NEW YORK – Peyton Manning was talking this week at Super Bowl media day about preparation. He is famously maniacal about it, of course. Motivation has never been much of a concern for the Denver Broncos quarterback.
Still, 16 years into an NFL career, at age 37, with multiple neck surgeries in the past, young children at home and myriad business and spokesman duties, it's natural to slack a little, tempting to think he has it figured out.
"Maybe I was a robot early on," Manning said. "Now, maybe I am a little more human."
Yet if there is one thing that stops him from slipping, Manning said, it's his respect for the man who brought him to Denver after the Indianapolis Colts cut him in 2012. Peyton Manning works for John Elway, who became the franchise's executive vice president of football operations a year earlier.
The two communicate and operate on a level of quarterback excellence that few men alive can match. If anyone can match Manning's skill level, it's Elway. And if anyone can exceed Manning's competitive fire, it's the man who delivered Denver its first of two Super Bowl titles courtesy of an iconic, helicopter spin that delivered a critical first down.
So if there is a chance to cheat the process, even a little, well, Elway is one of the few people who can first recognize it and second call Peyton out on it, although his presence alone does that.
"I don't think John Elway wants a player focused on [things other than football]," Manning said.
The Broncos will seek a third Super Bowl title Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks. The first two were won in the late 1990s with Elway at QB. He'd remain a legend in Colorado even if he didn't become the team's brain trust and made the moves that rejuvenated the franchise of late.
"He might be kind of the most popular guy in our city," Broncos coach John Fox said.
There's no maybe about it. It's tough to be more popular than Peyton Manning right now. Elway does it. His personnel decisions (including ending the Tim Tebow experiment), his eye for talent and his decision to hire Fox have all led the Broncos here. Nothing, however, was bigger than winning the recruiting battle for Manning, who also had the Arizona Cardinals, Tennessee Titans and others after him.
There is more though. Elway cuts an impressive presence around the franchise, one that commands respect from players and without saying a word gets even the most driven to drive a little harder.
"It's pretty cool to see him walk around there," linebacker Wesley Woodyard said. "He's right there in the back scene. We always notice him there."
Elway is 53 yet in many ways the Broncos are still about him. Nowhere is that more obvious than his relationship with Manning, where they can talk legend to legend and the respect runs almost as peers.
"I think that relationship definitely [helps]," Elway said. "I would [have] liked to have somebody that had been in the position running an organization when I was playing quarterback too that had the same mindset. I have never really talked to him about exactly why he chose Denver, but I have a feeling that that was part of the decision."
Manning said it certainly was. He wasn't coming back from neck surgery and risking both more serious injury and the potential humiliation of not being up to his old form just for the fun of it. He was already rich and famous. He already had a Super Bowl. He was already headed to the Hall of Fame.
A second act was about winning another championship. And that's it. Elway presented both the know how and the competitiveness that Manning craves. He wasn't working in the Broncos front office just for kicks – he needed neither the money nor the attention. Elway was there to win also and Manning, who was stunned to get released by the Colts and was looking for not just a team but a home that shared his mindset.
"You can only pick one team to go play for," Manning said. "It reminded me of college somewhat, that you would like to play for a lot of teams. Go play for this team for a year, maybe give this team four or five games and bounce around. It's not the way it works; you have to pick a team."
He chose Denver. He also chose Elway.
"We tried to show him what the Denver Broncos are about, about what our staff was about, what we had to offer, the ability for us to be able to blend our offense to what he's used to doing, and also the young guys we had on the roster but also what the Rocky Mountain region was all about." Elway said. "So I felt really good about our story, and I'm glad that he saw it the same way."
Elway was always a take-charge player, selling out on runs, risking injury for an extra yard, daring to make the impossible throw to win games. He was all in. Mentally nothing has changed and that has rubbed off on everyone.
"I think John Elway would still be playing football if he could physically," Manning said.
Elway found running the operation fills the competitive void, although the nerves, particularly during games, can be worse. "I'm getting better with letting the control go and knowing that there's nothing I can do."
He sees no difference though in wanting to win this Super Bowl as any of the ones where he was under center. There is no wistfulness at getting back on the field. These are his Broncos. This would feel just as much his title. Maybe, in some ways, even more.
"It'd be just as important," Elway said. "I think that to be a part of that and to be on that was a part of putting this whole thing together would be something that's very important and something I'd like to do.
"It's different. Obviously, playing is a lot more physical and much tougher that way, but I think that in my position now it's kind of trying to stay two steps ahead and make decisions on what we have to do in the future. Hopefully they're the right ones."
He said that with the same cool, confidence that defined him as a player – the knowledge that preparation would pay off, both by him and the new/old quarterback he built this around.
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