ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- John Elway’s hand begins at his waistline. Winning a division is here, he says, and being the best in the AFC, here. He moves his hand a few inches upward. Getting to a Super Bowl, here. Inches, inches, inches, and then the former quarterback, who won two championships with the Broncos in 1998 and 1999, is stretching his hand as far upward as it will go.
Actually winning a Super Bowl, Elway says, is there, with the arm that threw 327 career touchdowns stretched to high heaven.
That, in a five-second motion, is the reason the Broncos agreed to part ways with coach John Fox on Monday. He got them to a Super Bowl a year ago. He’s coached two of his teams to Super Bowls, in fact, but he’s walked away both times a disappointment, and the jump from here to there -- well, the Broncos decided Fox wasn’t the man to do it.
Four years ago, Fox was "the perfect guy," Elway said Tuesday. Four years ago, the rookie general manager needed to turn around a losing team. The Super Bowl was still his goal -- Elway’s tunnel vision is notable, even for him -- but there were steps to take, and Fox was the coach for those steps.
But this team always had an expiration date. Manning was four days from turning 36 when he signed in Denver in 2012, and last summer, owner Pat Bowlen ceded control of the team to a trust after the Alzheimer’s disease he’d been battling for years became too much. Elway wants nothing more than to get Manning his second ring, but he feels even more obligated to his longtime friend and mentor, to giving "Mr. B" one last opportunity to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
Which brings us back to that outstretched arm. In 2014, the only people directly involved with the Broncos who’d won a Super Bowl were Elway, Peyton Manning and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. According to Elway, that’s a deficiency, one he can perhaps remedy with this coaching search. "I think there’s a huge jump from being at the Super Bowl to winning the Super Bowl," he said Tuesday. "Can I put my finger on [what it takes to win]? No. But I was around it, and I saw it."
Elway values that it, and he values that Manning, despite the criticism of his playoff performances, has experienced it too. And though Elway told his hobbled quarterback on Monday to take a few weeks to consider his future, he made it clear on Tuesday that going forward, Manning will figure into his plans. He’ll be involved from afar with the hiring process, and Elway voiced his confidence in Manning’s ability to return next season at a high level.
"The bottom line is we want him back, and it’s going to come down to what Peyton wants to do," Elway said.
The Broncos have garnered criticism in the days since their divisional-round loss to Indianapolis for the line Elway has spouted since last March. His team is built to win now and from now on, the former quarterback has repeated, but Sunday’s game made that premise shaky. Still, though, the Broncos don’t seem ready to move on from the vision they crafted when they signed Manning -- though they’ve tweaked that vision each spring. First, the team needed a new offensive coordinator and another receiver. Then the defense was completely retooled. Now, it’s the coaching staff, and there’s no reason to think Elway can’t find someone who fits his win-now mentality and will be able to instill the urgency and focus that the Broncos’ front office believes the past three iterations of its team lacked.
The challenge for whomever the Broncos bring in -- and as of Tuesday morning, Elway had yet to contact any candidates -- lies in part in the expectations. They are clear: Win with Manning. Win for Bowlen. Win as soon as possible. But the bigger obstacle will come in the adjustments. Elway will certainly give whomever he hires a clearer picture of the Manning situation than he’ll admit publicly, but the Broncos will without question have a coach before they get an answer from their aging star. That means, then, that the new hire must have a contingency plan from day one, for moving on from Manning in July, next winter, or the winter after that. For as long as Manning wants it to be, these Broncos will still be his and Elway’s creation.
That’s both a blessing and a curse. To be the Broncos' coach is to have a general manager willing to throw every resource at a title. It’s to have one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, even if he’s creeping over the hill. But it’s also to cede a level of control to both of those men, to be prepared to take the blame in the event of failure. It can be the best job, and it can be the worst, and when the Broncos find their next perfect guy, he’d better be ready to win now and from now on, to win with Manning and without, because the from now on may come as soon as next month.