ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --To appreciate where the Broncos are, just recall where they were before John Elway was introduced as executive vice president on Jan. 5, 2011: fresh off their worst season in four decades, only a month into picking up the pieces of a club left shattered by embarrassments on and off the field.
A franchise defined by its many peaks over the previous 35 seasons was in a valley unlike any it had known since at least half of its fans were born. The Broncos had just gone 4-12. The only season since 1970 that was worse in terms of winning percentage was the 2-7 finish in the strike-shortened season of 1982.
The following offseason brought Elway in a post-draft trade with the Baltimore Colts. Twenty-nine years later, it was Elway to the rescue again.
Both times, he flourished. His contract extension is a no-brainer. It is a justified reward for a 37-17 record achieved on his watch, but with the expectation that the team he helped build can achieve the one win lacking from three seasons of incrementally improved returns.
But last season's AFC championship would not have happened without a plan that began with purging the team of anyone who was not on board.
"I think number one, we had to clean up the locker room. We had to get to get the locker room right," Elway said last month. "Number one, we had to get the locker room right and get the right mentality in that locker room because that is really life bread of what the organization is all about. How that locker room fits is the most important thing."
Few understand that better than a former player like Elway.
The addition of the general manager title only confirms what has been evident about Elway's responsibilities: that in all matters football, he is the man in charge, and that the Broncos are now an organization in which the head coach reports to the general manager.
The opposite was the case throughout most of the previous decades, when power was usually consolidated in the head coach's office. Occasionally, one man had both titles, as was the case for Lou Saban and John Ralston in previous decades. But usually, the general manager did not have "final say" responsibility. Elway marks a return to this structure.
What helps Elway in his job is that he knows what he doesn't know, but knows how to lead, and set others up to succeed in their roles with the organization. And he also knew from the beginning what he didn't want to do; as he mentioned at his first press conference as a Broncos executive on Jan. 5, 2011, he didn't want to coach -- but he did want to run a team.
"This is what I have wanted to do for a long time," Elway said on the day he was introduced as executive vice president. That he has earned this extension and will continue in his job for the foreseeable future is the clearest evidence possible that through three seasons, the Elway Era has been a success.
Other factors will determine whether that continues in the future, starting with the Broncos' efforts in the draft. The long-term development of backup quarterback Brock Osweiler will likely play a crucial role in determining whether the Broncos can be successful after the Peyton Manning era ends; if the transition is smooth, that would affirm Elway's stated desire not to simply win now, but win from "now on."
But the indications to date are positive. Elway built a football operation that helped convince Manning to eschew other suitors for the Broncos in 2012. He built a team that was deep enough to withstand the extended losses of seven starters -- including two 2012 All-Pros -- to win the Broncos' first AFC title in 15 years. His pro scouts hit on free-agent signees like Willis McGahee in 2011 and Shaun Phillips, Louis Vasquez, Terrance Knighton and Wes Welker two years later. His college scouts helped located late-round and undrafted starters like Chris Harris Jr., Danny Trevathan and Julius Thomas.
As is the case with everything, it's not perfect. The Super Bowl served as a reminder of the distance that separates a very good team from being the best. But Elway has helped build an organization that has brought the Broncos from the sport's backwash to the cusp of its third Lombardi Trophy. The man who helped them come this far is the Broncos' best bet to help them take that one final step.