Nobody, not even the Italians, has ever made a more low-rent, late-night, shoot-'em-up, leave-at-intermission, B Western than Sunday's Houston-Denver playoff game at Mile High Stadium. Too bad it was a 34-10 walkout rout by the Broncos, because the casting was terrific.
You had Denver quarterback John Elway as the Duke, firing bullets and walking that walk, that swagger of a man who just rode in from Amarillo on a saddle two sizes too small.
And you had the Duke's trusty sidekick wide receivers, the Three Amigos, talking that talk, catching the Duke's bullets in their teeth, phoning their agents. Led by "the Vance" (never just Vance) Johnson, who will wear any of 30 different hair colors—the Boz starter set—the Amigos write messages to beaten cornerbacks on the soles of their shoes, such as BYE-BYE and ADIOS.
There was even a bad guy dressed in black, the Houston Oilers' own Johnny Cash, head coach Jerry Glanville, whose sartorial selections make him a real honest-to-goodness confidant of Cash himself. Cash sends Glanville black jackets and black sunglasses and letters addressed to "the Coach in Black" from "the Man in Black." Could we make this up? Cash must like the way Glanville walks the line.
January 18, 1988
Not so for the orange-skinned faithful in Denver, who figured Glanville went over the line before the game when he said, "This is just the second stop on a four-game schedule. We're going to San Diego." And then there was this: "If it snows, tell [the Broncos] to wear snow-shoes, 'cause we're going to run right around them."
So who was snowing whom? Houston, the boys in the bubble, hadn't played outside a dome since Nov. 15, and now they were heading to some of the country's most out-of-control air-conditioning. The Broncos had the best record in the AFC, had won 27 of their last regular-season 32 in their own corral and had Elway, the AP NFL MVP. O.K.? To Broncomaniacs, Glanville's were fightin' words.
Didn't bother Jerry. He figured his hand was as good as any in this game. Quarterback Warren Moon was having a heavenly year, especially the last three weeks, delivering must wins over Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Seattle. And huggable as the Three Amigos are, they don't compare with Houston's two orbital wide receivers, Drew Hill and Ernest Givins, a.k.a. the Moonies. After all, the best two Amigos (Johnson and rookie Ricky Nattiel) placed ninth among the league's receiver tandems in pass-catching yardage. The Moonies were first.
And you knew you had a good setup when MTV got into it. The music vidiots wrote to the Broncos asking for help in promoting some rock videos and signed off with "good luck in the pennent [sic] race." And could you send us an autographed puck?
Unfortunately, before we could get much past the opening theme music—and long before the big gunfight scene—the Oilers went and plugged themselves full of lead.
With Houston backed up at its own four-yard line, on its second snap of the game, Glanville got this genius idea to try an end zone, overhand lateral to running back Mike Rozier on the far sideline, a play Houston calls Stagger Lee. Why throw a lateral to the man with the stoniest hands on the club, in your own end zone, so early in the biggest game that the franchise has had in eight years, on the road, in one of the most unforgiving stadiums in the country? That's one for Glanville to think about. What happened is that the ball hit Rozier in the numbers and the hands before bouncing stagger-ly into the arms of Bronco Steve Wilson at the one-yard line.
Package for Mr. Elway! Package for Mr. Elway!
It took Denver two plays to score. "Just love those one-yard drives," said Elway.
Ahem.... Well, Jerry?
"If he'd have caught the ball we'd have had a big play," Glanville said. "If it had worked, y'all would be excited about it right now."
Remarkably, the Oilers had practiced that very play all week for that very situation. "It was designed specifically to get us out of the end zone," said Oiler tackle Dean Steinkuhler. O.K., it was crazy, risky and dumb. But you can't say it wasn't in the game plan.
Maybe the show wasn't over right then, but you could almost see the credits rolling. The young Oilers were a group therapy session after that, all dangling nerve ends. They were called for 10 penalties on the day, three in one Denver series. It was on Houston's next possession that Rozier fumbled, and after that Moon seemed flustered. On the ensuing drive, he made an all-mallard pass, a ball that looked like it was clinging to breakfast jelly on his fingers before fluttering off and into the hands of Denver linebacker Karl Mecklenburg. Six plays later, Elway found tight end Clarence Kay's fingertips for a 27-yard touchdown. Two Houston turnovers, 14 Denver points. A minute and a half left in the first quarter. Here's your hat. What's your hurry?
The rest was not pretty. After swapped field goals, the Duke found the Vance for 55 yards on a broken play. It wasn't a touchdown, but close enough, so Johnson gave the crowd his best flamenco dancer olè, which is also what the Vance wants fans to holler anytime one of the Amigos catches a pass. It's all part of a shtick that has sold 50,000 T-shirts and just as many posters, with Three Amigos videos (not to be confused with the movie of that title), a Three Amigos package tour to Mexico and, of course, Three Amigos sombreros still to come.
Soon after the Vance dance, Elway was rolling right from the Houston one, not finding anybody open and about to be thumped, when he suddenly threw left, across Oiler helmets and into the six-point hands of Kay. See ya, Blue. Make it 24-3.
And make it just another piece of True Grit from Elway, a man who will never give you stats that do a triple somersault out of your newspaper (Sunday: 14 for 25, 259 yards, two touchdowns throwing, one running), but who constantly gives you plays that make you check your eyeglass prescription. If the Broncos become the seventh team to return to the Super Bowl after having played in the previous one, they will have done it riding the Duke's stagecoach. Seven Denver starters-four on offense-missed all or most of the season. There were several shorter stays on the injured list too, but the best way is still Elway, whether he's throwing to the Three Amigos or the Three Stooges.
There's no point in dwelling on the rest of it, except to say that when sundown came, the fastest gun in town was still Denver's. And some people had spent two nights in tents in subzero weather to get tickets for this?
Not to worry. Coming this weekend to a screen near you: The Duke and his flying leathernecks take on the Cleveland Canines, whose leader, Bernie Kosar, stays awake nights thinking about avenging the Drive-the 98-yard, last-minute, game-tying touchdown march Elway directed in last year's AFC championship game, won by Denver 23-20 in overtime in Cleveland.
"I don't think they want this game any worse than we want it," says Elway. "I mean, as much as we said last year that we weren't happy just being in the Super Bowl, deep down inside we were. But now, we won't be happy just being there. We know what it's like to go and lose it. That's no fun. We want to go and win it."
The Cleveland-Denver contest could make some Top 10 lists. One featured act will be Bernie vs. Denver's Blue Cross secondary, whose strong safeties have been plagued with injuries all season. Another will be the Amigos vs. the two best cornerbacks in the league- Frank Minnifield and Hanford Dixon. Those two are featured on a movie-style poster, on which they are presented by Corner Brothers, a takeoff on Warner Bros. Corner Brothers? Come up with this one on your own, guys?
The Amigos aren't trembling. "All I can say is, I'm glad they're coming here, and we're not going there," said the Vance. "It's cold and dreary by that lake, and besides, those people throw those dog bones with some serious accuracy."
The man who throws pigskins with the most serious accuracy this weekend in Denver will cash some serious biscuits and get a round-trip, all-expense-paid trip to the Super Bowl.
Perhaps next year our coach in black will get his shot. After all, the oldest starter on Glanville's defense is only 27. And Houston has two more first-round draft choices this year. And Moon and his Moonies are just getting better.
Still, on this day, as the sun settled slowly in the west, there were only Glanville's hollow words, his glum face and a cruel sign that rose amid the hooting Mile High swarms.
It said: JERRY, CAN I HAVE THOSE SAN DIEGO TICKETS?