Having been around the block a few times--not to mention under
the pile, in the grasp and on the turf--John Elway knows a
little something about the stark realities of pro football.
Others may regard his 16th and final NFL season as a victory
tour, but Elway isn't playing along.
"Everyone is saying I can go out now and have fun and relax, and
that's the biggest pile of b.s. I've ever heard," he says. "A
farewell tour? I don't think so. Like I'm going to go to other
stadiums and they'll cheer for me? It'll be, 'Let's all join
together and kill him one more time.'"
When the legendary quarterback announced on June 1 that he had
elected to subject himself to a final season of punishment, the
air pressure over the Rocky Mountains eased as if a major storm
had blown over. That sigh of relief you heard above all others
emanated from Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, who had just been
spared the prospect of defending a Super Bowl title with Bubby
Brister as his quarterback.
Elway did his share of exhaling as well. From the moment the
Broncos defeated the Packers 31-24 to win Super Bowl XXXII last
January, Elway was asked the Question by reporters, teammates,
friends, family members, an endless stream of well-meaning Denver
fans and, not least, Shanahan, whose plans for free agency and
the draft were more than a little dependent on Elway's answer.
When Elway agreed to come back, it changed everything for a
Broncos team that also kept the rest of its championship roster
virtually intact--and, as a result, should be very much in the
title hunt this season. Previous Super Bowl winners of the
salary-cap era were decimated by free-agency defectors, but only
two Denver starters went elsewhere: guard Brian Habib (to
Seattle) and linebacker Allen Aldridge (to Detroit). Left tackle
Gary Zimmerman, one of the NFL's elite players over the last 12
seasons, announced his retirement for the second straight year
but was reportedly coaxed back into the fold by Elway.
As ambivalent as Elway himself was about returning, he swears
his last hurrah will not be halfhearted. "I thought about
whether quitting would be in the back of my mind," he says. "I
said to myself, 'If you're gonna make the decision, make it 100
percent, because it's not like you can coast through an NFL
From all indications this summer, Elway's hyper-competitive
drive has not waned. "No, because he's put the John Elway
mystique at such a high level, and he doesn't want it to slip,"
All-Pro tight end Shannon Sharpe says. "He doesn't want to be
like another quarterback who came into the league when he did--I
won't name names, but he's a guy in the south part of the United
States--who's no longer the player that he was." (That comment
just might find its way onto the locker room wall of Dan
Marino's Dolphins, who host Denver on Dec. 21.)
The Broncos' major upheaval will come next year, when, for the
first time since 1982, they will look to someone other than
Elway to provide stability at quarterback. Following a legend
has its headaches--just ask Steve Young--but with Shanahan's
inventive game plans and All-Pro halfback Terrell Davis signed
through the 2006 season, this is one of the plum jobs in sports.
Right now there are two young candidates to succeed Elway in
'99: third-round draft pick Brian Griese, who wowed coaches in
training camp with his quick grasp of Shanahan's offense, and
'96 fourth-round selection Jeff Lewis, who suffered a torn
anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in a February pickup
basketball game, then damaged his stock by telling his coaches
he had sustained the injury while jogging.
It's also possible that the 36-year-old Brister could take over
as a short-term starter, but if neither Griese nor Lewis emerges
with haste, Shanahan is likely to go shopping for a free-agent
"It's unusual how quickly Brian has picked up our system, and
I've been impressed with the way he has handled himself and with
the way he has thrown," Shanahan says. "But this is a
year-by-year game now, and you really don't know what you have
at quarterback until he's thrown into a situation where there's
Speaking of pressure, Shanahan hasn't given up hope of
persuading the 38-year-old Elway to return in '99. "He's already
trying," Elway says, "but it's not gonna work this time."
COLOR PHOTO: DAVE BLACK PLAY IT AGAIN Elway's eyes are open to the fact that final season or no, it will be business as usual for his opponents. [John Elway in game]
B/W PHOTO: WILLIAM R. SALLAZ Crockett [Ray Crockett]
Sept. 7 NEW ENGLAND (Mon.)
20 at Oakland
27 at Washington
Oct. 4 PHILADELPHIA
11 at Seattle
18 OPEN DATE
Nov. 1 at Cincinnati
8 SAN DIEGO
16 at Kansas City (Mon.)
29 at San Diego
Dec. 6 KANSAS CITY
13 at N.Y. Giants
21 at Miami (Mon.)
1997 Record 12-4 (2nd in AFC West) NFL rank (rush/pass/total):
offense 4/9/1; defense 16/5/5
1998 Schedule strength NFL rank: 15 (tie) Opponents' 1997
winning percentage: .494 Games against playoff teams: 6
Last January the Broncos became the oldest team to win a Super
Bowl (which has been played since the 1966 season) based on the
average game-day age of the players who participated in the
title game. None of the other five oldest Super Bowl champs
improved their regular-season record the following year--but
neither did four of the five youngest teams.
Reg. season Avg. age Next year's
Oldest champs W-L (years, days) W-L
1997 Broncos 12-4 29, 116 ?
1991 Redskins 14-2 28, 262 9-7
1967 Packers 9-4-1 28, 236 6-7-1
1994 49ers 13-3 28, 82 11-5
1983 Raiders 12-4 28, 64 11-5
Reg. season Avg. age Next year's
Youngest champs W-L (years, days) W-L
1974 Steelers 10-3-1 25, 335 12-2
1981 49ers 13-3 26, 22 3-6*
1985 Bears 15-1 26, 144 14-2
1986 Giants 14-2 26, 218 6-9*
1975 Steelers 12-2 26, 317 10-4
*Season shortened due to players' strike
In the wake of their Super Bowl victory, the Broncos identified
cornerback Ray Crockett as the one free agent they could not
afford to lose. So on Feb. 12, the day before the free-agent
signing period began, they signed him to a five-year, $14.5
million contract. Crockett is usually lined up against the
opposing team's top receiver, and his outstanding
single-coverage ability allows the Broncos to go blitz-crazy....
Denver coaches feel that Keith Traylor could be the AFC's best
young defensive tackle. They remain perplexed as to why the
Chiefs didn't retain him after the '96 season.... On July 1
defensive end Alfred Williams (8 1/2 sacks in '97) underwent
surgery on his torn right triceps for the second time in six
months. He's expected to be sidelined for four to five months,
forcing the Broncos to juggle the line by shifting Maa Tanuvasa
from tackle to end.
Projected Lineup With 1997 statistics
Coach: Mike Shanahan
Fourth season with Broncos (41-27 in NFL)
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB John Elway 9[PVR*] 502 att. 280 comp. 55.8%
3,635 yds. 27 TDs 11 int. 87.5 rtg.
RB Terrell Davis 3[PVR*] 369 att. 1,750 yds. 4.7
avg. 42 rec. 287 yds. 6.8 avg. 15 TDs
FB Howard Griffith 251[PVR*] 9 att. 34 yds. 3.8 avg.
11 rec. 55 yds. 5.0 avg. 0 TDs
RB Derek Loville 294[PVR*] 25 att. 124 yds. 5.0 avg.
2 rec. 10 yds. 5.0 avg. 1 TD
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Rod Smith 18[PVR*] 70 rec. 1,180 yds. 12 TDs
WR Ed McCaffrey 96[PVR*] 45 rec. 590 yds. 8 TDs
WR Marcus Nash (R)[N] 223[PVR*] 76 rec. 1,170 yds. 13 TDs
TE Shannon Sharpe 35[PVR*] 72 rec. 1,107 yds. 3 TDs
K Jason Elam 113[PVR*] 46/46 XPs 26/36 FGs 124 pts.
PR Darrien Gordon 343[PVR*] 40 ret. 13.6 avg. 3 TDs
KR Vaughn Hebron 241[PVR*] 43 ret. 23.5 avg. 0 TDs
LT Gary Zimmerman 6'6" 294 lbs. 14 games 14 starts
LG Mark Schlereth 6'3" 287 lbs. 11 games 11 starts
C Tom Nalen 6'2" 286 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG David Diaz-Infante 6'3" 296 lbs. 16 games 7 starts
RT Tony Jones 6'5" 291 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LE Neil Smith 34 tackles 8 1/2 sacks
LT Keith Traylor 39 tackles 2 sacks
RT Trevor Pryce 24 tackles 2 sacks
RE Maa Tanuvasa 23 tackles 8 1/2 sacks
OLB Bill Romanowski 70 tackles 2 sacks
MLB Glenn Cadrez 5 tackles 0 sacks
OLB John Mobley 132 tackles 4 sacks
CB Ray Crockett 82 tackles 4 int.
SS Tyrone Braxton 79 tackles 4 int.
FS Steve Atwater 68 tackles 2 int.
CB Darrien Gordon 62 tackles 4 int.
P Tom Rouen 60 punts 43.3 avg.
[N]New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 88)