IN JOHN ELWAY'S line of work, days off can be hard to find. They're scarcest in the fall, which is why the Broncos' president remembers so clearly where he was when he got the call: It was Saturday, Nov. 2, during the team's bye, and he was at the Breeders' Cup in Los Angeles. He was walking up to the bettors window. He missed four races, he jokes now.
Information at the time was scarce. On a golf course in North Carolina, Denver coach John Fox had fallen faint. Aware of a defect in his aortic valve—one that he'd scheduled to fix after the season—Fox alerted his playing partners. An ambulance was called. Aspirin was chomped. Elway was phoned. By the end of the night the coach was scheduled for surgery, and just as the team announced defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio as the interim replacement on Monday, the coach reached a recovery room.
Fox would be gone nearly a month. The Broncos, as usual, carried on.
Three years ago, when Elway joined the front office, he couldn't have imagined the adversity he would face in 2013. He knew his task—bring a team that had gone 4--12 in '10 to relevance, then contention—and he did it. It sounds mathematical, procedural. It's been anything but.
From where Elway stood on March 1 of last year, things had to have looked rosy. The bitter taste of a double-overtime playoff loss to the Ravens remained, but this is a business in which bitter tastes fuel championships. He had a solid defense, anchored by Von Miller, Elvis Dumervil and Champ Bailey. He had a high-powered offense—hello, Peyton Manning—and it was only getting better after he signed receiver Wes Welker, and as tight end Julius Thomas blossomed.
Now, for a quick rundown of what's happened since: A fax machine fiasco left Dumervil a Raven, and two team executives were charged with DUIs. Miller was suspended for six games for violating the NFL's drug policy. One sprained foot ended All-Pro tackle Ryan Clady's season; another hampered Bailey's. A rare blood condition, compartment syndrome, felled free safety Rahim Moore in early November (he's still out); and one week later defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson dislocated his hip, ruling him out for the year. Fellow D-lineman Derek Wolfe's season ended with a seizure episode one week after that; Welker missed a stretch of three December games following his second concussion of the season; and in Week 16, Miller's campaign concluded with a torn right ACL. Cornerback Chris Harris suffered the same fate as Miller in a divisional playoff win; and in Sunday's AFC title game, both running back Knowshon Moreno (ribs) and corner Tony Carter (concussion) spent the fourth quarter in the locker room.... Which brings us to now, to Super Bowl XLVIII, where these Broncos are at once improbably and inevitably headed.
"When you have problems, being a good leader is taking care of those [issues] and making sure everyone feels comfortable," says Elway. "When the house is on fire, we take care of our business and realize that there's a solution. We'll come out the other end."
Even the rarest of the team's ailments are far from unique: As a Broncos corner in 2012, Tracy Porter suffered a seizure, and in '10, Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks battled compartment syndrome. Coaches' absences, however—those are harder to come by. To lose Fox, with his overwhelming energy and his scratchy voice that players could identify a hallway away, could have been even worse. Instead, it made the Broncos better. When Fox returned 10 pounds lighter on Dec. 2, the team had gone 3--1 in his absence. It seemed as if he'd never left.
Throughout it all Fox kept pushing his charges: next man up. In September the phrase was new. In October it got annoying. November it was bittersweet. By December, though, the coach looked like a genius. His team had a dozen next men up and was winning, some way, somehow.
"I know people are getting tired of hearing about it, but that mind-set [is important]," says Fox of his mantra. "You keep 53 guys—[some] that you don't necessarily want to see [play] ... but you keep them with the idea they're one play away from being a starter."
New starters have been minted, by necessity, in nearly every game. Even so, it's hard to say the Broncos have been unlucky: They finished the regular season 13--3 and set NFL records in nearly every scoring and passing category.
Really, it's more that there's been an absence of luck. But a team with as many weapons as this one—Manning, those receivers, and did we mention Manning already?—can win without celestial help, and that's just what they've done. They've won by refusing to believe that left tackle Chris Clark, undrafted out of Southern Mississippi in 2008, is any worse than Clady, a three-time Pro Bowler, and by putting Bailey, the best defensive player in franchise history, on something of a pitch count. They've won with linebacker Nate Irving, an '11 third-rounder with nary a start in his first two seasons, doing his best Miller imitation (it won't win an Oscar, but it's watchable), and with Welker wearing a space-age concussion helmet.
It's been awkward. But spend five minutes in Denver's locker room and dare to come out thinking these Broncos aren't better for their struggles. Five minutes—that's about as long as it takes this team to rebound.