Super Bowl 2014: John Elway tastes success leading Denver Broncos from the front office


Broncos executive John Elway, right, joins his current quarterback, Peyton Manning, and Coach John Fox after Denver wins the AFC championship game over New England. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

For two years the restaurateur chased him, pitching ideas and concepts for a place with John Elway’s name on it.

They would serve steaks and potatoes, hire star chefs and build in prime locations. Tim Schmidt, a former attorney who had operated restaurants for two decades, would handle everything, and Elway, the legendary former Denver Broncos quarterback, needn’t lift a finger.

And that was the problem. Where’s the fun in idle time? Elway gets antsy on the sideline, impatient and anxious when the difficulty is gone. So he told Schmidt that if he was going to be involved, then he needed to be involved. He met the cooks and the staff; Elway wanted to taste the food they would be serving, leading Schmidt to arrange a tasting at a closed-down restaurant so Elway could sit at a hauled-in card table and sample the seasonings and the cuts — taking bites so big he ate himself sick.

“He could barely breathe all weekend,” Schmidt recalls, and 10 years later, he’s used to his hands-on business partner. “There’s certain people in life that run off to the beach, and there’s certain people that are driven for the rest of their life.”

At 53, Elway has nothing left to prove. He was a two-time Super Bowl champion and a nine-time Pro Bowler. There’s a bronze bust of him in Canton, Ohio, at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But those accomplishments came and went years ago; it’s the challenges ahead that motivate Elway.

After Seahawks' quarterback Russell Wilson led his team to an NFC Championship title over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, the Post Sports Live crew looks at the 2012 draft class and debates whether Wilson, Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III will win more Super Bowls in their careers. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

“I think one thing that I’m about is I’ll never stop climbing these mountains,” he said.

Three years ago, he took on perhaps his biggest task, taking over the Broncos’ football operations after they completed a 4-12 season. He became the team’s executive vice president of football operations, a long-winded way of saying he builds the roster, has final say on contracts and acquires players — none bigger than the 2012 free agent signing of quarterback Peyton Manning. On Sunday, the team Elway constructed will play in the Super Bowl for the first time since 1999, when Elway was Denver’s quarterback.

He returned to the Broncos because, even with four restaurants and a Toyota dealership, he was bored. And because he thought he could fix a broken team. When the Broncos hired Elway, it was met with skepticism: Here was another wandering legend who thought he knew it all. A legacy is a delicate thing, a house of cards in a humid room. Yet so many icons find their way back, tinkering with their own foundation.

Michael Jordan couldn’t help himself, either; after 10 full years as a part-owner in charge of basketball operations, he has one playoff appearance and nine losing seasons in 10 full years leading first the Washington Wizards and now the Charlotte Bobcats. Wayne Gretzky went 143-161-24 in four seasons as an executive and head coach of the Phoenix Coyotes. Even Dan Marino tried it, taking over personnel for the Miami Dolphins in 2004. He resigned after three weeks.

“It just got to be a little bit more than I could anticipate at the time,” Marino said, adding that few sports legends are prepared for the hours and tasks that make a good executive.

Elway, though, embraced these responsibilities. As a quarterback, he was at his best when he shouldn’t have been, leading 35 fourth-quarter comebacks and 46 game-winning drives. Now he has done what so many others couldn’t: going from eager and unqualified ex-player to one of sports’ best executives.

“Whether it be the car business, the restaurants — I always wanted to be very good at it,” Elway said. “I wanted to be as good at those as I did being a football player.”

Retirement woes

For a long time, Elway’s post-NFL career was defined, like the first act of his playing days, by failure.

He had lost his first three Super Bowls before winning two in a row and retiring in 1999. And although he owned several car dealerships during the 1990s before selling them for millions in stock, his ventures after leaving the NFL had attracted more attention. Elway invested seven figures in MVP.com, an online business with Jordan and Gretzky, and watched it fold within a year. Elway’s stake in another Internet startup was reportedly sold at a loss, and his co-ownership of the Colorado Crush, an Arena Football League team, soured when the league folded in 2009.

“That was the big story after he got out,” Schmidt said. “Everybody was taking shots at him about a couple of business things that didn’t work.”

The Crush led a short life, but Elway spent its years learning football’s administrative side. He studied players and picked the brains of scouts. Elway had, as a quarterback, watched film of NFL defenses for years as he prepared to face them; he understood why certain players were feared. But now he had no choice but to study all positions. He called it his MBA in football, and he learned that like being a quarterback, the more he prepared and involved himself, the greater chance for success. “I like to learn,” Elway said simply.

When he finally agreed to open the first Elway’s steakhouse with Schmidt, the retired quarterback paid attention to design elements, learning why layout can make or break a restaurant. He attended monthly financial meetings, studied income statements and spent time with the managers and chefs Schmidt hoped to hire. “He puts his money up. He puts his name up,” Schmidt said. “And he puts his effort up.”

The years passed, and sometimes on the golf course Elway would discuss the Broncos and their troubles. The Broncos went five seasons without a winning record, collapsing in 2010 with a dozen losses. Elway liked to tell his friends what he would do if he were running the Broncos, and like good golfing buddies, they would tell him he should be running the team.

Word filtered back to the team’s Dove Valley training complex, and in summer 2010, Broncos executive Joe Ellis and owner Pat Bowlen contacted Elway and asked whether he would be a consultant.

“As we talked more and more,” Ellis said recently, “it was clear that he was eager to lend as much help as he could to the organization. He was ready to dive all-in.”

They introduced him Jan. 5, 2011, and outsiders rolled their eyes at the new executive vice president, seemingly an emeritus title for another bygone star. But during a nearly one-hour news conference, Elway said something that resonated. “I know what I don’t know,” he said.

Learning on the job

He spent his first days and weeks mostly listening and asking about details. Elway asked Brian Xanders, a former scout and the Broncos’ general manager (whom Elway outranked), why he liked one free agent more than another. He asked Matt Russell, at the time Denver’s college scouting director, why one prospect would fit in the NFL and another would not. He leaned on others with league connections — something Elway lacked — to communicate with the NFL office.

“They all had that knowledge, and so I picked their brains,” Elway said.

Elway pursued players he would’ve enjoyed playing alongside and sharing a locker room with, seeking that combination of ability and attitude. Maybe that free agent tight end would someday become Shannon Sharpe. Maybe the rookie running back shares Terrell Davis’s grit.

Said Elway, “I knew what I wanted in guys and kind of the characteristics and personalities that fit.”

Elway held workouts each morning for the personnel staff, and afterward they would disappear into a conference room adjoining Elway’s office, talking and studying prospects for so long that they began calling it “the Cave.” It was common for a visitor to enter Elway’s office, golf or NASCAR on a muted television screen behind him, while his hand held a remote that controlled football footage. And long after sunset, the only car remaining in the players’ lot was Elway’s white sedan.

He absorbed his staff’s experience, and when it was time to select players, there were more payoffs than busts. For every failed acquisition, such as fullback Jacob Hester, there were several gems: free agent defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, fourth-round tight end Julius Thomas and sixth-round linebacker Danny Trevathan.

“We are going to miss. I am going to miss,” Elway admitted. “I’m going to do a lot of homework and really like somebody, and it’s not going to pan out.”

Elway reshuffled the personnel department in 2012, and some of the men he had learned from were no longer needed. Xanders was out — he and the Broncos called it a mutual parting of ways; the Detroit Lions, Xanders’s new team, didn’t reply to an interview request. Russell was elevated to player personnel director, becoming Elway’s top assistant, though that didn’t stop Elway from suspending Russell and Tom Heckert, another member of the front-office staff, after they were arrested for drunken driving in separate incidents last summer.

Elway also replaced Mike Bluem, the Broncos’ longtime salary-cap specialist, with Mike Sullivan, a former NFL agent.

“He stays calm; he stays collected,” said Ellis, now the Broncos’ president. “It’s a trait that a lot of people saw in him on the field, leading teams on game-winning drives.”

Elway put it more simply: “That’s the hard part of this job because you’ve got to be a bad guy.”

Luring Peyton

In March 2012, Elway’s biggest test traveled on Bowlen’s private jet to Stillwater, Okla., where key Broncos employees were observing a potential new quarterback. Tim Tebow had led Denver to the second round of the 2011 playoffs, but Elway and others believed Tebow lacked the skills to lead the Broncos to a championship.

And so here they sat, eyeing Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden, a prospect in the upcoming NFL draft, as the jet left South Florida and headed northwest — with Peyton Manning as its cargo.

Two days earlier, the Indianapolis Colts had cut Manning after 14 seasons, in part because the quarterback was due a $28 million option bonus and also because he hadn’t played in 2012 because of a neck problem that affected his arm strength. Still, Manning had several suitors, and when the jet stopped in Stillwater, Elway, Coach John Fox and others boarded with the quarterback. “Huge stakes involved,” Elway recalls. “. . . We’re going to take a chance on a guy that we’re not sure is going to be able to make it back.”

The group traveled to Englewood, Colo., a Denver suburb, and Elway led Manning on a tour of the team’s headquarters. Elway considered his days as a quarterback. He had never left the Broncos, but if he had, what would he have wanted? What kind of organization would’ve appealed to him? “I didn’t try to push Peyton,” he said. “I put myself in his shoes.”

Elway and Fox offered to tailor an offense to Manning’s preferences — just look what they had done with Tebow — but mostly they took things slowly. Elway allowed Manning to ask questions and set his own timetable. They didn’t push him to sign a contract before leaving Denver; if anything, Elway encouraged him to visit other teams. “What we did,” Elway said, “was give him his space.”

Elway said they talked football and quarterbacking, expectations and goals, life and what it’s like when the games end — one Hall of Famer courting a future Hall of Famer, talking on equal footing and shared understanding.

“John could understand where he’s coming from and the things he has accomplished and what he wanted to try to accomplish,” said Marino, who now works as an NFL analyst for CBS and as a spokesman for the AARP and its Life Reimagined program. “John, playing that position, could understand that — more than anybody else would.”

Ten days after Manning’s visit, a phone rang. Elway answered and heard a familiar voice. A moment later, Elway looked at Fox, giving him a thumbs up.

The job never stops

A day after Manning led Denver to the AFC championship Jan. 19, Elway boarded another jet — this time to Mobile, Ala., and the Senior Bowl. Elway had 24 hours to smell the roses; now it was time to return to work.

He sat on metal bleachers, watching and listening, identifying the next wave of prospects. He trusts his eye and his approach, and he believes in those he has surrounded himself with. After all, it wasn’t really the food he was sampling on that night in 2004; he was testing his own palate and instincts against the word of those he would be working with. If they said something was good, now he could believe them. “As a quarterback,” Elway said, “you’re only as good as the people around you.”

Elway, for his part, said it’s the difficulty he enjoys, the proving to himself and others that he can reach another peak, no matter how tall.

“I don’t care what I’ve done in the past,” he said. “I’m very proud of the fact that I’m in the Hall of Fame as a quarterback and went to five Super Bowls, won two of them, and I’m proud of that.

“But I’m climbing another mountain. I don’t like to look back.”

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