Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Opposing general managers started with star quarterbacks

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and executive vice president of football operations John Elway pose during a news conference March 20, 2012 at the team’s headquarters in Englewood, Colo.
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and executive vice president of football operations John Elway pose during a news conference March 20, 2012 at the team’s headquarters in Englewood, Colo. Associated Press file

The two men seated at a table, cracking open a few bottles of wine, sharing love stories about their unwavering passion for superstar quarterbacks.

Yeah, someday, you could see it. Under difference circumstances, when not intent on poking out each other’s eyes during Sunday’s Denver-Carolina Super Bowl 50 matchup, Broncos general manager John Elway and Panthers counterpart Dave Gettleman could make a night of it: Elway touting Peyton Manning, Gettleman talking up Cam Newton.

In that violent chess game known as the NFL, the elite quarterbacks rule. While the top executives from the teams competing at Levi’s Stadium arrive with sharply contrasting backgrounds and professional portfolios, their original priority was to identify that quarterback – that special someone – and then assemble a roster with offensive and defensive balance, with players who complement each others’ skills and share a collaborative nature on the field.

Elway, 55, the Stanford grad, the Bay Area golden boy who pursued business interests and a taste of the real world after retiring in 1998, experiencing financial troubles along the way, eased into the Broncos’ front office five years ago as if he had never missed a snap. The quarterback who led Denver to consecutive Super Bowl championships (of the 1997 and 1998 seasons) has directed his franchise to five AFC West titles, two AFC championships and two Super Bowl appearances.

Never one to shy from contact, he endured the Tim Tebow drama – and the accompanying controversy – and gambled that Manning, a 35-year-old free agent coming off multiple neck surgeries, could recover and elevate the Broncos with his Hall of Fame skills. The former Indianapolis Colts icon proved to be a sure thing, at least until a foot injury caused him to miss much of the 2015 regular season.

In 2012, Manning’s second year in Denver, the Broncos reached the Super Bowl with the highest-scoring offense in the NFL. But the familiar sports adage proved true again; Super Bowls are won with defense. After the Seattle Seahawks destroyed the Broncos 43-8 for the title, Elway fixated on his defense.

“We broke all of those records that year,” Elway said, “but we had the opportunity that offseason to get better on the defensive side with DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib out there, and Darian Stewart this year to be able to add to that side of the ball. Plus, we’ve drafted on the defensive side of the ball, and I think it’s all come together. It’s allowed us, offensively, to try to run the ball a little bit more and take some pressure off the quarterback.”

While the Panthers are obvious favorites, the Broncos hope their top-ranked defense can contain Newton often enough to provide Manning, whose arm strength is notably diminished, with enough opportunities to pin-prick the Panthers into submission, exploiting weaknesses in the Carolina secondary, inducing big plays out of wideout Demaryius Thomas and confusing the defensive linemen and linebackers with his audibles and endless chatter before the snap. And his accuracy persists; he has not allowed an interception since his return from a foot injury.

Gettleman, 64, attacked the Panthers’ growth spurt like someone who has taken odd jobs, several while being paid peanuts, en route to his current position. In his 40 years in the business, he has been a high school coach, volunteer college assistant, intern with the Buffalo Bills, scout with the Broncos, personnel director with the New York Giants and, finally, the Panthers’ general manager since 2013.

Inheriting a roster that was $16 million above the salary cap, Gettleman worked quickly to reduce the figure by cutting loose popular wideout Steve Smith and tailback DeAngelo Williams. Gettleman continued the makeover by drafting wideouts Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess and signing Ted Ginn Jr., and Jerricho Cotchery to cheaper contracts; strengthening the backfield with the addition of Fozzy Whittaker and Cameron Artis-Payne; and luring left tackle Michael Oher to Carolina, reuniting the featured subject in “The Blind Side” with his former offensive-line coach.

“I got killed for that one, too,” Gettleman said with a laugh.

But who’s laughing now? Gettleman acknowledges his share of breaks, including the presence of the strapping, 6-foot-5 Newton. If the Heisman winner and former BCS champion from Auburn needed work on his mechanics and struggled with interceptions and decision-making during his first four seasons, leading some to question whether he would ever develop into a franchise quarterback, Gettleman resided in the opposite camp.

He preached patience, practice, repetition. Time, he said, would take care of the rest.

“I had a veteran sportswriter come in and see me, and he starting banging on Cam,” Gettleman said. “I said, ‘Wait a minute. How long have you been in the industry?’ He said 20-plus years. I said, ‘So, OK, how many articles did you write your first two years that you’re proud of?’

“It’s not different. He’s (Newton) going to get better with what he does, and I’m going to get better with what I do. It’s an accumulation of experience. Call me crazy, but would this have happened if I had gotten my first GM job at 40? I’m drawing on almost 30 years of experience, and I’ve had great teachers.”

Asked what he thinks of Newton’s emergence as the catalyst of the Panthers’ near-perfect season?

Gettleman smiled. He just smiled.