Shanahan was jettisoned at the end of 2008 and Josh McDaniels hired to take the reins — not just as head coach but also as the man making the final personnel decisions. Two brutal seasons later, Owner Pat Bowlen made arguably the best decision of his NFL career and hired John Elway to serve as GM and V.P. of Football Operations.
Elway had to learn on the job — with the front office help of Brian Xanders — but the Broncos quickly got back into the winning groove with Tim Tebow quarterbacking the team. Five Division crowns, two AFC Championships and one World Championship later, Elway’s stamp on the team — even from on high — has been tremendous.
He defied the odds and the naysayers who didn’t think he belonged in an NFL front office. And Broncos Country has reaped the rewards.
Since 2011, Elway has led the Broncos to the third-best winning percentage in the league. That’s saying something, considering Denver’s 14-18 record over the last two years. But that’s what happens when you lose a Hall-of-Fame QB.
With training camp just a couple weeks away, what better time than now to look back on Elway’s seven seasons as Denver’s front-office czar and list the 10 moves that catapulted him into the NFL stratosphere? From draft picks, to free agent signings, to coaching hires, let’s take a look at the 10 hardest decisions that’s made Elway’s front-office career such a resounding success.
1. HIRING JOHN FOX
What? John Fox as a positive move, let alone in the top-10 for John Elway? Absolutely. Let me tell you why.
Elway’s first decision after rejoining the Broncos centered around who would coach the team moving forward. Coming off the megalomaniacal reign of Josh McDaniels, the Broncos needed a steady hand at head coach.
Fox had coached in the NFL for decades and had led a Carolina Panthers team to the Super Bowl in 2003, without the aid of a bonafide franchise quarterback. That’s no slight on Jake Delhomme, but let’s face it, he wasn’t exactly Tom Brady.
Fox was a defensive-minded coach, which seemed at odds with Elway’s forte, but with both Shanahan and McDaniels having been offensive guys, it was a much-needed change in mindset. Fox quickly transformed the Broncos into a mentally tough, hard-nosed squad who would go on to defy the odds in 2011.
2. DRAFTING VON MILLER
Elway’s second big decision was what to do with the No. 2 overall pick the Broncos had earned by virtue of McDaniels’ 4-12 finish the season before. The 2011 class was stacked, and Elway’s options were replete with blue-chippers. It seemed like a real Sophie’s Choice at the time.
But when Cam Newton went No. 1 overall to Carolina, Elway turned in the draft card for Von Miller. The impact Miller would go on to have during Elway’s first seven years was vast, and without him, the Broncos don’t bring home the hardware in Super Bowl 50, let alone get there.
The only year Miller hasn’t earned dual Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors was 2013 — the season plagued by suspension and a torn ACL. Beyond that, Miller has been the epitome of dominant and a true star.
Elway had to get that pick right, and with the help of Brian Xanders, he clearly made the right decision.
3. SIGNING CHRIS HARRIS, JR.
Chris Harris, Jr. never heard his name called on Draft Day, but the Broncos made him a priority college free agent target afterwards. Likely a lot of the Harris credit goes also to Brian Xanders, who was the impetus behind the team’s scouting of the 2011 class.
He might not have even been invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, but Harris quickly made his presence felt in Broncos training camp. He went from being just another no-name long-shot rookie to a member of the active roster, to playing starter’s snaps in Denver’s nickel package alongside Champ Bailey.
By the time his second year was over, Harris had made a name for himself as one of the best nickel cornerbacks in the NFL. Two years after that, there was no question — Harris established himself as the best inside cover artist and one of the premier overall cornerbacks in the league.
The brainchild behind the ‘No Fly Zone’ moniker, Harris is now the face of the unit. With three Pro Bowl berths and three All-Pro nods under his belt, along with a Super Bowl ring, Harris’ pro path already has him bound for Denver’s Ring of Fame.
4. SIGNING PEYTON MANNING
It was surreal when the Indianapolis Colts released Peyton Manning — a four-time NFL MVP — at the end of the 2011 season. Coming off multiple neck surgeries and an entirely missed season, there were real questions as to whether Manning would ever be the same player again.
When he made it clear that his playing days weren’t yet behind him and declared his intention to go on a free agent tour, very few in Broncos Country truly believed Manning would consider Denver, let alone choose them. However, Elway saw the opportunity for what it was, despite the fact that the Broncos seemed to have momentum with Tim Tebow coming out of 2011’s modest successes.
With the blessing of Pat Bowlen, Elway aggressively pursued and landed Manning — the biggest free agent in the history of the NFL. Their shared history as prolific quarterbacks, and the blueprint Elway had in mind for the aging signal-caller made all the difference in Manning’s decision.
The next four years with Manning under center would be arguably the most successful in Broncos history, from purely a winning perspective. The Broncos won double-digit games each year, crushed the AFC West and went to two Super Bowls, winning one.
Manning’s record-breaking 2013 season will stand in the NFL annals for years to come. His 5,477 passing yards and 55 touchdowns set the new records, as the Broncos would go on to score 606 points, also a new record. Manning’s yards mark will likely be soon broken. The TDs will stand for some time.
Manning won his fifth MVP award and his second World Championship as a Bronco. His arrival catapulted the Broncos into the NFL stratosphere and will go down as one of the most remarkable eras in league history.
5. 2012 DRAFT CLASS
This might be like cheating a bit, but Elway’s 2012 Draft class, while not perfect, would go on to have an enormous impact on Denver’s two subsequent trips to the Super Bowl. Three key defenders, one of whom is still indispensable to the club, came out of this class.
Defensive linemen Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson were drafted in the second and fifth rounds, respectively, while linebacker Danny Trevathan in the sixth. All three would go on to start in Super Bowl 50 and play a huge role in the defensive renaissance that accompanied Denver’s third World Championship.
And even though it felt like Brock Osweiler was a wasted second-round pick for three-plus years, without him, the Broncos don’t make it to the playoffs in 2015, let alone win the AFC West and the Conference one-seed, which gave Denver home-field advantage over the New England.
6. 2014 FREE AGENT CLASS
Again, this one constitutes multiple moves but was one overarching priority on the part of John Elway. On the heels of getting embarrassed in Super Bowl XLVIII, despite fielding the greatest offense the NFL had ever seen, Elway stuck his foot in the ground and turned the Broncos 180 degrees.
Impressed by the Seattle Seahawks, Elway would prioritize defensive prowess, as epitomized by the 2014 free agent class. Elway signed outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward, all three of whom would go on to completely reshape the core of Denver’s team.
It took a year, and the right defensive coach to get the most out of them, but in the next four years, these three players would combine for seven Pro Bowl nods and a World Championship.
7. FIRING JOHN FOX
That’s right. John Fox makes this list twice. Just as he was the steady hand needed to provide stability early on in Elway’s tenure, he eventually grew stagnant in the role under the increased expectations of the Peyton Manning era.
After leading the Broncos to four consecutive Division titles and four straight postseason berths, it was no easy thing to move on from Fox. But Elway is uniquely visionary and headstrong and could see that the Broncos had peaked under Fox’s leadership.
Fox was ‘mutually’ dismissed at the end of the 2014 season after the Broncos were embarrassed at home in the Divisional Round of the playoffs by the Indianapolis Colts. But there’s no question he helped Elway dramatically turn the ship around in Denver.
8. HIRING GARY KUBIAK
With four years under his belt, Elway entered the 2015 offseason with a clear vision for the Broncos in mind. He knew the blueprint from his last few years as a player, and the guy he always pined for to be the head coach of the Broncos was suddenly available.
Gary Kubiak had been fired as the Texans head coach during the 2013 season, and spent 2014 as Baltimore’s offensive coordinator. The opportunity to focus strictly on offense — and not have the burden of running an entire team — seemed to rejuvenate the ailing Kubiak.
Elway knew the Peyton Manning clock was ticking and there was only so much sand left in the hourglass. Kubiak arrived in Denver and completely reshaped the Broncos offense, taking the control out of Manning’s hands.
At first Manning was a fish out of water, playing from under center and quarterbacking a run-first offensive attack. But he bought into Kubiak’s ‘Iron Sharpens Iron’ mantra and the end result was victory in Super Bowl 50.
The road there was fraught with obstacles, and Kubiak made several tough, controversial decisions during the season, but his steady hand and experience were just what the doctor ordered. Elway’s vision was made a reality as he hoisted the Lombardi Trophy and proclaimed, “This one’s for Pat!” at Levi’s Stadium.
Elway made good on his recruitment promise to Manning, and he has Gary Kubiak to thank for it.
9. HIRING WADE PHILLIPS (INSTEAD)
The funny thing is, Wade Phillips wasn’t Elway and Kubiak’s first choice for defensive coordinator in 2015. It was Vance Joseph.
But the football fates had something else in store for the Broncos, as Cincinnati blocked Joseph’s job offer. Phillips was hired instead, and it was a match made in football heaven.
Jack Del Rio had done a good job coordinating the Broncos defense, but he couldn’t quite get the unit over the hump, despite the bevy of Pro Bowl talent Elway infused the team with in 2014. Phillips was able to take those same pieces and mastermind one of the greatest defenses in the history of the NFL.
His savvy as a play-caller was on full display during Denver’s romp through the playoffs, as he vanquished quarterbacks named Roethlisberger, Brady and Newton — the reigning league MVP. Finally, after three-plus decades of coaching in the NFL, Wade won a Super Bowl ring, fully cementing the legacy of his father, Bum Phillips.
Again, Phillips might not have been Elway’s first choice, but he was the right one.
10. LETTING OSWEILER WALK
John Elway tried to keep Brock Osweiler. Coming off Super Bowl 50, Manning retired and it seemed that Osweiler’s destiny of becoming the next franchise QB in Denver would be a reality.
Osweiler proved his worth during Denver’s stretch run with Manning recovering from a foot injury, but that success also inflated his value — and his ego. During the 2015 season, when he was leading the Broncos to tough wins, his future never really seemed in doubt.
As a 2012 second-rounder, he patiently bided his time behind Manning for almost four full seasons, and when his number was called, he dutifully executed his responsibilities. But when Kubiak benched him late in the season, it stuck in his craw.
Houston came calling when free agency opened and what seemed like a sure-thing for Elway suddenly was cast into doubt. Elway waded into the bidding war, going so far as to offer Osweiler $16 million per year to stay in Denver.
But Elway had his limits. When Houston offered $18 million, Elway had to step back and let his protege of sorts defect to the AFC South. Although it was unclear at the time, Elway made the right decision, as Osweiler would go on to flounder in Houston.
By the time the Broncos got him back, he was a different player, or maybe the real Osweiler had finally revealed himself. Either way, he certainly wasn’t the franchise QB Elway thought he had it in him to become.
Backing out of the Osweiler sweepstakes turned out to be a blessing in disguise and one of the best decisions Elway has made as Denver’s GM.