To dominate the game with the football in your hand is a wondrous achievement. But to put down the ball and dominate the game with the pen in your hand is almost unthinkable.
Washed up stars are supposed to take jobs in which they wear makeup, crack jokes and slap backs. In some cases, they are allowed to be assistant coaches, or front-office men with small offices and smaller voices. Most accomplished players never even try to run a football team, or never are given the chance to try. Matt Millen gave it a shot. So did Larry Wilson. They did not exactly break down the door for others.
In the three years John Elway has been in charge, the Broncos have a .708 winning percentage and have made a Super Bowl appearance and three playoff appearances. What's more, he has operated with the kind of panache you would expect from the quarterback who engineered The Drive and led his team to two Super Bowl victories.
Elway is different. Just as he was a once in a generation quarterback, he is a once in a generation quarterback turned executive.
At his introductory press conference as the Broncos vice president of football operations, he famously said, "I know what I don't know." Men who have accomplished what Elway did sometimes think everything they don't know could fit on a post it note. And that is what separates him.
Roger Staubach recently came out of left field saying he would take Johnny Manziel ahead of Jadeveon Clowney. When he's not selling computer software, Fran Tarkenton gives opinions about the Vikings on radio. He recently used the words "rodent" and "savant" to describe Manziel. The New York tabloids still love Joe Namath because he regularly second guesses the Jets and gives them quarterback advice.
This spring, meanwhile, Elway is studying 320 draft prospects on tape. That's the entire Broncos board. He wants to know every last one of them. Studying 320 players takes a lot of time and diligence. Much of his study is alongside his personnel men. Each morning, Elway, player personnel director Matt Russell and pro personnel director Tom Heckert typically disappear into what they call "the cave" and aren't heard from for much of the day. The cave is where they share opinions, settle differences and come to consensuses.
The cave is also where Elway is most comfortable. He does not travel to schools like many men in his position. Negotiating airports and campuses is not easy when you are John Elway. "Coming up the way I did in the spotlight, there are some things that are a little more difficult," Elway said. "I'm a lot more productive at the office."
Spending most of his time in the office enables Elway to bond with the people he shares his new huddles with. At the Broncos' Dove Valley facility, the great John Elway is just one of the guys. "A regular dude," said Broncos coach John Fox. He is a regular dude whose face happens to be on many of the photos from Broncos history around the building.
Elway exercises with his co-workers. He shoots the bull with the nobodies of the organization. He knocks back a cold one with them. "When I was a quarterback, they always tried to put you on a pedestal above your teammates and everyone else," he said. "Well, I always tried to make sure the other players knew I was on the same level as they were and I was trying to work with them. We're all going to do this together. It's no different now. I get more attention because of my position and the notoriety, but I emphasize the fact that I'm no better than anyone else. I do my job, you do yours, and we all have success."
When he was hired by the Broncos in January of 2011, Elway did not understand a lot about the administrative side of football, and how the NFL worked. He also was not connected in ways people in his position need to be connected. But one thing came naturally to him: leadership.
"He may not have had the deep down in the trenches experience of football personnel management, but he had the qualities to be the leader and the understanding that if he listened and surrounded himself with good people and let them do their jobs, it wouldn't take him very long to learn," Broncos president Joe Ellis said. "So the learning curve was short and not very steep for John."
His office is situated in the middle of the Broncos facility between the football wing and the business wing. Elway had the walls to the entryway of his office torn down, and he replaced them with glass walls. This allowed a clear view from one end of the building to the other, and it also enabled everyone to see Elway's work area. His door is literally always open, and frequently an impromptu conversation is taking place there.
"A lot of people don't listen," Fox said. "His biggest reason for success is he listens. He doesn't think he has all the answers. That first year, he didn't know anything. I say that affectionately. But the thing is he knew it, and he did something about it."
Early on, Elway asked a lot of questions. He wanted to know how coaches interacted with scouts. He wanted to see how scouts planned their schedules. He wanted to know the pressures the media was dealing with.
And in the beginning, there was skepticism about his ability to do the job. There is skepticism about any person who ascends in football without touching every rung of the ladder. And in Elway's case, his primary qualification, as far as some were concerned, is fans still wear his jersey at Broncos games.
When Fox received the call that the newly hired Elway wanted to interview him to be Broncos head coach in 2011, he didn't know what to think. He was advised by some to steer clear. "Did they hire him for his name, or was this some P.R. move?" Fox said. "That's what some people thought." But he interviewed, and he really liked what he heard from Elway. "I knew right away he was all in," Fox said. "And I could see he had experience that would help him."
Elway played 16 seasons in his Hall of Fame career, winning two Super Bowls and an MVP awards. After he retired from playing in 1998, he opened restaurants and purchased car dealerships, and also invested in websites
In 2002, he became co-owner and CEO of the Colorado Crush of the Arena League. With the Crush, he was involved in everything from cleats to suites. In that period, Elway says he achieved his "MBA in football." He won an AFL executive of the year award and an Arena Bowl championship before the team folded in 2009.
When restaurateur Tim Schmidt approached Elway about opening a steakhouse, he told Elway all he needed was his name. But Elway wasn't interested in being a part of Elway's unless he could be an active partner. And so he met with the wait staff and cooks. He sampled each dish. He even had a voice in how the restaurants were designed. He studied the financials.
No one realized it as the stages of his life passed, but Elway always was being prepared for something else. "What I've been through in the business world has helped me in negotiating processes, putting values on players and understanding the business side," Elway said.
Fox recently signed a three-year contract. Talks between Elway and veteran agent Bob LaMonte dragged out for nearly six weeks. It did not appear to be an easy negotiation. "He isn't a former athlete to me -- he is a businessman," LaMonte said. "And he's a tough negotiator. With his business background, he was infinitely more prepared than most ex-players would be. He knew exactly what he was doing."
Elway's playing experience gave him a big picture understanding. "Playing is a benefit to this job," said Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, the only other great-player-turned-great-executive and a role model for Elway. "You have an idea of how a player thinks, what it's like to be in a locker room, what it's like to go through an offseason program, what it's like to fight your way back from a surgery. There are a lot of things you can pull from."
Jack Elway, John's dad, was known as an old-fashioned, hardworking football guy. He coached at the high school, college and World League levels, and he also was a scout for the Broncos. It's clear something was passed from father to son. "His dad was a ball coach," said former Broncos safety John Lynch, who considers Elway a good friend. "His dad was in personnel. His dad was his best friend and the person he admired most. If you know John, you know how close they were. So that was a part of him."
Elway learned from watching and listening to his father, Newsome, former Browns and Giants exec Ernie Accorsi and others. And he said he learned from watching Dan Reeves and Mike Shanahan when he was playing. "But I think the biggest thing is having been in the locker room my whole life," he said. "It's been a tremendous help for me in knowing how to put that locker room together, how it fits together."
That experience gave him confidence to let go of locker-room rocks like Champ Bailey, Robert Ayers and Zane Beadle this offseason, and to bring in big names DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward and Emmanuel Sanders.
The Broncos' free-agent spending spree has led some to conclude that Elway is going all in to win now in the sunset of Peyton Manning's career. It is not an unreasonable assumption, but it is an inaccurate one, according to Elway. Yes, he wants to win now. But he will tell you he also wants to build a sustainable organization that does not bottom out when Manning's playing days end.
That's why he used a second-round pick on quarterback Brock Osweiler shortly after he signed Manning. "When they say 'win now,' I always like to say 'win now on,'" Elway said. "We're trying to get a good football team and be good for a long time. If you look at the ages of the players we signed other than DeMarcus (31), they all are young players who are going to be around for a long time, hopefully a minimum of three to four years."
It has become evident that Elway is pretty adept at the free-agent splash. In addition to this year's take, in past years he signed Wes Welker, Louis Vasquez, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Shaun Phillips and Terrance Knighton. "When John Elway places a call to a player's agent in free agency, I think the call gets taken, you know what I mean?" Ellis said.
Of course Elway's signature acquisition was Manning, who chose the Broncos over 11 other suitors. A personal appeal by Elway helped convince Manning that Denver was the place for him.
Lynch was asked to help recruit Manning on his visit to Denver. He arrived at Cherry Hill Country Club, but he initially couldn't find Elway or Manning. Turns out they were having a private conversation on a couch in front of a bank of televisions. Lynch thought it best to leave them alone. Two hours later, they still were talking when Lynch decided to head home.
With no interference from others, Elway could give Manning perspective that no other executive could. Only Elway could tell him what it was like to be the face of the franchise in the city he was representing. Only Elway could describe his organization from a locker room perspective as well as a management perspective. Only Elway could explain what it meant to win a Super Bowl late in a career. Only Elway could speak to him about what it means to have a place in his team's ring of fame.
After Manning left town to consider other options, Fox wanted to call him every day to check in with him and keep grinding him. Elway wanted to let Manning breathe and not pressure him, so that's what they did. "The swagger he has on the field showed itself in that recruitment process," Lynch said.
Elway's way worked. "Now I've seen him as a leader of a franchise and I really like what he had to say," Manning said at the press conference to announce he was a Bronco.
With acquisitions like Manning and Ware, Elway has developed the reputation as the guy to watch in free agency. But that may change. "I'm going into my fourth draft now," he said. "The young guys we have taken are starting to mature and improve. As they improve, and we have fewer of those holes to fill, it will be interesting to see if we do as much in free agency as we have done before."
The Broncos have received solid contributions from Elway picks Von Miller, Rahim Moore, Orlando Franklin, Julius Thomas, Derek Wolfe, Danny Trevathan, Malik Jackson and Montee Ball. None of his high picks could be called busts at this point.
Elway has taken a little heat for not making more dynamic acquisitions in the draft. And some critics took aim at Elway after the DUI arrests of Russell and Heckert because he was the boss. But by and large, Elway's reign has been Camelot in the Rockies.
Elway acknowledges he takes satisfaction in not fitting the stereotype of the former player who can't or won't do what it takes to achieve excellence on another plane. If he can see the game at the luxury suite level of the stadium as clearly as he did at eye level, Elway will create a second legend.
"There is nothing like playing, being in the middle of it," Elway said. "That's the truly exciting thing about being in this business, especially playing the quarterback position. But what I like about what I'm doing now is being able to put the team together, give guys the opportunity to compete and win games, and hopefully a championship. I know how it feels to do that as a player. It would be satisfying for me to give these players that opportunity."
The challenge is different now, but the commitment of the quarterback who once helicoptered for a first down in the Super Bowl is not. Elway is still Elway.