Written by Schwan Hardi
#captions by Zach Cohn
Back in March of 2012 I found myself eating lunch with my lovely wife at a local burrito place in Crested Butte when we heard the news that the Denver Broncos had just signed Peyton Manning. At the time, both die hard Bronco fans, we were absolutely elated knowing we were getting a man of high integrity, unbelievable work ethic and one of the best in the game. We celebrated with a victory beer, hoping and praying Peyton could bring the illusive Lombardi Trophy back to Denver. The 2012 NFL season came with high hopes and little expectation, as PFM was coming off multiple neck surgeries and missing an entire year at his craft. As a fan, we all dreamed the Sheriff could take us to the promised land and become Super Bowl Champs while polishing off the rust at the same time.
That year, Peyton led the Broncos to 11 straight wins to close the regular season with a 13-3 record, and a road to the Super Bowl coming through Denver. Then of course the infamous “Mile High Miracle” crushed our hearts as we saw Joe Flacco throw a 70-yard TD prayer to Jacoby Jones with 31 seconds left and go on to beat our beloved Broncos. I will never forget watching the game in my basement with my wife and close friends, and I could not understand what had just taken place… A year I thought would be a Cinderella season ended in the most tragic fashion since the Jacksonville Jaguars upset in 1996. In my heart, I know if we had won that game, the Super Bowl was ours for the taking… Oh what could have been.
2013 was the revenge tour and Peyton and our offense was out for blood. They steam rolled teams by having the highest scoring offense in the NFL – EVER! Peyton threw for 55 TDs, a new single season record, and we looked like a team on one mission–championship, baby. The entire year had a similar feeling to the 1997 Broncos, as they knew they were destined for greatness. Again locking up the number one seed, the Broncos rolled through the playoffs and landed in the first Super Bowl to be played in New York City.
Of course, of all the years to have the Super Bowl in NYC, it had to be the year PFM led our high powered offense into a frosty MetLife Stadium. Much had been made about the weather and Peyton’s record in cold games which, at the time, I had hoped would fuel the Denver team to play with a chip on their shoulder. However, from the first snap to the last, the Seattle Defense came to play while the Broncos did not. That year I would have bet my house that we would have won the Bowl, luckily Vegas didn’t take my Deed of Trust as collateral. In all honestly, I think if that game had been played elsewhere or if that Denver team could have a “do over”, things would have ended differently. In the end, the Seahawks were a better team that day, and it put a dagger into my orange heart…. Again, oh what could have been.
The next offseason we watched as the Broncos were again extremely active in free agency. But as we headed into the 2014 season something seemed different. The team overall lacked toughness and grit, especially toward the tail end of the season. The play of our hall of fame QB also seemed to taper off, for which we now know was injury related, and the glue on the team was wearing thin. It also appears the wheels with the coaching staff were falling off as we had a head coach and defensive coordinator with one foot out the door before the season came to a close. It ended with a tough loss, again at home, to a battered Colts team that had no business beating us in that game. While I held out hope that somehow the Broncos and the Sheriff would find a way to crawl back into the Super Bowl, the loss didn’t seem to hurt as much as the previous two years. Of course there was a lot of speculation on the Sheriff’s health as to whether he could handle another full season in the NFL as a 39 old year QB. Even close, personal friends of mine were calling for Peyton’s retirement as they had seen enough. For me, it felt incomplete… At the beginning of this journey, the Sheriff picked Denver as a place to finish his career and hopefully win one more Super Bowl championship. And in watching his hard work, professional tact and love for the game, I was not about to turn my back on our own.
After a strange offseason, which included the firing of the entire coaching staff, John Elway asking our hall of fame QB to take a pay cut and the hiring of an old favorite in Gary Kubiak, there was a cautious optimism. I yet again held hope that the Sheriff and the Broncos could lead us to the promised land in what would be Peyton’s last rodeo. Much to my surprise, the Broncos started the season undefeated at 7-0. Although something was oddly different in the way the Broncos were winning games. It was not the high flying, shoot’em up offense I have been custom to watching. It was the Bronco’s shut down, sack machine, No Fly Zone, Defense. And, Peyton was different. The Sheriff’s stats and personal confidence were down, his turnovers were up… And so was the number of people calling for his job. So funny how quickly the NFL and fans can turn against a legend. It was hard to watch as Peyton was so very un-Peyton like.
After the 7-0 start, the season was a roller coast ride full of highs and lows. We watched our young Brock-licious lead the Broncos while PFM was on the DL. Brock orchestrated huge wins against the Patriots and Bengals, and the Sheriff officially benched and backed up Brock in week 17 against the Chargers even though PFM was heathy and ready to play. At that time it had appeared the reins had been turned over to the young and impressive Brock Osweiler and Peyton was yesterday’s news.
The stars aligned in week 17 for the Broncos – the Patriots lost that morning and all the Broncos had to do was win against a terrible Charger’s team to secure home-field advantage in the AFC. The game started red hot for the Broncs before turning sour. I watched the offense turn the ball over 5 times before Kubiak made one of the all-time, GUTSIEST calls I have ever seen. He brought number 18 into the game to help spark the offense and add urgency to seize the moment and seal the chance at the number 1 seed.
From there, the rest is history! The Broncos team, lead by PFM, went on to beat the Steelers, Patriots (yes, yet again) and the Panthers to win Super Bowl 50!! I will never forget the entire nation believing the Broncos did not have a chance in hell to beat the unstoppable Panthers offense and Cam Newton. Von Miller and the Broncos D played unbelievable and the No Fly Zone Defense will go into the history books as one of the best to ever play the game. While it may not have been the perfect story book ending for Peyton, the Sheriff played just well enough to hoist the Lombardi trophy up one last time. I will forever look back to Week 17 and the call Kubiak made to bring Peyton into the Charger game. I believe it was in that moment Kubs set the Broncos on a road of destiny and fate. “Iron sharpens iron” was a mantra Super Bowl week, lead by Demarcus Ware, as the team was driven to push the old guys out on top. I must say, Gary Kubiak was the right man for the job and will never receive enough credit for leading with such grace, boldness, and resilience in such a fragile situation. For that, I salute you Kubs! It was an amazing year to watch the Denver Broncos play as a complete and unified team. My Super Bowl victory ended with an epic dance party in my Brother’s house listening to “Welcome to Our House” by Flo Rida. Hands down one of my best moments in life and the perfect way to honor a Bronco season for the ages! Yes, as a middle aged white man, it might have been silly to be acting like a downtown college kid, but sometimes you have to seize the moment, eh!
As for PFM, I want to personally thank you for coming to Denver. It has been nothing but a honor and pleasure to call you our own these past four years. Watching you approach the game with such class, grit, perseverance, work ethic and strong sense of community has truly been inspiring, if not magical. And while it was not the perfect fairy tale ending, it was a perfect ending for Bronco Nation. On behalf of Bronco County, I salute you Peyton F’ing Manning — you are now and forever a Bronco legend and one, if not the best, to ever play the game. The Sheriff can ride into the sunset as all Bronco hall-of-fame QBs are expected to do! Signed, all United in Orange!