Thursday marked the 31st anniversary of one of the most important moments in both the history of the Denver Broncos and John Elway’s career.
With a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, Elway marched the Broncos 98 yards down the Cleveland Municipal Stadium field on a 15-play series that took 5 minutes and 2 seconds. Capped by a touchdown reception from Mark Jackson, the Broncos forced an overtime that would result in them knocking off the Cleveland Browns 23-20. That historic moment in Elway’s career is known across football simply as “The Drive.”
31 years after Elway led one of the most heroic comebacks in NFL history, he’s trying to lead another one. He’s still trying to do it for the Broncos, but his role is a bit different now.
This time around he’ll be doing it from his office at UCHealth Training Center instead of a muddy Cleveland Stadium. He’s trying to help lead the Broncos back into contention.
In order for “The Drive” to begin, something bad had to happen. That something was a muffed kickoff return that rolled back to the Broncos’ own 2-yard line.
After a disappointing 5-11 2017 season that left them in the cellar of the AFC West, the Broncos are figuratively staring on their own 2-yard line as they head into 2018. Two years removed from a Super Bowl victory, the Broncos have a number of players that know what it takes to get there and feel like they are significantly closer to getting back than outsider observers may think. For that to happen, though, Elway is going to have to make a few plays.
Elway didn’t complete “The Drive” in one play. He needed 15 downs to put the Broncos in a place to tie, and ultimately win, the game. If he wants the Broncos to be competitive in 2018, he is going to have to make a few more plays himself. He’s also going to have to lean on others.
To get this drive going, he is going to have to find a quarterback. Whether or not he chooses to draft a quarterback, he’s going to have to do something about the situation before the 2018 season rolls around. He has plenty of players to choose from, but it’s ultimately going to be up to him to find someone that will make the Broncos contenders again. Like those 11- and 9-yard scrambles during “The Drive,” Elway is going to have to work some magic of his own.
He must also lean on others. He has to trust his playmakers and his grinders.
Just like he leaned on Sammy Winder to grind out out those first couple of first downs back in January 1987, he needs to rely on director of player personnel Matt Russell, senior personnel advisor Gary Kubiak and the rest of the scouting department to do their job in the draft and free agency to surround Elway’s QB choice with an offensive line that can protect him. Elway took big steps in addressing that with 2017 additions Garett Bolles (first-round draft pick) and Ron Leary (free agent). That group must lock up iron man center Matt Paradis (a restricted free agent) and make long-term decisions with Max Garcia and Connor McGovern at guard, and Menelik Watson at right tackle. Finding the right mix on the o-line will be key for the quarterback, whomever it is.
To pull off this drive, Elway must also bounce back from adversity and know when to throw one away.
After Dave Puzzuoli sacked Elway on second-and-10 from the Cleveland 40-yard line, Elway responded with a 20-yard strike to Jackson on third-and-18. The very next play, Elway knew to throw the ball away to stop the clock. That same moxie and situational awareness will be key in completing this new drive.
Paxton Lynch’s failure to seize the starting job has been a body blow to both Elway and the franchise. The failure of rookies Isaiah McKenzie, Carlos Henderson and De’Angelo Henderson to immediately provide the “juice” head coach Vance Joseph wanted this past season was another. Elway can’t lose faith — he has to be willing to make a tough throw on third down — but he also must be willing to throw one away when the situation calls for it.
Just like he had during “The Drive,” Elway has some help to lean on in 2018. He already has some pieces to work with. The Broncos finished the season with the No. 4 passing defense and the No. 5 rushing defense in the NFL. They had their first 1,000-yard rusher in five seasons in C.J. Anderson, and they still have Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders to throw the ball to. There are some holes to fill, but there are some solid pieces already in place.
If there is anyone that wants to make the Broncos contenders again, it’s John Elway.
“Our goals have not changed for the Denver Broncos and what we want to do — and that’s to compete for world championships,” Elway said during his final press conference of the 2017 season. “Now, we have to build towards that process. That starts now. Hopefully, we can get back to where we’re very competitive.”
Elway will have to complete his next drive the same way he completed one 31 years ago: One play at a time.