ENGLEWOOD, CO.--Peyton Manning is very good at disappearing. Since the Super Bowl, there's been nary a peep from the Broncos quarterback, save a round of golf, confirmation he's been cleared to play another season and one photograph of him sporting a preponderance of whiskers.
On Wednesday at the Broncos facility, the only physical sign of Manning was a photograph to the right of the podium. Mid-throw, Photo Peyton looked on as first John Elway, T.J. Ward, Aqib Talib and finally DeMarcus Ware made their remarks. It was like Christmas in March, with all of Peyton's shiny new toys brought out to play, and the quarterback's presence hovered above it all.
The Broncos know Manning is the key, and they know his 38th birthday is coming up later this month. They know his back is held together with medicine and magic, that his ankles kept the tape industry in business last fall. They know their defense of 2013 was lacking in both talent and intimidation, and they want Super Bowl rings. They want to be the first team since the 1972 Dolphins to lose a championship and return the next year, and so they opened the coffers and started doling out the cash.
First came Ward, a safety, to the tune of $23 million over four years, with $14 million guaranteed.
A few hours later, Talib, a cornerback. He got a six-year, $57 million deal, with $26 million guaranteed.
On Wednesday morning, Talib boarded a flight from Dallas to Denver. He put on his headphones and dozed off, but when he woke up, he noticed a familiar face a few rows away. It was defensive end DeMarcus Ware, bound for Denver too, and the team announced his three-year, $30 million ($20 million guaranteed) deal the next day. When Ware eventually recognized Talib -- and figured out where he was going -- he had only one thought: I said, you know what, I see exactly what they're doing.
On these defensive additions alone, the Broncos spent $110 million ($60 million guaranteed) in the opening days of free agency, and in a blink their defense went from a weakness to a solid unit, if not a strength. There still will be work to do to acclimate the group, but Denver couldn't have come out swinging harder, and once again John Elway was the NFL's darling.
The Broncos general manager's job certainly isn't easy. But spend a few minutes chatting with the newest Broncos, and you'll quickly realize: Elway doesn't have to do much in the way of selling.
"When they swung in, they immediately went to the top of my list, definitely," Talib said.
For Ward, it was much the same.
"It wasn't much convincing," he said. "The money's great, but at the end of the day, it's all about winning."
"I've been losing for four years, so just the opportunity to win a championship kind of struck a cord with me most importantly," he added. "The history, it's not just they're winning now. They've always been winning."
There's Elway. There's Manning. There are memories of February's Super Bowl dismantling, but the two quarterbacks, past and present, make all of that fade. For the bulk of the past 20 years, the Broncos have been on the verge of a championship, and even if they've fallen short more than they've succeeded, there's no reason any of these men -- not Ward, not Talib, not Ware -- shouldn't believe that he might be the one to make the difference.
In Ward, Denver gets a young, energetic safety, with a bit of the edge its defense lacked. He's a talker. He's bossy on the field, he says -- hence his nickname, Boss. The Broncos needed someone like that, someone to roar right back when opponents begin to chirp.
Talib is cut from a similar cloth. Both he and Ward were Pro Bowlers in 2013, and the reasons for Talib's selection should loom large in the Broncos' collective memory. It was Nov. 24, and Denver had a 24-0 lead over New England in Foxboro at halftime. The Broncos lost, and they lost because their receivers were non-factors. Blame the cold, but also blame Talib, who held Demaryius Thomas to just four catches.
"We know how much we hated playing against [Talib], so we are thrilled he's come to the Denver Broncos," Elway said by way of an introduction.
Ware brings different benefits. Older than the team's other two signees -- he's 31 to Talib's 28 and Ward's 27 -- he had a down year in 2013, mostly due to injury. Although he played in 13 games, he was hurt for many of them, and he finished the year with just six sacks, the fewest of his career. Now, he sees his opportunity with the Broncos as "almost like a rebirth... proving the naysayers [wrong]," he said. His elbow feels better, and he's ready to go.
Perhaps as important as Ware's on-field contributions are what he may be able to do off of it. He should bring a steadying influence for Von Miller, who spent 2013 suspended, injured and without a mentor after Elvis Dumervil's departure. Ware and Miller will play similar roles, and the older defender is familiar with the rollercoaster that was the past year of his younger counterpart's life.
"The main thing is having somebody that's here that's real for him," Ware said. "I've known him since his rookie season, and [I'm] also a guy he's looked up to."
After cutting ties with Champ Bailey, the Broncos defense needs a presence like Ware as much as it needs the edge that Ward and Talib will bring. Denver stole the free agency show, and it needed to. It learned that recruiting under-the-radar players like Terrance Knighton and offering a limb to players like Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie wasn't quite enough. It learned that Peyton Manning may be the best quarterback in the game, but he can't do it all.
On Wednesday, each of the new Broncos had his own message, but on one point, they all agreed: Defense wins championships.
Somewhere, Manning must have scoffed. Defense might win championships, but these Broncos won't win without his offense. They won't win without their quarterback, and no matter the talk of sacks and stances, tackles and toughness, this all circles back to Peyton. He's the reason they come, the reason they stay, and the NFL's best quarterback all season long is looking more and more like the offseason's MVP.