By Ryan Chatelain
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Peyton Manning and Cam Newton dominated the storylines leading up to Super Bowl 50 and since. And it’s a shame the man most responsible for the Denver Broncos’ world title got overshadowed in the process.
John Elway, of course, is most recognized as being a Hall of Fame quarterback, but the job he has been doing over the last five years as Denver’s vice president of football operations might be just as impressive as when he was slinging passes to Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey.
Do you wonder why the Super Bowl 50 version of the Broncos looked nothing like the team that got its teeth kicked in at the big game in New Jersey two years earlier? Because with the exception of Manning and a handful of other key players, it really wasn’t.
The great 2015 Broncos defense was a perfect storm of draft-pick hits entering their primes and big-time free agent additions, many of whom came along since that 43-8 shellacking at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks in MetLife Stadium.
That following offseason, Elway went out and snagged proven free agent standouts in cornerback Aqib Talib, defensive end DeMarcus Ware and safety T.J. Ward. A year later, he signed starting safety Darian Stewart.
Meanwhile, the seeds Elway planted in the draft years earlier were blossoming. In 2011, linebacker Von Miller became Elway’s first-ever draft choice, and he was an instant star. Miller has been selected to four Pro Bowls and was named Super Bowl 50’s MVP after recording 2½ sacks and forcing two fumbles that led to 15 of the Broncos’ 24 points.
In 2012, Elway drafted defensive end Derek Wolfe, defensive end Malik Jackson and linebacker Danny Trevathan, all key players today.
On the offensive side of the ball, in 2014 he landed Emmanuel Sanders, who has 177 receptions for 2,539 yards over the past two seasons.
Just last offseason, he took the Broncos’ offensive line, at the time its biggest detriment, and converted it into a formidable unit by adding three new starters — free agent acquisitions Ryan Harris and Evan Mathis, and rookie center Matt Paradis.
And if Elway wasn’t already hitting enough home runs, he uncovered a gem in 2013 when he signed linebacker Brandon Marshall (102 tackles this past season), who had been cut three times by the Jaguars, and struck it big with undrafted rookies-turned-Pro Bowlers Chris Harris and C.J. Anderson.
And, of course, Elway hit the mother lode when he won the Manning sweepstakes in March 2012.
The Broncos’ march to a world championship was even more impressive because it was such a departure from the blueprint used by other recent Super Bowl champs. Teams such as the New England Patriots, New York Giants, Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers aren’t exactly known for their free agency spending sprees, placing more emphasis on the draft and the “next man up” philosophy.
Elway, however, did it his way, and it worked. Under his leadership, Denver found that perfect balance of homegrown talent and plug-in-the-hole free agents.
And in this fantasy football-crazy world, what Elway pulled together in free agency might not seem all that impressive on the surface to everyday fans. After all, anyone who watches football knew guys like Ware and Talib could play, right? But for so many teams, it rarely works out that way.
Remember the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles? In one offseason, they added Nnamdi Asomugha, Jason Babin, Cullen Jenkins and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Vince Young nicknamed them the “Dream Team.” They finished 8-8.
Pundits were calling the Tampa Bay Buccaneers “free agency winners” in 2014 after they landed quarterback Josh McCown, offensive tackle Anthony Collins, defensive end Michael Johnson, cornerback Alterraun Verner and others. They have eight victories in the two years since.
Elway, on the other hand? He has rarely missed on his signings.
He is the kind of front-office presence the typical NFL fan craves for his or her team. Elway is aggressive, and even when things seem to be working, he’s always looking for ways to upgrade.
Many general managers wouldn’t have had the gall to pull the plug on the then-popular Tim Tebow after his 316 passing yards led his team to a playoff win in 2011. But Elway did.
Most wouldn’t have jettisoned coach John Fox after three consecutive playoff seasons, including a trip to the Super Bowl. Elway did.
Most wouldn’t have given their roster a significant makeover just weeks after coming up one win shy of the ultimate goal. Elway did.
And those moves all proved to be instrumental in paving the path to Sunday’s Super Bowl triumph.
Yet Elway doesn’t get the credit he’s due. No disrespect to Jets GM Mike Maccagnan, who did a fine job in Year 1 in New York, but it’s baffling that he already has an NFL Executive of the Year award and Elway doesn’t.
Elway now has a different kind of challenge ahead of him: Can he keep the franchise on the right track if Manning indeed retires and after other teams come to poach his top free agents? (The contracts of Miller, Jackson, Trevathan, Mathis and Harris are all expiring.)
But judging by the golden touch he has shown thus far, it would be foolish to count out Elway and the Broncos.
Follow Ryan on Twitter at @ryanchatelain