NEW YORK -– If it weren’t for Peyton Manning, the Denver Broncos wouldn’t be here this week. On that we can all agree, right?
And if it weren’t for John Elway, Peyton Manning wouldn’t be a Bronco.
It’s a cool quirk of fate that Elway –- one of the greatest quarterbacks in history –- could recruit and sign Manning, one of two active quarterbacks worthy of mention in the same sentence as Elway.
That Manning’s recruitment meant the end in Denver for Tim Tebow, one of the greatest college quarterbacks of all-time, adds spice.
Consider once more the landscape. Manning’s neck had been sliced and diced four times since he’d last played. But Elway knew the Tebow Era was built on smoke and mirrors.
Tebow wasn’t sustainable. Wins the Broncos reeled off in 2011 were keyed by Denver’s defense. Even the playoff win over the Steelers came with fine print –- the Steelers were so wracked with injuries they’d have been better off forfeiting their spot in the Wild Card game.
So Elway went all-in on Manning. On March 20, 2012 -– 13 days after Manning was released by the Colts –- Elway got his quarterback. Now the two men have their shot at a Super Bowl title together.
“I just tried to show him what the Denver Broncos are all about,” Elway said Wednesday. “I think that where he was, he was still in shock that he had gotten released by Indianapolis and it was a tough situation there. But 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 been doing for a 14-year career, and also the young guys we had on the roster but also what the Rocky Mountain region was all about. So I felt really good about our story, and I’m glad that he saw it the same way.”
With Manning in the house on a five-year, $96 million deal, Elway hit the free-agent market hard.
The core of the Broncos receiving corps was in place –- Josh McDaniels drafted Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker in 2010, and Elway drafted Julius Thomas in '11. But Elway sought a complementary tight end for Julius Thomas and signed both Joel Dreesen and Jacob Tamme in 2012 and '13, respectively. When Wes Welker showed up at the Broncos door needing a place to play in March 2013, Elway welcomed Welker in as well on a team-friendly deal.
Elway augmented the Broncos running game by drafting Montee Ball in 2013 to go along with Knowshon Moreno –- the first pick of the McDaniels Era back in 2008.
The importance of striking while the iron was hot –- and Manning’s health was good –- is underscored by the fact 27 of the 53 players on the Denver roster have been signed as free agents over the past two seasons.
By contrast, the New England Patriots had 11 veteran free-agent/waiver claims on their roster when the 2013 season began.
The Broncos have hit big on their free-agent “value” signings. Welker is one. Defensive end Shaun Phillips, corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and defensive tackle Terrence Knighton are three others.
The Broncos augmented those signings with the acquisition of guard Louis Vasquez, who inked a deal worth $23.5 million that included $13 million guaranteed.
It’s hard to do a better job in free agency than the Broncos have done in the past two years under Elway. The bill, of course, comes due when a team is built that way.
For Denver, the cost is 14 players over the age of 30 and 16 players are going to hit free agency. Among them: Decker, Moreno, Rodgers-Cromartie, Phillips, OG Zane Beadles, LB Wesley Woodyard, DE Robert Ayers, S Mike Adams, WR Andre Caldwell and OG Chris Kuper.
Welker, meanwhile, carries a cap hit of $8 million in 2014, the final year of his deal and also the final year for both Demaryius and Julius Thomas.
For the Broncos, it’s not now or never. But given Manning’s age and the looming free agency issues of his key receivers, this will likely be Denver’s best shot at hoisting a Lombardi before Manning retires.
It’s hard to get to this point. Manning deserves the bulk of the on-field credit for getting Denver here. But Elway’s vision and decisiveness put Manning in this position.
Tom Curran is the Patriots Insider for CSN New England. Follow him on Twitter @tomecurran.