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CAN THE BRONCOS SNAP OUT OF THEIR SUPER BOWL STUPOR

Aug. 13, 1990
Aug. 13, 1990

Table of Contents
Aug. 13, 1990

Update
Nolan Ryan
Swimming
Pro Basketball
Goodwill Games
Boxing
Harness Racing
Autographs
Pro Football
Shoal Creek
Steve Lyons
Montana
Point After

CAN THE BRONCOS SNAP OUT OF THEIR SUPER BOWL STUPOR

And other questions to ponder as the NFL season approaches

Dan Reeves figures he has received about 100 letters containing proposals and rèsumès from professional and amateur psychologists and psychiatrists. They were selling elixirs. One Ph.D. after another wrote, Give me a chance to help your team; you must heal the head before the body.

This is an article from the Aug. 13, 1990 issue Original Layout

In the NFL, making it to the Super Bowl is a terrific feat, and the Denver Broncos got there with Reeves as coach in 1987, '88 and '90. But in the U.S., coming up short in a championship test is the mark of a loser, and Denver was beaten in the three Big Ones by 19, 32 and 45 points, respectively.

When we last left the Broncos, two hours after Super Bowl XXIV last January, they were anguishing over a 55-10 blowout at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers. Reeves and his 22-year-old son, Lee, were sobbing in each other's arms. The Elways, quarterback John and wife Janet, were walking the length of the field to the team bus, their hands gripped tightly, while nine persistent paparazzi surrounded them, camera motor drives whirring. Finally, at midfield, a worn John El-way stopped and said, "Can't you let a guy sulk in peace?"

And so we did. The Broncos led fairly normal lives in the off-season, as if they had never been brutalized by the 49ers. A record 42 veterans took part in the four-times-a-week off-season conditioning program at the club's new $8 million training complex south of Denver. Reeves gave a lot of thought to how he would treat the off-season and to what kind of message he would try to get across to his players. He had to work on the negativism swimming in their heads.

"[Former Cleveland cornerback] Han-ford Dixon told me that after we beat them in the playoffs, he had nightmares about losing to us," Denver strong safety Dennis Smith says. "I'm saying, It's just a football game. But then we lose to San Francisco and I had nightmares. I couldn't believe it. I kept dreaming of Jerry Rice catching touchdown after touchdown. No way you can forget that game."

"That game has tormented me," Denver wide receiver Ricky Nattiel says.

How would the Broncos face each other—never mind the opposition—when they came together again in mid-July for training camp? And so, as the mail piled up, Reeves thought to himself, Maybe one of these shrinks can help.

Then he nixed the thought. Hard work was a better idea.

"Part of being a coach is being a psychologist and psychiatrist," Reeves says during a break at training camp in Greeley, Colo. "I thought about having one of those people in. But then I thought, If I bring someone in and we do well, the story will be, 'The Broncos turned to a psychiatrist, and that's why they're winning.' I didn't want any Norman Vincent Peales coming in, not now at least. The secret to coaching is to get players playing to their abilities, and I think that's accomplished by hard work. The team that blocks and tackles the best wins."

Nevertheless, the Broncos realize the value of a psychological lift. Usually the rings designed for the Super Bowl losers are big, with maybe a diamond or two on the face, but not as gaudy as those created for the winners. But the rings presented to Denver's players and staff in mid-July look more like the Wayne Newton variety that Super Bowl winners receive, with three diamonds, signifying the three recent AFC titles, surrounded by 14 diamonds set in the shape of a football.

"We can't say we didn't accomplish something great last year," Reeves says. "We came off an 8-8 season [in 1988] with a new defensive staff, and we made the Super Bowl."

Reeves, though, does worry about El-way, who is publicly stoic but privately seething about the can't-win-the-big-one tag he has acquired. In three Super Bowl appearances Elway has been a 46% passer with two touchdowns and six interceptions. "I'll take the heat," he says. "I did everything I could. We didn't get blown out because we weren't trying."

"I know how badly John hurts," Reeves says. "No words can really help him."

Reeves and Elway played a few rounds of golf together in the spring, and 55-10 never came up. But an off-season golf story touched Reeves. He watched on TV in July as Patty Sheehan blew a nine-stroke lead and lost the U.S. Women's Open.

"I never felt worse for anybody in my life than I did for Patty Sheehan, and I don't even know her," Reeves says. "You can't tell me she's not a winner. She's a great golfer. But that day, I got an ache in my stomach watching, the same ache I felt at the Super Bowl. She'll relive that day of golf the rest of her life."

Sheehan doesn't know it, but she's an honorary Denver Bronco.

Will the Vikings' new buddy-buddy system create team harmony?

If you go there, wins will come.

That wasn't exactly what Viking general manager Mike Lynn whispered to 70 players, coaches and front-office types before scheduling a three-day retreat for May in the New Mexico wilderness. But it was close. And the male-bonding experience left a fresh feeling throughout a team that last season was torn by charges of selfish play and front-office racism in negotiating contracts. "For the team concept, it was the best thing I've been involved with in 30 years of football," defensive coordinator Floyd Peters says.

If the retreat accomplished anything, it was a narrowing of the chasm between the lordly Lynn and the players. "I learned to be more involved with the players and to communicate with them better," Lynn says. "The world is different, everywhere. Anybody who thinks we're dumb for making this trip has blinders on."

Indeed, Lynn seems to have turned over a new leaf. Now when he negotiates a contract, he will make sure the player and the player's agent are both in the room when the first offer is made, so that Lynn can explain the reasoning behind the offer. Also, Lynn, who previously had not visited training camp in Mankato, Minn., will try to make the 70-mile trip and sleep in the club dormitory at least once a week. The players have convinced Lynn that on-field performance can be affected by an off-field gripe with management.

"There's a false belief in football that players will play the same no matter what the circumstances are," cornerback Carl Lee says. "Players will go out and play, but if their finances aren't straightened out, or if they've got some other big problem, it'll affect the way they play. I think that's happened to us at times."

Now, as the Vikings point for their first Super Bowl appearance since 1977, they must face up to a few on-field adjustments. New ultraconservative offensive coordinator Tom Moore must develop an effective role for running back Herschel Walker, who in 11 games with the Vikings last season gained only 831 rushing and receiving yards combined. Also, there no longer are five or six automatic victories for the Vikings in the NFC Central; Green Bay, Detroit and Tampa Bay have improved.

"We've made all the right moves, it seems," tight end Steve Jordan says. "But it doesn't mean we'll play better."

What is Eric Dickerson's next move?

The voice at the other end of the phone on July 31 stunned Leigh Steinberg, agent to the football stars. When Steinberg realized who was calling him, he thought, This is not exactly the model client we like to have. "The only thing that can help me now is a Henry Kissinger-type guy," Eric Dickerson, the Indianapolis Colts' AWOL running back, told Steinberg. "Can you be that guy?"

Life has become difficult for Dickerson, who all too often in his tremendous career has started a fire when he should have been prancing into an end zone. With the Rams in '87, Dickerson called vice-president John Shaw and coach John Robinson every name in the book and said he wouldn't necessarily be trying when he played. Dickerson wanted to force a trade because the Rams wouldn't meet his contract demands. It worked. The Rams dealt him to Indianapolis, where owner Bob Irsay gave Dickerson the contract he wanted.

Two years into the five-year, $7.5 million deal, Colt general manager Jim Irsay, the owner's son, approached Dickerson about possibly signing an extension that would allow Dickerson to finish his football career in Indianapolis. But midway through last season, when it appeared that an agreement was about to be reached, Bob Irsay pulled the plug on negotiations, saying he didn't want any contract extensions signed until the NFL's new TV contract was concluded. Dickerson has been trying to talk himself out of town ever since. He said that Jim Irsay "deserves to be a general manager as much as Daffy Duck does" and that the team "couldn't beat some of the worst Canadian league teams."

"I said a lot of things out of frustration," Dickerson told SI last week. "It's just that I hate losing. I despise losing. I despise anyone who accepts losing. That's what happened last year. And twice they said they were going to redo my contract and didn't. I don't think anybody likes to be toyed with."

Then Dickerson's voice became emotional. "People make me out to be a bad, bad guy," he said. "God, I should be carrying a gun, the way people talk about me. I should be wearing a mask."

The act is growing old. Dickerson turns 30 on Sept. 2, and though he's on an NFL-record streak of seven seasons with at least 1,000 yards rushing, most NFL personnel directors think his pay fits his play. Dickerson is due to make $1.45 million this year, the highest base salary any back is scheduled to receive in '90. When the Colts gave Dickerson permission to talk to other teams this spring, in hopes of working out a trade with another club, no team took the bait. "It's hard for me to imagine a team taking him," one NFL general manager says. "The problem is most teams view him as uncontrollable."

Thus the call to Steinberg, who has a great relationship with Jim Irsay through their dealings with other Colts represented by Steinberg. In fact, after Dickerson placed his call, Irsay told Steinberg, "Please, get involved."

Steinberg immediately went to work on damage control, convincing Dickerson he had to play this year—in Indianapolis, where he reported Monday, or elsewhere. In truth, the Colts and their bitter employee have one thing in common: They both would like to see Dickerson in another uniform. But a trade appears problematic. Dickerson wants to make $2 million a year, a figure reserved for only the highest-paid quarterbacks. Also, the Colts would want at least a very high first-round draft pick or a first-round pick and a conditional pick in exchange for Dickerson.

"I think Eric has five good years left in him," coach Ron Meyer says. "I love the guy. But the perception of him is so poor, and it's a shame. I ache for him."

How is the Falcons-Glanville marriage working?

In the spring, the Atlanta Falcons went through a two-month Operation Head-start minicamp, complete with blocking and tackling, and in early July they had a 10-day minicamp. The Falcons, wearing only shoulder pads for armor, were colliding like it was a Sunday in October. And the players liked it? Well, not exactly. But they are glad they did it. And they are glad the man who made them do it, coach Jerry Glanville, is their new taskmaster.

"It's a perfect marriage for our team," says tackle Mike Kenn, the NFL Players Association president. "We're pretty young, and we're in a tough division. It's been a culture shock, but we're going to have to be a bunch of tough s.o.b.'s to win in our division."

Glanville hasn't changed. Not even the bitter end in Houston—the Oilers lost an AFC wild-card playoff at home to Pittsburgh last season—could do that. Glanville wasn't getting along with the Oilers' conservative general manager, Mike Holovak ("He won't take any chances," Glanville says. "He likes draft choices better than sex"), and Glanville thought he might be fired. So he went looking for a new job, and in an upset, he found one—in Atlanta, where, as defensive coordinator a decade ago, Glanville had created the Gritz Blitz.

The way he's coaching these days is the way he coached for 70 games in Houston and as an assistant for the Oilers and three other teams before that. Glanville is a cross between a court jester and an enlightened despot, walking around the Falcons' practice facility in Suwanee, Ga., wearing a black windbreaker and a wide-brimmed, straw cowboy hat, backslapping and cajoling and hollering in his hoarse semidrawl. He loves the heat. He loves cracking the whip in the heat. If you don't want to bet that the Falcons have a winning season this year—and no one expects it yet, not in the NFC West—bet on them to play strong through the fourth quarter, because they'll be in shape.

"Hey, look," Glanville says, fixing to unload some of his homespun Glanvillisms. "You can't make a great omelet unless you crack a few eggs. You can't go out there on game day and wave a magic wand and say, 'Be aggressive!' You've got to be that way all the time. I promise you we will. But when you win 11 games in three years, there are flat tires to fix. We'll fix 'em. I ain't worried about that."

It's pointed out to Glanville that his successor in Houston, Jack Pardee, was beginning morning practices at 6:35 a.m. during the first week of camp, trying to avoid the searing Texas heat. "You know what my line on that is, don't you?" he says. "I don't have many rules. But if you see me at 6:30 in the morning, I'm coming in, not going out."

Were the '89 Steelers a mirage?

"Stupid question," hisses Bubby Brister, the 28-year-old Steeler quarterback who has a candy bar, the Bubby Bar, that goes on sale in Pittsburgh when the season starts. "When you win a bunch of games in the NFL, it's no fluke." But when the Steelers lost their first two games last year by a combined score of 92-10, it appeared that coach Chuck Noll had fallen behind the times and the rest of the league was running laps around his team.

Then the Steelers went 9-5 to make the playoffs, beat the Houston Oilers in overtime in the AFC wild-card game and came within two points of beating Denver to reach the AFC Championship Game. Western Pennsylvanians believe the Steelers, who earned four rings for winning Super Bowls between 1975 and '80, might finally get one for the thumb.

Why? Youth, Noll and the on-field maturity of Brister. The reason this team was such a surprise last year was because many of the players were unknown. Two former 10th-round picks—tackle John Jackson and running back Merril Hoge, both 25—became important starters. Four defensive backs who were 25 or younger also started.

"It's amazing that Bubby and I are two of the leaders now," says Hoge, who had two 100-yard games in the postseason. "We're like a kids' show." Right. Call them Nickelodeon's Team. When Nick at Nite staple Leave It to Beaver went off the air in September 1963, only 18 of the 81 players on Pittsburgh's training camp roster had been born.

"We were sitting around the locker room last year and a Crosby, Stills and Nash song came on the radio," says tackle Tunch Ilkin, the graybeard on offense at 32. "I told everybody I was a rookie in 1980 when this song came out. And [23-year-old linebacker] Jerrol Williams said to me, 'God, I was in sixth grade then.' That's when I started realizing how much we've turned this team over."

Noll provided the direction, and Brister did his best impersonation of Terry Bradshaw, quarterbacking the Steelers to five straight wins down the stretch before the 24-23 loss to Denver in the playoffs. Brister's passing numbers were mediocre, but his leadership made the difference.

So let's see if another great Steeler era is in the making. "The whole decade, all you'd hear was, What's wrong with the Steelers?" Ilkin says. But it's a new decade and a new generation of Steelers.

Can Jim Kelly and the Bills find happiness and a championship together?

Last year Bills quarterback Jim Kelly had his best NFL season and came within a dropped pass of leading Buffalo to the AFC Championship Game. In March he signed a fully guaranteed contract worth an average of $2.86 million a year through 1996, when Kelly will be 36. The new deal is the richest in NFL history.

So now, when Kelly reflects on the past year, why doesn't he think happy thoughts? "I think the average person in my shoes would have had a nervous breakdown over what I've been through," he says.

Kelly's story is the classic case of a big fish in a small metropolitan pond. Although the Bills have become the premier team in the AFC East since his arrival in '86, Kelly has always left the crowd wanting more. Compared with other quarterbacks with a minimum of 25 starts during the past four seasons, Kelly ranks fourth in passing yards (12,901), fourth in completion percentage (.592) and fifth in touchdown passes (81). More yards than Bernie Kosar, better accuracy than Dan Marino, more touchdowns than Elway. But the Bills had only one victory in three postseason games during that period.

Here's why Kelly would like to forget the '89 season: He has had to live down some insensitive remarks he made last October, when he criticized right tackle Howard Ballard for allowing Jon Hand of the Colts to get by him and deliver a hit that separated Kelly's shoulder. With Frank Reich playing in place of Kelly, the Bills won three straight; when Kelly returned, Buffalo slumped to a 3-5 finish and some fans wanted Reich back in the starting lineup. In the midst of the losing spell, running back Thurman Thomas said the team could use a new quarterback. The Ballard and Thomas incidents estranged Kelly from his teammates, as did the late-season rumors that he was going to get a huge new contract. When Kelly signed that contract, the heat from the fans and local media was turned up. In April, Kelly was dragged into court by a woman who said she needed a root canal after being struck in the face by a water balloon thrown by him at a picnic in 1987. The case was dismissed after a highly publicized trial. Two months later, Kelly went back to court to sue his former agent, Greg Lustig, for defrauding him over a five-year period. Kelly's brother and new adviser, Dan, estimated the quarterback's losses to be $2 million.

Kelly says he thinks 99% of the people in Buffalo still love him and that the vast majority of his teammates like him. "I truly believe everything's fine now on our team," he says. "I think some of the problems come with expectations. I understand the pressure. I'm supposed to throw 40 touchdowns, and if I don't, I've messed up. I've got to live with it.

"I think my problems here have been blown out of proportion. I'd rather think about—and I know the team feels this way—how we turned it around late last season [beating the New York Jets 37-0 in the regular-season finale]. We grew as a team. I remember watching the Cleveland playoff game on tape and seeing all the guys on our sideline holding hands as we went down for the final drive. I honestly think we won't have any problems within the team this year."

"I like Jim," Ballard says now. "There isn't anything bad I can say about him."

"I'm really pleased with Jim's attitude this year," linebacker Ray Bentley says. "I think Jim has finally found his role and his niche within the social structure we have on this team. I think everyone's been able to relate to him very well this year."

It's August, and everyone's happy. The challenge for Kelly—and his team and city—will be to feel this way in January.

Why is John Robinson looking so smug?

It is hot in Irvine, Calif. The sun is beating hard on John Robinson's balding head. He reaches for sunscreen on this early dog day of training camp. But Robinson, coach of the Los Angeles Rams, looks peaceful. Confident. "Best atmosphere I've had around a team," he says. "Ever."

An atmosphere that portends a conquering of the mighty 49ers? An advance to the Super Bowl for the first time since Robinson took charge of the Rams in 1983? Well, Robinson doesn't know about all of that, but he does know he has never had a team that he thought could go as far as this one. The Rams convinced him of that at the end of last season. They needed to win three straight road games—against New England and, in the playoffs, Philadelphia and the New York Giants—to keep their season alive, and they did. While the 30-3 loss to San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game was painful, it wasn't crippling.

"I feel great," Robinson says, "because last year we proved we can overcome things. You know what San Francisco's biggest game in recent years was? They go into Chicago for the NFC championship two years ago, and everybody's talking about the revival of the Bears. Wham! They really whip Chicago. And then they win two Super Bowls. Last year, we were a young team, and we proved we can win big games on the road. You get to the point where you can't wait to try again."

His players are now at that point. The Rams have finished behind San Francisco in six of Robinson's seven seasons, but they are not feeling like bridesmaids now. "We're like the Detroit Pistons were a few years ago," defensive back Jerry Gray says. "People kept saying they were the second-best team, either to the Celtics or the Lakers, but they just kept playing and kept playing. Now they're champs."

PHOTOPETER READ MILLERAt camp, Elway (right) got a running start on another bid to win the Big One.PHOTODAVID WALBERGNewly dedicated to improving Viking morale, Lynn (background) has become a familiar face at workouts.PHOTOPHIL HUBERWith Glanville gone, Pardee's Oilers almost beat the sun to the field during the first week of drills.PHOTOANDY LEVINKelly allows that all the heat he took from Bills teammates and fans severely tested his nerves.SEVEN ILLUSTRATIONS