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Has Elway Won Again

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John Elway, executive vice president of football operations for the Denver Broncos, celebrates with the Lamar Hunt Trophy after his team defeated the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on Jan. 19, 2014. Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
John Elway, executive vice president of football operations for the Denver Broncos, celebrates with the Lamar Hunt Trophy after his team defeated the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on Jan. 19, 2014. Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Has John Elway won again? I’m not talking about another game or a sixth AFC Championship or even another Super Bowl, I’m talking about another victory in free agency. In March of 2012, two months after losing to the New England Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs with Tim Tebow running the Broncos’ offense, Elway made one of the biggest free agency moves in NFL history. He signed Peyton Manning. With that move alone, the Broncos had won in free agency.

During Manning’s first season as Denver’s quarterback, the Broncos suffered one of the worst losses in their history. Joe Flacco’s 70-yard touchdown pass over Rahim Moore’s head in the final minutes of the fourth quarter and Justin Tucker’s overtime field goal led the Baltimore Ravens to an improbable upset of the top-seeded Broncos. Just four weeks earlier the Broncos had crushed the Ravens, 34-17, in Baltimore. There was clear disappointment in the loss, but it also showed Elway some glaring weaknesses in the roster he had built.

The 2013 offseason started off with a bang. In a surprising signing, Elway brought in All-Pro left guard Louis Vasquez from division rival San Diego to help protect Manning. Days later, Elway wasn’t done. On March 12, 2013, former Patriot Wes Welker became a Denver Bronco, signing a two-year deal worth $12 million. It was becoming clear that the Broncos were focused on winning and winning now. Elway not only had made vast improvements to the Broncos offense, but he took two key players away from AFC rivals.

Elway had put together the offense that would go on to be the greatest scoring machine in NFL history, but what about the defense? Not surprisingly, he had a plan for that as well. He brought in cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Pro Bowl pass rusher Shaun Phillips on team-friendly contracts. Rodgers-Cromartie signed with Denver on a one-year deal worth $5 million, and Phillips signed a one-year deal for $1 million. Rodgers-Cromartie re-emerged as an elite cornerback and Phillips had a team-leading 10 sacks.

The Broncos fell short of winning another NFL title yet again, losing to the Seattle Seahawks, 43-8, in Super Bowl XLVIII. What went wrong in that ugly Super Bowl loss? Everything, but the main focus was the Broncos’ defense. Denver’s ‘D’ had an up-and-down year and went into the playoffs giving up an average of 26 points per game. No team in history has ever won the Super Bowl giving up 26 points per game. It was clear Elway had to turn his attention to the defensive side of the ball.

March 11, 2014 had come, and the Broncos had just released future Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey, freeing up $10 million in salary-cap space bringing their total cap space to just over $30 million. Things were quiet at Dove Valley for the AFC champions until the Broncos announced that they had re-signed wide receiver Andre “Bubba” Caldwell to two-year deal worth $2.7 million. With the signing of Caldwell, the chances of Eric Decker re-signing with Denver were pretty slim. Elway still had to put together a defense that wasn’t going to give up 26 points per game. The Broncos had multiple holes to fill and it started with the secondary.

Bailey was gone, and talks between Rodgers-Cromartie and the Broncos had stalled. One player whose name had been whispered around Dove Valley was that of hard-hitting elite Cleveland Browns safety T.J. Ward. Within hours of signing Caldwell, Elway would welcome Ward as the newest member of the Broncos. Ward signed a four-year contract worth $23 million, with $14 million guaranteed. Elway was far from done. Talks had heated up between Pro Bowl pass rusher Jared Allen and the Broncos. Allen to Denver looked like a done deal, but that was until the Dallas Cowboys released veteran pass rusher DeMarcus Ware. Elway shifted his focus from Allen to Ware. Hours after the Cowboys released Ware, Elway was on the phone and ready to bring him to Denver. After sitting a few first-class rows in front of future teammate Aquib Talib on a flight to Denver, Ware was arriving in the Mile High City and signing a three-year, $30 million deal, getting $13 million in the first year.

Rodgers-Cromartie’s representatives were taking a little too long with contract negotiations, which led Elway to his next target -- Talib. Elway had stolen another weapon from the Patriots just one year after signing Welker. This time it was Talib, whose deal was worth $57 million over six years with $26 million guaranteed.

Within 36 hours into the NFL New Year, Elway had done something nobody could imagine doing unless you were playing a videogame. Elway had brought in a total of nine Pro Bowls and six All-Pro selections. But he wasn’t done.  On March 16th Elway was still working with the little money the Broncos had left and signed former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to a three-year, $15 million deal to replace Decker, who had signed with the New York Jets.

Nobody has done what Elway has done from a NFL front office in his first four years on the job. After Elway signed Manning, the mentality around Denver was to win as many Super Bowls as possible while the future Hall of Famer is the Broncos quarterback. So far, Denver has fallen short in the first two years under Manning, but Elway is attempting another fourth-quarter comeback to make sure he has a third ring on his finger before the “Win Now” window closes.