SUPER BOWL 50: BRONCOS (14-4) VS. PANTHERS (17-1) 5:30 p.m. Feb. 7 • CBS Levi's Stadium, San Francisco
If Peyton Manning soon has the option to pull a John Elway and end a Hall of Fame-bound quarterbacking career in the glorious aftermath of a Super Bowl victory, it will be because Elway provided him with a team capable of making it happen.
Almost all of the talk in the Broncos' locker room following their dramatic win over the New England Patriots in the AFC title game on Sunday was about Manning beating his nemesis, Tom Brady, to return to the Super Bowl and about the defense that made it happen.
But few people in the room deserved more credit than the quarterback already enshrined in Canton who stood near the locker room exit, smiling broadly and chatting with reporters while wearing one freshly earned AFC championship cap and holding a handful of others.
"I think the big thing is we've got to win it," Elway said. "It's gonna be a tremendous add to Peyton's legacy but also to the Broncos' legacy, too. I think it's important we've given ourselves an opportunity, and so hopefully we've saved our best for last."
Elway was one of the greatest quarterbacks ever, and he's made a successful transition to the front office. It was Elway who took the risk of signing Manning following the series of neck surgeries that ended Manning's long stay with the Indianapolis Colts and put his career in doubt.
"He's doing a great job. He's staying in the now and appreciating every game and every play that he gets to play."
Former QB John Elway on Peyton Manning
And it was Elway who, following the Broncos' one-and-done playoff exit last season, made the equally risky decision to oust a very good coach, John Fox, and replace him with Gary Kubiak, once Elway's backup in Denver.
Manning's transition into Kubiak's offensive system — or, rather, the offensive system that Kubiak cobbled together from his own system and Manning's preferred mode of operation — was far from seamless. Manning showed his age and struggled even before getting hurt, finishing the regular season with nine touchdown passes and 17 interceptions.
But Kubiak showed a deft touch in going to young quarterback Brock Osweiler and then switching back to Manning, reinserting him in the final game of the regular season and naming him the starter for the postseason. The result put Manning in his fourth career Super Bowl, and he and the Broncos are in the big game for the second time in three seasons.
Score another one for Elway the football executive, who was asked Sunday if the Super Bowl trip validated his coaching move.
"I'll let you answer that," said Elway, the Broncos' executive vice president of football operations and general manager. "The bottom line is I know Gary, and he knows what it takes. He's done a tremendous job this year with a team that when he came in here had won a lot of football games. So to be able to come in and get us back to that Super Bowl, the way that he's done that has been tremendous. Like I said, there's not a better guy for the job that could have done a better job than Gary's done this year."
Perhaps no one can relate better to what Manning is experiencing than Elway, who retired after the second of two straight Broncos Super Bowl victories.
"I guess having been there and been through it, I can understand what he's going through," Elway said. "He's doing a great job. He's staying in the now and appreciating every game and every play that he gets to play. So it's nice to be able to go back to the Super Bowl, and hopefully we can end this year on a good note."
Manning has not tipped his hand on whether he plans to retire after the Super Bowl, but he contemplated it last offseason before opting to return for another year and, to a degree, start over with a new coaching staff. There were times this season when it certainly appeared that Manning had hung on for one year too many.
Few would have guessed when Osweiler took over while Manning was rehabilitating his ailing foot that if the Broncos managed to reach the Super Bowl, Manning would be the quarterback to lead them.
"I think we've seen that resilience his whole career," Elway said. "You look at what he's done and what he's come back from — even four years ago, coming back off the neck. That's made him what he is, the resilience that he does have. He's a great competitor, and he keeps coming back. ... Obviously he's worked hard to get back. He understands where he is and what we're trying to do offensively. He's always been a great game manager, but I think even more so now."
Elway was asked if he senses Manning appreciates this AFC title and Super Bowl trip more.
"I think anybody does the older they get," Elway said. "You never know. Obviously he's been doing it for a long, long time. We'll get through this last one and see what he wants to do for next year, but I think any time as a player you've been around as long as he has, you appreciate these type of wins."
Manning threw a pair of first half touchdown passes Sunday to tight end Owen Daniels, but the Denver offense did next to nothing after halftime and the league's top-ranked defense took it from there. The Broncos recorded 20 quarterback hits on Brady, sacked him four times and intercepted a 2-point conversion pass in the final seconds to preserve a 20-18 lead.
"It's kind of how the year has gone," Elway said. "Our defense has made so many great plays throughout the whole year and really saved us, and they did it again (Sunday) against a great, great team and a great quarterback in Tom Brady."
Overseeing it all was the once great quarterback turned pretty fair GM.
"It's a lot more nerve-racking watching in the booth than it is playing," Elway said. "When you get out there, you're not thinking about nearly as many things. But you know what? So much confidence in our defense. They came through and made great, great plays again. So it was a lot of fun. I'm really happy for this team. I'm happy for Gary and his staff. Like I said, we've got halfway there. Now that we're going, we've got one other team that we've got to beat."