The Denver Broncos are having a tough time developing any drama
in their season. Their victories are anticlimactic, their
postseason berth predestined. Their perfection has become so
pedestrian that even heroics, the kind of things that cause
statues to be built in less prosperous times, are reduced to
small moments. Here's what we mean: John Elway, Denver's most
famous quarterback-automobile dealer, completes a short pass to
wideout Willie Green in the first quarter of Sunday's game
against the Oakland Raiders and makes the 50,000-yard career
milestone. Now, only one other quarterback in NFL history, Dan
Marino, has that kind of passing mileage. Yet, this season being
what it is for the Broncos, the occasion stirred more comedy
"I'd have liked to have caught that ball," said tight
end-stand-up Shannon Sharpe, who has caught quite a few of them
in his nine years with Elway. And presented it to him in some
more dignified setting than a locker room? "And traded it for a
new car or something," said Sharpe.
Even coach Mike Shanahan, who is nobody's idea of a laff riot,
was getting lines off on Elway. Commenting on a second-quarter
trick play on which Elway caught a 14-yard pass (he needs 49,939
more yards receiving to make the somewhat more elite 50K-50K
club) and then immediately got smashed by a defensive back,
Shanahan expressed his deadpan surprise that Raiders corner
Perry Carter "had the speed to catch John."
Clearly, this is no longer a sentimental bunch, milking
melodrama from a decade of near misses. Those four Super Bowl
losses are a distant memory, those seasons in which the game's
greatest quarterback was denied his due seem long gone. Maybe
that's what happens when you finally win a Super Bowl or maybe
it's what happens when you win 16 games in a row. Maybe it's
what happens when you're undefeated, are a good bet to remain so
throughout the regular season and are scheduled to slide into
another Super Bowl.
Maybe it's what happens when the AFC West's next-best team comes
to town and vaporizes into thin air. Yes, the Broncos were
expected to beat the hated Raiders, who may have their
shortcomings on offense but also had the league's No. 2 defense.
But by 40-14? Expectations are mile-high in Denver, and anything
short of 16-0 going into the playoffs just doesn't register. All
that stuff that ordinarily enlivens a season--another Elway
record, another win against Al Davis's Raiders--is beneath their
radar. It just seems so small.
Not that you can get a single Bronco to seriously address the
idea of something as large as a perfect season. Not even Sharpe,
who badly wanted to guarantee last January's Super Bowl victory
over the Green Bay Packers (he was afraid Shanahan wouldn't be
his Def Jam self if he did), will run a post pattern on that
limb. Denver's veterans are well-grounded in cliche, and not
even Sunday's blowout emboldened them. "Bottom line," says
defensive tackle Mike Lodish, "we're not looking for a perfect
But the Broncos would have to be operating with collective
cataracts not to see one looming. They've already thrown 77
points at the two best teams on their schedule (the Jacksonville
Jaguars being the other pretender) and face a lineup of
mediocrity in their next five games. Among the remaining
opponents, only the Miami Dolphins have a winning record. And
the Dec. 21 game against the Dolphins is chiefly interesting not
for the jeopardy it represents to Denver but because it's the
Dolphins' 1972 undefeated record--they played a paltry 14
regular-season games in those days--the Broncos are trying to
eclipse (page 112).
To think that Denver was regarded as no more than a middling
team at this point last year. In fact, it was in their 11th game
of 1997 that the Broncos suffered perhaps their most
demoralizing loss of the season, a 24-22 defeat in Kansas City
when Chiefs kicker Pete Stoyanovich knuckleballed a 54-yard
field goal over the crossbar as time expired. Denver still led
the division by one game but went on to lose two of its next
five and fall to wild-card status. When the Broncos did get into
the Super Bowl, they arrived as 11 1/2-point underdogs. The
nation expected no more of them than another demoralizing defeat
in the game's most glamorous venue.
The idea that Denver can't win the big one seems quaint today,
doesn't it? Yet how is this team different from that unreliable
vessel of hope from past years? Unless you think Bubby Brister,
who has played almost as much quarterback as the oft-injured
Elway this season, is going to be the NFL's next 50K passer,
these Broncos are arguably worse. Granted, they've got Terrell
Davis; the league's next 2,000-yard rusher is a great equalizer.
But there's more at work here than just talent.
The players are quick to recognize as much and give Shanahan
credit for the Broncos' growing confidence. The Mastermind, as
he's known in Colorado, is in his fourth year as Denver's coach
and has, in that time, instilled the idea of perfection to the
point where it is now company policy. "That's what Mike's
about," says linebacker Bill Romanowski, "demanding perfection.
In every part of the game. You drop a ball in practice, he's
pissed off. I had a coach like that once before, in San
Francisco. Guys that win, in other words."
Yet what makes Shanahan a true Mastermind is that as intense and
demanding as he may be, he nevertheless has constructed an
environment that's veteran-friendly. It's an odd blend of
enforced discipline and relaxed atmosphere that keeps the stars
from testing the free-agent market. "We don't practice in pads,"
Sharpe says. "This is a country club, a day at the beach, except
we don't have sand and palm trees. And everybody in the league
knows it. This is as good as it gets, and I can't see it being
any better any place else."
This accounts for Shanahan's ability to retain his best players,
who are loathe to go elsewhere for more money and burn out on
some coach's idea of work ethic. "I could make more with another
team," Sharpe says, "but how long would I last? And how many
games would I win?"
That's the other thing about Shanahan. His Mastermind mystique
has enslaved not only the local populace but his players as well.
By now they believe that their cerebral coach will find in some
frame of video exactly what's required to establish dominance.
"Mike breaks a team down," says Sharpe, "until he finds its
weaknesses. And if it's only one, that's enough."
Lodish adds, "We're all so confident in his game plan that it's
tough for us to think of a team coming in here and winning."
This kind of confidence was required, however briefly, on Sunday
when the Raiders, behind quarterback Donald Hollas, pulled within
a field goal late in the third quarter. That was a remarkable
development in itself, given the pedigree of passers involved.
You had a guy who was recently earning $100 a touchdown pass in
the Arena Football League showing up the game's most glamorous
quarterback--or at least matching him throw for throw.
However, nobody on the Denver sideline was very worried. The way
it shook out, with Davis running for 162 yards (and more, after
11 games, than any player in NFL history), and Elway passing for
197, and cornerback Ray Crockett intercepting Hollas in the
fourth quarter, and defensive end Neil Smith doing the same, and
strong safety Tyrone Braxton getting one of his own, and the
Broncos scoring 23 points in that quarter.... Well, what was
there to worry about? Big plays all around. "That was good; it
being close for a while," Romanowski said afterward. "Now we know
we can put a team away."
The Broncos have demonstrated they can do it one way or another.
A week earlier, when Elway was still sidelined with bruised ribs,
Denver--well, Sharpe, anyway--tortured the Chiefs with so much
trash talking ("A lot of it unfair," Sharpe concedes) that Kansas
City linebackers Derrick Thomas and Wayne Simmons had a
spectacular meltdown late in the game, and the next thing you
knew the Broncos were the beneficiaries of five personal-foul
penalties on the same drive. In the aftermath Thomas was
suspended a game and Simmons was cut. Good chatting with you,
Sharpe isn't the man you want to engage in a war of words. His
creepy ability to get under another guy's skin goes back at least
to the third grade, when a fellow student was stumbling over some
phonics. "Sounds like, sounds like," the teacher coaxed. "Sounds
like Johnny can't read," said Sharpe from the back of the class.
He was ejected.
But the Broncos have more going for them than confidence and
psychology. Or even the wisdom and craft of their years. (Can
you believe that Elway's jagged snap count drew the Raiders
offside three times?) They really do have talent. Davis isn't
just the best sixth-round draft pick ever; he's the best running
back in the game. Elway, no matter how well Brister performed in
his absence, is still a distinct upgrade at the position, even
at 38. His presence may be unpredictable these days; after two
months of being in and out of the lineup, Elway admitted the
last 30 yards passing seemed to take as long as the first
49,970. But his rifled, pad-shuddering passes--three for
touchdowns on Sunday--don't suggest that he's winding down his
Offensively, Davis and Elway make quite a combination, one
that's got a lot of people spooked. As Raiders running back
Harvey Williams says, "The way Terrell is running the football,
and the way John is throwing the ball, it would take a miracle
to beat them."
That's just the kind of drama the rest of the league is waiting
for the Broncos to develop. But the better bet is pedestrian
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER READ MILLER COVER Believe It! Can Denver Win 'Em All? PLUS John Elway's New Weapon: Wideout Ed McCaffery [John Elway]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK TOUGH TO BEAT Elway and Davis are the most feared pass-run tandem in the league. [Terrell Davis and John Elway in game]
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER STUFFED The Broncos, suspect against the run only a year ago, held Napoleon Kaufman and the Raiders to 49 yards rushing. [John Mobley and Napoleon Kaufman in game]
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER [John Elway]
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK NICE GRAB Rod Smith, one of Denver's free-agent finds, pulled in six passes for 95 yards and a touchdown against the Raiders.
Join the Club
On Sunday, John Elway joined Dan Marino as the only players to
pass for 50,000 yards in a career. Only two other top 10 passers
in the yardage rankings (below) still play. Then there are the
Falcons' Steve DeBerg, who's 13th with 34,081 yards, and the
49ers' Steve Young, 18th with 31,575.
Player Seasons Yards
Dan Marino* 16 57,492
John Elway* 16 50,167
Warren Moon* 15 49,097
Fran Tarkenton 18 47,003
Dan Fouts 15 43,040
Joe Montana 15 40,551
John Unitas 18 40,239
Dave Krieg* 19 38,147
Boomer Esiason 14 37,920
Jim Kelly 11 35,467