John Elway, the Denver Broncos' quarterback, was too cool in defeat for teammate Mark Jackson. "John didn't scream at anybody in the huddle," said Jackson, a wide receiver, after Denver's devastating 42-10 loss to the Washington Redskins. "He plays better when he's screaming at people. Usually, if you screw up, he'll tell you. And we were really screwing up. For some reason, he didn't go crazy. John was too controlled today."
Keith Bishop, the Broncos' left guard, also noticed that his quarterback was uncharacteristically subdued. "John didn't say anything when the game was slipping away," Bishop said. "And he didn't say anything at halftime. I just figured there were some things he couldn't control, and John knew it."
No man, not even Elway, who may be the game's best quarterback, could have overcome the 25-point halftime deficit and the punishing defense that Denver faced. Elway completed only 14 of 38 passes—37%—for 257 yards and one touchdown. Three of his attempts were intercepted, seven were deflected and he was sacked five times.
"Our plan was to keep five people coming at Elway all the time," said Redskins linebacker Mel Kaufman. "We didn't want him to run loose. We knocked him around a bit and made him aware of us."
February 8, 1988
Said Bronco coach Dan Reeves, "That was the most pressure John has had on him all season."
Elway kept his composure after the defeat, too. He sauntered into the post-game interview room barefoot, wearing a white terry cloth robe. Across his right index finger was a nasty gash, and on top of his right hand were several patches of freshly dried blood. He patiently answered questions for almost half an hour, from time to time cracking a boyish grin.
Did you ever suffer a worse loss? Elway was asked.
"Uh-huh," he said, "last year." He was referring to Denver's nightmarish 39-20 loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXI.
What phase of the game did they take away from you? someone asked.
"Our passing game," he said, shaking his head and chuckling.
Five times Elway was asked on which play he felt the momentum shift. "The second quarter," he would quip, laughing louder each time.
The second quarter was anything but funny. It began with the Broncos ahead 10-0, but Elway completed only one of his first nine passes. As a result, Washington got back into the game with two quick touchdowns. "I wasn't concerned with how many passes I missed," Elway explained. "I was just looking for what I could do next.
"Good chucks were thrown on our receivers at the line. That knocked their timing off. I could only wait so long for them to get open. The Redskins just pinned their ears back and, before I knew it, they were right on top of me."
Elway, 27, has now quarterbacked Denver to two consecutive Super Bowl losses. Each time, he led the Broncos to an early lead and later had the opportunity to rally his team from behind. Both times the games got out of hand.
Elway believes that to be considered a truly great quarterback he must win the Big Game. "That's on my mind," he said softly in response to a question on the subject. Then he finally lost a bit of his composure: "But I also know a lot of quarterbacks never get to the Super Bowl. In my career, the ultimate is to win this game. That's my ultimate goal. I will not have a good feeling about myself until I win one."