The following is an excerpt from Dave Logan’s (with Arnie Stapleton) recent publication, “If these walls could talk: Stories from the Denver Broncos’ sidelines, locker room and press box.”
Dave “Voice of the Broncos” Logan, a former standout Colorado high school wide receiver who played eight years in the NFL, and a current championship-winning Colorado high school football head coach, teamed up with long-time sports reporter and current Broncos’ beat reporter Stapleton to write tales of famous Broncos’ lore from their unique perspectives as former players, local journalists and fans.
Given that John Elway has announced he is stepping down as GM and will remain in a consulting role as president of football operations, this chapter recounting Elway’s return to the franchise in 2011 and its return to glory just a few seasons later seems especially apropos.
The man on the mic for countless memorable moments, Dave Logan has lived & breathed #Broncos football as the team's longtime play-by-play announcer. In 'If These Walls Could Talk: Denver Broncos,' Logan provides insight into the team's inner sanctum.https://t.co/RTpBfig8zj pic.twitter.com/Eg7Ez1suIY— Triumph Books (@TriumphBooks) September 29, 2020
Elway’s Comeback (Chapter 16)
Forty-seven times in his NFL career, John Elway brought the Denver Broncos back from fourth-quarter deficits to win games, and the floundering franchise needed its favorite son for one more colossal comeback.
Josh McDaniels’ 22-month misadventure left the Broncos shamed and defamed. Given too much power at too young an age, McDaniels had veered the Broncos into the ditch. He lost 17 of his last 22 games, chased off his two best players in quarterback Jay Cutler and wide receiver Brandon Marshall, and threw Champ Bailey’s status into question by calling off talks on a contract extension, leading the star cornerback to put his Denver home on the market.
Worst of all, McDaniels embarrassed the Broncos with the Spygate II videotape scandal in London that cast them as cheaters much like the original Spygate had stained the Patriots. This wasn’t exactly what Broncos owner Pat Bowlen had in mind when he hired Bill Belichick’s protégé to bring some of New England’s famously fastidious culture to Denver.
Absolutely NO ONE in Denver or Indy finds it odd at all. https://t.co/nojoSNYQNW— Doctor of Words (and tights) (@docllv) January 5, 2021
McDaniels was gathering his things following his late-afternoon ouster on December 6, 2010, when Eric Studesville’s phone rang. The first-year running backs coach saw it was Mr. Bowlen, who asked Studesville to come see him right away.
As he hurried to see Mr. Bowlen, Studesville’s mind raced. Surely, he was the next one to get fired. Bowlen asked him to have a seat and then told him he needed Studesville to do him a huge favor: Would he coach the Broncos in the final four games as the team’s interim head coach? Consider it a four-week job audition.
Studesville’s head was spinning. He gladly accepted the owner’s offer and went right to work, calling a meeting with the rest of the coaches and cobbling together a game plan while learning all the duties that the head coach handles, including news conferences with the local media, conference calls with the opponent’s media, broadcast production meetings, the coach’s weekly radio and television shows. Not to mention running practices, reviewing the film, and collaborating with coordinators on that week’s game blueprints and script of the first 15 to 20 plays, the ones that the team executes the best in practice and is most comfortable going with.
Six days later, the Broncos played at Arizona in a game that was hardly a résumé builder. Kyle Orton was awful, completing 19 of 41 passes for just 166 yards and three interceptions in a 43–13 thrashing at the hands of the Cardinals.
It was time for a bold move, and Studesville made a big decision three days later, announcing that Tim Tebow, the two-time Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Florida whom McDaniels had drafted in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft, would start for the remainder of that 2010 season, beginning with a game at Oakland on December 13.
The unconventional quarterback provided a tantalizing taste of both his boundless energy and his physical limitations when he completed just half of his 16 pass attempts for 133 yards and a touchdown and ran eight times for 78 yards, including a 40-yard barrel up the middle on a broken play. But the Broncos’ 39–13 loss at Oakland meant the Raiders had piled up a whopping 98 points on the Broncos that season, when Denver’s league-worst defense gave up an NFL-high 471 points.
The Broncos’ final two games were at home. On the day after Christmas, the Broncos faced the Houston Texans, who were coached by Gary Kubiak, John Elway’s longtime backup quarterback and one-time Broncos offensive coordinator whose departure from Denver following
Trailing 23–10 early in the fourth quarter, Tebow threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to running back Cory Buckhalter that made it a six-point game. On his next drive, Tebow kept the ball on a six-yard run around the left tackle with 3:02 remaining and fill-in kicker Steven Hauschka’s extra point gave Denver its first lead at 24–23. It also left the Texans plenty of time to get into range for a Matt Turk field goal.
Tight end Joel Dreesen’s 15-yard catch put the Texans on the Denver 40-yard line.
Two plays later, Matt Schaub’s throw to tight end Owen Daniels was intercepted by cornerback Syd’Quan Thompson at the 27. Tebow took two knees to close out both his and Studesville’s first career NFL victory.
The next week, Tebow threw for 205 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 94 yards and a score in a 33–28 loss to the San Diego Chargers that closed out the Broncos’ worst season in a non-strike year since 1967.
At 4–12, the Broncos owned the second overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft, behind only the Carolina Panthers, who had gone 2–14 and fired longtime coach John Fox, who was 71–57 in his first eight seasons and had reached the Super Bowl after the 2003 season, losing a 32–29 heartbreaker to Tom Brady and the Patriots.
The Broncos not only needed a new coach, they had to restore the team’s tarnished image and bring back its winning culture. Bowlen turned to Elway, the beloved Hall of Fame quarterback who led Denver to five Super Bowl appearances and back-to-back championships before retiring in 1999.
“Why am I here? I love the Broncos,” Elway said when Bowlen introduced him as the team’s new chief football executive on Jan. 5, 2011. “I understand what the Broncos are all about. They are about the integrity, about the winning, and about the things you do and how you handle yourself.”
Bowlen, whose team was coming off just its fifth losing season in his 27 years as owner, said, “I think John will return this team to a very high level of competitiveness. I think we’ll win some more Super Bowls.”
At 50, Elway felt like a rookie again. But he insisted he’d get up to speed quickly, tapping his experience growing up as the son of a football coach, playing for 16 seasons in the NFL, and running an arena league team for six seasons (he had led the Colorado Crush to a championship in 2005 as its co-owner and chief executive officer).
“I know what I don’t know,” declared Elway, who added that he’d already sought the advice of former NFL executive Ernie Accorsi, who drafted him in Baltimore—and traded him to Denver—and who was Cleveland’s general manager when Elway engineered “the Drive” in the 1987 AFC championship game to beat the Browns. “So, thank God there was no animosity and he took my call,” Elway said.
Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004, Elway said he wasn’t worried that he’d tarnish his legacy by returning as the team’s top football executive. Sure, fans would inevitably disagree with his decisions, draft picks, hires, fires, signings, and releases. But he could handle the heat. Nor was he concerned that so few great players make successful transitions to the front office, the most recent examples in the NFL being Dan Marino and Matt Millen.
“No, because I’m not them,” said Elway. Additionally, chief operating officer Joe Ellis became team president and Brian Xanders, who was basically relegated to consultant status under McDaniels, went from general manager in name only to one who was empowered in the new organizational chart.
“The question wasn’t whether John would be smart enough, whether he understood football or whether he loved the franchise. It was whether he was willing to dedicate the amount of time necessary to make it work,” Dave Logan said.
“John’s been very successful with many other things in his life. He certainly doesn’t need money. But people outside the organization wanted to know, Why would he want to do that now? Why would he want to come back and spend all the necessary hours?”
Because he’s John Elway, a man who had taken his fierce competitive streak from the football field to the business world, from the huddle to the executive suites.
Now he was bringing it back to the Broncos front office, and it was something that a year later would help him land the biggest free agent in NFL history, Peyton Manning.
“He answered all those questions early on when he returned to the team,” Logan said. “Signing Peyton was obviously a huge move…just look at the result. And that’s something that will forever be a part of John Elway’s legacy here in Denver.”
Elway’s first task in his new job was finding a new head coach, and one of the biggest questions the franchise faced was whether Tebow, who had supplanted Orton for the final three games, was their quarterback going forward.
“Tim Tebow is a darn good football player,” Elway said on the day he returned to work at Broncos headquarters. “What we have to make him is a darn good quarterback, and that is what we have to figure out.”
Elway would leave it to the next head coach to determine if Tebow was his starting quarterback. But he added something that would shape his field of candidates, saying, “I don’t believe that anyone is going to come over and say, ‘I don’t want Tim Tebow.’ If they do, then maybe they are not the right guy for the job.”
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