Jeff Legwold | ESPN.com
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — As a football executive, John Elway wasn’t beginning from scratch when he took over as the Denver Broncos‘ vice president of football operations in January 2011. He was acting more like the department of organizational resurrection.
But when it came time for the Hall of Fame quarterback to pursue a player he felt could be the face of the franchise, Elway had owner Pat Bowlen’s checkbook in hand and carte blanche on the job description.
And Elway picked Peyton Manning.
“I get asked about it a lot,” Elway said, “and I just believe a guy like Peyton raises all boats, affects every part of your franchise. … Everything from how he performs, how he prepares, the expectations he has for himself, that’s evident to everybody around him.
“And that’s exactly what you want. He makes everybody, in every job, in every part of the organization, better. You win world championships with every single person in the building, but a guy like Peyton brings that approach, work ethic, just that aura about getting it done.”
Many of Manning’s peers agree with Elway.
As part of ESPN’s NFL Nation Confidential survey of more than 320 players, the questions were asked, “If you had to start a team with one player, whom would it be?” and “Which player do you respect the most?”
And Manning was the top choice for both.
Manning was the leading vote-getter as first pick to start a team, with 62 votes (19 percent). Andrew Luck, who replaced Manning in Indianapolis, received 56 votes, and Tom Brady was third with 41 votes.
Eighty-six players (27 percent) chose Manning as the player they most respect. Brady and Vikings running back Adrian Peterson tied for second with 24 votes each.
“I don’t know about all of the votes, or how it was done, but I certainly appreciate those players … feeling that way,” Manning said. “I think team success is the No. 1 thing, and that’s about the time you put in, the work you put in as a team to reach goals, to execute, to put yourselves in position. I guess I’ve always felt like individual things are nice and you’re thankful, but the success of your team, that’s what is at the heart of everything.”
Manning’s teammates certainly agreed with the vote totals.
“When you play this game, you want to win, you want to be around people who want to win, who do things the right way, who are serious about how they do things, how they approach the game,” veteran cornerback Champ Bailey said. “A guy like Peyton, you watch how he does things, how he works, even now when he works like a guy just trying to make it, not a guy who’s done what he has, you always have hope. And that’s rare.”
Coach John Fox said that the way a player as accomplished as Manning conducts himself and prepares affects far more than just his teammates.
“And that’s everybody in the building: players, coaches, everybody,” Fox said. “You see how he handles himself, the work he puts into it. Everyone respects that.”
Apprised of the results of the survey, Manning was slightly uncomfortable in discussing what it may mean. He is in his 16th season — or as he puts it, “a lot closer to the back end of my career than to the front end” — and he said he appreciates how his teammates, coaches and peers hold him in such high regard.
“I know there’s a lot of players I respect on other teams, the way they compete, the way that you hear about how they prepare, the way they practice,” he said. “For those particular players that feel that, I am appreciative of that compliment.
“It’s always nice when you are paid respect by your opponents, the guys you play against. I know as a young player in the NFL, I remember some of my goals were to establish the respect of my coaches, my own teammates and then my opponents.
“Football is a game where mutual respect between opponents is what all players strive for. It makes the game better.”
Manning’s peers point to his postgame handshake with Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis after the Broncos’ double-overtime loss last January that knocked Denver out of the playoffs. Manning waited long after most players from both teams had exited the stadium to quietly meet with Lewis in the visitors locker room.
Manning also still writes notes to fans, players and coaches alike who have reached out or touched him in some way. And he handles celebrity and even the day-to-day task of being the franchise quarterback for a Super Bowl hopeful with grace and focus.
“He’s focused, prepared, gifted, a great teammate, a great leader,” said tight end Jacob Tamme, who has been a teammate of Manning’s for six years. “It shouldn’t surprise anyone people respect that.”
- Covered Broncos for nine years for Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News
- Previously covered Steelers, Bills and Titans
- Member of Pro Football Hall of Fame Board
of Selectors since 1999