DENVER — John Fox sat in John Elway’s office awaiting a call from Peyton Manning.
Fox, Elway and the rest of the Broncos organization had done their best to lure the then-four-time NFL MVP to Denver. Now, they waited for Manning’s decision — a decision that would alter the future of whichever franchise he chose.
“It was pretty amazing. We had helicopters following us. There were stakeouts at the facility, trying to see where we went to dinner,” Fox told The Gazette. “We had kind of heard through the grapevine he was going to make his decision that day and basically it was just a phone call and he said ‘I’m coming to Denver.’ Obviously, there was excitement. I knew what he was going to mean to the franchise.”
Two years later, Manning won league MVP. Four years later, he helped the Broncos win Super Bowl 50. And now nine years later, he’ll be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as one of the greatest players not only in Broncos history but in the sport’s history.
"I will always be indebted to Denver," Manning said. "Really couldn’t have made a better decision to go out there and play back in 2012.”
While Manning was a sure-fire Hall of Famer in his 13 years as an Indianapolis Colt, his four seasons as a Bronco solidified his greatness and forever changed the franchise, arriving in Denver when the Broncos needed him most. The Broncos had been successful in the past, winning Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII, thanks in large part to Elway. But since Elway’s retirement in 1998, the Broncos had struggled to return to its Super Bowl contender status.
That was until Manning arrived.
He was the missing piece — on and off the field — for a roster loaded with talent.
“It’s so hard to explain to people how many ways Peyton helped form a championship team,” said Ryan Harris, who started at left tackle on the Super Bowl 50 team. “He was willing to do whatever it took. He was so clear with his actions. He was doing everything he could to help us win a championship and all of us did what we could do as well to match that effort. I played with no one that put us in better plays, better positions and made more of an effort to help the team win than Peyton Manning in my entire 10-year NFL career.”
And it was that off-the-field preparation, on-the-field intelligence and all-around awareness as a teammate that has led to him being immortalized this Sunday in Canton.
“He had a true understanding of the camaraderie within a team,” said Zane Beadles, who played with Manning in Denver from 2012-13. “He knew what it took to develop a culture of winning and a culture of care within a team and how that rolls over into wins and performance on the field. Seeing the preparation from someone like him, who obviously is going into the Hall of Fame this year, is at an elite level. To see how that rubs off on everyone — it elevated everyone around him.”
‘We always have a chance’
Before Manning played a snap in Denver, one question centered around his arrival: Can he still play at an elite level?
“Denver just welcomed me with open arms,’’ Manning said. “They were the only team that understood what I was going through emotionally, physically. And I think a lot of that was Elway. Elway flirted with going to other teams, rumors and whatnot. He knew how that could have affected him. He certainly knew injuries.
"They were the only team that said, ‘Hey, Peyton, give us your Indianapolis Colts’ playbook, we’ll form this hybrid offense with plays that we like here in Denver that we think will help you' — not every other team was doing that."
But only six games into his Broncos career, the critics were deafening, as Manning and the Broncos started the season 2-3.
“It wasn’t a slam dunk that he was going to recover from that nerve injury that he had,” Fox said. “And how hard he had to work to get himself back. I think people forget that part of it. So early on in camp, he wasn’t getting all the reps. He was still rehabbing and strengthening that nerve.
“It took until about Week 6 against San Diego before he really got on a roll.”
That Week 6 game against the then-San Diego Chargers is one Broncos Country certainly hasn’t forgotten. The Broncos fell behind 24-0 at the half, but then, Manning happened, throwing three second half touchdowns to lead the Broncos to a 35-24 victory. The Broncos didn’t lose another game the rest of the regular season.
“The Sheriff” had officially arrived in Denver.
“That was the moment where I said it doesn’t matter. We always have a chance with this guy at quarterback,” said Chris Kuper, who played for the Broncos from 2006-13. “Knowing that you have a chance no matter what the score is, is not something a lot of players get to feel in their careers. With Peyton, that was every game. There are probably only a few players in the history of the game that could do that and one of them was Peyton and another is probably Tom Brady.”
Over the course of his next four seasons as a Bronco, Manning led Denver to a 45-12 regular-season record, throwing for 17,112 yards and 140 touchdowns. And arguably the best single-season of his 17-year career came in 2013, in which he threw for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns, which are both single-season records.
Stories — like the Chargers one above — are endless. Manning's statistical success during his four seasons in Denver, and really his entire career, was due to the preparation in the days and weeks ahead of games.
Manning knew everything about his opponent. Few times did he get fooled by the defense in his career, and when he did, it didn't happen twice.
“Peyton was great at playing the game within the game,” said Evan Mathis, who was the Broncos’ starting left guard in 2015. “Reading defenses was like reading a Dr. Seuss book for him. When we would go to the line during the game, we often had a dual play call that could be either flipped to the other side of the field or changed to the play that best exploited what the defense was showing. Numerous times in the Super Bowl he got us into the plays that gave us a strategic advantage and this really showed in our ability to get the ground game going.”
Manning’s ability to alter games at the line of scrimmage was extraordinary. And while he wasn't always the most athletic quarterback, there are few to no players who can say they had as high of a football IQ as Manning.
"It was like playing with an encyclopedia of football knowledge," said Joel Dreessen, who played tight end for Denver from 2012-13. "It was incredible to see the difference that excellent quarterback play could make. And this isn’t a knock on the other quarterbacks I played with in my career — they were good players — but Peyton was in his own category.”
‘The Sheriff is back’
While Manning certainly had three statistically great seasons in Denver (2012-14), maybe his greatest accomplishment is overcoming the obstacles he faced in 2015.
The Broncos started the season 7-0, but Manning had struggled mightily, throwing 11 interceptions and only seven touchdowns. After dropping two games back-to-back, in which he threw six more interceptions, Manning was benched with a serious foot injury, plantar fasciitis.
Manning sat out the next six games, rehabbing his injury and throwing with rookie practice squad receiver Jordan Taylor.
"We were in there every morning," Taylor said. "I remember from Day 1, it was full tilt. He had some limitations physically at that point, obviously, but mentally it was full-go. I mean, we were doing full two-minute drills up and down the indoor, just me and him. He was incredibly intense.”
Manning made his return in the final game of the regular season, replacing backup quarterback Brock Osweiler at halftime against the Chargers. Osweiler had managed to help the Broncos go 4-2 in Manning's absence, but with Denver struggling against the Chargers, Kubiak felt like it was time for Manning to return, saying he felt the team was "begging for Peyton's leadership."
And the team responded accordingly.
“The first thing we say in the huddle is, ‘Oh shit, we better get our shit together.’ Because the guy is back. The Sheriff is back," said C.J. Anderson, who played running back for the Broncos from 2013-17. "He said absolutely nothing, but looking in all my teammates’ eyes as we saw Peyton running on the field, we all just tightened up — like when a cop pulls up behind you when you’re driving. That was exactly how it was when Peyton came back that day against San Diego.”
The Broncos went on to beat San Diego, and soon after Pittsburgh and New England in the playoffs to reach Super Bowl 50.
Those on the team knew this wasn't 2013 Manning, who also took them to the Super Bowl that season but with his arm. This was a different Manning — a physically limited Manning, who was likely playing his final game.
"Peyton talked to the team the night before about what one more game meant to him," Kubiak said. "They all knew it was his last game. And after he got through talking, it was like, holy shit, this, I feel good, let's go play. I really think the team was witnessing a Hall of Fame career and they wanted to send him out the right way."
Manning's final stat line in the Super Bowl was less than stellar, going 13 for 23 with 141 passing yards and one interception. But it was Manning's leadership, not his arm, the Broncos needed that day. And as the clock winded down that night and the Super Bowl securely in Denver's hands, his teammates were reminded of Manning's greatness.
"We're up 14, there are a couple of minutes and we've won the game, right?" Harris said. "We're sitting in the huddle, waiting for the TV timeout and I think it was Demaryius Thomas who starts saying 'Peyton F------ Manning.' Then we all start chanting it. And he kind of looks at us and says, 'Come on, guys. We've got to finish this out.' Here we are, up 14 in the Super Bowl, we've won, man. But even with a couple of minutes to go, he wanted us to focus. And that's what it takes to be great.
"That's what it takes. And Peyton demanded that from us all game and all season."
'The ultimate teammate'
His 2013 MVP season and Super Bowl 50 will surely be Manning's greatest legacies in Denver. If it weren't for him, the Broncos likely wouldn't be three-time world champions.
But for his teammates and coaches, Manning's career isn't defined by the record-breaking stats or Super Bowl wins, but his ability to make those around him the best versions of themselves as football players and people.
“He expected the utmost best out of you every time, every play. And I can respect that. I can respect that as a competitor and as a player. He was the ultimate teammate in so many ways," Anderson said. “Even though we knew he was a first-ballot Hall of Famer, even though we knew he was a five-time MVP, already a Super Bowl winner — even though he had all these great accolades and all that he had done in his career, he was never too big for anybody. It didn’t matter if it was No. 1 or No. 53 on the roster that was holding him accountable when he did wrong. He wanted you to do that. That’s what made us better.”
Manning is quick to point to his teammates and coaches when asked about his success, which he'll likely do again in his Hall of Fame speech. But his teammates and coaches have always pointed right back at him when reflecting on some of the best seasons of their respective careers.
"Any time you're playing with Peyton Manning, he's going to make you better," said Brandon Stokely, who was one of Manning's receivers in Indianapolis (2003-06) and Denver (2012). "It was a standard — a standard of excellence that Peyton had that he held himself and us to. And that made everyone better."
Many of Manning's former teammates and coaches will be in attendance Sunday for his induction into the Hall of Fame. He's invited hundreds of guests, who have each played a part in his career. But when asked about what their favorite part of playing with Manning was, most don't bring up the 557 touchdowns scored or the 199 games won during his 17-year NFL career.
Instead, they reflect on the man he was, is, and forever will be.
“I think the best moments I’ve had with 18 are the moments now," Anderson said. "The conversations we’ve had outside of football. Those moments are untimed. I got to play a lot of games in four years with Peyton and we had a lot of fun and a lot of great memories.
"But it's our friendship outside of football that I cherish the most — the memories we're still making."