John Elway is competing and trying to win football games, just like always.
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In that sense, he says his job as the Denver Broncos’ executive vice president of football operations is much like quarterbacking the team. He’s right. And he’s wrong.
Elway believes "competitiveness and wanting to win" are among his qualifications for the job, but it’s just not that simple, is it?
Nobody’s more competitive than Michael Jordan, but nobody has failed more spectacularly in a subsequent phase of pro sports. Matt Millen and Dan Marino in football, Isiah Thomas and Jordan in basketball and Wayne Gretzky in hockey are recent examples of great players who have struggled as executives.
Elway is thriving. Certainly, acquiring Peyton Manning helped, but the Broncos have built a Super Bowl-level roster since Elway took over in January 2011.
"Obviously, he’s done a great job with personnel, putting together this team," said offensive guard Zane Beadles.
Judging anyone’s work ethic is tricky, yet it’s evident that Elway is succeeding because he was well prepared for this level of responsibility and is committed to the profession. His job description is much more than just being John Elway, in other words.
He does have the aura of a legendary quarterback who led the Broncos to two Super Bowl victories in the 1990s, but that takes him only so far. "In my position now, it’s kind of trying to stay two steps ahead and make decisions on what we have to do in the future," Elway said during the Super Bowl XLVIII Media Day.
Brian Billick has studied NFL organizations closely in his six seasons of broadcasting after being fired as Baltimore’s coach, partly in the interest of publishing a book. Elway’s success in the front office remind him of how former NFL star Ozzie Newsome became an outstanding executive in Baltimore, although Newsome worked his way through the system as a scout and personnel evaluator.
Elway is more like Marino and others who moved immediately into a high-profile job — except he’s doing it well, in contrast to other ex-players. "Typically, they come in and they’re out of their element," Billick said. "But John came in, surrounded himself with good people, set a structure for himself, got a good coach [John Fox] and created that relationship."
Elway obviously benefited from eight years of experience as co-owner/CEO of the Colorado Crush of the Arena Football League, even though he was less involved in player personnel. He’s smart, with a Stanford education and a background in auto dealerships.
Billick cites examples of former NFL players who were interested in coaching, but were shocked to learn how much work was involved. On a different level, Elway knew what he was getting into as an executive, and he’s delivering.
The players enjoy having a nice, casual relationship with Elway, Beadles said. And imagine being No. 2 quarterback Brock Osweiler, having Manning as a mentor and Elway as a boss. Elway is not an overwhelming presence, pretty much staying in the background. He addressed the team once during the preseason and again in the playoffs. He may become more prominent Sunday, hoisting another Vince Lombardi Trophy. As much as Elway struggled to finally win one Super Bowl and then another as a player, producing a championship as an executive would be just as impressive in its own way.
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