ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- To appreciate where the Broncos are, consider where they were six months ago.
In the offseason, the hits kept on coming for the Broncos organization: two alcohol-related driving offenses for executives in football operations and the news that
"Both those ruined my summer. I know exactly where I was sitting when I got both those phone calls," Executive Vice President of Football Operations John Elway said Thursday. "But those are the type of things that you know you're going to face."
Months later, Elway could laugh as he reminisced about those moments during a wide-ranging conversation with a handful of writers Thursday. That's what making the AFC Championship Game does; it's the accomplishment that signifies how Elway successfully ensured that such issues didn't sink the entire club.
NFL history is littered with teams that had a few incidents that exploded into conflagrations that consumed the entire operation and sunk their season. The Broncos avoided that for multiple reasons, starting with the strength of their on- and off-field leadership.
"To me, leadership and being a good leader is taking care of those and making sure that everyone feels comfortable, that when the house is on fire, we go ahead and take care of our business and realize that there's a solution to this, and we'll get through this, and come out the other end," Elway said.
"And I've tried to just be that rock on the front side, saying, 'We'll get it covered, we'll get it handled.'"
This is a proud moment for Elway, in part because the Broncos overcame so many obstacles to reach this point. Their presence in the AFC Championship Game is partially a testament to the overall strength of the organization three years into his stewardship of its football operations.
The trials Elway and the Broncos endured continued into the season. Nine first-team defensive players have missed 61 combined games to this point. Head Coach John Fox had to miss four games after undergoing aortic valve replacement surgery. Two of the three returning first-team All-Pros from 2012 missed at least half the season.
To say that the Broncos didn't miss a beat through everything would be false; the defense didn't finally reach an optimal performance level until recent weeks, when it allowed less than 20 points in three consecutive games after permitting just one sub-20 game in Weeks 1-15. But the depth of leadership on the coaching staff and in the locker room helped the Broncos withstand Fox's surgery and rehabilitation, as Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio guided them to a 3-1 record against the toughest quarter of the schedule.
"We were fortunate to have some veteran coaches on this team, some different options as far as who's going to be the interim," said Elway. "Jack is that logical guy, because he'd been with Fox, he understood Foxy, plus he'd been a head coach for nine years."
"The team was a little bit battle-hardened," Elway added later. "And I think that the way that we’re set up, that the coordinators are very involved and really running both sides of the ball. Plus, we have veteran leadership."
Another step in the future is building an organization that has a high level of expectation and credibility that persists through the eras. Elway succinctly describes this as building a team that isn't about winning now, but from "now on." Never has this been more of a challenge than in the modern era of the sport, where salary-cap calculations and football considerations must be merged.
"When you have success it gets tougher because it means you have a lot of great players and it makes those decisions tougher when you go into the following year," Elway said. "I look forward to that challenge but we know that we’re going to be there so we have to continue figuring out ways to get better, too.”
Other clubs have figured out how to sustain success through the inevitable attrition of the roster, including two of the other three teams in the championship round; Elway's goal for the Broncos is to join them.
"The Niners' history makes them always a part of it. Because when (players) walk in that building, they know what the 49ers are about. So players know the history, the legacy of what the Niners have created. It's the same thing with New England, the legacy that they've created there. The Pittsburghs, the Green Bays, the great teams that are great year-in and year-out that have been to a lot of Super Bowls, they've created that legacy.
"That's what we want to create here, too. There is the legacy of what Pat Bowlen's created here in the fact that we know there's one thing that he wants. If you've got an owner that wants that and gives you all the opportunity and things that he can to make that happen, then you've got a chance."