When John Elway was hired to run the Denver Broncos' football operations, it looked like a move that pandered to a fan base that still loved Elway well after retirement.
The franchise was in sickly shape at the time, ravaged by an unfathomable decision to let Josh McDaniels have complete and total control of the organization in his first coaching job. That should have set the franchise back a decade. Elway, if nothing else, was good PR. People in Denver would never object.
I thought at the time that it might be a bad move. Great players don't always make great executives, and Elway had no NFL front office experience. Ozzie Newsome and Jerry West are among the rare cases of great players becoming great executives; it just doesn't happen that often. But in typical Elway fashion, he willed himself to be one of the best GMs in the NFL. Signing Ryan Clady, one of the NFL's best left tackles, to a deal that benefited both sides before the contract deadline for franchise-tagged players is just another sign of how well he has transitioned to his new job.
The way Elway has completely rebuilt the Broncos in a little more than two years is absolutely remarkable.
What makes Elway's quick rebuild of the Broncos so impressive isn't the very thin track record of top quarterbacks as front office executives – and seriously, the list of well known quarterbacks who have become successful general managers is surprisingly short, especially given how everyone drones on about their leadership skills – it's that he had never done it before.
When he was hired, his front office experience was with the Arena Football League's Colorado Crush. The Crush did win a championship under his control, but that's far from the NFL.
And Elway's playing prowess didn't guarantee anything. Jerry Reese, Ted Thompson, Trent Baalke and John Schneider are among the finest GMs in the league, and none were great players (Thompson played 10 NFL seasons but was never more than a backup). Having a rocket arm and the remarkable athletic ability to escape any situation doesn't mean you can run a draft room.
Elway took over a mess, and at the point he came on the Broncos' status as a top franchise was flimsy. Elway retired after the 1998 season and in the 12 seasons before he was hired, Denver had one division title and one playoff win. And it's easy to forget what a mess McDaniels left. In 2009 and 2010, the Broncos drafted Knowshon Moreno, Robert Ayers, Alphonso Smith, Darcel McBath, Richard Quinn and Tim Tebow in the first or second round. That's a lot of wasted picks. The franchise should still be digging out from that.
Elway immediately put together a pretty strong group for the 2011 season and fueled by Tebow's late-game heroics, the Broncos won a division title and a playoff game, matching what the franchise had done the dozen years before that. Then he was able to deftly move from Tebow to Peyton Manning, and built a championship contender. If Rahim Moore doesn't blow deep coverage against the Ravens, the Broncos obviously had the talent to play in the Super Bowl. Perhaps this season will be the one. Losing Elvis Dumervil on a weird fax snafu was a bad blow, but Elway added receiver Wes Welker, guard Louis Vasquez, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and what appears to be another solid draft class to put the Broncos in good position. Under Elway the Broncos kept the right veterans from the previous regime, quickly moved on from other mistakes and made smart additions. The recent DUI embarrassments of front office personnel Tom Heckert and Matt Russell put a bit of a damper on the offseason, but expect the franchise to dole out some punishments and keep its focus on the field.
Elway has put together a team that is as good as any in the NFL. Once again, he has put the Denver Broncos on his back.