Getting better and better

John Elway burnished his reputation by beating the Raiders as he pleased
November 10, 1986

The first pass John Elway threw in Sunday's showdown with the Raiders in the Los Angeles Coliseum was incomplete. It would be the only incompletion he would throw all day. His next 11 passes were oh, so true. With 2:45 left to play and Denver leading 14-10, on a second-and-nine at the Bronco 22-yard line, Elway threw an out pass to wide receiver Vance Johnson. It was a 30-yard throw for a 7-yard gain, and it picked the teeth of cornerback Lester Hayes. Now, you're not supposed to do that. It's supposed to be dangerous. If Hayes picks it off, he scores. You lose. So Elway did it, anyway.

"I didn't even see the ball. I barely saw the blur," Hayes said later. "He nailed me. Elway's unstoppable. If he's healthy, Denver goes 15-1. He does things I've never seen before, and I've got lots of film." Hayes then lowered his head. He and the rest of the 5-4 Raiders were humbled, done in 21-10 by the 8-1 Broncos, the once and future champions of the AFC West.

It could have been worse, but Elway played under wraps. It could have been whatever Elway wanted it to be. He arrives at the pinnacle of his profession with a streak of light, a cloud of dust and a mighty heave-ho. It was Elway who was picked first in the Great Quarterback Draft of '83, followed by Todd Blackledge, Jim Kelly, Tony Eason, Ken O'Brien and Dan Marino. All have had their moments. Marino had his own era. Kelly had his own league. It's Elway's turn now. School's out.

"You have to play the whole field against him," said Raider defensive end Howie Long, who sat out the game with a bad hamstring. "The legs are like Tarkenton's," said linebacker Rod Martin. "The arm's all his." While Kelly throws harder, and Marino has the quicker release, Elway's is the ultimate arm. He was "only" 11 of 12 for 141 yards and a touchdown against the Raiders because that was all he had to be in response to Raider quarterback Marc Wilson's four interceptions, the third of which was returned 40 yards by corner Mike Harden for the clinching touchdown with 1:49 left. If Wilson had been hotter, Elway could have raised the level of his game. There's no comparing him with other quarterbacks. "Elway's one of a kind," says New England linebacker Andre Tippett. "A new breed," echoes Martin.

Bob Hayes walked in the pigeon-toed way Elway does. And what about the little pat Elway gives the ball in the split second before he releases his blurs? Be there quick, Baby. "In years to come John will be the best that ever was," says Denver fullback Gerald Willhite, "if he isn't that already."

Some say he is. "He is simply the best quarterback I have ever seen," says former Bronco quarterback Craig Morton.

The Raiders ran off 30 of the game's first 39 plays. But with 4:50 left in the second quarter, Elway faded back, took something off his throw and feathered it 53 yards down the right sideline, where Mark Jackson had to leap to get it over Hayes, who thought he had the play well covered. Three plays later, Steve Sewell scored on an eight-yard run on an inside handoff from the shotgun formation for a 7-3 lead. The Raiders had substituted six defensive backs in fear of Elway's arm. They had no chance against the run.

The Broncos are much the same team they've always been, with a light but swarming defense coached by Joe Collier, the Tom Landry of defensive coordinators, and a finessing offensive line in front of small, quick backs, albeit a few more of them now. It is Elway who makes Denver special—a cut above.

"He's not a tough guy like a Jim McMahon or a Danny White or Warren Moon," said Raider defensive end Sean Jones before the game. The Raiders had gotten 43 hits on Houston's Moon the week before, while Elway had not been sacked in two of the previous three Denver games. The Raiders had won five straight games, and a Bronco loss would have drawn the Raiders to within one game of the lead in the AFC West, but Elway didn't play worried. "We just had to get our chances," he said. "We have so much confidence in our ability to score. I'm playing the best I've played."

Elway was second for the 1982 Heisman Trophy—behind Herschel Walker, in front of Eric Dickerson—even though Elway played for a 5-6 Stanford team that was beaten by its own band in his final game against Cal. He now plays with that old èlan. He fades back confident that he can avoid the rush. If he can't avoid it, he can disassemble it for a while, take a little constitutional, then throw the ball anywhere downfield. Anywhere. In this manner, Elway threw 77 touchdowns in his four-year college career.

"John's confident now. He's having a good time again," says Stanford coach Jack Elway, who also happens to be John's father. "He went into the weight room after his second year in Denver. I think it impressed the rest of the team to see John lifting with them." Opponents are impressed by Elway's added bulk. "He's 220 if he's a pound," says Hayes.

With the Broncos leading 7-3 and facing second-and-goal from the three late in the third, Elway faded back, looking peripherally at the onrushing Jones. Elway gazed at the goalposts, influencing the safeties toward the middle. Holding the ball until the last instant, he leaped over Jones and hummed a strike to running back Sammy Winder in the left flat. Elway had neither foot on the ground when he made that throw and had his back on the ground when Winder scored.

For his part, Wilson had a second-and-goal on Denver's three early in the fourth quarter. He faded, looking all the way at his intended target, the hobbling Marcus Allen, in the end zone. The blitz was coming, so Allen broke wide open. Instead of throwing, Wilson froze and was sacked by Tony Lilly at the 19. For the game, Wilson was 25 of 47 for 367 yards, with a 20-yard TD to Jessie Hester.

Jones sacked Elway once. Unbothered, Elway converted a third-and-four with less than 10 minutes left in the game and with the Broncos holding a 14-3 lead. He nimbly stepped up in the pocket past defensive end Greg Townsend, then back and out to the sideline, outrunning linebacker Jerry Robinson and Town-send yet again. These are two of the quickest Raider defenders. Going backward, Elway found Johnson for 12 yards and a first down. Johnson was downed at the Raider 42. Elway watched the finish of the play from Denver's 15-yard line.

The Raiders still have a shot at a wildcard berth, and they look to their 24-year regular-season winning percentage of .704—the best in U.S. pro sports in that time—for strength. But the Broncos' winning percentage since Elway's arrival is a gaudy .719 (41-16). And even when throwing only a dozen times, Elway goes all the way the right way. His way. "The best thing about John," said Hayes, "is that he's off our schedule for a while."

PHOTOPETER READ MILLERRivals, like the Raiders' Robinson (right), look at Elway with wide-eyed amazement.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)