A funny thing happened as Cam Newton was dabbing toward a presumed Super Bowl coronation: Von Miller and the Broncos’ defense blew up the narrative (not to mention every play the Panthers called).
This story appears in the Feb. 15-22, 2016 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Before the motorized cart that idles outside the Broncos’ locker room can whisk Von Miller away on his victory lap, there remains one important logistical matter to take care of. Which explains why the outside linebacker just stands there, wearing nothing but two towels, and asks no one in particular, “What happened to my pants?”
Behind him, his locker resembles the Panthers’ offense for most of Super Bowl 50: cluttered and disorganized. In both cases the mess is largely of Miller’s making. Beats headphones, three diamond-studded gold chains, a backpack, sparkly sneakers, empty Gatorade bottles and two pairs of grass-stained cleats. A diamond earring worth roughly the cost of a Camry rests on the floor. “I thought that if you win MVP, they pack all that s--- up,” he says, laughing.
The Most Valuable Player of Denver’s 24–10 triumph over Carolina sorts through the disarray, hoping to avert the worst Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction since Janet Jackson flashed America at halftime 12 years ago. Miller eyes a sequined black-and-gold jacket that looks like something Janet’s brother Michael might have worn in the “Thriller” video, even if this championship tilt was decidedly not that. “I might as well,” Miller smiles, as he tugs the coat on.
He locates the cart in a tunnel outside the locker room and takes shotgun, and while there are only two seats, somehow seven people manage to hang on. The sagging four-wheeler speeds through the bowels of Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., onto the field, over piles of gold confetti, hurtling toward the NFL Network’s set. Michael Irvin wants a picture. So does Marshall Faulk. But first, the cart is mistakenly thrown into reverse, its incessant beeping only adding to the symphony of chaos.
Somehow, Miller remains composed. He adjusts his black-and-gold bow tie. On the ride, he is asked about everything he went through, the mistakes he made, the obstacles he overcame. ... The torn ACL in his right knee that forced him to miss Super Bowl XLVIII, where the Seahawks hammered his teammates 43–8 two years ago. The six-game suspension that same season for violating the NFL’s drug policy. (Miller maintained then that he did “nothing wrong.”) And even further back, to his early years at Texas A&M, when coaches tried to convert him from linebacker to fullback and suspended him from the spring game of his second season on account of his immaturity.
On that afternoon, eight years ago, he pointed his pickup toward his hometown of DeSoto, Texas. He made it only as far as Hearne, 140-odd miles from home, when his father, Von Sr., called and insisted that his namesake turn the car around.
Miller cried that day, just as he shed tears the night before the Super Bowl as he listened to DeMarcus Ware and Peyton Manning address the Broncos. He knew that Ware had endured 11 seasons before reaching the title game. He knew that Manning could be playing in the final contest of his 18-year career. He listened as both players outlined how rare an opportunity lay in front of them, how much it meant, and he wanted to “run onto the field and hit someone right then.”
The hitting had to wait until Sunday, when bawling turned to balling and Miller made the Panthers’ offensive line resemble a row of subway turnstiles. He finished with 2 1/2 sacks, six tackles, a pair of forced fumbles, two hurries and a pass defended. Altogether, Denver’s defense racked up seven sacks, tying the Super Bowl record shared by the 1985 Bears and the ’75 Steelers. It also gave the offense an early cushion when, eight minutes into the game, Miller barreled around right tackle Mike Remmers, ripped the ball from Newton’s grasp and watched as defensive end Malik Jackson recovered the fumble in the end zone for a touchdown and a 10–0 lead.
An international audience of 111.9 million witnessed what Miller first showcased when he pointed that truck back toward A&M, totaling 31 sacks over the next three seasons. “His athleticism was like watching The Matrix,” says Dave Kennedy, his strength coach with the Aggies. “He could bend so far backward he could limbo under an 18-inch bar. He was a freak among freaks.”
The freak show continued in Santa Clara, right down to the moment Miller injured his left knee while chasing Newton in the third quarter, slipped on a brace and then went back out and continued chasing and sacking and mocking Newton’s signature celebration with dab after triumphant dab.
The cart finally maneuvers toward the Broncos’ team buses, where his family waits. But Von Miller’s Wild Ride is not over. Not by a long shot.
“People called me undersized,” he says. “I didn’t weigh enough. Play fullback. All these things. I always knew I’d end up here. I spoke this into existence.”
Archie hugged his wife and said, “Hey, this really has been fun with this guy. Let’s see what happens.”
If the final minutes of the 50th Super Bowl were also the final minutes of what was undoubtedly a Hall of Fame career, then the Broncos’ quarterback provided America with one last Peyton Manning Face. This was the stoic Peyton: The QB stood on the sideline—by himself, and yet surrounded by TV cameras—gazing into the distance. He didn’t appear to be looking anywhere but inward.
The game he played against the Panthers well represented his season: a meager 13 of 23 completions, 141 passing yards, an interception and two fumbles (one lost), and only one third-down conversion in 14 attempts. Denver’s 194 offensive yards were the fewest by any team ever to win a Super Bowl. But those weren’t the numbers that mattered.
What mattered was 39, Manning’s age, which makes him the oldest starting passer to win the Big Game. What mattered was two, as in the number of franchises he has led to championships, an NFL first. What mattered was 200, as in his NFL victory total, vaulting him past Brett Favre for the most ever by a quarterback. “This game was like this season,” Manning said. “It tested our toughness, our resilience and our unselfishness.”
And to think, for Manning, it almost never happened. At the conclusion of last season, he flew to New Orleans to assess his future with both his family and his trainer, Mackie Shilstone. The year had ended poorly. The night before the Broncos had played the Chargers in mid-December, Manning was so sick that he required four bags of IV fluids. Then he tore a muscle in his right quad on a rollout while he was dehydrated. The injury bothered him the rest of the season, so much so that his father, Archie, says, “I’m not sure he should even have been playing.” The Broncos—listless, lifeless—fell to Manning’s former team, the Colts, in the divisional round.
Peyton actually considered retiring then, Archie says. Last January, Denver replaced coach John Fox with Gary Kubiak, an offensive guru who favored the run and deep throws and play-action when he passed—which, for the older, immobile Manning, didn’t exactly play to his strengths. “It was pretty obvious they were going to change systems,” Archie says, “and that was going to be a big transition for him.”
Three factors cemented Manning’s return: He’d thrown 36 touchdowns before his injury; he thought he still had it. He liked that Kubiak preferred to run the ball. And he felt he’d recovered well from the thigh injury.
The adjustment period in early 2015, though, looked like a blooper reel for a quarterback who had played one year too long. The Broncos’ run game sputtered. And the offense was further compromised when Manning aggravated the plantar fascia near his left heel. (It was already bothering Peyton, Archie says, at their Manning Passing Academy event last July.) In the first nine weeks Manning threw 17 interceptions (against just nine touchdowns), including four picks on Nov. 15 against the Chiefs, during which Kubiak did the unthinkable and benched him. “Those last couple games, he admitted to me that he shouldn’t have been playing,” says Archie.
In the seven weeks that followed, general manager John Elway only saw Manning in one of two places: He was either in the trainer’s room, huddled with head trainer Steve Antonopulos, or on an empty practice field, throwing to Jordan Taylor, a rookie practice squad receiver whom Manning rewarded before Super Bowl week with a custom charcoal gray suit.
The trick for Manning was staying off his foot enough to allow for it to heal while getting in enough work to remain sharp. He spoke regularly with Kubiak, providing almost daily updates, but Elway mostly left him alone. So did Manning’s older brother, Cooper, who says, “He was not in a great mood. He didn’t like being on the side, not working with the guys, missing the routine.”
The twist: The time off benefited Manning in ways he could never have expected. It forced him to reflect on and adjust to a foreign role that would have sounded blasphemous two seasons ago. Peyton Manning, game manager. He didn’t need to win games so much as he needed not to lose them.
Archie and his wife, Olivia, visited Manning in Denver around Christmas time. Father and son didn’t discuss the injury, or the benching, or The End. On Jan. 3, back at their home in New Orleans, Archie and Olivia watched the regular-season finale against the Chargers, and their son relieved Brock Osweiler, spurring a 27–20 comeback that secured the AFC’s top seed. “Peyton hasn’t enjoyed the year he’s had in other seasons,” says Archie. “But if he had one contribution to getting [Denver] to the Super Bowl, it was what he did that day.”
Three weeks later, on the night before the Broncos played the favored Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, Archie and Olivia took a moment. Their eyes welled with tears as they acknowledged what Peyton refused to say publicly, even on Sunday night: that the game could be his last. Archie hugged his wife and said, “Hey, this really has been fun with this guy. Let’s see what happens.”
The Broncos triumphed 20–18 as Manning tossed a pair of TDs to stake Denver to an early lead. The QB met afterward with family and friends in his private box at Mile High. They reminisced about 2012, when he signed with Denver, and how he’d sat beforehand with Elway, who looked Peyton in the eyes and promised he would do “everything in my power to make sure you finish your career the way I finished mine”—as a Super Bowl champion, an NFL mike drop.
Four years later, Manning spent the week of Super Bowl 50 avoiding the R word. He didn’t discuss retirement with Archie, or with Cooper, or with his teammates. He sounded just about his age, sharing a story about how he’ll eventually need a hip replacement. He spoke of his right arm as if giving a eulogy: “My arm has not been the same since I was injured four years ago. ... It’s got a few yards on it, miles on it.”
But teammates—the defense in particular—didn’t need the Manning of five years ago. They just needed the Manning who came back in January, no longer great, but good enough.
From 1969 until 2014, Wade Phillips spent every fall but one in the same place: on a sideline, overhauling defenses—high school, college, NFL—with the same principles he had learned from his revered father, Bum. Even as his hair went gray and his paunch expanded and his father died, he figured he would coach forever. He never wanted to do anything else.
While the Broncos advanced to the Super Bowl following the 2013 season, the Texans fired Phillips, who after two-plus years as Houston’s defensive coordinator had spent two months as the team’s interim head coach. Phillips didn’t know what to do with the free time. He’s not a golfer, a reader or a traveler. “I had him taking out the garbage and going to the cleaners and running to the grocery store,” says his wife, Laurie. “He really wanted a job after that.”
The Broncos, meanwhile, had already started a defensive renovation after Elway watched the Seahawks pour 43 points on his tepid D—Orange Mush?—in that Super Bowl XLVIII defeat. The GM doled out $109.75 million in contracts to defensive free agents before the 2014 season, inking Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and strong safety T.J. Ward.
When Phillips arrived a year later, in January 2015, he wasn’t the final piece of the defensive puzzle so much as the person who fit all the pieces together. He simplified the Broncos’ D, replacing Jack Del Rio’s complicated read-and-react approach with an aggressive but simple scheme based on one edict: attack the ball. He deployed Miller and Ware like twin tornados from the edges, mixed man and zone coverages, and sought out system players wherever he could find them, like backup safety Shiloh Keo, whom Phillips recruited after a Twitter exchange earlier this season.
Then the 68-year-old unleashed his creation on the rest of the NFL. Denver led the league in total defense (283.1 yards per game), pass defense (199.6 ypg) and sacks (52). Against a Panthers offense that had scored 55 first-half points in playoff victories over Seattle and Arizona, and that featured the league MVP in Newton, Phillips clung to his plan. Miller and Ware leased an apartment Sunday in Carolina’s backfield. The Broncos intercepted Newton (only his third pick since Nov. 9), forced 23 incompletions and took a 16–7 lead through three quarters behind three Brandon McManus field goals.
The Panthers cut the deficit to within a TD after a 39-yard Graham Gano field goal with 10:21 remaining—but Denver sealed its conquest with Miller’s second strip-sack and then, three plays later, a two-yard plunge from running back C.J. Anderson, who fought for 90 yards on 23 carries. Afterward the QB sulked and stalked out of his postgame press conference. (The league MVP also produced a GIF that will live in Super Bowl infamy when he pulled up, seeming to think better of attempting to recover a fourth-quarter fumble, as if Denver’s D had gotten not just into the backfield but into his head.)
Meanwhile, on the other side of a curtain drawn to separate the teams, Phillips climbed atop a podium and said his father would have been proud that “we kicked the door down.” In his 45th season as a coach, in his first Super Bowl since 1990 (also as Denver’s coordinator), with four of his sisters screaming from the fifth row of the stands, he secured his first ring.
“Not bad for an old man,” said Laurie. She meant her husband, but she just as easily could have meant Manning. Or Ware. . . . Or two quarterbacks who roomed together on the road from 1983 to ’91.
“This season took 20 years off my life,” says Elway. “But Gary added what we needed: toughness. Our team may not always play well for 60 minutes. But we have played hard every game for 60 minutes.”
How the hell did John Elway and Gary Kubiak end up here? With parallel paths that diverged and then rejoined. Because one man lost his father. Because the other suffered a mini-stroke on national television.
As the 1983 NFL draft approached, Elway was the All-America quarterback from Stanford who didn’t want to play for the Baltimore Colts, owners of the No. 1 pick. Gary Kubiak had played the same position at Texas A&M, but his draft stock was . . . pretty much the opposite. Elway went No. 1 to the Colts, who one week later traded him to the Broncos, the same team that had taken Kubiak in the eighth round of the same draft.
That’s how this all started. The QBs bonded over The Andy Griffith Show, binge-watching in hotel rooms. They did everything together—golf, family dinners, film study, practices. Even their lockers were side by side.
Sunday was the only day that their relationship wasn’t that of equals. Elway was the star, the quarterback who led the Broncos to five Super Bowl appearances in 16 years. Kubiak? He aided Elway from the shadows, first as his backup, then as a coach, from 1995 to ’98. Kubiak was Denver’s offensive coordinator when Elway and the Broncos trounced the Falcons, 34–19, to win Super Bowl XXXIII in ’99. He saw the physical toll the game had exacted on Elway, who missed four starts that final season with a hamstring injury and torn rib cartilage. Elway looked more relieved than elated at the end.
While everyone pegged Kubiak for the head coach he would become (with the Texans in 2006), few expected Elway to remain in football. But a man like Elway, competitive to the core, can only play so much golf and buy so many car dealerships, and in ’01 he decided to return. His father, Jack, died of a heart attack in April of that year, but before he passed, he spent the last month of his life with his son, passing on every lesson he learned over decades of coaching and scouting college and professional football players. His final piece of advice: Build around a quarterback.
In 2011, Broncos owner Pat Bowlen hired Elway (who first honed his management game with the AFL’s Colorado Crush, from ’03 to ’08) as his vice president of football operations. “We could have given him a ceremonial role, where he could have done his thing and been around to offer advice,” says Joe Ellis, Denver’s CEO. “But he did not take kindly to that [idea]. John never took a half-baked approach to anything. That isn’t always the case with a guy of his stature.
“The fans had lost trust in our football team,” Ellis goes on, alluding to a 12-year period, after Elway retired, in which the Broncos won more than 11 games just once. “John opened the door to regain that trust.”
Elway signed Manning from the Colts in 2012, the same quarterback who’d been drafted No. 1 in 1998, Elway’s final season. True to his father’s advice, the GM retooled around his franchise passer. That started with the defensive upgrades and continued when he fired Fox, replacing him with an old friend before this season. “John was doing that when he was playing,” says Terrell Davis, his former teammate. “John was the one putting players in the offense. I wouldn’t say he was in control of personnel, but basically, if you didn’t play [to John’s standards], you were out of there.”
Kubiak had decamped to Houston from 2006 through ’13. His record there when the Texans fired him: 61–64. Then there was the mini-stroke, suffered as he walked to the locker room at halftime of a Sunday Night Football game in his final season, when the then 52-year-old staggered and collapsed and his eyes rolled back in his head. He left the field on a stretcher and was taken to the hospital in an ambulance. The incident forever changed him. He cut back on his hours and delegated to assistants. “But the core of Kubiak,” says Davis, who spent Super Bowl week around his old team, “is still the same.”
That’s what Elway wanted: a coach who kicked and screamed. A coach who wasn’t afraid to pull Manning when injury and age rendered him ineffective. Who wasn’t afraid to play Osweiler, an apprentice of four seasons who guided the Broncos down the stretch.
In Week 15, Kubiak stood before his team following a 34–27 road loss to the Steelers. Ellis had never seen him that emotional, and they’ve known each other for more than 20 years. “Are you guys in this thing?” Kubiak pleaded. “Are you with me?” The Broncos won their next four straight, each by seven points or fewer, mirroring the theme of their season—they went 11–3 in those contests, an NFL record for such wins—to reach the Super Bowl.
“This season took 20 years off my life,” says Elway, the first person in NFL history to win a Super Bowl as a QB and GM. “But Gary added what we needed: toughness. Our team may not always play well for 60 minutes. But we have played hard every game for 60 minutes.”
Late Sunday night, after the confetti had fallen and the Lombardi Trophy had been hoisted, it was Kubiak whom reporters surrounded while Elway did his best to stay in the background. The band—Elway, Kubiak, Phillips, Ellis—was back together, silverware in hand. Everything was perfect. Except for one thing.
Minutes after the end of Super Bowl 50, Broncos owner Pat Bowlen’s wife, Annabel, their seven children and Pat’s siblings all gather around a laptop. Pat is back in Colorado, staring back at his family from 1,250 miles away. They talk; he listens. Pat had watched the Super Bowl on the big-screen television in his bedroom, but no one in his family could know for certain whether he’d grasped what had taken place. “I like to think he could sense what was going on,” says Ellis.
Before Alzheimer’s disease robbed Bowlen of what he loved most—the Broncos—he competed in triathlons, ushered the NFL into its silly-money television era, helped NBC Sports’ Dick Ebersol create Sunday Night Football and chaired the league’s labor committee for 10 years. When he and Elway won their first Super Bowl, in 1998, he held the Lombardi Trophy above his head and yelled, “This one’s for John!”
Paul Tagliabue, the NFL’s commissioner from 1989 through 2006, saw the league change dramatically in four areas over his tenure—TV revenue, labor peace, stadium construction and international growth. “Pat might have been the only owner who had a major role in every one of those four areas,” Tagliabue says. “I worked with over 100 owners. I would put Pat in the top five.”
Those close to Bowlen don’t want to share publicly the details of his health. They just know that eventually he stopped going to Denver’s practice facility every day—literally Monday through Sunday—unable to complete the ritual he’d followed for more than 25 years.
At NFL owners’ meetings, Ellis sits in the seat that Bowlen once occupied, right across the table from Cowboys oligarch Jerry Jones. “I like not to think about [the Alzheimer’s],” says Jones. “I still feel Pat’s presence sitting there across from me. I don’t want to think about it any other way.”
“The disease is so wicked and unfair,” says Ellis. “Here’s a guy who had so much to offer, and the disease—it takes away your mind and it takes away your life. It took away what Pat loved more than anything. He loved this team. He loved his players. I should say loves. He would have said that this team has an esprit de corps. For him not to be able to share that anymore, it’s just not fair.”
The Elway hire in 2011 was among the last major football decisions that Bowlen made. That led to Manning and the defensive overhaul and the return of Kubiak and Phillips, a chain of events that produced a championship that today the owner may not comprehend.
In October, Ellis drove to Bowlen’s house to share some news: The 71-year-old would be inducted into the franchise’s Ring of Honor on Nov. 1, when the Broncos hosted the undefeated Packers. A smirk surfaced on Bowlen’s face. “Now, why the hell would you guys want to do that?” he asked.
What a glorious day that was, though. Denver decimated Green Bay 29–10, improving to 7–0. Annabel addressed the crowd. That’s the one ceremony Ellis can remember where no one seemed to leave their seats.
Bowlen, in the end, could not attend. But Ebersol flew in for the ceremony, and four hours before kickoff he was invited to the Bowlen home. Pat was having a decent day. The two men, friends of more than 20 years, spoke for 40 minutes, Ebersol doing most of the talking. “In so many ways, he was still the Pat I knew,” says Ebersol. “And he said two things that were so Pat.”
The first, as Ebersol would begin to speak: “Slow down, say that again.”
Says Ebersol, “He always used to say that.”
The second, as Ebersol prepared to leave for the stadium: “Please stay.”
The two men talked for another 15 minutes. “Will you come back?” Bowlen asked.
“Do you want me to?” Ebersol replied.
They made plans for a follow-up trip. “As tough as it all is, I still feel the essence of him there,” says Ebersol. “Those eyes! At no point did I not have Pat Bowlen’s eyes staring at me, with him listening and trying to pick up everything I said. That’s the same way he was in every deal I had with him.”
Three months later, there stood Elway, atop the stage in Santa Clara, trophy in hand. There’s really only one thing he could have said in that moment, and here he screamed it.
“This one’s for Pat!”
“There were only two negative things that happened to me in football. One was losing. The other was getting hurt.Other than that, it was a great life. But it ends, for all of us.” —Joe Namath
The Broncos’ postgame party unfolds at the same Santa Clara Marriott where Elway celebrated his first wedding, 22 years ago. Flo Rida performs near the cigar-rolling station, a photo area and a lavish buffet. Befitting the crowd, there are both vegetable cups and Jell-O shots. And strobe lights. Outside, Talib stands with two gold Coors Light bottles in hand, the moment recalling one of the famous Coors slogans—Turn it loose! Which is precisely what the Broncos’ defense did against the Panthers.
Manning is nowhere to be seen. He left the game with his family, without confirming his retirement or his return. It seems likely that he could follow his general manager’s career path: win a second Super Bowl and call it quits.
Part of Archie wants Peyton to return. And part of him wants Peyton to retire. He knows as well as anyone the toll the NFL takes on every player, no exceptions. In the last two years alone, Archie has had a back fusion, a knee replacement and neck surgery. Just last week his good friend Ken Stabler, the former Raiders QB who died at age 69 from colon cancer last July, was found to be in the advanced stages of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head.
Joe Namath can also sympathize. He retired after a chronic knee injury and two hamstrings that he describes as having been “severed.” He still feels the pull of the game, the back and forth. “If I didn’t physically have to stop,” he says, “I would still be playing. There were only two negative things that happened to me in football. One was losing. The other was getting hurt.
“Other than that, it was a great life. But it ends, for all of us.”
Miller leaves the party early, his personal stylist in tow, in search of another gaudy outfit for another round of interviews on Monday. He will be a free agent this summer, and it’s likely that the Broncos will make him the richest defender in history. But for now, that can wait. “Players like him come every 15 to 20 years,” says his best friend, 49ers defensive end Tony Jerod-Eddie. “The future, the possibilities, are infinite.”
Von Miller’s Wild Ride didn’t end in college, in Denver, or in Santa Clara—even with all the diversions and missteps along the way. This playoff run solidified the beginning of one era (Miller’s) and the ending of another (Manning’s). On Sunday, with an audience enraptured by his ascendency, Miller found Newton, repeatedly. He found his moxie and the perfect game plan. And, most important, for television purposes, he also found his pants.
Additional reporting by Ben Baskin, Greg A. Bedard and Austin Murphy