The two Broncos teams that appeared in Super Bowl 50 and Super Bowl XLVIII may have had many of the same players, but they were very different teams. Two years ago Peyton Manning and the offense had one of the most prolific units in recent memory, and they got demolished in the Super Bowl, by a score of 43-8. The Seahawks team that put such a hurting on them boasted a stifling defense that brought down the hammer on the NFL’s most high-flying offense. It was a battle of number one vs number one, and defense won in a big way.
The Broncos’ executive vice president and general manager seemingly took note of that Seahawks defense because just two years later, they used a nasty, attacking defense to put a hurt on the Carolina Panthers. Super Bowl 50 was once again the battle of a top offense and a top defense and the result was the same. In football, as in life, you must always be adapting in order to survive. In just two years, John Elway transformed the entire identity of his franchise, from head coach down, in order to not only survive but thrive, and win the greatest prize in all of sports. Here’s how it went down….
Shoring up the Defense
After that crushing Super Bowl XLVIII defeat at the hands of the Seahawks defense, John Elway made it a point to fix the defense the following offseason. He added not one, but three, lynchpin type players to the Broncos defensive unit during free agency, in pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib, and safety TJ Ward. He also added first round cornerback Bradley Roby in the draft that year.
With an almost completely overhauled secondary and a potential hall of famer rushing opposing QBs along with a still improving but not-as-yet-godlike Von Miller, the Broncos had almost completely remade that part of their team. John Elway saw what the best teams in the league were doing in order to reach the next level and successfully emulated that. He should be given a ton of credit for the work he did in building that defense, but he wasn’t quite yet done with his overhaul of the team.
A New Coaching Regime
Following the Broncos 24-13 divisional round playoff loss to the Colts last year, John Elway and former head coach John Fox decided that it would be best for coach Fox and the Broncos to mutually part ways. Elway was clearly not pleased by another year without advancing past the divisional round (in three of four years in Denver they had lost in that round), and felt that he find someone else to take them over the top. What a ballsy move that was. John Fox had 46-18 record in his four seasons in Denver and had taken them to the playoffs every year, including a Super Bowl appearance! I, for one, thought that the move to fire John Fox was bat shit crazy, but I was wrong.
John Elway brought in his old pal from back in the day, Gary Kubiak. This was another move that left me scratching my head. I never really thought of Gary Kubiak as a bad coach, but I certainly didn’t see him as a Super Bowl winning head coach. He had a 61-64 regular season record and 2-2 playoff record in his previous NFL stint with the Texans, and never seemed to me to be someone who was able to get the most out of the talent on his team. I was wrong about that, my bad. With the help of new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips they turned this Denver Broncos team into a defensive powerhouse that took the pressure off of the offense and controlled games all season long.
A Change in Offensive Philosophy
It became clear in 2014 that the world would never get the Peyton Manning that they knew and loved back. The Peyton we were left with was a shadow of his former self. Years of injuries and normal wear and tear had left his arm strength severely inhibited, and that was not only obvious to opposing defenses but also to the untrained eyes of fans all over the world. In 2015 we watched Peyton Manning fall apart before us. He was still dealing with injuries as always but it was becoming obvious that he couldn’t play through it like a younger version of himself could. It was his worst statistical season since his rookie year and it seemed as though he was still trying to do too much with the limited physical abilities that years in the league had left him with.
In the third quarter of the Broncos week 10 loss the Chiefs, Manning was replaced by Brock Osweiler. He didn’t see the field again until he replaced Osweiler in the third quarter of the Broncos week 17 matchup. Peyton came in and led the team to a 27-20 victory against the Chargers, helping secure the top seed in the AFC playoffs. But this was not the same Peyton Manning. He had bought into the system and was no longer trying to do too much. By allowing the run game to become the focal point of the offense, Manning minimized the mistakes that had plagued him earlier in the season. As a result the defense became the standard bearer of the Broncos Super Bowl run and everything came together perfectly.
The Von Miller Effect
Every champion needs an x-factor and for the AFC Championship and Super Bowl the Broncos had Von Miller. Through those two games, he destroyed the opposition and was unblockable. Against New England and Carolina he racked up 11 tackles, 5 sacks, 2 pass defenses, an interception and 2 forced fumbles. The fumble he forced against Cam Newton in the Super Bowl was recovered for a touchdown and helped the Broncos grab momentum early on. He was the most versatile player on the field; he rushed the passer, played the run and covered tight ends and receivers in the pass game. There was no other player as deserving of winning the Super Bowl MVP Award and now the Broncos better pay him his due this offseason.
It only took the Broncos two years to return to the Super Bowl but when they did they were a totally different team. John Elway had a vision for the team he wanted to build and deserves a lot of credit, along with the player and coaches, for executing that vision and creating a champion.