Happy Days

As the era of Wade Phillips dawns in Denver, the Broncos are all smiles
August 01, 1993

The Players are quick to remind you that it's still a pro football camp. "Lost six pounds yesterday," says Dennis Smith, a Denver Bronco safety. "Not Club Med," adds Dave Widell, a tackle, who had worked on the quote all day. The idea that Greeley, Colo., the Broncos' training site 60 miles northeast of Denver, has become some kind of Mile High Esalen, a touchy-feely retreat where players' emotions are explored and nurtured, just naturally rubs them wrong. "Practice is practice," says veteran linebacker Karl Mecklenburg. "It's hard."

And yet...it's different. Dan Reeves, who coached the Broncos to three Super Bowls in his 12 seasons in Denver, is gone. The notoriously autocratic Reeves, the kind of guy who would send a player to bed without supper, was let go in December after the Broncos finished 8-8. He then signed on to coach the New York Giants. In his place, sort of, is Wade Phillips, a longtime assistant with Denver and three other teams before that, whose idea of discipline is to toss a rubber chicken into a locker room and whose only pre-game speech—occasioned when Reeves underwent heart surgery two years ago—began, "I guess I could tell you to go out and win so I can drive a nice German car."

"Is it different?" asks quarterback John Elway. "Well, for one thing, it wasn't much of a day at camp last year if there weren't at least five or six fights. There's not all that tension out there this year, the fear for jobs. There's none of that intimidation."

There is no Dan Reeves. It is almost impossible to overstate the players' relief as the season begins. Reeves certainly left Denver with their respect; the players all preface their comments about him with variations on the "He did win 100-some games" theme. But he didn't leave them with many regrets over his departure. In Reeves's absence the Bronco camp is now like the summer sky over the Colorado plains: calm and sunny, with only an occasional gathering cloud or a rare thunderbolt of recrimination.

Elway, extraordinarily calm and sunny this summer, unleashed one of those bolts last week. Asked why his smile was especially toothy (besides the fact that he had signed a four-year, $20 million contract in the off-season), Elway said it was a matter of his emancipation. "The last three years have been hell," he said. "I know that I would not have been back here if Dan Reeves had been here. It wasn't worth it to me. I didn't enjoy it. It wasn't any fun, and I got tired of working with him."

With very little news being produced in the first week of NFL training camps, Elway's remarks passed for a bombshell. Even the normally taciturn Reeves seemed to want a part in the feudin' fun. "Just tell him," Reeves said from the Giants' camp in Madison, N.J., "it wasn't exactly heaven for me, either. One of these days I hope he grows up. Maybe he'll mature sometime."

Like all of the past feuds between the two men, this one was left to simmer. Elway later said he stood by his comments but that he regretted them—somewhat. "Every year I say something stupid," he said. "This year I've gotten it out of the way early."

But most of his teammates were saying much the same thing about Reeves, without creating the same sensation. Even players who liked Reeves admitted that the camp atmosphere was refreshingly relaxed now. With Reeves gone, they seemed shocked to realize that they had been working in a state of hysteria during his tenure. There was a certain look of surprise on their faces: You mean our jobs weren't really day to day?

Center Keith Kartz, who says he got along great with Reeves, was initially skeptical about the coaching change. "I mean," he said, "he did win 100-some games." Yet now that he's allowed to look back, Kartz recognizes the Reeves era as being comically uptight. "Everybody was scared to death, especially the coaches, all last year," he says. "It just got old, them jumping your ass over nothing. We'd be in a meeting, and Dan would say, 'I don't have this film,' and four coaches would jump up."

Smith, who had only been with Reeves for 12 seasons, was so worn down by insecurity that he wondered if he could make it to a 13th. "There were times I thought I was week to week," says Smith, who has been to the Pro Bowl live times. "You didn't need to be humiliated. Nobody wanted to come to work, there was so much fear. That's how Dan worked you, out of fear. You could lose one game and be made to feel you'd lost six in a row and your job was on the line. It's just so much better that he's gone."

In New York, where Reeves is considered a breath of fresh air, there seems to be mild astonishment at all this fuss in Denver. "I haven't heard one grumble from one player yet," says Giant quarterback Phil Simms.

In fact, Reeves was never a full-blown ogre in Denver. He was just old school: distant, stern and unapproachable. "He's a Tom Landry type," says Mecklenburg. "He's in charge, he sets the rules, and he's very successful." But the anxiety that Reeves nurtured among his players apparently began to cat at the veterans. "I had the opportunity to play in three Super Bowls because of his approach," Mecklenburg says. "But it was so intense, so much fear of failure. Once, we lost two or three in a row, and he took away our lunches." Mecklenburg spreads his huge hands as if to indicate that enough is enough.

That feeling had eventually spread to the club's management, and owner Pat Bowlen finally decided on a new direction for his team. For all their talk now, the players were by no means mutinous last year, and Bowlen wasn't likely to make a change just because his players had missed lunch. But Bowlen felt certain that a new approach was necessary if his team was going to see a Denver Super Bowl V.

The question was, Which approach would be better? Of Bowlen's two candidates for the coaching job, San Francisco 49er offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan was the more similar to Reeves. However, as a former quarterback coach in Denver, Shanahan did bring a working relationship with Elway to the table. Elway did not campaign for Shanahan, but neither did he mask his enthusiasm for his old coach. The other candidate was Phillips, mostly famous for being the son of former NFL head coach Bum Phillips but highly regarded around the league as the defensive coordinator in Denver, his most recent stop in a 17-year career.

The obvious move was to bring in Shanahan, not so much to restore lunch privileges as to retool the offense to take better advantage of Elway's magnificent arm. Reeves believes in a game that relies on defense, and his offense in Denver was so conservative that even when he did agree to use the shotgun formation, the Broncos often ran out of it. He neither drafted nor traded for top-notch offensive linemen, and, at the same time, insisted on the old-fashioned seven-step drop for Elway. That meant Elway needed even more time behind a line that couldn't protect him in the first place.

That Elway mounted any numbers at all was a result of Denver's predictable desperation in the fourth quarter. With two minutes remaining, the defense having kept the Broncos in the game, Reeves would unleash Elway. In his 10 years of playing for Reeves, Elway rallied the team for 31 fourth-quarter, game-saving drives. "That," says Elway, still disgusted, "was our philosophy."

There was a growing sense in Denver that the team might be better served if Elway's talents were employed through the entire game. "Dan had an offense that was very inflexible," says Kartz. "With all the other teams going to run-and-shoot offenses and three-step drops, ours was just antiquated."

Even linebackers recognized as much. "We'd grind it out," says Mecklenburg, "and every once in a while John would get to do something spectacular in the last two minutes. It's just a crime, the career John's had."

Elway, at 33, is keenly aware of his wasted talent. "It's been frustrating. People look at touchdown passes, and mine don't match up with Kelly or Marino or even Warren [Moon]. It was hard to argue with the first six years, but it got tough the last three or four years, when we just shut down the offense and played off our defense. I'd like to get the most out of what I do before it's too late. I mean, I'm no duckling anymore."

Shanahan would have been the man for the job. And he nearly was, but he reportedly turned down an offer from Bowlen because the money wasn't good enough. What actually happened remains murky because Bowlen, to this day, won't admit that Shanahan was his first choice.

That left Phillips. He was no mystery man—he was enormously popular among players. Approachable? This was a coach who, until recently, had a listed phone number. And he was even beloved by the Denver press, who tagged him Mr. Tuesday. In the NFL, Tuesday is a hole in the news week that Phillips often plugged. "He'd just fill your notebook for you," says one writer. But it wasn't just writers who were pleased when Phillips was finally named as Reeves's replacement.

"I was ecstatic," says Smith, who saw one of his kind—a defensive compatriot—ascend. Almost everybody realized that the atmosphere was going to lighten up. This was a guy, after all, who once led the team to a practice at the Indianapolis Hoosier Dome only to find locked gates. When a Bronco administrator reported back to him that no security guards could be found, Phillips scratched his head and said, "Is this where I'm supposed to get mad and start hollering? I'm new at this."

But beyond his charisma—"The best way I can describe Wade is that people just want to be around him," says Mecklenburg—nobody quite knew what he would bring to the job. Say what you want to about Reeves, he did win 100-some games. "And Wade," points out Bowlen, a little surprised at the high expectations in his camp, "hasn't won one."

Phillips wasted little time in establishing his football style. He announced a new offense—including the hiring of coordinator Jim Fassel, who was Elway's offensive coordinator at Stanford—that would make greater use of Elway's arm. And he invited the players to police themselves on minor matters (in the past, any Bronco who had gotten into off-field scrapes somehow disappeared during the off-season). Phillips, for example, truly doesn't care whether the guys take their hats off during team meetings, as Reeves's rules dictated. It's their heads, Phillips figures.

In addition, he had a hand in the off-season free-agency auction, helping Bowlen pick out a few prospects. To Elway's delight, that meant a $7.9 million investment in two offensive linemen—tackle Don Maggs (since injured while lifting weights) and guard Brian Habib. And 4.6 million more dollars were spent on a running back, Rod Bernstine, who is a fine receiver. Phillips says it's been no-brain stuff so far. "Maybe if I've got Earl Campbell," he says, "I develop a running game. But our best asset was John Elway. So I've got to improve the line, get backs to catch the ball and, until the line's improved, give John a five-step drop so he can get the ball off." Phillips believes that it's a shame not to have Elway among the leaders in touchdown passes. "I've coached against Marino and Kelly," he says. "John's as talented as any guy up there. He should be right there with them."

The league will know soon enough if this tactical tinkering can improve the Broncos. "We got in a Super Bowl with lots less talent than this," says Smith. The immediate effect of Phillips's hiring is a weird euphoria among the veteran players. Kartz says he has been able to measure it numerically; more players showed up for off-season weightlifting sessions than ever before. "People just wanted to be here," he says. "It was unbelievable. They were having fun."

"It takes a bit to get an old guy like me excited," says Smith. "But the attitude's looser. In the past, even when I didn't dress for practice, I'd have to come out with my helmet. Ridiculous. It was Dan doing things to be doing things. I never understood it. But now it's different. Everybody feels part of the team. Everybody's excited."

This all sounds unkind, the recollected horrors of the Reeves reign. But Mecklenburg points out that any coach who hopes to prosper in the age of free agency, in which the coach is as much a recruiter as an administrator, had better pay attention to reform in the workplace. Atmosphere matters, and word gets around. "Dan's way," he says, "is the way of the past."

And Wade's way? It will be the way of the future, everybody agrees, just as soon as he wins 100-some games.

PHOTOBILL FRAKESPhillips will try to make better use of Elway, who chafed under Reeves's rigid game plans. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERReeves and Elway, who often clashed, have continued to feud long-distance. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERWith the arrival of offensive line help, Elway may spend less time running for his life. PHOTOBILL FRAKESReeves lived by defense, but even linebacker Mecklenburg knew it was time for a change. PHOTOBILL FRAKESA favorite in Denver, Elway says he would not have returned if Reeves were still in charge.

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)