The phone rang, and when Ernie Accorsi answered, a familiar voice was on the line. It was John Elway.
Accorsi and Elway's relationship goes back decades and has morphed and shifted and intersected at different points in NFL history. It started when Accorsi was the general manager of the Baltimore Colts and Elway refused to play there. Shifted again when Accorsi ran the Cleveland Browns and The Drive changed both of their lives.
On this day two years ago, Elway was seeking Accorsi's counsel. The conversation was instructive because it showed the early beginnings of Elway's mindset as he continued his transformation from a Hall of Fame player to an Arena Football League executive to the top personnel spot with the Broncos and now to the Super Bowl, as he is on the verge of making a unique kind of history.
When Elway and Accorsi spoke, the Broncos had just hired Elway to be the team's vice president of football operations. Elway had questions for Accorsi. Lots of them, and since Accorsi was as smart a team executive as Elway was a player, the two men had a detailed talk. Then there were more talks. And emails. And talks again.
Fairly quickly, something became clear to Accorsi—who has been a part of the NFL for over four decades—as it did when he hired Ozzie Newsome, another Hall of Fame player who would eventually run the Baltimore Ravens.
"Like Ozzie, it didn't take me long to perceive that (Elway) had a special talent for this," Accorsi said in an interview with Bleacher Report. "I really think that his experience running the Arena League club, where he had to do everything, really helped prepare him."
What Accorsi also noticed was that, early on, Elway had deciphered a piece of knowledge that had buried other superstar players who found that their front office acumen failed to match their athletic greatness.
"Most superstars have trouble as head coaches or GMs because their talents are so superior, sometimes it's hard for them to understand the other contributors on their rosters who are needed to build a club," said Accorsi. "They struggle with evaluating the different levels of a player. If you accept only players on your superstar talent level, you're going to end up with a three-man team. But besides intelligence and a feel to judge all levels of player, the difference maker in succeeding is work ethic."
Elway clearly had that. "He asked me all kinds of questions," said Accorsi. "I told him everything, including little things, like keep a daily log of every little thing, all the way to my philosophy of building a team."
Then Accorsi told Elway: "I assume you are going to agree with my number one priority: that the quarterback is the most important player in sports."
Elway knew. He knew.
Like Accorsi (who deserves to be in the Hall of Fame), Elway hasn't made many wrong moves. Now here he is, in the Super Bowl, just two years after taking the VP position. Two years.
What Elway might soon do has never been done and may never be repeated. So when you're reading about Richard Sherman or the snow in New York or "Beast Mode," remember this:
Elway could become the first person to win a Super Bowl MVP and capture a Super Bowl as a team's top executive.
Think about that for a second. Think about how damn hard that is.
In the Super Bowl era, no player has dominated his position the way Elway did and then gone on to construct a Super Bowl team. What he's done already is remarkable. But if the Broncos win the game, then we will have to push Elway's career to even higher elevation. Might need to add a face to professional football's Mount Rushmore.
Elway was a nine-time Pro Bowler, won two Super Bowls (reached five) and was a league MVP, and of course, there was The Drive. The Drive might be one of the top five signature moments in league history. Now comes a sequel: The Drive of the Executive.
Others have come close to what Elway has done. Newsome is in the Hall of Fame, and he also constructed Super Bowl teams, but he wasn't a Super Bowl MVP and didn't reach the heights Elway did as a player (though Newsome was fantastic). Maybe the closest to Elway in football is Bart Starr, who was MVP of Super Bowls I and II. He later became a coach in an era where the coach was also basically the general manager. But Starr never won a Super Bowl as a coach.
The best Elway equivalent is actually in the NBA. Jerry West was an NBA Finals MVP and constructed the Lakers teams that won four titles. He was twice named Executive of the Year. West might be the best executive in the history of American sports.
"I never met West, but I have studied him for years," said Accorsi. "Talked to many basketball people about him. I'm told it was not a surprise to see him scouting a key prospect at a small college in Oklahoma in the middle of January.
"With the millions superstar athletes make today, they don't have to go through all of that. But West, Ozzie, Elway are all driven men and won't allow themselves to fail at anything. I could tell talking to Elway two years ago that he wanted to do this, he was motivated by front office work, which can be very tedious."
That's the other thing. Front office work is sometimes menial; the good team executives travel, sweat the salary cap, pay attention to every tiny detail. It is sometimes not putting in the work that may have hurt Michael Jordan at one time in his post-playing days.
One NFC general manager told me that Elway "works as hard as anyone I've ever known in this business."
There was a thought that when Elway retired, helicoptering into the night sky, it was the last we would see him. Instead, he has used what was a remarkable work ethic as a player to craft a Super Bowl team. Instead of using guts and a rocket arm to reach Super Bowls, Elway has used guts and game tape to do the same as an executive.
The lesson Elway learned as VP of football operations was not just to snag a great quarterback, but to surround that quarterback with riches so he wouldn't have to win games alone.
Elway hasn't been perfect as an executive, but he's been pretty close. Some of his key moves include:
- Hired John Fox (one of the more underrated coaches in football).
- Re-signed Champ Bailey.
- Signed Manny Ramirez (started as a reserve and was extended this summer before earning the starting spot).
- Drafted Von Miller, Orlando Franklin and Julius Thomas.
- Signed Manning.
- Drafted Derek Wolfe and Danny Trevathan.
- Signed kicker Matt Prater to an extension (he just made the Pro Bowl).
- Claimed kick returner Trindon Holliday off waivers.
- Signed Terrance Knighton, Shaun Phillips, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Louis Vasquez and Wes Welker.
This team, mostly constructed by Elway, has 18 players not present last year.
Elway's imprint is all over the franchise, but none shows his impact more than this statistic: Denver won a single playoff game in the 13 years between Elway’s retirement and when he returned to the Broncos in 2011 as the team's executive vice president of football operations. This year alone, they won two.
"I keep saying this: Everybody wants to talk about winning now," Elway stated recently in The Gazette. "I say, 'No, it's not now. It's now on.'"
"The big thing about John is accountability starts at the top with him," said Broncos defensive lineman Terrance Knighton to Bleacher Report, "and it filters down. You know what John has done as a player and executive. He's a great man and you strive to be like him."
We may not see anything like this again in football—where a player is as good in the personnel room as he was in the locker room. It's not an insane thought that Newsome or Elway cold become the next commissioner.
In many ways, since his phone call to Accorsi that day, Elway has followed Accorsi's blueprint for building a team. Accorsi took a risk in trading for Eli Manning, and the risk paid off in a huge way with two Super Bowls for the Giants. Elway took a risk signing Peyton Manning, who was then an aging thrower coming off major neck surgery. That gamble has Elway here, in the Super Bowl.
About to make history.