ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — John Elway has long known that Owner Pat Bowlen’s standards for the Broncos were high.
They were high when Elway was a player and the Broncos won two Super Bowls and appeared in three others.
They were high when Elway led the Broncos to two more Super Bowls — winning Super Bowl 50 — as an executive.
And they remain high now, even after Bowlen passed away Thursday night after a long battle with Alzheimer’s.
That’s why Elway knows that Bowlen wouldn’t be OK with three straight seasons without a playoff appearance and back-to-back losing seasons for the first time in nearly five decades.
“The standards have not been met the last couple of years, without a doubt, so there’s no question that this is a big year for us,” Elway said. “We understand that. … Pat would be very disappointed in it. It is our job to get it turned around and that does add more motivation.”
Elway and President and CEO Joe Ellis spent much of their press conferences Monday reliving memories with the late Broncos owner, but they also spoke at length about Bowlen’s competitive spirit and his standard that helped define a Pro Football Hall of Fame legacy.
Elway said the Broncos can “never lose” Bowlen’s standard that the team compete for world championships, and Elway said he considers those expectations every time he makes a decision.
“Every decision that I make is based off what Pat would do and what’s the best decision for the Denver Broncos,” Elway said. “That’s not my personal opinion or anybody else’s. The common denominator when you look at decisions being made is what’s best for the Denver Broncos. With that in mind, Pat Bowlen made the Denver Broncos and he set that standard, so everything is based off that.”
Broncos fans have seen that standard manifest itself in the form of three Lombardi trophies and seven Super Bowl appearances under Bowlen’s guidance.
The first win, which came on the tail end of Elway’s career, remains No. 7’s favorite football memory with Bowlen.
“I think it was giving him a hug after we won that first Vince Lombardi Trophy,” Elway said. “I think that he had been through those three losses and [knew] how much those three losses hurt. I think it hurt him as much as it hurt us as players, so to finally be able to win that one against Green Bay I think was a very special time to kind of say that we got there. I can remember the hug with him in the locker room and I think we were the last ones out of the locker room, too. That was the most special time because with him raising the trophy saying, ‘This one’s for John,' it was almost overwhelming because it was a surprise to me, but I just know … how hard it was. I don’t have the words, the adjective to explain my feeling when he did that.”
Elway, who won another Super Bowl the following year to cap his career, returned the favor to Bowlen at the end of the 2015 season when the Broncos beat the Panthers in Super Bowl 50.
As Elway hoisted the Lombardi, he shouted, “This one’s for Pat!”
“When he introduced me when I was coming back as the GM … he said, ‘Maybe one day he’ll say, “This one’s for Pat,”’” Elway said. “That was my goal when I took the job and for us to be able to win Super Bowl 50 for him and be able to return that favor was also very much a highlight and something I’ll always remember.”
Following Bowlen’s death, Elway has an added desire to lift the Lombardi again.
“Number one, we’ve got to get it turned around and number two, with Pat — thinking about Pat — it’s his memory,” Elway said. “There’s no question there’s more motivation to get this thing turned around.”