Updated: January 19, 2014 at 6:04 am
DENVER — Slouched into a leather office chair, John Elway tightened up when the conversation turned to a golf game. Augusta National has that effect on people.
"It was in May," Elway said, when he, Peyton Manning and John Fox, joined by a club member, formed a Foursome de Football. Three days, three rounds. They played from the member tees, not the tips, even if Manning and Elway carry single-digit handicaps.
"I beat him on the first day. He got me on the second," Elway said. "I nipped him on the third day. Won a buck."
We need a mulligan. The debate simmering around the AFC championship game at Sports Authority Field needs a mulligan. We're doing it wrong, again.
Who's the greatest quarterback inside Mile High on Sunday: Thomas Edward Patrick Brady or Peyton Williams Manning?
Neither. It's John Albert Elway.
This opinion can change, just as it will always change from generation to quarterback generation. This is what we know now: I'd take Elway over both.
I'd take Elway over all of them.
"Believe me, you would be in very fine shape with either one of those guys," he said of Brady and Manning. "Or either of the two guys in the NFC, too."
I think losing to the Chargers in the regular season helped the Broncos in their playoff win last week. I think losing to the Patriots will help the Broncos on Sunday.
When Elway's Broncos won Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII, "The teams that we played in the playoffs beat us (in previous matchups)," he pointed out.
"I think we're in a perfect situation. Last year, everyone was building us up, and sometimes that hurts you," Elway said. "This year, there is more of an underdog mentality for us in that no one thought we were going to get by San Diego, which to me is a very good thing."
The Broncos, for the past two seasons, have been the NFL's best team, and I think they will win Sunday and advance to the Super Bowl. This game will be agonizing for Elway, their top executive. His teams were 5-1 in AFC championships.
"I enjoy watching the regular-season games, but I was absolutely miserable last week watching that game," he said. "It took me four hours to get the pit out of my stomach after the game is over."
You know what Manning's doing. You've seen most of, if not all, his 55 touchdown passes and 5,477 yards. You saw the single rushing touchdown, the bootleg at Dallas.
It's admirable what Brady is doing. If he takes the Patriots to a Super Bowl without a Pro Bowl teammate at a skill position, it would be impressive, indeed.
It would be what Elway did — twice. In 1987 and '89, Elway carried the Broncos to Super Bowls without a running back, tight end or wide receiver selected to the Pro Bowl. In 1986, he had one, running back Sammy Winder.
"We had some people on there that couldn't have played for my high school," Broncos great Simon Fletcher told me. It was on John.
Elway's career basically was Brady's in reverse: Multiple Super Bowl losses early, multiple Super Bowl wins late.
Elway signed Manning. For 16 seasons, Broncos Country watched Elway torpedo the football around Mile High. For the past two, it has watched Manning shatter passing records like wine glasses.
You folks are spoiled.
"I don't know if there ever will be another rivalry like, or has been another rivalry like ... Brady and Manning," Elway said of their 15th matchup. "I (only) had two with Dan (Marino) in 16 years."
Elway said his rival, if there were one, would be Bernie Kosar. His Browns lost to Elway's Broncos in AFC championship games in '86, '87 and '89. Nice quarterback, but a cliff-dive from Brady (for Manning) or Manning (for Brady).
The Elway-Manning deal marked the first time a Hall of Fame quarterback signed another (future) Hall of Fame quarterback to a contract. The current Broncos roster, mostly assembled by Elway, has 18 players who weren't there last season.
"The way that we put the team together is we said, 'If we can find somebody better than that, we've got to find them. If they're out there, then we'll sign them,'" he said.
Elway suggested he is in this position, assembling Broncos rosters, for the long haul.
"I keep saying this: Everybody wants to talk about winning now. I say, 'No, it's not now. It's now on.'"
For Elway and the Broncos, it has been a road of bumps and swerves.
Elway was at the Breeder's Cup, at the betting window, when he learned his head coach, John Fox, was being taken to the hospital for an apparent heart attack.
"Needless to say, I missed four races," Elway joked.
For Elway and the Broncos, championship Sunday is an intersection of old and new.
His first Super Bowl, in 1986, was played against the Giants and defensive coordinator Bill Belichick. His first as executive would come after beating Belichick and the Patriots.
"They don't make mistakes," he said.
Manning is old, in football years, but Elway sounded optimistic he returns in 2014.
"We'll sit down at the end of the season and see where he is, and what his thinking is."
The prodigal quarterbacks remaining in the NFC - Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson - interested the Broncos in the draft. Denver traded a second-round pick to San Francisco, and the 49ers drafted Kaepernick.
"We liked Kaepernick a lot," Elway said, although he was iffy, and whiffy, on Wilson.
The NFL is about the quarterback. With Elway, the Broncos played in five Super Bowls. With Elway, the Broncos are on the verge of their first Super Bowl since then.
"When I first retired, I wanted to get away and see if there's something else out there instead of football. It took me two years, three years, to figure out there wasn't," Elway said. "There was success. I had the dealerships, the restaurants. But those don't have scoreboards on Sunday."
On the scoreboard of quarterbacks, Elway trumped Manning and Brady. For now, at least.