John Elway finished as one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, and his winning reputation is only growing following his playing career as a leader of the Denver Broncos front office. With the team's 24-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50 on Sunday, Elway became the first person to win a ring as both a player and a general manager, per Chris Trapasso of CBS Sports.
Being the architect of a Super Bowl-winning team generally doesn't carry quite the same prestige as winning one as a player, but Elway might be an exception. Given his exploits on the field, the fact that he proved to be such a talented GM is nothing short of remarkable.
Rarely do legendary players with Elway's resume transition so seamlessly into a front-office role. The MMQB's Peter King identified just two: Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome and former Los Angeles Lakers GM Jerry West.
Elway had a bit of help, as he learned from his father, Jack, who himself worked in the Broncos front office, per King:
My first introduction to this life came in 2001, when I sat in with my dad, who was the Broncos' pro personnel director, for a month of pre-draft meetings. Mike Shahanan let me sit in on the meetings. I had sold my car dealers to AutoNation, and I was looking to figure out what I might want to do. That month was a great bonding time for me and my dad, hours and hours of meetings, and a great learning experience for me. I remember this lesson from him: Teams are 80 percent players, and 20 percent coaches. He taught me how important athleticism was, and how important competitive drive was. In that draft, I'll never forget—he loved Drew Brees. He had that competitive fire. And now look at him. That really was a great month for me.
Elway started out his personnel career running the Colorado Crush of the Arena Football League from their inception in 2003 to their demise in 2008. In 2011, he joined the Broncos as the executive vice president of football operations and then took over as GM in February 2014.
The 55-year-old wasted little time getting to work, signing cornerback Aqib Talib, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, safety T.J. Ward and linebacker DeMarcus Ware, all of whom have been instrumental in Denver's success over the past few years.
Elway's hands were also all over the one move that more than any other transformed the Broncos into genuine Super Bowl contenders: signing Peyton Manning in 2012. According to NFL Media's Jeff Darlington, a meeting between Manning and Elway at one of Elway's restaurants set the gears in motion for Manning's arrival in Denver.
Darlington added that Elway initially operated in secret away from others in the team's front office:
One Broncos source said most members of the organization didn't even know Elway had decided to chase Manning, with Tim Tebow still on the Broncos' roster, until word slowly began to trickle down. Elway, instead, had decided on his own that he was going to get Manning, that the QB was the answer to all of his questions.
The source described it as "pure excitement" when the news of Manning's arrival for a meeting in Denver began to spread. And once those same people heard that Manning and Elway had a sit-down conversation over a few drinks, they felt even better than ever about it.
Manning helped to give Denver a championship window, and following the Broncos' defeat to the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII, Elway made the necessary changes to ensure the franchise wouldn't face a similar fate should it reach another Super Bowl.
For one, he identified defense as a major area of concern, targeting Ware, Talib and Ward in free agency. The trio of stars, coupled with the talent already on the roster, transformed the Broncos into the league's best defensive team. The unit proved critical as Manning's talents declined.
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and head coach Gary Kubiak proved to be the final pieces of the puzzle. Hiring Kubiak looked like a bit of a gamble given how he often failed to get the most out of his Houston Texans teams. Replacing the ousted John Fox with Kubiak was seemingly a lateral move. Instead, Elway has been more than vindicated.
Football Outsiders' Cian Fahey argued Phillips deserves more of the credit than Kubiak, though:
Still, everything Elway did behind the scenes helped to lead the Broncos to this moment. Denver went all-in on winning a title now, and the franchise is reaping the rewards from that strategy.
As long as Elway continues in his current role, there's no reason to believe the Broncos will stop being contenders anytime soon too.