It wasn't much of a play. Denver Bronco quarterback John Elway looked for wide receiver Mike Young down the left side, saw nothing there and threw the ball away. Then Elway did see something: Kevin Ross, the Kansas City Chiefs' right cornerback, was limping back upheld. As Elway walked to the huddle, his mental computer went to work.
In the previous series, Elway had thought he had a completion to wideout Ricky Nattiel in the flat, but Ross had jumped on Nattiel quickly and made a good play on the ball. Ross usually comes up fast, but now there was something wrong with him and it might be tough for him to change direction. Then there was free safety Deron Cherry, who was backing up Ross. In a spot like this, third-and-two at the K.C. 22-yard line with time running out in the first half, Cherry is used to seeing crossing routes from the Broncos. "He hadn't seen a deep corner route from us," Elway said after the game.
In the huddle he called that play, on his own, because, you see, Elway is one of the few NFL quarterbacks today who is allowed the luxury of calling his own game—most of it, anyway. He called for rookie Derek Russell, Denver's third wideout, to run a deep corner route down the left side, and the pass was perfect. Russell was wide open, and the Broncos had the game's first touchdown in what had been a 6-6 slugfest. Ross and Cherry were left looking at each other. What the hell had happened?
When it was over on Sunday, after the Broncos beat the Chiefs 19-16 at Mile High Stadium to move atop the AFC West, Elway was asked if the scenario surrounding the touchdown play would have worked under the old system: coordinator in the booth phoning plays to a coach on the sideline, and the coach signaling it to the quarterback on the field. "No way," said Elway. "They wouldn't have picked up all the stuff that I saw soon enough."
October 28, 1991
In the fourth quarter, Denver packed a lot of people close to the line and did a good job of stopping the bull-like rushes of 260-pound Christian Okoye. But the Chiefs came back with high-stepping rookie Harvey Williams, their first-round draft choice. And when Williams wasn't slicing through the Broncos, 37-year-old Steve DeBerg, who was courageously hanging in the pocket until the last possible second and taking some ferocious hits, kept K.C.'s drives alive with passes underneath the coverage.
After Kansas City tied the game 16—all on a 14-yard touchdown run by Williams with 5:40 remaining, the Denver defense was nearly exhausted. The Chiefs had run 35 second-half plays to the Broncos' 15. Denver, with Elway subjected to a merciless rush, had managed only three points since intermission, and when linebacker Derrick Thomas and defensive end Bill Maas sacked him, the Broncos were facing third-and-17 on their own 13.
"I had called 'scramble right wing-7,' " said Elway later. "Mark Jackson starts across the field from the left side and then breaks back outside. Ross was out of the game [sprained ankle], and the guy who was in for him, number 40 [free-agent cornerback Billy Bell], was overplaying Mark on the cross. I'm sure he hadn't seen that wing-7 before. But Mark didn't hear the call, and I wound up getting sacked. So I called it again. It's a long throw. I'm throwing from sideline to sideline and about 40 yards downfield. I mean I really had to hump it. It's probably been a couple of years since I threw that pass. I know I didn't throw it last year."
The play was vintage Elway—scramble right, plant, set the feet, turn the shoulders and wing it deep, deep. My god, how can he throw it that far? Elway was on his own eight when he unloaded. Jackson caught the ball on the other side of the field, at the K.C. 49, and made it down to the 16. The play covered 71 yards and set up the winning field goal, a 27-yarder by David Treadwell with 2:37 left.
In the press box one chap with a flair for figures reached for his calculator and figured out how far the pass had traveled—43 yards downfield, 43 yards across the field. Square each of them, add the figures, take the square root and you've got a 61-yard pass. "How many quarterbacks in the NFL could be accurate that deep?" Denver linebacker Karl Mecklenburg was asked afterward.
"You mean, counting Elway?" said Mecklenburg.
Yeah, counting Elway.
When you have a 31-year-old quarterback who still has the rocket in his arm and who has the green light to call most anything he thinks will work, you've got some kind of weapon. It's a throwback to a simpler and happier era. It's Sonny Jurgensen scanning the defense, finding his pigeon and saying, "Yeah, we'll work on him." It's Don Maynard coming back to the huddle and telling Joe Namath, "The cornerback's slow getting out of his backpedal. I can get deep on him." It's the way football used to be played, and oddly enough, Denver coach Dan Reeves, who learned his X's and O's in the Dallas Cowboys' system of total control, was the one to turn his quarterback loose.
"First of all, I wasn't going to let him do it unless I knew he had the capability," says Reeves. "That was a given. We were in training camp, coming off a 5-11 year, and I had a conversation with him. He wasn't having any fun in football. He was dreading every day. I had to find something to get him motivated, to get him excited. So I suggested his calling his own plays. At first he wasn't too excited about it. He said he'd think it over."
Elway wasn't sure he could handle it, so he consulted with a former college coach whose opinion he respected, a man who knew him well—his father, Jack. "There were a lot of things I had to think through," says John. "I didn't want it to become a burden. I called my dad that night. He thought I should give it a shot."
John made his decision between preseason games, as the Broncos were heading into a midweek exhibition in San Francisco. In that game, Elway made his first attempts at calling the shots himself, but he didn't get the ball into the end zone once. "That 49er game wasn't a fair test because we didn't have a game plan," says Reeves. "But the Miami game [12 days later] was more meaningful because we had plenty of time to prepare. I don't think he made a bad call. There wasn't one 'God, why did he do that?' "
The 1990 season had been a bummer for Elway. In November, he publicly accused Reeves of being inflexible in his dealings with players. He said communication between the two of them was nil. "When that happened I started questioning myself," says Reeves. "I said, 'Am I strong-willed?' The answer was yes, but I don't think I was ever in a situation where I didn't listen. You have to be strong-willed to make decisions. But if he felt that way, then something was wrong."
Last year Elway threw fewer touchdown passes (15) than he had at any time since his rookie season of 1983, when he was a part-time starter. "We had pulled in our horns and run the ball and worked the clock when we had a lead," Elway says. "We were worried about not losing games. We didn't stay aggressive."
The difference between last season and this one? Well, after seven games in '90 Elway had only one touchdown pass longer than 29 yards. This year he has three, covering 70, 61 and 52 yards. And that's not counting the 71-yarder against the Chiefs, nor a 40-and a 39-yarder earlier in the game. His completion percentage is about the same (55.3 this year to 55.7 in '90), but his yardage per completion is better (14.1 to 12.8). What's more, his touchdown-to interception ratio is 7 to 2, up from 6 to 6 last year. Best of all, the Broncos are 5-2 instead of 3-4, as they were at this point in '90.
Elway's relationship will Reeves has improved as well. "Its as open now as it's ever been." says Elway. "It's like night and day, not only for me hut for everyone. I'm excited. Coach Reeves has given me total freedom to call the plays, hut he decides on what personnel will be out there. One thing he does call is short yardage, because sometimes it's hard for me to figure out exactly what we need."
Against the Chiefs, the Broncos needed Elway's ability to throw long—he completed 14 of 27 passes for 270 yards, almost 20 yards per completion because Denver went into the game shorthanded. Wideout Vance Johnson, who caught 30 balls by this time last year, has had a sore knee and wasn't in uniform. Running back Bobby Humphrey, who is coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, rejoined the team only last week following a 97-day holdout. He was in street clothes, too, and his replacement, Gaston Green, was out with a strained thigh muscle. The Broncos were down to their third tailback, fifth-round draft choice Greg Lewis.
Bronco quarterbacks have been sacked 21 times this year, and Denver's biggest worn on Sunday was Thomas, one of the league's premier speed rushers, who would face 309-pound left tackle Jeff Davidson, a second-year pro. To fortify the position on third-down situations, the Broncos replaced Davidson with Harvey Salem, whom they not from the Detroit Lions 10 minutes before the Oct. 8 trading deadline. Salem's rust showed.
"I'm not in the groove yet," said Salem, who was burned for two of the Chiefs' five sacks and was called for two holding penalties. "Things can only gel better. I was at Cal, playing against Elway all the time he was at Stanford. I've seen the things he can do. But it's different when he's doing it for your side. That play he made today, that long pass to Jackson, it just makes you want to kill yourself for him."
So the Broncos hold a slim lead in the AFC West over the Chiefs and the Los Angeles Raiders, both of Whom are 5-3, and in a month Denver must travel to Kansas City for a rematch. Johnson, Humphrey and Green should be back by then. Salem should be functional. Furthermore, Elway will still be throwing those 60-yard bazooka shots which he calls all by himself.