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Remembering great - no, GOAT - quarterback play in Denver

In the second episode of the second season of “Peyton’s Places,” Peyton Manning sits down with his former boss, John Elway. And it’s Mile High Magic.

Good morning, Broncos Country!

I was going to string together a bunch of Drew Lock quotes for this morning’s post.

And then I started watching the new season of “Peyton’s Places,” the ESPN+ series where Peyton Manning travels around the country visiting legendary players and historic places to tell really interesting stories within the NFL’s past and present while always looking toward the game of the future. It’s really about the best thing on TV.

The second episode features John Elway, and while watching two legendary quarterbacks from two different eras of the game - both of whom we are beyond fortunate enough to call former Broncos quarterbacks - I decided it would be more fun to reminisce for a moment about two eras when we actually had franchise QBs.

Manning opens the second episode walking onto the field at Broncos Stadium with Elway, noting that when he came to Denver in March 2012 to talk to Elway about playing for the Broncos after neck surgery, the famed Broncos-quarterback-turned-GM didn’t try to sell Manning on the team or on the city of Denver.

“We really just talked quarterback to quarterback,” Manning says. “That really meant a lot to me.”

The show cuts to the introductory press conference when Elway tells the media he believes Manning still has a lot of great football left in him, and Manning narrates, “After my neck surgery, John Elway believed in me more than anyone else.”

We all know how that turned out, and it is sublime. But in typical Manning style, the show doesn’t even highlight the championships next. Instead Manning expresses his gratitude for Elway, the Broncos and Frank Tripuka agreeing to unretire the No. 18 so he could wear it.

Manning gets in a few jabs about how his “retired number sign” at the stadium is pretty small, and while laughing with his former boss asks if he had told Elway that the only way he’d play in Denver was to have No. 7, what would he have done.

“You would have had No. 7,” Elway says, and Manning interjects immediately, “Really?” To which Elway adds. “Heck yeah. We would have shared that No. 7.”

Now I don’t believe that for a minute, but who cares, it’s great watching these two former quarterbacks reminisce about some really great days of football.

Elway’s arm

One of the most entertaining parts of the show is reminding football fans just how hard Elway could throw the ball. So hard in fact, that he once broke Eddie McCaffrey’s fingers and that receivers would talk about the “Elway Cross” that would be implanted on their chests from the end of the football.

To test this football lore, Manning claims to have “asked around Denver for some volunteers” but with no luck.

So they recreate the “Barrel Man” with a dummy made of gel used by FBI ballistics experts to test the impact of weapons on a human body. and ask Elway to throw at his chest. And sure enough, the Elway Cross can be seen on the gel. In other words, his throws really were like bullets.

In his defense for the pain caused to his receivers, Elway had a legit argument: “It’s not my fault my fault they get a tattoo. If they’d catch it in their hands, it wouldn’t hurt.”

As Manning then pointed out, “it’s really a choice - do you want to break your fingers or do you want an ‘Elway cross?’”

‘In the biggest moments’

But the best part of the episode is Manning and Elway doing some film breakdown of some of Elway’s greatest moments, to which Manning highlighted that one of Elway’s greatest assets was having “his greatest games in the biggest moments.”

So of course the first choice to review was “The Drive” (an iconic moment in NFL history that Manning admits he made Marvin Harrison re-enact with him when the Colts were going to play the Cleveland Browns - priceless).

“That was the longest TV timeout in history and Keith Bishop gets in the huddle and says, ‘You know what guys, we got ‘em right where we want ‘em,” Elway laughed. “First and 10 from the two!”

As often as we’ve all watched The Drive, there is nothing like watching it as possibly the most studious film guy breaks it down with the guy who engineered it.

“You actually had a lot of work and effort to get this first first down. It was almost the shortest drive in history,” Manning points out about the third-and-two from Denver’s 10 that required a measurement to determine if they had gotten it.

“We get that one and now we have some breathing room,” Elway recalls.

Amidst the clips showing each play via the original broadcast, there’s a cut to Manning’s expression while watching. And it looks like the one we all had as fans watching the same game in real time...and again every time we watch it.

After the completion to Steve Watson, Manning says, mostly to himself, “That’s a heckuva throw.”

But after a sack to Elway, it’s third-and-18, “The last place you want to be,” says Manning.

And Elway just laughs. Because he remembers the next play all too well - a 30-yard dart to Mark Jackson. First down at the 20.

“That one had some heat,” Manning points out, adding, “that had to be an Elway Cross” - and his former boss agrees.

But it was almost a blown play as the snap hits Watson in motion and Elway has to grab it low.

“It’s a half-inch from being a disaster,” Elway says. “Because it was so loud, we’re on silent count...I actually asked for the ball a little too quick before I sent Steve in motion. This is kinda my fault and you can see I’m trying to say ‘whoa whoa wait’ with my hand...it’s really amazing it even got through there.”

With each completion, the Dog Pound was getting quieter and quieter, and after that pass, Elway noted how much quieter the crowd noise was.

Elway runs for a first but is a yard short; it’s third-and-1 from the five.

“A lot of teams here would say run the ball and get the first down, get four new downs,” Manning says. “You guys go ahead and take a shot.”

As the two watch the next play, Manning’s fandom for good football comes through - gritting his teeth as Elway hits Jackson for the touchdown.

“It’s called blitz-quick-62-rub,” Elway says, noting that Jackson goes in motion with Vance Johnson up there too. “The ball is really meant to go to Gerald Wilhite in the flat, but Clay Matthews does a heck of a job getting over the top of the rub route, so that opens Mark up on the inside.”

The announcers note the velocity on Elway’s pass - and that was by design.

“I just remember going, ‘OK, if Mark doesn’t catch this ball, I’m going to make sure no one else can catch this ball’,” Elway recalls. “So I just tried to throw it as hard as I can and keep it as low as I can because I didn’t want to miss somebody coming from inside out.”

Because of the terrible field, Elway actually slips a little but still gets a laser pass by a defensive lineman’s upraised arm.

Manning asks Elway if he ever thinks about what could have happened if he doesn’t get the ball off Watson’s leg or the defender hits that pass.

“It’s such a small margin of error in the league,” Elway says. “Those little things could have changed history.”

Some perspective

OK, so now that I’ve probably enticed you to go back and watch Elway highlights - and hopefully to check out this Peyton’s Places episode (the whole series is worth the subscription, trust me!), it’s worthwhile to note the full careers of these two legendary quarterbacks.

Both had big ups and big downs. Both struggled early in their careers. Both brought incredible talent to the position in different ways and both impacted the game immeasurably. But that took 16 and 18 years to fully accomplish.

I don’t know that Drew Lock is or isn’t going to be a franchise quarterback for Denver - and I’ve been as disappointed as the rest by what seems to be repeated mistakes in poor decision-making at times.

But although Lock is playing in a completely different football era than Elway or Manning, if there’s anything we should have learned from those two, it’s that playing quarterback is really difficult and a lot goes into growth - primarily study and repetition. Lock still has four games to work on that - and given the Broncos options in 2021 - maybe another real season to prove it.

On our podcast this week, Tim, Jess and I debated Lock’s future. In the moment, I said if Lock doesn’t show improvement over these next four games, then I’d be in favor of doing whatever it takes to trade up and get a better quarterback in the draft. I still lean that way - if a top quarterback can be acquired - but I’m also recognizing the benefit of giving a talented prospect like Lock a real offseason of film study with a coach (Peyton, are you busy?), chemistry-building with receivers and more time in Shurmur’s playbook.

And I’ll be hoping Lock’s commitment to doing better is real:

“It’s tough to go back and watch [your interceptions] multiple times, but you have to. You have to learn from it and see where your mistakes are coming from and know when to not make those mistakes,” Lock said Wednesday. “It just goes back to when those first look, second look, or maybe even the third look aren’t there, it’s time to get to the fourth look and check it down if you have to. It’s something that I’m still developing, but I feel like I’m also getting better with time. It’s just about making that right decision 100 percent of time. At the quarterback position, you make two errant throws that force picks in that last game and that’s two too many. So, just got to keep focusing on it and keep making the right decision with the ball.”

[look at that, I got a Lock quote in after all!]

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