ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — As one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play, John Elway didn't have to wait long to assume his deserved spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In 2004, in his first year of eligibility, the Broncos legend was enshrined in Canton, Ohio and presented with his gold jacket and bronze bust.
Elway has returned to Canton on several occasions since his induction, and he was sitting onstage as Steve Atwater, Peyton Manning and John Lynch were enshrined into the Hall earlier this month.
As the Hall of Fame's Coach/Senior committee prepares to meet Tuesday to nominate a coach, contributor and senior player for election, Elway knows that more Broncos belong on that stage with him.
Three Broncos Ring of Famers — former linebacker Randy Gradishar and former head coaches Dan Reeves and Mike Shanahan — each have a compelling case for pro football's highest honor.
Gradishar, the 1978 NFL Defensive Player of the Year and a seven-time Pro Bowler, led the Broncos' Orange Crush defense to its place as one of the league's most dominant defenses. Despite Denver's run to Super Bowl XII, there is no member of the Orange Crush defense in Canton.
"Randy Gradishar, by far, is probably the most deserving guy to get into the Hall of Fame now, as far as when you look back now at the history of the NFL and what he did," Elway said recently. "He led the Broncos and Orange Crush defense back in the late '70s. I was fortunate to play with him my rookie year and get a chance to see him. What they did defensively and Randy being the general of that defense and the statistics that they had and getting to the Super Bowl in 1977 and Randy was the leader of that, there's not a guy more deserving on the defensive side when you talk about the Orange Crush defense, as dominant as they were back in the late '70s and early '80s.
"… Randy was the general of that. … [He's a] guy that's very, very deserving. Hopefully that happens soon, because there's not anybody more deserving than Randy."
Gradishar is seemingly the most deserving player of the group, as he is the lone eligible player with a Defensive Player of the Year award and at least seven Pro Bowls who has yet to be enshrined. The other 18 players who meet that criteria are all enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
"If you really compare Randy Gradishar to a lot of players that are in the Hall of Fame right now, he compares very favorably with all those," Elway said. "You look at all the numbers — Player of the Year and seven Pro Bowls and the statistics and the number of tackles that he had, hopefully it's soon that Randy gets into the Hall of Fame."
Elway said when he joined the team as a rookie in 1983, he was "in awe of Randy Gradishar" and appreciated the chance to practice against him during their one season as teammates.
Reeves would spend more time with Elway, as he guided the Broncos from 1981-1992. During their 10 years together in Denver, the Broncos found great team success. The Broncos reached the Super Bowl three times in a four-year span, though they were unable to win a Lombardi Trophy.
Following his career in Denver, Reeves spent time leading the Giants and the Falcons, and he helped Atlanta advance to a Super Bowl XXXIII meeting with Denver.
"Dan was a winner," Elway said. "When you look at the success that he had while he was in Denver as well as the success he had in Atlanta — going to three Super Bowls here and one in Atlanta, obviously unfortunately didn't win any of those
— but I think when any … head coach gets to four different Super Bowls with two different teams, it proves that he's a winner. Dan was very unique in how he approached the game and growing up under the tutelage of [former Cowboys coach] Tom Landry, he carried that through. I think that a lot of times that doesn't carry through with coaches, but Dan did a tremendous job and was a heck of a football coach. [He was an] offensive mind and did a heck of a job with getting great players in here."
Elway said that under Reeves, the Broncos always knew they were going to be in the game in the fourth quarter, and he credits Reeves with helping him reach his potential.
"Well, I think that Dan had a lot to do with our success, as well as my success, when we went to three Super Bowls," Elway said. "Obviously, coming in as a rookie, [I] struggled a little bit my first year, but we kind of went to the running game my second year and we kind of built over the years to where we became a very good football team in my fourth year and were able to win a lot of football games. I think [even] my second year we went 13-3. So we won a lot of football games, and that was the bottom line.
"Dan was a big benefit to my career from the fact that he worked me in and slowly, gradually, year by year, we continued to do more and more offensively, which allowed me to grow as a quarterback."
Reeves is not the only Hall of Fame-worthy coach who worked alongside Elway and racked up plenty of wins. Beginning in 1995, Shanahan and Elway went on a run of success that included back-to-back Super Bowl titles.
Shanahan is one of just four former head coaches with at least two Super Bowl wins who are not in the Hall of Fame. The eight other head coaches with at least two world championships have previously been enshrined.
Shanahan, the franchise's all-time winningest coach in the regular season (138), playoffs (8) and overall (146), oversaw a dominant team in the late '90s, but his success did not stop following Elway's retirement. The Broncos ranked in the top five in rushing yards in five seasons and in the top eight in passing yards in four seasons.
"I think when you look at what's going on offensively in the NFL today, Mike had a lot to do with that," Elway said. "He's so innovative on the offensive side. He went to San Francisco and learned the West Coast offense, and then he's just built off that and expanded off that, I think, that with the idea that we're still going to run the football and be a great running football team, but also play-action off that and then do tremendous things in the passing game. He was innovative in that respect and such a bright offensive mind of what defenses were going to do. Mike was the best coach I ever played for. It was a privilege for me to play for him."
Shanahan's 178 total career victories ranks 14th in NFL history, and seven of the coaches ahead of him are in the Hall of Fame.
When counting Shanahan's time as an assistant with the Broncos, his resume is even more impressive. While helping Denver to consistent offensive success, Shanahan earned 221 career wins. He is one of just six head coaches to win multiple Super Bowls and more than 200 games with one team.
Shanahan's coaching tree and offensive scheme continue to permeate throughout the NFL.
"It's not surprising, because that's how far ahead of the game he was and how good he was on the offensive side, and that's why Mike deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, because of the innovation of what he did on the offensive side, the West Coast offense, and really taking it to the next level with the idea of what the running game is still number one and we have to run the football and everything was built off that," Elway said. "But I think his influence because of the young [coaches] — you talk about his son, Kyle, but also all his coaching tree that has branched out through the NFL, and they've all been fairly successful running this system."
On Tuesday, Shanahan, Gradishar and Reeves will all have the chance to become Hall of Fame finalists.
There's no doubt in Elway's mind that they belong.