So, fans, that brings us to the halfway point in the NFL season, and here is how things stack up: The Denver Broncos are 1-0 after tweaking the beaks of the Seattle Seahawks 40-17 Sunday at Mile High Stadium. If the Broncos beat Green Bay in Milwaukee on Sunday, the prestrike AFC championship could be theirs. After that, the NFL may be bringing in a lot of fat guys and former drywall installers for your viewing enjoyment.
It'll take some getting used to. On Sunday, for instance, Bronco quarterback John Everyway threw four touchdown passes, went 22 of 32 for 338 yards, scrambled clairvoyantly and even tackled well, saving a TD by riding down a fumble-toting linebacker making hay for the goal line. Now, if the players do strike, are Broncomaniacs supposed to get quarterback Harvey Schmedlap, former flag football star at the NYU business school, and like it?
And how about the guy who takes over for Seattle linebacker Brian Bosworth? Will he issue pen-pulsing quotes like, "I can't wait to get my hands on John Elway's boyish face"? Will he follow it up with monster hits (two retina-rattlers on Elway—both clean—and a fumble-forcer on running back Gerald Willhite)? Will he handle the fans, like the Denver intelligentsia, who anoint his head with beer, sometimes still in the bottle? And what about his hair? You think you just learn these things by Bozmosis?
If there is a play stoppage, the worst place in the country to be manning a Suicide Prevention Line will be Denver, where there are four sports talk shows every day and everybody speaks Broncomania. If Denver is 2-0, with Elway playing his way and the dubious defense holding its own, there'll be wrist-slashing parties all over town. "I know I'll be depressed," says Broncos coach Dan Reeves.
September 20, 1987
But sooner or later, all strikes end, and Reeves will still have beaten Seattle, the first- or second-best team in the AFC this year, depending on whether you like Sunday's winner or Sunday's loser. "I still want to keep this in perspective," said Reeves. "We're not that much better than Seattle."
It's true, they're not. It's just that before the game, Seattle looked so Gibraltarish it was hard to peer into your crystal ball and not see Hawks. Especially because, since its blowout Super Bowl loss, Denver has more new faces than the Delta Airlines advisory board. The defense alone has eight starters either playing new positions or just being plain new.
The most alarmingly late change was among the linebackers, where former defensive end Simon Fletcher was moved to outside linebacker, a position he'd played as often as he'd performed neurosurgery, which is to say never. "I expect them to run at me," said Fletcher. (He was right. Fletcher was in for 21 plays in the first half Sunday, and the Seahawks ran his way 11 times.) The Broncos moved All-Pro linebacker Karl (Have Position, Will Travel) Mecklenberg from inside to outside, to give Denver that all-the-rage New York Giants look, and moved Rulon Jones from left end to right end, Andre Townsend from end to noseguard and outside linebacker Jim Ryan to the inside. Forget knowing the defense; how long will it be before the players know where to stand in the huddle?
And everybody was worrying about new cornerback Mark Haynes, the unloved replacement for the well-loved Louis Wright. Haynes had a bad '86, doesn't talk to the local press, is in no danger of winning the team's Most Inspirational Award, and is generally thought not to fit in. And you know what? Haynes agrees—to that last part. "I am an outsider," he says. "I like my independence. Don't try to clone me. Clone me and I'm gone. I'm not much into beers with the guys after practice."
Meanwhile, Seattle was coming off a five-game winning streak from the end of '86 and...AND!...they got the Boz, who is the biggest thing to hit Seattle since Gore-Tex. Seattleites are in orbit over the Boz and his commando haircut, the new King Dome. Why, newspapers are even quoting Boz's mother. "I'm glad Boz was the third child," she said. "Because if he'd been the first, there wouldn't have been any more." The Boz made a poster—The Land of Boz—featuring you-know-who as the Wizard and Playboy Playmate Ava Fabian as Dorothy. Then somebody made a Boz video, sung to the revived hit La Bamba—"La-la, la, la Bosworth...la, la, la Bosworth...." The town lavished gifts on him, including a free personalized driveway with BOZ and his uniform number embossed in stones (personalized driveway?), free beer, free $350 Italian shoes and, courtesy of the Seattle AIDS prevention society, 100 free condoms.
Not that Boz is hitting the town much. "I can't go out," he says. "It's a zoo." One day, word got out that he was playing golf with three other Seattle Mohawks, er, Seahawks, and soon they were playing with a gallery on every hole. More than once, Boz hit his drive in the fairway only to see a young Bozkin dash out and scoop it up as a souvenir. Worse, Boz got stopped for a traffic ticket one afternoon, and while the officer was writing him up, he heard his favorite radio station's traffic helicopter reporting that the Boz was being written up for a traffic ticket.
Still, Boz steered clear of his usual trouble (see: GM assembly lines, steroids, NCAA T-shirts, loogies) until...somebody asked him about playing Elway. Right away, Boz started to grow hair on his palms. "I'm going to take as many and as hard shots as I can get on him," he said. You mean him harm? "Yeah."
Uh-oh. The Boz oughtn't have done that. Elway's response was calm enough—"Boswell?...Boswean?...Bosley?...Nah, never heard of him"—but Coloradans didn't cotton to threats to their dear John. T-shirts beget nasty T-shirts. There was even a Boz-bashing song on the Denver airwaves, sung to the tune of the '70s hit War!
What is he good for?
Say it again!
Alienating the entire Mountain time zone fazed Boz not a whit. "Those people in Denver bug the——out of me," he says. "I think it's the oxygen. I don't think they get nearly enough oxygen to the head."
But that got the Boz in deep with Seattle coach Chuck (No) Knox, who has a No-Knocks rule. The coach took the rookie to the figurative woodshed for his Elway threats. "Brian Bosworth was wrong," Knox said. "That's not Seahawk football." Boz was barely contrite. "I think he wants me to prove it on the field first," Boz said, "then talk."
Boz did end up proving it, once Broncos center Billy Bryan was through applying a cheap shot from the blind side after the whistle on the first series. Boz answered with a titanic hit on a scrambling Elway, who thought he had the sideline made. "He was faster than I thought," Elway admitted. "After he hit me, he screamed at me. I couldn't decipher it, but I think it was something like, 'Yaaaaahhhh!' So I screamed back, 'Yaaaaaaaahhhhhh!' " In the NFL this passes for witty repartee.
Anyway, Boz ended up with eight solo tackles and nine total, second highest on the team. He still comes out on most nickel defenses, and he can use work on the Seattle defensive schemes, but Boz versus Elway figures to be an E-ticket ride for years to come.
In fact, Boz and the Seattle D played so well early on that the Seahawks had Denver down 17-7—on two Dave Krieg touchdown passes and a Norm Johnson field goal—and had just recovered a fumble with six minutes left in the first half when...uh-oh...the Replay Man struck. The fumble, Willhite's at the Seattle 30, was ruled an unfumble. Denver kept possession and got a Rich Karlis field goal to cut the lead to a touchdown.
The irony is that Denver wouldn't have thought to call a timeout to ask for a replay if Willhite hadn't been injured on the play. That gave Reeves time to contemplate the option on the sideline. "I probably wouldn't have done it, otherwise," he said.
Karlis (4 for 4) got another field goal with about a minute left, and then the sky fell in on Seattle. Karlis kicked off, and suddenly a 30-mph gust kicked back, sending the ball straight up, leaving two Seahawks to clobber each other going for it, leaving Bronco Marc Munford to recover, leaving Denver to get the ball at the 21, leaving Elway to find Steve Watson standing alone in the corner of the end zone six plays later for cash money. In six minutes the Seattles had gone from leading by 10 to trailing by 3, 20-17. "It was somewhat discouraging," said Krieg, a graduate of the No-Knox School of Understatement.
It got worse for Krieg in the second half, when Denver safety Dennis Smith single-handedly (his left one was in a cast) ruined him. Smith picked off a pass that went right through Steve Largent's arms to set up an easy Denver TD, then, on the next series, stripped wide receiver Ray Butler of the ball and recovered it himself to kill another Krieg drive at the 17. Turns out Smith was mad. "I keep hearing people calling us a finesse defense this year," he said. "Well, I've never been a finesse player in my life. You can forget that. And forget all that bend-but-don't-break stuff, too. We don't like that, either."
Six plays later, Elway handed off to Steve Sewell, who pitched it back to Elway, who then pitched it 59 yards forward to Vance Johnson, who had the Seahawks secondary beat by, oh, Rhode Island. Before anybody knew it, Seattle was slewn, 34-17. By the gun, Denver had run off 33 points without so much as a Seahawk peep.
"We're new back there in the secondary," said Seattle cornerback Mel Jenkins, who was one of two new defensive backs, along with Patrick Hunter. "We're still getting to know each other. Elway didn't cut us any slack in our learning process." Meanwhile, Denver's secondary—including Haynes—played a flawless second half. They were helped by the fact that Seattle running back Curt Warner, who had 84 yards in the first half, had exactly—1 yard in the second half, the difference being...well, Warner puts it best: "I don't know the exact medical terminology for the injury," he says, "but it felt like somebody ripped off my shoulder." Actually, Warner suffered a bruised shoulder when Tony Lilly shammed him early in the second quarter. Said Bronco outside linebacker Ryan, "They weren't as good after that."
Very true—and Denver was getting better. The only thing left for Seattle was to wonder who in the AFC can stop Denver if it keeps hopping on turnovers like this (the Broncos turned five into 27 points), running like this and throwing like this. Denver put 504 yards of total hurt on the team that ranked No. 1 in points defense in the AFC last year, the biggest day the Broncos have had since they went the Elway. Speaking of which, Elway looks like this could be an even better year than 1986, as long as he doesn't have to keep making touchdown-saving tackles while fighting off two blockers, as he did on a runaway Fredd Young after a fumble recovery in the second quarter. Glad to do it, said the ever-helpful Elway: "I figure if I can give seven points or save seven points, I will."
Hmmmm. You think Elway knows his way around a negotiating table?