JERSEY CITY, N.J. — John Elway says Peyton Manning cannot stamp himself as the greatest quarterback in NFL history even if he wins the Super Bowl on Sunday.
Elway told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he's come to realize the argument over who's the best QB ever is a lot like beauty: It's in the eye of the beholder.
"I don't think there's ever going to be a 'very best.' I think there's always going to be a conversation," said Elway, the Broncos' Hall of Fame quarterback-turned-executive vice president who lured Manning to Denver after his release from Indianapolis two years ago.
Manning has the chance to become the first starting quarterback to lead two franchises to Super Bowl titles when the Broncos play the Seahawks at MetLife Stadium.
When Manning signed with the Broncos on March 20, 2012, Elway declared, "My goal is to make Peyton Manning the best quarterback that's ever played the game."
But at the team hotel on the Hudson River on Wednesday morning, Elway said he now realizes that question will never truly be answered "even though when he walks away Peyton may well have broken every single record."
"So, you're going to always have your detractors, but he may have a large percentage of 'who's the best,' you know what I mean?" Elway said. "Yeah, all he can do is he can continue to cement his legacy, especially if he continues to keep going like the year he had this year. And I'm going to try to make sure he has all the weapons to be able to do that."
Manning has brushed off all questions about his legacy this week.
With Manning leading the huddle and Elway the front office, Denver is back in the big game for the first time since the Broncos won back-to-back titles in 1998 and '99, after which Elway tried his hand at running restaurants and car dealerships.
Those businesses "don't have scoreboards on Sundays," so Elway returned to his beloved Broncos in 2011 to rescue the foundering franchise after a slow descent under Mike Shanahan and a nosedive under Josh McDaniels.
Tebowmania quickly came and went and with Manning throwing for 99 touchdowns, the Broncos have gone 28-6 the last two years.
Elway looked more relaxed in his suit and tie than he ever did during the weeks preceding the five Super Bowls he played in, wins over Green Bay and Atlanta after losses to the Giants, Redskins and 49ers.
That's because Super Bowl week is way more stressful on a quarterback, he said.
"Well, I'm finally at the stage where I worry about what I can and can't control," Elway said.
This is quite the contrast from Jan. 12, when the Broncos fended off a fourth-quarter rally for a 24-17 win over San Diego that avoided a repeat of their crushing loss to Baltimore exactly a year earlier. Elway said he was "absolutely miserable" watching that game and "it took me four hours to get the pit out of my stomach afterward."
"San Diego was different because that was a hump we had to get over because of Baltimore," Elway said. "So, that was something that we had to put in our rearview mirror because if we hadn't done it, then we're going to be talking about it for another full year. Then, we're dealing with another year of the same thing."
That 38-35 double-overtime loss to the Ravens, helped along by Rahim Moore's infamous gaffe that allowed Jacoby Jones to haul in a 70-yard touchdown pass in the final minute of regulation, haunted the Broncos for 365 days — and might return to burden them anew if they don't beat Seattle on Sunday night.
As Terrance Knighton put it, "Our goal wasn't to get here. Our goal was to get out of here — with the Lombardi Trophy."
That's been Elway's message since last January, delivered both subtly and forcefully at times. Manning said Elway created an "uncomfortable atmosphere" at Dove Valley last offseason.
Elway used Denver's sloppy 40-10 preseason loss at Seattle in mid-August as an opportunity to send a message about effort and expectations.
"John pretty much laid it on us," Manning recalled Wednesday. "He was not happy with that game. It was a butt-kicking, and whether it's preseason or regular season, he was just sharing his thoughts that that won't be accepted."
So unusual was Elway's exasperation that Manning took notes, which he said he reviewed this week in preparing for the Seahawks.
"He talked about what he thought our potential could be and didn't want to see that wasted," Manning recounted. "So, I think guys got the message. If I was reading it the right way, he might've been giving the message to some coaches as well. ... I think it was a challenge, too, that he saw some real potential in this team. He thought it had the makings of a special team and just wanted to be sure we were going to max out."