In 2005, quarterback Jake Plummer led Mike Shanahan’s Denver Broncos to a 13-3 regular-season record and the AFC Championship game where the Broncos lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers. There is no real consolation prize to losing in a championship game in the NFL; the only real solace is that back then, the losing team’s coaches got to take the trip to Honolulu and coach the best their conference has to offer.
This is where our story begins. Shanahan, fresh off a loss dealt to him by second-year quarterback Ben Roethlisberger got to spend a week with a quarterback for whom he had garnered a great amount of respect, a quarterback who had twice beaten him mercilessly in his playoff quest to a third Super Bowl as a head coach.
That quarterback was Peyton Manning.
A week with Manning on the AFC All-Star team couldn’t help but remind Shanahan of the allure from a franchise quarterback. So great was it that when draft day rolled around, Shanahan leapt at the chance to find such a quarterback, exchanging the 15th and 68th overall picks with the St. Louis Rams for the No. 11 selection to pick Jay Cutler, who was selected without having spoken to the Broncos once in the pre-draft process.
With that swap, Shanahan sealed his fate as the Broncos’ head coach — and for ever getting to coach Manning again. Six years later, Shanahan is in Washington and still looking for his franchise quarterback, mortgaging three years of high draft choices in the hopes that Robert Griffin III can be the answer he’s sought since 1999 — and the one the Redskins have sought for twice as a long. Meanwhile, Cutler is in Chicago, dealt there by Josh McDaniels, and he’s about to reunite with fellow 2006 pick Brandon Marshall — also dealt away by McDaniels, but with a two-year stopover in Miami in between.
It’s the circle of life — or better yet, the circle of the NFL.
Just as Tim Tebow is said to be able to create miracles, Manning moved mountains Monday with a wave of cheers ringing throughout the Rocky Mountains as news spread quickly that Manning had chose to sign with Denver. Ending an eerily quiet 2012 free agency period Broncos fans lit up social media and airwaves with excitement that rivaled that created by Tebow’s overtime pass to Demaryius Thomas in the playoffs two months ago.
Manning could possibly be the greatest acquisition in NFL history. He immediately joins the ranks of Reggie White and Deion Sanders in that category, but unlike White or Sanders, Manning brings with him an entire side of the ball.
It’s not as if Denver severely lacked on offense last season; the Broncos did lead the league in rushing. But fans in Denver and those of Tebow alike tend to forget that Tebow went 1-4 over his last five games. The team was blown out twice by the Patriots, once by the Bills and even took one on the chin via the Kyle Orton-led Kansas City Chiefs in a game that Denver did not even score a touchdown.
This is the justification for Manning in Denver and this is why Vegas odds immediately went from giving the Broncos an 80-to-1 to a 10-to-1 chance of winning the Super Bowl in 2012. Just one player — a player who can make all the difference in the world.
I hate to see Tebow go and I don’t necessarily see that being the case in Denver, but you just can’t say no to a four-time MVP, a man whose very presence is the difference in his team going 10-6 and to the playoffs or 2-14 and having the number one overall draft pick; a man whom NFL Magazine made a very strong 2011 MVP case for despite the fact that he did not play in 2011.
Those blue and orange glasses can now be removed; there no longer needs to an asterisk applied to a win in Denver. The Manning era begins today and if what is being said by the Broncos’ players is any indication, the NFL has been put on notice. Denver just became the team to beat in the AFC.
Sure, it took years. But in the optimism of the moment, the path to this point doesn’t matter too much.
Ian Henson is a Denver transplant via New York City via Wyoming. He’s a writer by birth and has been known to direct and produce often. He has covered the Denver Broncos for various outlets since 1999 and is currently at work on several pilots for his own television network.