James Paradis

From Elway to Manning: Rebuilding a Super Bowl Team

Created on Jan. 30, 2014 8:28 AM EST

“It’s a rebuilding year.”

Denver Broncos fans know this phrase well. Following a tremendous period of NFL dominance in the late 1990s, it essentially became the slogan that epitomized the team’s many incarnations throughout the post-Elway era.

After capping off an already storied career with back-to-back championships in Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII, star quarterback John Elway rode off into the sunset of retirement — a bittersweet sight for Denver fans. Having been spoiled with five Super Bowl appearances in 13 years, it was likely difficult for Broncos diehards to shake the sense of impending irrelevance in the years to come. For longtime fans, the ensuing era was reminiscent of the pre-Elway years that endured more than two dozen starting quarterbacks throughout the club’s first 23 seasons.

However, all hope was not yet lost for the reigning champs as they headed into their first Elway-less season. Though their iconic leader was gone, they still had one of the league’s most dangerous offensive weapons inTerrell Davis, who was coming off an MVP season that boasted 2,008 rushing yards and 21 rushing touchdowns. With Davis now the face of the franchise, Denver hoped he could put the team on his back.

With quarterback Brian Griese at the helm, Denver started out the 1999 regular season with a disappointing 0-3 record. Then, in Week 4, tragedy struck — torn ACL. Davis would never be the same. After totaling an astounding 5,296 rushing yards over the three previous seasons, Davis would go on to start only 16 more games and total 1,194 rushing yards over three injury-riddled seasons before retiring following the  2001 season.

To the rest of the league, the Broncos were no longer a team to be feared. To their fans, they were hardly recognizable. The post-Elway era began about as poorly as one could have imagined, and the team struggled to recapture a Super Bowl-contending identity ever since.

Fast-forwarding to the present, the Denver Broncos will return to the NFL’s biggest stage to play in this Sunday’s Super Bowl XLVIII, 15 years after Elway’s retirement. The pieces that comprise this year’s team have come together through a decade of regime changes that each contributed significantly to the team’s current identity.

Other than recruiting the obvious gold mine of a free-agency signing in Peyton Manning, how did Denver build a team that has made its way back to the big dance?

Shanahan’s Final Acts

In the twilight years of head coach Mike Shanahan’s tenure with the Broncos, he oversaw a couple key personnel moves that still greatly impact the makeup of Denver’s current Super Bowl-bound roster. Most significantly, Shanahan helped mastermind the 2004 trade that sent running back Clinton Portis to the Redskins in exchange for future Hall of Fame cornerback and perennial team captain Champ Bailey. While Bailey spent much of this season battling nagging injuries, his leadership on defense has gone a long way toward preparing young and talented players, including cornerbacks Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Chris Harris. Since Harris will not play this weekend due to the torn ACL he suffered two weeks ago against the San Diego Chargers, the stage is now set for Bailey to play a very meaningful role in his first career Super Bowl.

Additionally, the Broncos drafted clutch kicker Matt Prater in 2007, a player who has thrived in big moments over the past few years, including his NFL record-breaking 64-yard field goal earlier this season. In a tough matchup this weekend that could likely come down to the final minutes, Prater’s golden toe may just make the difference.

The Josh McDaniels Experiment

After 14 seasons with the Broncos, and after failing to reach the playoffs three consecutive years, Shanahan was sent packing in 2008. Enter Josh McDaniels, the wunderkind offensive coordinator who, alongside head coach Bill Belichick, orchestrated the juggernaut 2007 offense that helped the New England Patriots finish 16-0 in the regular season and advance to the Super Bowl.

McDaniels was much maligned by fans and the media alike as head coach of the Broncos for his leadership and personnel moves in the draft and free agency. His brief, 28-game tenure in Denver was understandably overshadowed by his poor handling of trade talks involving quarterback Jay Cutler and Denver’s 2010 first-round draft selection of one Mr. Timothy Richard Tebow. While McDaniels’ ability to lead a team and handle the interpersonal responsibilities of a head coach were highly questionable, it is undeniable that he helped bring in many of the key contributors to this year’s Super Bowl squad.

Though the decision did not pay dividends until this season, in 2009 the Broncos used their first-round pick to select running back Knowshon Moreno, a player who has come on as one of Denver’s emotional leaders and versatile offensive weapons. In 2010, the other first-round pick not named Tebow is now one of the league’s most dangerous receivers, Demaryius Thomas, who shares the field with the third-round pick from the same draft, wide receiver Eric Decker. Add in underrated offensive linemen Zane Beadles (2010 draft pick) and Chris Clark (added off waivers in 2010), and suddenly the McDaniels regime can be credited for nearly half of the starting players on Denver’s current offense.

Several important pieces of the team’s future Super Bowl roster fell into place during these years, but it wasn’t until Denver brought back the only man to ever lead the team to a Super Bowl title that the Broncos began to take championship form.

The Return and The Signing

After relieving McDaniels of his duties, team owner Pat Bowlen made a move that would quickly return the organization to prominence. Twelve years after John Elway led the Broncos to Super Bowl glory on the field, the team hired him as its Executive Vice President of Football Operations to lead the team to victory off the field. Along with new head coach John Fox, this current regime has spent the last three years making a number of high-profile and highly effective moves that dramatically shaped the team that will take the field at MetLife Stadium on Sunday.

First and foremost, with one of the biggest free-agency signings in NFL history, Elway & Co. clearly made their biggest mark on the team’s construction when they signed Peyton Manning to a five-year, $96 million contract in March of 2012. Since the signing, the Broncos have put together a 26-6 regular-season record and Manning has enjoyed two of the most prolific seasons of his career.

Beyond signing the Sherriff, Elway and his team have made a habit of bringing in veteran players looking to revitalize their careers on a championship-contending team and drafting solid young talent that could be influenced by those veterans. It seems that this formula has been a remarkable success, as free agents such as the aforementioned Rodgers-Cromartie and defensive end Shaun Phillips have stepped into prominent starting roles along with late-round draft-selections Julius Thomas and linebacker Danny Trevathan. And despite losing many important players throughout the year to season-ending injuries, including All-Pro linebacker Von Miller and left tackle Ryan Clady, the Broncos managed to construct a team with enough depth and veteran leadership to withstand these losses and still find its way to the Super Bowl.

This Denver Broncos team has often been referred to as the “team of destiny. Whether or not fate has any bearing on the outcome of Sunday’s game, it’s difficult to ignore the Hollywood-esque scripting of Elway’s return and the team’s sudden ascendance. More likely, Denver has benefitted from a combination of top-notch team management and some fortunate signings that have paid tremendous dividends. One thing is for sure — it is no longer a time of rebuilding in Denver.
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