For 16 seasons, John Elway gave the Broncos stability and excellence at the game’s most important position. His accomplishments were so vast that the Broncos inducted him into the Ring of Fame and retired his jersey number at halftime of the first regular-season game after his retirement, bypassing the usual waiting period.
The next 13 seasons would see the Broncos look for his successor.
The Broncos had successful seasons from their quarterbacks over that span. Brian Griese earned a Pro Bowl selection following the 2000 season; Jake Plummer did the same in 2005 and Jay Cutler followed in 2008. The Broncos made six playoff appearances in this era, and remained competitive, enduring just two losing campaigns — 2007 and 2010.
But they could never get over the hump. Nine of the 13 seasons after Elway’s retirement saw the Broncos finish between 7-9 and 10-6. Mike Shanahan was dismissed as head coach after the 2008 season; his demise was hastened by a three-game season-ending losing streak when the Broncos needed just one win to earn the AFC West title. Josh McDaniels replaced Shanahan, but the team fell hard after a 6-0 start to the 2009 season, losing 17 of its next 22 games before he was dismissed with four games left in the 2010 season.
With the Broncos reeling from five consecutive seasons out of the playoffs, owner Pat Bowlen tapped Elway to return as executive vice president of football operations. In short order, Elway hired John Fox, re-signed Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey and used the Broncos’ highest pick in the NFL Draft to select outside linebacker Von Miller. Riding a revived defense and a slew of Tim Tebow-led late-game heroics, the Broncos battled back to an 8-8 season and an AFC West crown, then defeated the Steelers 29-23 on an 80-yard Tebow-to-Demaryius Thomas overtime touchdown strike.
The Broncos were back. But they still needed consistency at quarterback. Less than two months after their 2011 playoff run ended, Peyton Manning was on the free-agent market, and Elway was prepared to make a move every bit as bold as his comebacks as a player.