GETTING THERE THE HARD WAY

The Broncos were goners until John Elway pulled off an OT win over Cleveland
January 19, 1987

Have you ever been mean to a nice old dog? Did you sit there with a tail-wagging mongrel at your knee and kindly offer him a meaty bone, hold it barely in front of the pooch's eager snout and at the last instant, just after his head lunged forward but before his teeth clicked shut, pull the bone away? Have you? Just for fun?

Then you've been John Elway, the Denver Bronco quarterback who yanked the bone from the mouth of the Cleveland Dawgs, er, Browns, 23-20 in overtime, for the AFC Championship before 79,915 stunned fans in Cleveland Stadium on Sunday. No, let's clarify this metaphor. Elway didn't just pull victory from the Browns' mouth. He ripped the thing from halfway down their throat.

The game was over. The Browns had won and the Broncos had lost. It was that simple. But then, with 5:32 remaining and Denver trailing 20-13, Elway led his team 98 yards down the field on as dramatic a game-saving drive as you'll ever see. It was the way Elway must have dreamed it while growing up the son of a football coach, the rifle-armed youngster and his doting father talking over the breakfast table about how to pick defenses apart.

Playing on unfriendly turf, generating offense where there had been precious little before, Elway ran, passed, coaxed and exhorted his team in magnificent style. Finally, with 39 seconds left and the ball on the Browns' five-yard line, he found Mark Jackson slanting over the middle in the end zone and hit him with a touchdown bullet. After that, the overtime was a mere formality. Elway took the Broncos 60 yards this time, giving Rich Karlis field goal position at the Cleveland 15-yard line and a sweet piece of advice: "It's like practice." Karlis's 33-yard field goal, his third of the afternoon, cut through the Browns like a knife.

Only a few minutes earlier, back in regulation, when the home team still had that big seven-point lead, nobody in the delirious Cleveland throng could have imagined such a nightmarish turn of events. Browns wide receiver Brian Brennan had just made it 20-13 by twisting safety Dennis Smith into a bow tie on a 48-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Bernie Kosar, a play that seemed destined to go straight into the NFL archives. Super slow motion, voice of doom narrating: "On a frigid afternoon a short, curly-haired young Catholic lad from Boston College snatched glory from the ominous skies over Lake Erie and presented it to this desperate city of rust and steel...." Brennan was Dwight Clark making "the Catch" against the Dallas Cowboys to send the 49ers on to Super Bowl XVI. He was a vivid canvas to be placed in the Cleveland Museum of Art. Hell, he was the glue-fingered kid who caught the Hail Mary bomb against the University of Miami in 1984 to earn Doug Flutie a Heisman Trophy, wasn't he? Well, no, that was Gerard Phelan.

Nonetheless, Brennan sure looked to be the hero of this game. The Broncos misplayed Mark Moseley's ensuing knuck-leball kickoff and downed it at their own two-yard line. There was no way they were going to drive 98 yards and score a touchdown. No way. On its two previous fourth-quarter possessions Denver had moved just nine and six yards, respectively.

The Broncos' only touchdown drive had been a mere 37-yarder set up by a fumble recovery. Otherwise they had gotten only two short-range field goals from Karlis, a 19-yarder in the second quarter following an interception and a 24-yarder late in the third. To make matters infinitely worse, Elway had a bad left ankle, and the Browns had a ferocious, yapping defense. And straight behind them was the Dawg Pound, the east end-zone section where fans wore doghouses on their heads and bellowed for their Dawgs to treat Denver like a fire hydrant. Even from this distance the Broncos were amazed at the insane howling of the Pound.

"I just waited for guys to run into me," said left tackle Dave Studdard. "I could not hear."

It didn't matter. Using hand signals and a silent count, Elway began moving his team.

Now, the image of John Elway—blond, 6'3", 210 pounds, fourth year out of Stanford—conjures up different things to different people. Some see a hot-tempered California beachboy type who runs all over the place throwing heaters without ever winning big games, at least not on the road. (Denver scored only three touchdowns while losing its last three road games of the regular season, to the Giants, Chiefs and Sea-hawks.) Others see a still-developing athletic prodigy, surrounded by not too much offensive talent, almost ready to take his place at the table of Graham, Unitas and Staubach. His teammates see a leader.

"In the huddle after that kickoff to the two he smiled—I couldn't believe it—and he said, 'If you work hard, good things are going to happen,' " says wide receiver Steve Watson. "And then he smiled again."

The only other people smiling just then were the Browns and everybody else in northern Ohio. "We're a city that's been kicked around a lot," owner Art Modell said earlier in the week, obviously tired of hearing all those Cleveland jokes over the years. "And winning on the football field does something for our spirit. It binds this city, black and white, rich and poor. Hey, everybody needs a love affair."

And the biggest object of Clevelandic affection was Kosar, the storklike helmsman whose work afield reminds one of a gangling surgeon methodically carving some poor chap to shreds. So skilled had the 23-year-old Boardman, Ohio, native become in just his second NFL season that he seemed to have received a brain transplant from someone much older than he—a Hall of Fame quarterback, for instance. Indeed, it was hard to believe that Kosar was two weeks younger than Vinny Testaverde, the kid who replaced him at the University of Miami and is a senior there.

In this game, however, Kosar was to suffer the same fate that Testaverde did against Perm State in the Fiesta Bowl, when another championship was on the line. The man who led the NFL in interception avoidance this season threw two balls that were picked off and had a couple more bad passes dropped by defenders. Broncos assistant head coach Joe Collier had prepared a special defensive strategy to use against Kosar, a sneaky one that differed from the accepted method of attacking a young QB. In midweek reporters had tried to get Broncos defensive end Rulon Jones to spill the beans on the plan. "I can't tell you," he said. Would the plan be obvious during the game? "I don't want to say any more about it," quoth Jones.

After the game Jones confirmed what had become obvious. "We decided we wouldn't blitz," he said.

Indeed, Denver dropped seven or eight defenders into pass coverage and let its stunting linemen harass the relatively immobile Kosar. "We didn't get sacks," said Jones, who snared his team's only one. "But we got pressure."

They did, and Kosar quite often had nowhere to throw. "He was rattled because we had everybody covered," said Denver linebacker Ricky Hunley, who picked off a Kosar pass in the first quarter. "For him it was like knocking on a door and nobody's home."

Still—despite Kosar's shakiness, just four rushing first downs and a lost fumble—Cleveland had the game won. Running back Herman Fontenot had scored on a nifty six-yard pass reception in the first quarter, in which he left Denver safety Tony Lilly grasping at his shoelaces, and Moseley had added field, goals in the second and fourth quarters. Then came Brennan's miracle catch for the 20-13 lead late in the fourth, and the rest was up to the Dawgs, the Cleveland defense that got its name by barking at opponents. Until Denver's final drive the Dawgs had allowed the Broncos just 216 yards in total offense.

But now it was Elway's turn to growl. At midweek back in Denver, Elway had stood in a lightly falling snow at the Broncos' practice facility, casually eating an ice-cream bar, and shrugging off worries about his sprained ankle and the Cleveland defense. "I could play now if I had to," he said. And the defense? "There are no dominating teams in the NFL." What about the Giants? "Anybody can be beat." And the potential for bad weather in Cleveland? "The weather is all in your mind."

Indeed, as Elway set the Broncos forth on that fateful fourth-quarter drive, the swirling snow had stopped, and the cold, while real enough, didn't matter. The game was on the line. The season, too. Elway completed a short pass to Sammy Winder. Three plays later he broke from the pocket and ran for 11 yards and a first down. He sent a 22-yarder to Steve Sewell and followed with one for 12 yards to Watson. Three plays, three first downs and all of a sudden Denver had the ball on Cleveland's 40-yard line with 1:59 to go.

Hey, this was almost too easy. The old pass master, Jack Elway, now the head guy at John's alma mater, couldn't in his wildest dreams have plotted a better scenario for his boy. But not so fast. After an incompletion on first down and an eight-yard sack on second, Denver had to call timeout. Third-and-long. So here's the play: Shotgun formation, Watson goes in motion, Jackson goes far enough down the left side to turn in for a first down. What actually happened: Watson went in motion, all right, and the snap deflected off him—three crucial plays, three crucial miscues—but Elway saved the day by getting control of the ball and passing 20 yards to Jackson for a first down at the Browns' 28.

Elway had entered the magic realm that few athletes enter. He was doing whatever he wanted. "We shut him down the whole game," said Browns defensive end Sam Clancy afterward, "and then in the last minutes he showed what he was made of."

Elway had shown flashes of his skill earlier in the game. Even on his bad ankle he had scrambled for 34 yards on one play, setting up Gerald Willhite's scoring plunge from the one when Cleveland had only 10 men on the field. Before that, Elway had punted from the shotgun. And, of course, there was his arm, the slingshot that nearly blew holes through his receivers. Now on this drive he was keeping his troublesome inner fire under control. "As a quarterback you have to remain calm," he said, smiling in the locker room afterward. "You can't be like a linebacker and go a hundred miles an hour."

Denver was approaching the goal line and the awesome din of the Dawg Pound. Biscuits thrown by fans coated that part of the field. "You could feel the things crunching under your feet when you ran," said receiver Vance Johnson. "Bones and everything were flying through the air. I've never, ever, seen so many biscuits."

A 14-yard pass to Sewell put the ball on the 14 and, after an incompletion, Elway broke cover and rushed for nine yards to the five. On third-and-one with 39 seconds left, he delivered the crusher. Dropping back, he fired a rocket to Jackson angling across from the left side into the end zone. "They were in a zone and the corner let Mark go," said Elway. "I tried to put it in the hole."

In the process, he nearly drilled a hole in Jackson's belly. "I felt like a baseball catcher," the 174-pound receiver said later. "That was a John Elway fastball, outside and low."

It was a touchdown, and after the extra point the score was tied 20-20. The drive, one of the finest ever engineered in a championship game, had been performed directly in the Browns' faces. There was no sneakiness about it; John Elway had simply shown what a man with all the tools could do. Tt was what everybody who had watched him enter the league as perhaps the most heralded quarterback since Joe Namath knew he could do. One was left with the distinct feeling that Elway would have marched his team down a 200-yard-or 300-yard-or five-mile-long field to pay dirt.

The Bronco drive left the city of Cleveland, the future home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in shock. If the stadium could have tuned in an appropriate rock number, it would have been It's All Over Now by the Rolling Stones.

Kosar could do nothing in overtime, and when the Browns punted after their first possession, everybody knew what was going to happen. Phil Collins should have provided the melody: In the Air Tonight.

Elway hit tight end Orson Mobley for 22 yards, and two plays later nailed Watson for 28 more. After three runs by Winder centered the ball at the Cleveland 15, Karlis came on and blasted the game-winning, dream-shattering field goal. The Broncos made a flesh pile of joy on the field while the Browns fans applauded bravely for Bernie and the Dawgs, who, after all, had given folks a good ride this season. Hatred for John Elway was almost palpable as people filed into the streets.

The Golden Boy had just led two final scoring drives of 98 and 60 yards. He had rushed for 20 yards and completed eight of 12 passes for 128 yards during the possessions. He had arrived.

"You know how you'll think, the night before, about how you'd like to do great things in the game?" Elway said in the locker room. "Well, this is the kind of game you dream about."

Karlis, who grew up in Ohio, admitted he had mixed feelings about beating the Browns. "I feel bad because this city has waited so long for a championship," he said of the 22-year drought since the last title. "Cleveland really has a lot of nice things in it. It's got great music. I mean, you haven't been to a concert till you've been to one in Cleveland."

Funny, but everybody at that game attended a symphony. Call it Elway's First.

PHOTOJOHN BIEVERIn the second quarter, Denver's Winder (near the top of the pile) was stopped cold on a second-and-goal attempt at the one.
PHOTOJOHN D. HANLONOn fourth-and-goal, Willhite twisted his way for a TD to give the Broncos a 10-7 lead. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERCleveland missed a chance when tight end Harry Holt dropped this first-quarter pass. TWO PHOTOSGEORGE TIEDEMANNBrennan (far left) snared Kosar's pass as Smith fell. By the time Smith got up, Brennan was bound for the almost-winning score. PHOTOTONY TOMSIC[See caption above.] PHOTOJOHN D. HANLONElway seemed to come of age during the gritty 98-yard drive that sent the game into OT. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERAfter snaring Elway's armor-piercing pass for a TD, Jackson had cause to celebrate. PHOTOTONY TOMSIC[See caption above.] PHOTOJOHN D. HANLONAs Karlis's 33-yard field goal in OT went up, the Browns' Super Bowl hopes went down.

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)