SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - As the Denver Broncos size up the prospect of winning a third Super Bowl when they take on the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, they can reflect on the significant influence of John Elway dating back to 1983.
Though the Broncos were charter members of the fledgling American Football League when they were founded in 1960, it wasn't until the late 1970s that they established themselves as one of the sport's elite teams.
Led by aging quarterback Craig Morton, Denver enjoyed a franchise-best record of 12–2 in the 1977 regular season before reaching their first Super Bowl, losing 27-10 to Dallas.
Since then, they have very rarely not produced winning seasons but it was the arrival of Elway, who was selected as the first overall pick by the Baltimore Colts in the 1983 NFL Draft before being traded, that made the biggest impact.
With quarterback Elway at the helm from 1983 to 1998, the Broncos developed a ruthless edge and piled up five American Football Conference titles, along with long-awaited Super Bowl triumphs in 1997 and 1998.
With running back Terrell Davis taking some of the pressure off Elway as the key figure in a potent running attack, Denver claimed their first NFL championship with a 31-24 victory over the defending champion Green Bay Packers.
The Broncos repeated the following season, defeating the Atlanta Falcons 34–19 as Elway was named the Super Bowl's Most Valuable Player after completing 18 of 29 passes for 336 yards.
Elway retired after winning his second Super Bowl and got involved in various business activities until being named the Broncos' executive vice president of football operations in January 2011.
Bolstered by Elway's return to the Mile High City, the franchise has continued to make big strides.
Elway courted future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning after he was cut loose by the Indianapolis Colts following the 2011 season when he was sidelined because of two neck surgeries.
Manning flourished in his first three seasons in Denver, and guided the team back to the Super Bowl two years ago after he set single season records for touchdown passes (55) and passing yardage (5,477).
Though the Broncos ended up being routed 43-8 by the Seattle Seahawks in the NFL's championship game, the team has clearly benefited from Elway's reshaping as he brought in several top defensive players through free agency and the draft.
Once known for a high-octane offense under the quarterbacking of Elway, the Broncos are now renowned for their ferocious defense which has become the best in the league under head coach Gary Kubiak and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
Led by Manning, they booked their place in Sunday's Super Bowl by ousting the defending champion New England Patriots 20-18 in the AFC championship game, though Elway's guiding hand has played a pivotal role.
"Obviously John is the architect of this football team," five-time NFL Most Valuable Player Manning said during this week's Super Bowl Opening Night.
"John has been successful in everything he has been involved in. It is not a surprise and he has tremendous football knowledge. He is a very competitive."
Elway himself paid tribute to the role played by his father Jack, a former college football coach.
"I'm proud that we're able to compete and have had good teams since I've been back (in Denver)," said Elway. "A lot of it can go to my dad.
"Understanding him as a coach and getting to spend that time and learning about the game, not only from a player side of it, but also from a coach's side of it, that's helped me tremendously."
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by San Francisco)