'I'M ABOUT TO SUFFOCATE'

As the biggest sports star in Denver, John Elway has always been subject to intense scrutiny. But this year is different
November 06, 1989

Them Thar Hills of Colorado are full of happy campers this time of year, but Denver Bronco quarterback John Elway is not one of them. Everywhere he goes, he's the roast of the town. "They talk about my hair," he says. "They talk about my teeth, how much I tip, how much I drink, how I'm playing, when I'll talk to the media. I'm sick of it."

In his seventh year in Denver, Elway is starting to itch. He says he feels like a big fish in a very small pond. "And I'm running out of water," he says. "I'm about to suffocate."

With Elway's poor season last year—he ranked 18th among NFL quarterbacks—and his erratic first half in '89. some people, even outside Denver, have been trying to saw the legs off his throne. Before the Eagles defeated the Broncos on Sunday. 28-24. Philadelphia coach Buddy Ryan said what some folks have been thinking—that Elway is not the shiniest model on the showroom floor anymore. "People used to compare Randall Cunningham to John Elway," said Ryan. "Now they compare Elway to Randall."

Elway could only shrug at the remark. "Just another day in Beat Up John Elway Week." he said.

What's wrong with this picture is that Elway's team has been kicking gluteus for most of this year. Despite losing to Philly. the Broncos are 6-2 and two games up on the rest of the AFC West. Denver's only other defeat. 16-13 to the Browns, came amid a fourth-quarter shower of dog biscuits, eggs, rocks and batteries from the litterati in the Cleveland Dawg Pound on Oct. 1. The referee made the Broncos change end zones for the team's own protection. Later, with the wind then behind them, the Browns kicked a 48-yard field goal to win the game.

Elway's day Sunday was almost as schizophrenic as his season—overthrowing wide-open receivers by five yards one moment, then dropping a spiral, sidearm, over the fingernails of two Eagles and into the arms of some stunned Bronco the next. He had 19 completions, 20 misses, eight overthrows, three flagrantly wide balls, two drops, three interceptions, four miracles, seven sacks, two TDs by air, one by land and 278 yards—all while wearing the Eagle pass rush like an overcoat.

But if Elway is this unhappy at 6-2, imagine what he would be like at 2-6. "I don't want to sound like a crybaby, so I don't talk about it," he says. "But it's just gotten to be too much lately. I'm just torn up inside right now."

Would he like to be traded? "I don't know." Would he like to quit? "I don't know." How much more is he willing to take? "Not much." Would he like to pull a Steve Carlton and not talk? "Yeah, but nobody in this organization would let me do it." Would he like to leave town? "We bought a place in Palm Springs, and we're going to get away more often now."

This is a guy who is 60-30-1 as a starter; among active quarterbacks, only San Francisco's Joe Montana has won more games. However, the stats don't stop there. They also show that he ranks 24th this season among NFL quarterbacks. That he has thrown for 200 or more yards only three times this year. (He did it 10 times last season.) That he has only nine touchdown passes in '89. along with 11 interceptions, and has completed only 50.4% of his throws, down from his career percentage of 54.3.

All of which leads us to another problem. To Bronco fans, Ferraris don't blow gaskets and Elways don't have bad years, so they hunt for character flaws. "Just because I don't have the numbers this year, they start talking about the other stuff," he says. Some of the shots get pretty cheap.

Teeth: Too big. A remark made famous by the Seattle Seahawks' bad-boy linebacker Brian Bosworth—"Elway looks like Mr. Ed"—has stuck among the Elway-haters in town.

Hair: Too long. Though it's not as long as wide receiver Vance Johnson's, whose ponytail has to be bound up twice and tucked into his helmet.

Tips: Too small. Columnist Teri Thompson of the Rocky Mountain News wrote last week that Elway "never tips waitpeople." O.K., one writer remembers Elway having five 99-cent beers and leaving the pennies as the tip. But that was six years ago. A few weeks back in Cleveland, Elway left a $10 bill on a $30 check. Journalism marches on.

Media relations: Not accessible enough. During lunch breaks at practice he sometimes hides in a trainer's room and plays cards. After workouts he'll occasionally walk back to the players' building via the street outside the training complex rather than face the hordes waiting for him on the grounds.

Drinking: Rumors abound in Denver that Elway has a drinking problem, but he has never been arrested for driving under the influence, has never been picked up on any charge by local police, has never worn a Betty Ford Center T-shirt. What fertilizes the rumors are the town's two Bronco-bitten newspapers and four omnivorous sports talk shows on TV. A Rocky Mountain News gossip columnist even wrote last week, "John Elway was spotted at Rodney's playing backgammon and drinking Bud Lights." Says Elway, "I think I'm going to sue. Those were Coors Lights."

It stops being funny when ESPN asks you whether you have a drinking problem. That irks him. "There's got to be some background to why you ask a question like that," says Elway. "You should have a reason, not just a rumor. When something like that gets out, people think it's true whether you're innocent or not. I'm trying to be a role model, and I hate to have to sit there and answer questions on tape about whether I have a drinking problem."

Passes: Too few. It's true that Elway's numbers are down, but so are his chances to throw. The Broncos have passed 40 fewer times than at the same point last season, and they're running more. "We played the Indianapolis game [on Oct. 15] in two and a half hours," says Elway. "When was the last time the Denver Broncos played a game in two and a half hours? We must be running more."

All in all, Elway is on a short leash, in and out of uniform. "Yeah," he says, "and it's getting down to the nub."

The Broncos are running more largely because they finally have a first-rate ballcarrier—rookie Bobby Humphrey, who has a chance to win both Rookie of the Year and Haircut of the Year with his four-inch minisculpture of the Louisiana Superdome.

What's more, Denver's defense has been, of all things, superb. So why take risks? A defense that was 27th against the run last year is now, under new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, tied for fourth and ranks fourth over-all, as well. Wade's Waiver Wire Wonders feature two Plan-B free agents, one true free agent, a rookie, two 12th-round draft picks and a linebacker who had been cut three times in the past.

Underrated strong safety Dennis Smith has recharged Denver's dogeared D of '88 with a season even All-Pros fantasize about: two interceptions, one interception caused, a blocked field goal, six passes foiled, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. "It used to be, the runner could come through Door No. 1, Door No. 2 or Door No. 3," says Smith. "If I chose the wrong door, whap, touchdown. Now, I have to squeeze in between our own guys to make a tackle. I like that."

Says new secondary coach Charlie Waters, "Dennis Smith is the best strong safety I've ever seen." And Waters was a strong safety. Maybe what's got into Smith is a fear of being outdone by the surprise of this year's draft, free safety Steve Atwater from Arkansas. Atwater, who leads the team in tackles, is a human supercollider with thighs stolen from Eric Heiden.

Anyway, with that kind of defense, Denver coach Dan Reeves can afford to be—and whisper this around Reeves—conservative with Elway. "Conservative?" says Reeves. "Our offense may be struggling, and our quarterback may be struggling, but it's damn sure not because we've been conservative."

Says Elway, "I threw our bread-and-butter pass play from last year, just a crossing route, for the first time all year [in Denver's 24-21 victory at Seattle on Oct. 22]. For the first time all year! Everything we do now is ball control."

When Elway hasn't been handing off, he's been running for his $2-million-a-year life, as he was Sunday. The offensive line has struggled with new starters at three positions, none of whom could be depended on to get you through Penn Station, much less the Redskins. "Everything we do is quick, quick," says Elway. "I think we've got to start looking for the big play more than we have."

Elway can give you the big play, but he can give you the big oops, too. Since 1987 he has thrown more interceptions (30) than touchdowns (26). He has been wild this year, sometimes outrageously so. On a simple rollout eight-yard pass to fullback Jeff Alexander earlier in the season, Elway unleashed a bullet 10 feet in front of Alexander and another 10 too high. After seven years, Elway is still not familiar with the phrase touch pass.

So if Reeves wants to reel Elway in a little this year, who can throw stones? After the kind of off-season Reeves had, he can use Elway at noseguard if he wants. Reeves fired defensive coordinator Joe Collier. Big uproar in town. He hired Phillips. Joe who? He dropped placekicker Rich Karlis, the town pet, and kept rookie David Treadwell, who made his first 11 kicks. He risked a lawn-burning by cutting adored wide receiver Steve Watson, tackle Dave Stud-dard, safety Mike Harden and running back Gerald Willhite and by gently urging former All-Pro defensive end Rulon Jones to retire. In all, Reeves has replaced half the 22 starters from the team that made its second straight Super Bowl appearance in January 1988. Some people think their replacements might play in Super Bowl XXIV this January. "This team has more talent and enthusiasm than the two Super Bowl teams," says owner Pat Bowlen.

Then Reeves cut himself: He rehired Mike Shanahan to coach Elway, the job Reeves thought he could do himself. Reeves has never let pride elbow out smart. For one thing, unlike Shanahan and Elway, Reeves and Elway have never been spit-in-your-palm pals. Elway and Shanahan remained close during Shanahan's year-and-a-half stint as coach of the L.A. Raiders. Also. Reeves can be impossibly demanding, and Shanahan is a perfect buffer. Besides, Reeves didn't have time to work with Elway. Doing both jobs. Reeves was allowing himself nine minutes for lunch and worked at home into the skinny hours. So in limped Shanahan on Oct. 16, looking grayer and bearing Al Davis's pink slip from the Raiders.

Who can second-guess Reeves's use of Elway? Wins are up from the same point last year. Don't let mistakes kill you in the first half, and if you're behind in the second half, turn the greatest street-ball quarterback in history loose. Watch him scramble the Buffalo Bills crazy for a 28-14 win on the road in Week 2. Watch him flatten Raider safety Vann McElroy into a hash mark while scoring the first touchdown in a 31-21 Bronco victory a week later. Watch him launch four aerial shells in the second half against Seattle for the 15th fourth-quarter comeback win of his career. For one of the worst-rated passers in the league this season, he sure turns up on a lot of highlight shows, doesn't he?

"The frustrating thing is," says Elway, "as good as we are on defense, I know we've got a chance to win it all if we can just get that good on offense."

Translation: Palm Springs can wait.

PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHWith more interceptions than TD passes, Elway has been a target on the field and off it. PHOTOERIC LARS BAKKEElway, with backups Pat Hegarty (in glasses) and Gary Kubiak (cap), has an old friend back in Shanahan. PHOTODAVE BLACKEnd Reggie White had one of Philadelphia's seven sacks of Elway. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERElway insists he is trying to be a role model but that unfounded rumors make it difficult.
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)