Saving Graces: How John Elway and Mario Lemieux Are Alike


When it became clear who the Steelers would face in the first round of the NFL playoffs, I began a bit of a brush up on the Denver Broncos.  A historied organization – from the ‘Orange Crush’ to the John Elway era to the Tim Tebow era (?), the team has had it’s storied successes and numerous setbacks.  And while digging through all that is the Denver Broncos, I couldn’t help but see the striking comparison between now team owner, John Elway, and another legendary sports figure and team owner, Mario Lemieux.

During the late 90’s, the Penguins were in a whole heap of trouble.  They owned a ton of money to a ton of creditors and were looking to move or just fold altogether.  The city of Pittsburgh was about to lose is storied franchise that won two Stanley Cups no less than 8 years earlier.  The time was ripe for a hero.  The time was golden for Mario Lemieux.  The man who once saved the Penguins back in the late 70’s and early 80’s as a player did it again as the majority share holder and team owner.  I remember it being quite an emotional time for the team, the city and Penguin fans.

As the first NFL player to ever own his former team, Lemieux not only saved the team from financial ruin in a matter of five years , but he helped them weather the complete financial storm leading up to and following an NHL lockout.  He also was the first and only player to own a team and play at the same time (when he came out of retirement until 2006).  Luck and fate would change the franchise for yet a second time after the team won an unprecedented lottery pick in 2005 – Sidney Crosby.  Crosby would work under the tutelage of Lemieux, and even live with him during his first few years as a Penguin.  With Crosby as the cornerstone of the franchise, Lemieux began to rebuild the team under the newly adopted salary cap.  For those of us who are Penguin fans, the rest is history.  The team made it to the Stanley Cup finals in 07-08 and again in 08-09 – losing to the Red Wings in 08 and then winning the rematch in 09…. (boy if the Steelers could just do that against the Packers.)  The team has made the playoffs every year since 2008 and continue to be a strong team in the NHL.

So how does the NFL and John Elway fit in with all this?  Well at the initial arrival of Elway, the Denver Broncos were having quite a bit of problems themselves.  Prior to Elway, the Broncos had been through 24 quarterbacks in 23 seasons.  Let me say that again, 24 quarterbacks in 23 seasons.  Can you imagine?  Elway joined the team in ’83 and played for the Broncos for 16 seasons.  He won the NFL MVP in 1987, selected to the Pro Bowl 9 times, won the Super Bowl back to back in ’97 and ’98 (MVP in ’98), and had his number retired after cementing a legacy in the city of Denver.  Much like when you hear Denver Broncos and think of John Elway, you hear Pittsburgh Penguins and think of Mario Lemieux.

As of 2011, the on the field (or ice) achievements weren’t the only thing those two have in common.  Since Elway left, the organization has had it struggles.  Even when the Broncos had seasonal successes, they would be trounced and embarrassed in the playoffs.  From the management to the coaching staff to the players, the team had inner turmoil.  Lack of confidence in the head coach and at the quarterback position became a feeding frenzy for fans and the media – especially the quarterback controversies season after season.  Time for a hero to step in and right the ship.

Prior to the beginning of the 2011 season, Elway was named the team’s Executive Vice President of Football Operations.  Not the team owner like Lemieux, but Elway now oversees the decisions of the GM and the head coaches.  And like Lemieux, Elway is in a position to turn the franchise of the Denver Broncos around and move back to a place of relevancy, back to a time when Elway himself played.

Unfortunately for the Broncos, I think the similarities stop there.  Tim Tebow will not become the Broncos Sidney Crosby, and Elway will need to find better prospects if he wants the Broncos to win the West division on more than a hope and a prayer (pun intended? I’ll never tell).  Tim Tebow is not the QB of the future for this organization.  Sure he’s won a chunk of games for the Broncos, but teams will eventually put a stop to his Tebow Time (and maybe they have with their three game slide a the end of the season).  It’s no secret that Elway isn’t a huge fan of Tebow – he’s nowhere near the quarterback Elway once was (never will be) nor any QB listed in the top 10 or 15 in the NFL today.  Elway will need to find a different golden child if he wants to get the Broncos to be the team to beat in the AFC West year in and year out.

In time I think that will come.  Frankly, I think it’s cool to see the old legends come back and oversee a team’s operations…. as long as they don’t screw things up.  Seeing shots of them up in the owner’s or executive boxes sort of makes it look like gods – legendary figures looking down upon the mere humans that they now command.  I always liked Elway as a player.  I was happy for the guy when he won his Super Bowls.  I’ll be happy for him again to raise that Lombardi another time – just not this season.  Me and the rest of Steelers Nation will give him a pass on becoming more like Lemieux in becoming a former player who wins a championship at the executive level. (Hell, it’s not like Clark Hunt or Jerry Richardson will be doing it any time soon.  He’s got plenty of time.)