When Broncos owner Pat Bowlen tapped John Elway to resuscitate his gasping franchise in January 2011, Elway's first task was clear: restore the respect, fan support and pride that faded in a gradual, five-year descent that began with an AFC Championship Game defeat in January 2006.
That mission was accomplished in a break-even season that nevertheless was good enough to win the ragged AFC West. An overtime wild-card win over the Steelers on Jan. 8 officially stamped the season as the Broncos' most successful since Super Bowl winners Rod Smith, Trevor Pryce and Tom Nalen were lineup linchpins.
It was everything Elway and the Broncos could have reasonably expected from their first year together after a dozen years apart, during which time Elway dived into his business interests and ran an Arena Football League franchise. Thirteen months into his stewardship, his enthusiasm remains high.
"I'm excited about being back in the game. It's what I wanted to do -- (experience) the highs and lows of the season -- which we had many last year," Elway said. "Being at Mile High on Sunday afternoons and getting that feeling and those butterflies is what I came back for."
With the honeymoon period over, the first true test of Elway's administration is about to begin. Last year was relatively easy; expectations were low coming off a 4-12 season and the Broncos had their highest-ever draft pick. Improvement and promise would have likely been enough to tide over the fan base; instead, they played into mid-January.
Although Elway's hire represented a philosophical change, he felt the choice of coach John Fox was more important in purging team headquarters of the paranoia and malaise that set in during Mike Shanahan's final seasons and Josh McDaniels's tumultuous two years.
"The key thing was getting John Fox hired. That was a tremendous help for us to change the culture in the building," Elway said. "Many times when you go through a streak that we went through, the hardest thing to change is the culture and trying to get the winning mentality back in the players' minds. I think that's what John did a tremendous job with last year.
"The mindset wasn't, 'What is going to happen for us to lose this game?' Rather, it turned around to, 'Let's go out and make a play and figure out a way to win,' and we were able to do that last year."
Now, it's Elway's turn to carry the baton.
"For me, as well as our personnel department, this is our season," he said. "This is the time where we have to be good."
The Broncos are expected to have massive salary-cap room, and general manager Brian Xanders said in January that the Broncos expect "to be on the aggressive side" of spending within their budget.
"We plan on being aggressive and smart at the same time and try to get some good signings in here, some value signings, to help contribute to wins," Xanders said.
That might not placate fans who want the Broncos to make a cannonball-sized splash in free agency. But given the lack of depth that was exposed when injuries struck during a 1-4 start and an 0-3 finish, the Broncos' best play might be the prudent one: to use their cap room on mid-range targets to fill multiple needs, shore up depth and create competition.
In adding linebacker Von Miller with the No. 2 overall pick and running back Willis McGahee in free agency last year, Elway proved he could get the big moves right. In the next month, he needs to score on smaller ones to supplement a still-ongoing rebuilding process.
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