Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is congratulated by John Elway, a two-time… (Jamie Squire / Getty Images )
NEW YORK -- As one of the most polished players in the NFL, Peyton Manning rarely has a mental slip-up when it comes to talking to the media.
But the Denver Broncos quarterback had to catch himself this week when he referred to Broncos legend John Elway as "Coach Elway" — an endearing audible that speaks to his respect for the Hall of Fame quarterback who brought him to Denver.
Elway is actually the team's vice president of football operations and has been deep in the background during Super Bowl week, largely avoiding center stage to allow the team he helped build enjoy the fruits of its success.
"There's nothing like being a quarterback, but it's gratifying to help put the team together — the right guys in the right spots with the right coaches, that's very gratifying," Elway told The Times. "To be able to see it mold together like it has, on the offensive side with Peyton, and then also on the defensive side.
"It's the next-best thing to playing the game and being a quarterback, is to be able to be the architect of it."
Broncos players sometimes have to remind themselves that the man pushing a contract across the table to them happens to be one of the greatest football players who ever lived.
"It's pretty cool to see him walk around there," said linebacker Wesley Woodyard. "He's not a guy that always goes out of his way to step on people's feet; he's right there in the back scene."
Fifteen years have passed since Elway retired as quarterback of the Broncos after the 1998 season, leaving the game in spectacular fashion with consecutive Super Bowl victories. Now, he has the chance to become the first Super Bowl most valuable player to go on to lead a franchise to victory as its top football executive.
"This is why I took the job, to be able to compete for a world championship," said Elway, 53, who has been in his current role since 2011.
Elway and Manning were both drafted No. 1 overall by the Colts — Elway by Baltimore in 1983 (he was traded to Denver), and Manning by Indianapolis 15 years later. In many respects, they are on the same wavelength.
"I think John Elway would still be playing football if he could physically," said Manning, who at 37 is nine months younger than Elway was when he became the oldest quarterback to win a Super Bowl. "Based on his words to me, that physically he just couldn't do it anymore — it was too hard to practice, it was too hard to play in the games, and it was painful — he just had nothing left to give out there. That's why he decided to retire."
For Elway, not having the football in his hands is difficult. He has the consummate confidence in Manning, but it's still painful for him not to have control of situations and instead be confined to watching from his perch in the press box.
Particularly uncomfortable for him was the divisional playoff game against San Diego, when the Broncos got out to an early lead but had to withstand a late comeback by the Chargers to hang on for a 24-17 victory.
That was especially tense because the top-seeded Broncos lost their postseason opener to Baltimore in double overtime last season, and had to watch as the Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl. Had they gagged the same way in consecutive seasons, the seeds of doubt would be sewn deeply into the psyche of the organization.
"I knew the impact of that [playoff game against San Diego]," Elway said. "That was by far the most miserable game I've ever had to sit through in my life, because I knew the impact. I knew if it went one way or the other, how drastic a difference that would have been. That's why that game was so important."
Of course, there's no downplaying the significance of Sunday's game against Seattle, a culmination of the amazing resurgence of Peyton Manning, who underwent four neck surgeries at the end of his 13 years with the Colts and looked as if he might have to call it a career. He followed an outstanding 2012 with the Broncos by throwing for an NFL-record 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns this season.
"He had a tremendous year," Elway said, "and I think that's the type of person he is, the type of player he is. A competitor, him wanting to come back off the surgeries that he had two years ago, so that's a real tribute to him."
It's a tribute to Elway too, who took a major risk in essentially betting the future of the franchise on Manning, a wager that has paid off in the biggest way.
Coach John Fox said of Elway: "He's superb. He's been to five of these, won the last two later in his career. I think in our region, in our city, he might be kind of the most popular guy in our city. But I think for me, he brings a great insight to the kind of player and the kind of guy we want representing our organization."