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Elway’s last NFL act was all the difference in Manning’s decision

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The continuation of a beautiful friendship. (AP)

Peyton Manning considered many different aspects when it came time to decide which team would have his services through the end of his estimable career. Personal and professional alignment with the front office and coaching staff, the ability to win now, the level of control he'd have over the offense, and yes, money -- many things went into Manning's final decision. All three teams at the finish line -- the Denver Broncos, San Francisco 49ers and Tennessee Titans -- had these things in abundance.

[Dan Wetzel: Tim Tebow not good enough for John Elway, Broncos]

But the one thing that only the Broncos could bring to the table for Manning was the opportunity to work with John Elway, a man who enjoyed his most meaningful seasons when he was older than Manning is now. In 1997 and 1998, when he was 37 and 38 years old, Elway ended his Super Bowl victory drought by winning back-to-back championships with great players around him. Elway's competitiveness, internal fire, and historic excellence put him on a level few in the NFL will ever truly understand.

Fortunately for John Elway the football executive, Peyton Manning was able to relate perfectly to John Elway the quarterback.

"Certainly I have had a relationship with John and it goes back a long way, but I've seen John now in a different role," Manning said at the Tuesday press conference announcing his decision. "I've always seen him as a quarterback, never had to play against him, but that's always the role I saw him as. Now I've seen him as a leader of a franchise and I really like what he had to say. Everyone knows what kind of competitor he is as a player, and I can tell he is just as competitive in this new role. That got me excited."

Specifically, Elway's ability to relate to Manning's desire to do better than ever at the end of his career played a big part. "I think certainly John knows what it's like to play quarterback at the ages of 35 and 36 and so certainly that helps," Manning said. "There's no question that it's going to be a team process. Everybody has to do their role and I have to do my role. I accept great responsibility in being the best player I can be to help this team win, but I'm going to use the resources around me and I will need their help. I was telling John Elway and coach [John] Fox and all the other teammates I'm looking forward to getting to know and coach [Mike] McCoy and coach [Adam] Gase. It's going to be a team effort, that's the only way this thing is going to get done."

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Manning and Elway at the 2006 Pro Bowl Skills challenge. (AP)

Certainly, the esteem flowed both ways between the all-timers. Elway had nothing but praise when asked whether he thought Manning was ahead of him on the all-time list of NFL quarterbacks.

"Is he ahead of me yet? That is for you guys to decide," Elway said. "I know one thing, he has a hell of a lot more yards than I ever had [and] he has more touchdowns. The thing is, we are in the conversation. I would like to get to the place where he is the best of all time."

The competitiveness common to both men created an alignment no other team could match, but in the end, it was most likely Elway's ability to understand where Manning is in his career. Going into the 15th year of his career, Manning is trying to recover from a series of neck surgeries and nerve impingements that would have many bowing out for good.

Elway understands playing through different kinds of pain. He persisted through a long blood feud with head coach Dan Reeves that very nearly had him traded to the Washington Redskins in the early 1990s. He played through three heartbreaking Super Bowl losses, and he played through the wild-card loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars that ended Denver's 1996 season and had Elway on the verge of giving up. That the next year would initiate the two best seasons Elway could possibly have imagined seemed out of the question at the time.

Few if any in the NFL are more qualified to understand Manning's desperate need for a best last chance.

"One of the conversations when Peyton was here the first time on his first visit, we went to Cherry Hills and were sitting there talking about it," Elway said. "I could tell that anytime you go through as a quarterback, you go through one place—I put myself in his shoes, if I was a Denver Bronco and after 14 years, I was no longer with the Broncos and I was going to go play somewhere else. I felt that a little bit when I retired, that all of a sudden you lose that separation.

[Related: Alex Smith returns to 49ers after team flirts with Peyton Manning]

"The difference between retirement and what Peyton went through is that he was going to be able to go forward, but I understood where he was coming from in the fact that it had to shock his body. When you are planning on being in one place for your whole career, like I'm sure he wanted to be in Indianapolis his whole career because of what he created there and then the circumstances arose where that couldn't happen.

"I told Peyton, 'Take your time. We are going to do the best that we can. We are going to be here and we hope it's us, but if not, we have a plan. Get comfortable with the decision and make sure you pick the right place for Peyton Manning.' Obviously we are selfish and wanted him to be a Denver Bronco but the bottom line is it was less selfish to want Peyton to pick the right place for him because of what he did for the NFL as a whole, not only as a football player but as a human being."

Elway's gift for reconciling Manning the football player and Manning the human being may very well have been the tiebreaker. While Elway sees the greatest quarterback ever to play the game in Manning's past, present and future, he can also do the same by looking in the mirror.

Therefore, he could look Manning square in the eye without a metaphorical stepladder, tell him what his remaining career could be through personal experience, and complete the sale with no hype and nothing but the truth.

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