When the Denver Broncos return to football’s biggest stage in nine days, it will have been 15 years and one day since the last time the storied franchise was featured on televisions around the globe.
In Super Bowl XXXIII, John Elway was electric. Sure, that was the year of Terrell Davis, when the running back went over 2,000 yards in the regular season and was named NFL MVP. But that game, Elway’s career finale, was all about passing the football all over the Atlanta Falcons.
When it was said and done, Elway threw for 336 yards and one score – the 80-yard bomb to Rod Smith that FOX nearly missed on a commercial break – while sneaking another touchdown over the line behind Mark Schlereth.
If you’re a Broncos fan, those details are likely not new to you. What could be is this fact: Denver went through 11 different starting quarterbacks between Elway and Peyton Manning in the decade and a half since last being Super Bowl bound.
Those QBs, in chronological order are; Brian Griese, Chris Miller, Gus Frerotte, Steve Beuerlein, Jake Plummer, Danny Kannell, Jarious Jackson, Jay Cutler, Kyle Orton, Chris Simms and Tim Tebow.
Chris, who? Danny, what? Jarious Jackson?!
For multiple seasons in a row, the team was led on a disjointed journey by journeyman quarterbacks.
In fact, the only quarterback still playing today that was competing in Elway’s days is Manning, who was in his sophomore season when the Duke of Denver retired. Fast forward 15 years and Elway has engineered a championship team, with his most major signing being the services of Mr. Manning.
15 years is the longest Super Bowl drought in the history of the franchise, with the 2000s being Denver’s first decade as a member of the NFL without an appearance in the league’s championship game.
At the end of Mike Shanahan’s reign, which was capped by three straight mediocre seasons, he had made the switch from Plummer to Cutler before being fired. Josh McDaniels came in, drafted Tebow and then started Orton, riding the journeyman out of town. Eric Studesville took over for three games to end that terrible 2010 season, in which the Broncos finished 4-12, the worst record in their NFL history. Finally, John Fox took the reins of the Broncos, making the gutsy call to start Tebow mid-way through 2011 and making the playoffs, then winning the AFC West for the second and third straight times, leading Denver back to the Super Bowl. That’s a total of four coaches since the late 90s.
What it all means is it’s been too long since the Broncos were in the Super Bowl.
It also means something simple; having an elite quarterback makes competing for a Super Bowl an easier task.
Of course, it’s simplistic to put records on quarterbacks’ shoulders, even when there are 52 other men on the team, because QB is the most important position in American sports.
For Elway, it was “win at all costs.” During the majority of his career, Elway was the only one resembling a playmaker on offense in Denver; he’d scramble and throw into impossibly tight windows, or simply take off and gain yards on the ground. In the late 90s, Elway led the Broncos back to those Super Bowls, but without Davis, Smith and Shannon Sharpe, he would have lost yet again.
There are certainly parallels for Peyton, but let’s start with one major difference: Elway was a football player, Manning is the definition of a quarterback. Manning’s redefined what playing QB means in the NFL, calling a vast majority of his plays at the line of scrimmage, forcing defenses to either flinch, call a timeout or allow the Broncos to score with ease. Of course, without phenomenal players to get the ball to – Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Eric Decker and Julius Thomas to name a few – Manning couldn’t be effective, either.
And when you look at it like that, it becomes clear; the 1998 and 2013 Denver Broncos are undoubtedly two of their most talented teams in franchise history.
So, take it all in, Broncos fans. Enjoy the trash talk, the silly quotes at Super Bowl Media Day, the focus on Richard Sherman and the questions of Manning’s ability to win in the cold.
Because, no matter what happens at the end of Super Bowl XLVIII, this Broncos team will cease to exist at that final whistle. Free agency will come and go, turnover is bound to occur and players will leave.
And, as we all know, it may be a long time until the beloved Broncos are back in the Super Bowl.
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