Until this spring, the physical contact between John Elway and
Neil Smith had been mostly brief, violent and not at all
welcomed by Elway. At their meeting in April, though, the
Broncos quarterback warmly greeted Smith, the former Chiefs
defensive end, in the Denver locker room, and the two shook
hands heartily. "Hey, John," Smith said, "thanks for bringing me
After nine years with Kansas City, Smith signed a one-year, $3
million deal (including separate $500,000 incentives for getting
more than six sacks and for playing more than 50% of the
defense's downs) with the Broncos. Elway, he says, was a big
factor in his choice: "He's brought the best out of me. I have
to find someone else to hunt besides John. John and I are in the
same family now."
By agreeing to restructure his contract, Elway saved the team
$3.1 million against the salary cap for this season and provided
the room to sign Smith. As a result Elway's base salary this
year will be less than $600,000, making him one of the league's
lowest-paid starting quarterbacks. "That guy always bails out
this team," says defensive end Dan Williams. "He'd do anything
to help this team win." Smith will do his part too. His six-sack
total last season was his lowest since 1988, his rookie year,
but would have ranked second on the '96 Broncos. "Not only will
he be helping us," Elway points out, "but now we don't have to
face him twice a year either."
Several other players--including offensive tackle Tony Jones,
who joined the team in February in a trade with Baltimore--also
took reductions in salary for 1997 so that the Broncos could
bring in more talent. Players are willing to sacrifice to be in
Denver this year because they think this, finally, is the season
the Broncos will win the Super Bowl. "That was our plan--to have
people feel that way about our organization," coach Mike
Shanahan says. "We want to be recognized as the top organization
Denver was in the top echelon in 1996, with a 13-3 regular
season and an 8-0 mark at home. But Shanahan didn't stand pat.
He signed four players in the first week of the free-agent
period and 11 total. Among the additions are one of Smith's
former Chiefs linemates, Keith Traylor, who will start at left
tackle; Carolina fullback Howard Griffith, who will replace
Aaron Craver; Carolina receiver Willie Green, who will provide
depth behind Rod Smith; and San Diego cornerback Darrien Gordon,
who will battle Tory James on the right side.
Elway had arthroscopic surgery to remove scar tissue from his
right shoulder in March but began throwing again in June and was
expected to be at full strength by the start of training camp.
Terrell Davis, who came within 15 yards of the NFL rushing title
last season, will again be a focus of the offense. Former 49er
Derek Loville signed a one-year, $275,000 deal to back up Davis.
The addition of Smith and Traylor gives Denver the deepest and
perhaps the best defensive line in the league. Second stringers
Dan Williams, Jumpy Geathers and Maa Tanuvasa would have little
trouble finding a starting spot elsewhere. "We've got a
defensive front to be reckoned with," says Shanahan.
But none of the newcomers has drawn as much attention as the new
uniforms the team will be wearing. The players rave about their
comfort, and backup defensive end Harald Hasselbach pointed out
that the predominantly navy home look is more intimidating than
the old orange jerseys.
Fans haven't been quite so enthusiastic about the removal of the
"D" from the helmet logo and the relegation of orange to mere
trim--which, to much dismay, also relegates any hope of
resurrecting the Orange Crush nickname for this potentially
mighty defense. One critic went so far as to suggest a boycott
not only of the team but also of Nike, which designed and
produced the uniforms. It's highly unlikely fans will go that
far; the criticisms, of which The Denver Post published a
sampling, have been direct but mild:
"Tacky, tasteless and cheap."
"The new uniforms look like my daughter's gymnastics leotard."
"The new uniforms look like something out of Star Wars."
Maybe, but then Star Wars did earn a couple of bucks. Broncos
owner Pat Bowlen, the Ralph Lauren behind the new uniforms,
knows very well that if Denver wins the Super Bowl, no one will
care how much orange there is on Neil Smith's jersey. --D.G.
COLOR PHOTO: JEFFREY LOWE COVER [REGIONAL] Looking Super? John Elway and the newly-garbed Broncos try to fashion a championship
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Elway will dive into the fray once more in his long battle for a Super Bowl title. [John Elway in game]
BY THE NUMBERS
1996 Yards per Game (NFL rank)
1996 Record: 13-3 (first in AFC West)
Rushing Passing Total
OFFENSE 147.6 (1) 214.3 (13) 361.9 (1)
DEFENSE 83.2 (1) 196.2 (10) 279.4 (4)
Everything but the Big One
John Elway was the first player selected in the 1983 NFL draft,
heading the quarterback class that has become infamous for its
Super Bowl failures. The group's 0-9 Super Bowl record
overshadows a respectable 25-18 mark in other playoff games.
Quarterback Class of '83: Record in Postseason Games
Wild Divisional Conference Super
card playoff title Bowl Total
Todd Blackledge 0-1 -- -- -- 0-1
Tony Eason 1-0 1-1 1-0 0-1 3-2
John Elway 0-1 4-2 3-1 0-3 7-7
Jim Kelly 1-1 4-2 4-1 0-4 9-8
Dan Marino 2-1 3-3 1-2 0-1 6-7
Ken O'Brien 0-2 -- -- -- 0-2
Totals 4-6 12-8 9-4 0-9 25-27
PLAYER TO WATCH
Third-year receiver Rod Smith has already proved that he's a
good bet in the closing minutes--he has caught a late TD pass to
win a game in each of the last two seasons--but with Anthony
Miller gone this year, the 27-year-old Smith will be called upon
to step up throughout the game. Though he's inexperienced (just
22 receptions in two seasons), there's nothing else he'd rather
be doing. "I'm going to make plays," he says. "If you can't get
open, you might as well be selling cars, and I don't want to
PROJECTED LINEUP With 1996 Statistics
Head Coach: Mike Shanahan
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB John Elway 21[*] 466 att. 287 comp. 61.6% 3,328 yds.
26 TDs 14 int. 89.2 rtg.
RB Terrell Davis 11[*] 345 att. 1,538 yds. 4.5 avg.
36 rec. 310 yds. 8.6 avg. 15 TDs
FB Howard Griffith[A] 256[*] 12 att. 7 yds. 0.6 avg.
27 rec. 223 yds. 8.3 avg. 2 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Rod Smith 118[*] 16 rec. 237 yds. 2 TDs
WR Ed McCaffrey 223[*] 48 rec. 553 yds. 7 TDs
WR Willie Green[A] 155[*] 46 rec. 614 yds. 3 TDs
TE Shannon Sharpe 18[*] 80 rec. 1,062 yds. 10 TDs
PK Jason Elam 94[*] 46/46 XPs 21/28 FGs 109 pts.
KR Vaughn Hebron 307[*] 45 ret. 24.4 avg. 0 TDs
PR Darrien Gordon[A] 328[*] 36 ret. 14.9 avg. 1 TD
LT Tony Jones[A] 6'5" 295 lbs. 15 games 15 starts
LG Mark Schlereth 6'3" 278 lbs. 14 games 14 starts
C Tom Nalen 6'3" 280 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG Brian Habib 6'7" 299 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RT Harry Swayne[A] 6'5" 295 lbs. 16 games 3 starts
LE Neil Smith[A] 41 tackles 6 sacks
LT Keith Traylor[A] 27 tackles 1 sack
RT Michael Dean Perry 31 tackles 3 1/2 sacks
RE Alfred Williams 56 tackles 13 sacks
OLB John Mobley 61 tackles 1 1/2 sacks
MLB Allen Aldridge 83 tackles 0 sacks
OLB Bill Romanowski 77 tackles 3 int.
CB Ray Crockett 58 tackles 2 int.
SS Tyrone Braxton 84 tackles 9 int.
FS Steve Atwater 81 tackles 3 int.
CB Tory James 23 tackles 2 int.
P Tom Rouen 65 punts 41.8 avg.
[A] New Acquisition (R) Rookie (college statistics)
[*] *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 165)