It took a team that surrounded a future Hall of Fame quarterback for the Broncos to win their only two world championships. And now that Peyton Manning's return for an 18th NFL season and fourth with the Broncos is set in stone, the process of constructing that team can continue in earnest.
"It's one of the steps," Executive Vice President/General Manager John Elway said. "It's always a lot of steps in the offseason, and Peyton was one step, and [we're] glad we were able to get that finished, so we can move on. It's an emphasis for our football team, and we're going into this season with shared responsibility. Everybody's going to be a part of this. And we have a good football team."
All through the process, which covered 54 days -- from the day after the playoff loss until Thursday's physical -- Elway and Head Coach Gary Kubiak were consistent in wanting Manning back. They made their declarations in January and reiterated at the Scouting Combine that they wanted him in the fold, fully understanding that their best shot at taking the Broncos on the final steps to a world championship involved having a seasoned quarterback at the helm.
But even with said quarterback, you don't win without a balanced, talented team -- and in the salary-cap era, the more successful that team is, the more difficult it becomes to keep it together, like a game of Twister gone mad.
"This time of the offseason is always tough for everybody. It's a tough part of the business," Elway said. "In [this] time of year, we've got to put together the best football team that we possibly can, so we're glad that Peyton's going to be a part of that."
Some form of restructuring to the single biggest outlay was necessary. The difference in Manning's charge to the salary cap might not bring in an elite player by itself, but it might be the difference that allows the Broncos to keep one or two more of their own free agents -- or find a quality replacement for any that depart.
With five days left until the start of the league year, the Broncos now have more wiggle room with which to proceed -- while also having their single biggest new cap charge, the $12.823 million franchise tender to Demaryius Thomas, already accounted for.
Thomas is one of five players who collectively will account for $19,613,812 more under the cap this year than they did in 2014, per the numbers posted on Spotrac.com. The biggest increases in cash and cap belong to Thomas ($8,123,000), safety T.J. Ward ($4,500,000) and linebacker Von Miller ($3,140,182), who had his fifth-year option picked up.
Left tackle Ryan Clady (an increase of $2,000,000) and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders ($1,850,000) account for other seven-figure increases under the cap, and decreases of $937,000 to $1.187 million for four other players (Chris Harris Jr., Aqib Talib, Louis Vasquez and DeMarcus Ware) aren't enough to make up the difference, not by a long shot.
This is a problem you like to have, because each of the five players with significant cap and cash increases made the Pro Bowl last year. The afore-mentioned quartet with lower cap numbers in 2015 included three Pro Bowlers and one, 2013 All-Pro Vasquez, who might have made it had he not been asked to change positions at midseason.
The Broncos have received quality for their investment and kept dead money to a minimum. At this juncture, the only significant dead-money drag on the Broncos' salary cap is Matt Prater's dead money (although his 2015 charge, plus the salaries of kickers Connor Barth and Brandon McManus, adds up to $2,067,500 -- $1.995 million less than Prater would have counted for against the 2015 salary cap were he still with the Broncos on his old contract).
But along with year-to-year increases for younger veterans on their first contracts, salary-cap room vanishes quickly. That brings us to today, and the need to create more space to create more cap and cash room to retain, add from outside -- or most likely a combination of both.
The Broncos still hope to get a long-term deal forged with Demaryius Thomas, as with the previous two players given the franchise tag since Elway took over football operations. Keeping Miller will be a priority, as well. And other young, emerging players will be priorities in the future, a group that could include defensive lineman Malik Jackson, linebackers Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan and running back C.J. Anderson, among others. All have outperformed their contracts by a considerable margin.
The December contract extension forged with cornerback Chris Harris Jr. reveals a willingness to work toward such deals. But it's about the team. When the extension was announced, Harris admitted he accepted less money than he "definitely" would have received on the open market this spring.
"I know that, we all know that, but it's not all about money at the end of the day," Harris said Dec. 15. "It's about being happy, and I'm satisfied. I'm happy being here."
And it's also about winning, and having the best chance to do so. Now that Manning is officially back in the fold, they have their best possible shot for 2015 -- with a team that still has an enviable talent level, even after its roster absorbs inevitable hits in free agency next week.
"We're excited it's over, and glad that we can move on, and that Peyton's going to be a part of this team, and hopefully win a championship next year," Elway said.
No quarterback has ever started in a Super Bowl after turning 39, as Manning will next month. But six seasons ago, a 40-year-old Brett Favre came within one errant pass of having the Minnesota Vikings a field-goal attempt away from doing precisely that.
And Elway himself won back-to-back world titles at 37 and 38. But he did it with a well-constructed team around him, and while Manning is now positioned to point the Broncos to the promised land, if they get there, they'll do it as a team, and not a one-man show. That's the only way it can happen, and now the Broncos have that chance.
Relive Peyton Manning's career thus far through our collection of photos from his first year