Sometimes you can tell a lot about a football team by the way it practices. One afternoon last week, as the Denver Broncos prepared for Sunday's road game against the Seattle Seahawks, they were obviously trying to find some way to right themselves after an 0-4 start.
Denver coach Wade Phillips, whose job was hanging by a chin strap, had been preaching that everybody needed to do that little bit extra to win. And so at the Wednesday practice, when the kick-return unit was going through its paces, the man at the end of the line for the scout team, right next to practice-squadder Tom Nalen, was quarterback John Elway. He sprinted downfield and threw a block at linebacker Richard Harvey. "Never seen a superstar do that before," Phillips said.
In two of Denver's losses Elway had lost his grip and thrown a costly errant pass on Denver's final play, so early in this practice assistant head coach-offensive coordinator Jim Fassel could be heard yelling, "Wet-ball drill! Wet-ball drill!" Two footballs wrapped in wet towels came in from the sideline, and Elway and his backups threw the sodden balls to their receivers for 10 minutes.
Later, Phillips, who used to be the Broncos' defensive coordinator, did some hands-on coaching of the defense. After Denver's 27-20 loss to the Buffalo Bills on Sept. 26, the Bronco defense was yielding a league-high 34.3 points a game. Phillips, who had taken the unit from defensive coordinator Charlie Waters, presided over the switch from a 4-3 defense to one combining the elements of the 4-3 and the 3-4.
And in the wake of a run of injuries. Phillips showed a gallows-humor side in mid-practice. "Hey, did you hear we set a record today?" he said to Denver personnel director Bob Ferguson. "We had our 15th surgery of the year."
But of all the nutty things to happen to the Broncos this season, none has been nuttier than this: Elway, the Hall of Fame shoo-in, has the best supporting cast he's ever had on offense, and until Sunday, Denver was winless. A 16-9 victory over the Seahawks was salve for the wounded Broncos, but Denver is still 1-4 with a harrowing stretch of division contenders—the Kansas City Chiefs, the San Diego Chargers and the Cleveland Browns—looming the next three weeks. Amazingly, the defense carried the Broncos in Seattle, but the offense continued to be mystifyingly inept. For example, Elway, the $4.7 million-a-year quarterback and his frustrated $2.6 million-a-year receiver, Anthony Miller, did not connect on a single pass.
Over the last two off-seasons no other team has attacked the new free-agent market with the gusto of the Broncos. And yet no other team has been stung more by it. Denver hit the salary cap without filling all of its needs, especially on defense. And its high-priced offensive acquisitions have not given it the explosiveness it had hoped for.
The pressure to reverse this season's downward spiral has fallen squarely on three men: Elway, Phillips and Bronco owner Pat Bowlen.
Elway lost his customary cool momentarily during a conversation a few days before the game against the Seahawks. How in the world, he was asked, could Denver be 0-4? "Look," he replied, "I make no personnel decisions. People think, well, this is John Elway's team, and that means it's John Elway's fault. I don't make any decisions. I'm a cog in the machine."
Elway finished last year with four wide-outs—Arthur Marshall, Derek Russell, Kitrick Taylor and Cedric Tillman—who have been released or traded a total of 12 times in their careers. In the off-season the Broncos acquired Miller, who went to four Pro Bowls while with the Chargers, and Mike Pritchard, who had 201 catches in three seasons with the Atlanta Falcons. Yet Denver has averaged nearly two fewer points a game than last season.
What is even more significant is that in his 12th season Elway, the master of The Drive, has come up short in the clutch. In the first game of the season, with the Broncos trailing San Diego 37-34 with 43 seconds left, and with a second-and-goal from the Charger three, Elway rolled to his right and picked out a receiver in the end zone. But as he threw the ball, it slipped from his grip, went straight up and then fell like a wounded duck. San Diego linebacker Junior Seau recovered the fumble, and Denver was 0-1. The next week, with Denver losing 22-19 to the New York Jets late in the fourth quarter, Elway brought the Broncs to the Jet 12, but he could not get them into the end zone. Denver settled for a field goal, lost the overtime coin flip and never touched the ball again. The Broncos were 0-2.
The following Sunday, Elway was respectable, but everyone else was awful in a 48-16 loss to the Los Angeles Raiders. Then against the Bills, with Denver trailing 27-20, Elway had a fourth-and-two at the Buffalo four with 25 seconds remaining. Under pressure, Elway launched a pass into the end zone that sailed five feet over Tillman's head.
Elway gutted out the win in Seattle, banging his right thumb on a Seahawk helmet on the second series of the game and playing with a bad bruise the rest of the day. His 15-for-29, 146-yard day was far off his standard, but it did the job. "That wasn't a monkey on our back," he said. "It was a 500-pound gorilla. Now I don't have to wake up to the clock radio telling me about the 0-4 Broncos."
Yet Elway and Fassel still have some explaining to do. Why spend a mint on Miller and send him on pass routes to nowhere? Elway didn't throw to Miller for the first 26 minutes of the Seattle game and wound up passing to him only five times in 29 attempts on the day. After the game Miller was frustrated. "I'm the person who caught 84 passes last year, and now I've caught 12 in five games," he said. "I've been the man in any offense I've been in, but now, because I'm not seeing the ball much, when it comes my way I'm startled."
On Sept. 16, Phillips's father-in-law died of a heart attack. On Sept. 18, while coming off the field at Mile High Stadium after the Raider debacle, Phillips was pelted with debris. On Sept. 19, three Denver newspaper columnists called for Phillips to go. On Sept. 23, Phillips attended his son Wesley's junior varsity football game—the boy threw three interceptions—and then joined the youngsters at a McDonald's after the game. "Hey, coach," said a fellow diner, "you probably haven't heard about Mike Pritchard yet."
"What are you talking about?" Phillips asked.
"He's in the hospital with a ruptured kidney or something," the guy said.
That afternoon at practice Pritchard had dived for a pass and landed with the ball beneath him. That night Pritchard was admitted to a hospital with internal hemorrhaging from a lacerated kidney. The Broncos don't know when he'll return to action. Then on Sept. 26, in Buffalo, running back Rod Bernstine, another $1.8 million weight on the Broncos' salary cap, was lost for the year with a knee injury. On Sept. 29, Phillips's wife, Laurie, stepped in a hole and broke her foot.
Now there's a nice couple of weeks.
Phillips knows that the ax is being sharpened—and it's his head on the block. Bowlen is not a patient man. "I refuse to give a vote of confidence," the owner said last week. "I'm not here to judge how a guy coaches. I'm here to judge wins and losses."
Unlike his predecessor, the disciplinarian Dan Reeves, Phillips does not chew hides and fire people when things go bad. He nurtures and supports. "Coaching is teaching," says Phillips. "Some coaches coach by fear and intimidation, but I don't believe in that. People are taught to do things, not yelled at to do things."
His gentle style aside, the biggest knock on Phillips is that he and Ferguson spent too much money on offense and not enough on defense. He disagrees. "I think you can put a good defense together with less talent than you can on offense," he says. "You can play winning defense with not particularly great players who play with intensity and play well together."
Phillips pulled the right strings on Sunday, sending linebacker Mike Croel into the Seattle backfield for six tackles and three quarterback pressures. The defense gave Denver some teeth. It will need that bite until the offense starts scoring four touchdowns a game.
Bowlen didn't have complete control of the Broncos, whom he bought in 1984, until he let Reeves go after the '92 season. Bowlen wanted to run the franchise, so he replaced Reeves with the more pliant Phillips. Before the 1993 season, with the blessing of Bowlen and his general manager, John Beake, Ferguson and Phillips gave unheralded free-agent guard Brian Habib a contract worth $1.4 million a year and dealt first-, second-and sixth-round picks to the Minnesota Vikings for left tackle Gary Zimmerman, who was signed to a contract that averages out to $2.35 million annually. Getting Pritchard a year later cost Denver first-, third-and seventh-round picks, plus a $2 million salary.
The Broncos are now snug up against the salary cap, which means they will have to chop some payroll in the off-season to sign the defensive help they need. Worse, they don't have a pick in next April's draft until the fourth round. The only way they will obtain immediate defensive help will be to buy it on the free-agent market.
"I can't be second-guessing our people right now," Bowlen says, "or I'd be second-guessing myself."
But he believes that team chemistry was forgotten when the Broncos were assembling this year's team. That's why he encouraged the re-signing of 34-year-old linebacker Karl Mecklenburg and 35-year-old safety Dennis Smith. Bowlen says, "What some players lack in ability, they make up for in team cohesiveness."
But couldn't the millions that the Broncos will spend on Miller have been better spent on a player like William Fuller, the defensive end who moved last spring from the Houston Oilers to the Philadelphia Eagles for $2.25 million a year? Through Sunday, Fuller had six sacks.
By not adding a couple of veteran defensive players—Richard Dent or Rickey Jackson or Leonard Marshall—Denver made it almost mandatory that Elway put big numbers on the board every Sunday. "We could have had Fuller or Dent [who signed with the 49ers], but they were old, and we didn't want a guy for a year," says Ferguson. "We're trying to build a championship team here, and you can't do it all in one year."
Denver had better hope that Elway still has lots of heroic football left in him. He'll need it to save both Phillips's job and Denver's season.