season in which the team’s offense set record after record? How many other general managers would make that call with one of the greatest quarterbacks in league history on the roster? How many other people in football would do a 180 with a team that had just played in the Super Bowl?
Elway was willing to do it because he’s one of the most-competitive people to ever grace the American sports landscape. Getting close wasn’t good enough. It was always about winning with No. 7. And that’s why he’s been such a blessing to the city of Denver.
That personality trait made him unbelievably fun to watch on the field, while also making him a quarterback that could lead his team to great heights. It also has made him a great executive, someone that is willing to do anything and everything it takes to build a winner.
Sometimes, that rubs people the wrong way. And on occasion, it causes mistakes to be made. But the motivation has never been questioned. At every turn, there’s never been a doubt that Elway is all about winning.
Think about other sports cities who have never had the pleasure of witnessing that kind of mindset firsthand. Heck, think about other franchises in Denver that could benefit from that type of mentality being instilled by an executive or a player.
Since 1983, Broncos fans have been fortunate enough to have the consummate winner on their side. That doesn’t mean it always works out, but it means the franchise is always striving to be on top and has a legitimate shot of getting there.
That’s why everyone in the city should be thankful that John Elway has called Denver home since 1983. And they should be hoping he continues to do so for many more years to come.
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